Which is your greatest love – poetry or prose?
I was going to ask, 'Which is your first love?' But then I realised, the first love is not necessarily the greatest. So I changed it to, 'Which is your true love?' But then I bethought me, all loves are true ... though not necessarily equal. Then again, they could be equal, so perhaps I should be asking: 'poetry or prose – or both?'
Need I explain, to this audience, that I mean 'Which has your heart as a writer?' (not as a reader)?
When I was younger, and learned that various wonderful novelists had been poets first, I used to smile smugly to myself. Of course they were! Fiction was what they had to do to earn a living by writing, that's all. Not that the fictions weren't brilliant and beautiful, not that they didn't nourish me – but still, it was obvious to me that poetry is really where it's at. After all, I started writing mine when I was seven. I knew in my soul that it was the ultimate gift from God.
Then Australian writer Carmel Bird (whom I knew when were children in Tasmania and again some decades later as rising literary figures in Melbourne) expressed some frustration with me for only writing poems.
'If you can write poetry like that,' she said, 'think what you could do with fiction!'
It took me aback. I already knew that she could write excellent poetry, though she didn't do it very often. And I enjoyed her fiction enormously, partly because of her beautiful and very individual writing style (I recently told her that her prose is poetry) and partly because it was often set where we had both grown up. But it was a revelation to realise, from that exasperated utterance, that she gave fiction priority!
Later I made what was to become a very long and close friendship with a young poet called Helen Patrice. She writes wonderful poems. I envy her talent! And she values poetry. (She's very good at articles and memoir too.) But it has become clear to me – because she often tells me so – that fiction is both her first and greatest love. Not that she has to choose; in fact she might come close to saying 'both' in answer to my question, and is surely not about to stop doing either. Still, I now know that fiction has first place in her heart. It has finally dawned on me that this is a real possibility for many writers. We are not all alike. Just because poetry is MY greatest love....
Carmel was wrong about me. The gift of poetry does not mean I can also write fiction. I am actually pretty hopeless at it! Believe me, I have tried. I do love to read fiction, and have broad, eclectic tastes – from Henry James and George Eliot to Blair Babylon's erotic romances, and everything in between. I do know what things make for good fiction. Both as an editor and a teacher of creative writing, I have to know, so as to steer people aright. It's just that I can't do it myself.
I can write prose. I know these weekly articles work; people keep telling me so. And I know how they work; after all, I am the one crafting them. (They don't just spill out, higgledy-piggledy.) I even had a couple of short stories published in obscure anthologies a long time ago. But they weren't fiction; they were disguised autobiography, and the writing was kinda 'experimental'. I have twice attempted novels. The first time, I got bored with it pretty quickly, and had enough sense to realise that if it was boring its author it was unlikely to enthral readers. The second was my only NaNoWriMo experience. It was fun to do that, just once, and I did finish it. The trouble is, it's really bad – you can trust me on this; it is not an isolated opinion – and I have no incentive to try and improve it. (But you should see the painstaking patience I have for every detail of a poem.)
People have been asking me for years to write my memoirs, and I have tried. But I'm not thrilled with the way that writing turns out either – and besides, I experience it as a chore. I finally decided I don't have to do that, no matter how much people might want me to. What a relief! What liberation! And I guess that's the crux of it. I just don't want to write stories, whether lived or imagined. Poetry is my passion, my true love, which 'age cannot wither ... nor custom stale'. (It may even include stories sometimes, whether lived or imagined). And I am happy enough to write articles about poetry, too. When I am not with the beloved, it is a pleasure to at least discuss the beloved.
My late friend Philip Martin was like me, as this poem (from his A Flag for the Wind) attests:
For a whole year
Nothing. You don't come near.
Verse drags its feet, stumbles.
Try prose then, start a novel.
Take out someone else.
Maybe I'll 'learn to care'.
All at once you return,
And the words dance again
To rhythms not my own.
Ah my true love,
You must have known!
Prose would have been a mere
Nevertheless I was excited, like the rest of our Poets United team, when Magaly came on board with a monthly Prose Pantry. I knew what poem I would like to retell as a story. I thought I could do it. I thought I'd enjoy it.
Nope! I still have my old problem. My tale dragged on boringly, with no real spark of life – though the poem I was basing it on was full of spark and sparkle. I know what kinds of things might bring it to life; I just find that, when it comes to the crunch, I can't write it that way.
Well, never mind, it's not a major tragedy. I get to do what I love, and not what I don't love. One of the things I love is reading stories which other people have written, so I am in for lots of yummy monthly treats, thanks to all of you who do cook up goodies for the Prose Pantry. Bring it on!
Only it has made me curious. I already know that Magaly, magical poet as she is, loves story-telling even more. We've been discussing all this behind the scenes (and perhaps she will expound further here). What about the rest of you? I am fascinated to know if you fell in love with poetry first, or with story-telling? And did you stay faithful or move from one to the other? Perhaps you share your affections with both? (Is that exacting? Do they get jealous and demanding, and fight for your attention? Or are they content to share, gracefully taking turns?)
Come on – tell me your stories of your relationships with your Muses, do!
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