Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Last Great Novelist-Poet

With rare exceptions, you are one or the other: a novelist or a poet. Many great poets have written a novel or two, and towering novelists such as Faulkner and Hemingway wrote poetry, but it didn't measure up to their prose. In most cases, an author's oeuvre is composed of a fat slice of poetry or fiction and a narrow sliver of the other, and the dominant format is often superior to the subordinate.

The list of top-drawer writers who were equally adept at both poetry and prose is short. Among the famous names bandied about: D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allan Poe, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Graves, G.K.Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling.

By my reckoning, the last great ambidextrous author seems to have been John Updike (d. 2009). And a poet backs me up, at least as of 1985.


British poet Gavin Ewart wrote in the pages of the New York Times in 1985 that good novelists who also wrote good poetry were rare, but included Updike among them. Ewart's list of the greats from the 20th century included Nabokov, Kingsley Amis, Thomas Disch, and James Dickey.

Foreign language writers are tough to rate, without fluency in their native tongue. Nabokov continued writing poetry in English after coming to America but felt his verse had lost some of the richness it carried in Russian. I notice Ewart includes Nabokov but ignores Jorge Luis Borges. I assume because Borges didn't write poetry in English, so one would need Spanish fluency to rate him (and can you accurately judge a writer through a translation?).

It seems fewer novelists write any poetry at all these days, as there is neither money nor glory in it. You write up a novel or a book of verse, you receive praise and encouragement and a publishing contract, or academic tenure, and so, with good reason, you continue down that one path, and you ignore the other, which becomes the road not taken. Isn't that how it works?

The next novelist-poet may well write in a language other than English, someone like Jorge Luis Borges, or the Chinese equivalent. What languages are the world's most popular? Odds are, it is from that language which will emerge the next great novelist-poet. Mandarin? English? Spanish?

I consulted a list from 2010 and the winner is Mandarin, with about a billion speakers. Spanish is second with 400 million and English, despite its title as the world’s most "influential" language, places only third with 360 million. If these numbers are anything to go by, Mandarin in overdue for a great novelist-poet (if there isn’t one already). But then how many Chinese write novels, one wonders.

John Updike famous novel, Rabbit Run


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