Fiction, Poetry, and the Trouble with Flexibility

Thursday July 26, 2012

By Guide Biography: Patrick Kennedy

Even though he's been dead for about thirty-five years, Vladimir Nabokov is still making headlines. A few days ago, the New York Times ran a major article on Nabokov's poems, which are being released in a few new editions. But article writer David Orr used his piece to comment on some of the larger issues raised by Nabokov's poetry--poetry that normally garners much, much less attention that Nabokov's novels.

Now, Orr doesn't slight Nabokov's poetry. But Orr does talk, in sweeping yet convincing terms, about the great divide between poetic and novelistic gifts. To quote the article, "one possibility is that poetry and prose are more like different musical instruments than different musical genres. While we don't expect violinists to be accomplished pianists, we're not at all surprised when a good pianist can play both Gershwin and 'Boogie With Stu'. Similarly, we don't find it unusual when a writer who excels at one prose project also excels at another--both, after all, involve sentences. Whereas poetry supposedly involves...something else." The man has a point. Who can name me a major poem by Tolstoy? Any takers?

But whether this holds up in most cases is a very different question. In France, Charles Baudelaire emerged as a master of both poetry and short-form prose. In Russia, Boris Pasternak split his talent between lyrical poetry and the epic novel. And in Portugal, Fernando Pessoa used his poetic abilities to pen a major work of experimental fiction, The Book of Disquietude.

Do you think that such flexibility is the norm, or the exception, among classic authors? And do you think that Orr gets it right when talking about the relationship between prose and poetry?


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