14 January 2012: Poetry or Fiction?

Posted: January 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
–William Faulkner

I’m not about to say that all writers are alike, but Mr. F really hit on something with that statement. I can’t speak for every novelist, but if you check out your local community college creative writing class, you’ll find it filled with “poets” and “short story writers” (which is to say, writers of short stories, not writers who are not tall). I don’t know why this is, but maybe Faulkner’s right, especially if my own experiences with the three forms have anything to do with it (which, admittedly, they probably don’t).

I never professed to be a poet, but poetry is what got me into a creative writing class at my local community college (which turned out to be a huge benefit for me, for it was there that I met Bob Bausch). I wanted to write better fiction, but kept doing the same thing over and over, and not liking it. So, I figured I’d take a poetry class and maybe learn a thing or two about descriptive writing. Awaken the muses. All that writerly stuff.

Bob’s class was poetry AND fiction — you guessed it, short stories. I figured, how hard can it be? I mean, short stories aren’t novels, right? I’d not yet learned what Mark Twain had to say on the subject. And I found it extraordinarily difficult. It’s easier for me to write an entire novel than to write a successful short story. I took Bob’s class for about two years and I think one story actually survived: it was called “Fishing” and it eventually was my ticket into the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. The hard part, for me anyway, is crafting a story that actually says something in a powerful way in, say, less than 50,000 words. When you set to write a novel, you know it’s going to take some time to get there. With a short story, you need to be there — and you usually get there a lot sooner than you anticipated. There’s no “average” length to a short story — it’s done when it’s done. I studied Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain and I envy acquaintances like Tom Paine who really nail the form, but it’s a huge challenge for me. I can spend a year trying to write a short story.

My poetry was pretty awful, but I was diligent about it, and I actually learned quite a bit. I wrote dozens of poems — thrashing blindly in the dark more than anything else. Like every American high school grad, I thought poetry had to, you know, rhyme. And I wrote some truly horrid poems. Then, Bob introduced us to the work of his late friend and brilliant poet, Roland Flint. That was a “light bulb” moment for me. I’ve never been so moved and inspired by a single poet in my life. His “What I Have Tried to Say to You” is breathtaking. And heartbreaking. And perfect.

And like several of my influences, Roland Flint profoundly changed my approach to a form of writing. Oh, the poetry was still pretty bad, but at least it was honestly bad. I did get lucky and have one poem, “Road Warrior,” published a couple of years ago, but I haven’t written much more in a while now. But I still love reading Roland Flint.

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Comments
  1. All this poetical hand wringing…really? Poetry is lost to this world. Rejoice! The frontal lobe no longer processes the genre. If you see a bum, give him change. If you come upon a poet reciting a poem, advise him to take his life. What? Oh, yes of course, Mr. Dickens, “Decrease the surplus (poet) population.” Indeed! Tea and crumpets at Four, chip, chip, cheerio!

    Space aliens abducted T.S. Eliot and urinated celestial puss down his throat, hence, The Waste
    Land. Robert Frost’s left big toe inspired him to write very badly. Anne Sexton smoked used Tampons driving her to confess. The entire collected poems of poets throughout history are absent one verity and mere to take up space. Poetry, you are now of the Charnel House.

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