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Poet-novelists or novelist-poets? And does it matter? 

"You can't write a novel. You're a poet. You're not a novelist." 

It was some time in the early 1990s or late '80s. I was having supper at the Groucho Club with Julian Barnes and his wife, the much-missed, much-loved Pat Kavanagh. We had just dutifully attended (and escaped) the presentation of the Arthur Koestler Awards (for creative convicts) in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields. I mentioned I was contemplating a novel in the near future. Pat's reaction was pitched somewhere between puzzled and withering. And it was all in incredulous italics: you can't write a novel. Worth it, of course, to watch her lithe eyebrow lift like a snake about to strike.

Blake Morrison, a client of Pat's, told me recently that she said the same thing to him. I think it's true to say that he is now better known as a novelist and memoirist than he is as a poet. Pat's agency has taken ten per cent of the apparently unthinkable three times now. 

I was genuinely perplexed. As I was also puzzled by a recent email from Martin Amis, informing me that I was now in a very select group of poet-novelists. After all, there is no shortage of poet-novelists. Think of Hardy, Meredith, William Morris, Kipling. Think of Adam Thorpe, John Wain, Kingsley Amis, Larkin, Simon Armitage, Updike.

Updike? Kipling? Updike's prose is closer to poetry than his poetry — closer in its care and precision, in its riskiness, in its reach and ambition, in its cadences. The poetry is verse. The two sides of the equation — poet-novelist — are not equal. Kipling is another case in point. There are three novels, Kim, Captains Courageous and The Light that Failed — I discount The Naulakha, co-authored with Wolcott Balestier, his brother-in-law — but Kipling is, if anything, a different hybrid, a poet-short-story-writer. T. S. Eliot thought Kipling's poetry was verse, in any case. I disagree. Eliot has been misled by Kipling's radical use of the music hall and dialect-demotic forms whose popularity perhaps conceals Kipling's perfect ear for prosody, pitch and mimicry, his gift for imagery. The consensus, however, would be that Kipling is a great short story writer and a talented versifier. Even I think the stories are superior to the poetry, the equal of Chekhov and better than Maupassant.

Think of those tennis players flexing lopsided limbs, the playing arm practically prosthetic, a grotesque transplant from some Gog or Magog — those déformations professionelles, tumescent forearms wooden with workouts. 

Ideally, we want the perfectly ambidextrous. Like Hardy. Usually, though, one of the arms is a little atrophied. Is Kingsley Amis's poetry the equal of his novels? Do we think of William Morris as a novelist? Only once upon a time. News from Nowhere is nowhere to be seen in the canon of great novels. It is a curio. Primarily, he's remembered as a poet — the author of "Sir Peter Harpdon's End" and the incomparable "The Haystack in the Floods". 

And sometimes both the arms are atrophied: John Wain. The body of his work now looks increasingly like a seed potato with curt thalidomide paddles.

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June 23rd, 2010
1:06 AM
yes, NNYHAV, not to forget James Merrill's masterful novels. In other languages/cultures, of course, poet/novelists abound. In German alone you have Bachmann, Grass, Bernhard, Schnurre, Hahn and many many more. Cesare Pavese. Ondaatje.

June 19th, 2010
1:06 AM
Rather myopic. Where's Robert Penn Warren's _All the King's Men_? or Randall Jarrell's _Pictures from an Institution_ (still a benchmark for academic satire, Kingsley notwithstanding)? ntm Barbara Guest's _Seeking Air_, Creeley's _Island_, or Ashbery & Schuyler's _A Nestful of Ninnies_ ... all Americans, and Updike is chosen as representative?

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