Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Oldest Debate

It is one of the oldest debates in literature - between poetry and prose. Once there was only the former. Whether it was blank verse or rhymed, creative work was always poetry. Prose was used for the utilitarian. Fiction writers generally never worry about this. The rise of the novel in the 19th century usurped many of poetries functions leaving it with a rump that could only be done by poetry. The poet as mystic continued as a bit of a perk of an otherwise daunting job. Yet the late 19th century saw poetry written every bit as prosaic as the worst novel, which in turn led Pound to call for the break of the pentameter.

The debate's been resurrected in a lively way by poet Katy Evans-Bush, on her blog. Poets worry endlessly about this, yet I'm not sure that the reading public is that concerned, 75 years after William Carlos Williams' "This is not to say", about it being just "chopped up prose." Read recent books by Matthew Welton and Luke Kennard for instance, and these are poetry collections full of words, many of them in paragraphs. Some poetic sensibilities, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, were useless poets, others, like Borges, are most remembered for their fiction. As I said, its only poets who seem to worry about this debate. There's plenty of contemporary (and non-contemporary) poetry that can be paraphrased as easily as prose (one of the responses to Katy wonders whether inability to be paraphrased makes something a poem.) I do think, as I responded in that post, that we're using the wrong words. Poets use poetry and poem to mean pretty much the same things. Nobody says "I'm going to read some prose", whether its a blog, a literary review, a story or a novel. Funnily enough, it seems that poets are the verbose ones on the blogosphere. Novelists, presumably, have to save their words for their long novels.

Interestingly, another highly stylised novelist, Philip Roth, wonders whether the serious novel will go the way of poetry in the age of the internet and the short attention span. Now we know, Roth's late masterpieces are coming at such a rate, not because he desires immortality, but because he's afraid there will no longer be an audience in ten or twenty years. Admittedly, reports the Guardian, he made these remarks to an online editor. Perhaps he'd find it amusing the handwringing in the world of journalism about the future of newspapers, and whether or not they can save in an online world, either behind paywalls or through advertising. The calm proposition of the novel seems a safer bet to be honest - though Roth may be right; his type of novel requires a sitting down from the reader, a deep immersion, that I hear English undergraduates on the bus down Wilmslow Road baulking at. ("I had to read all the books, and they were so long," spoken incredulously.) Gone it seems are the days when I didn't get out of bed for two days risking deep vein thrombosis to complete Fielding's "Tom Jones" in two mammoth bed-ins.

Again, there's a nugget of truth here. I can see the modern literary novelist becoming as acquired a taste as the contemporary poet. Martin Amis's great story, Career Move, where sonneteers are big in Hollywood, and screenplay writers publish only in little magazines, turned somewhat real. Perhaps that's already happened. Ironically, poets, whether good or reluctant performers, at least have a product that stands out in the live arena, whilst there remains nothing quite as annoying for the listener - and probably the writer - than a few pages of a novel in progress, pleasure deferred. The poet gets writers block in a different way than the novelist of course - the poets gets it daily, every single time they start a poem, for poems are like patches of water in a scarce desert, whereas a novel is the Ganges, that suddenly goes dry at a distant tributary, or during a dry season.

I've often looked aghast at the creative writing industry and wondered how come we're able to churn out 2000 writers a year, and not, at the same time, 2000 readers? Surely the rise in University places should have been a good thing for serious writers? Yet English whithers on the vine in many universities, literature being replaced by language in the syllabus. I wonder, is there still a book that goes round a college like a virus, word of mouth, claustrophobia of the corridors, simply a book for the right time and place? You'll be hard pressed to find a graduate from 85-88, without some Kundera on their shelves for instance, whatever their discipline. Or are the medics, lawyers and accountants of the future cauterizing their wounds, applying their torts and auditing their figures with the intellectual backdrop of the World According to Chris Moyles or The Lost Symbol?


kim mcgowan said...

hello Adrian

I've just downloaded Mostly Truthful and read 'I will be Buried by Books,' which I enjoyed enormously. I particularly love the nasty thought of 'being buried alive under a bad novel.'

I'm at work so must leave the rest for later but I'm really looking forward to the whole anthology.

best wishes, kim
ps I was (am) a slow reader too.

Anonymous said...

Withers, not whithers.