Novels vs. Poems

more from Sarah Maquire’s essay “‘Singing About the Dark Times’: Poetry and Conflict”, this time on the difference between the novel and poetry:

But it is only in the past three hundred years, initially in Europe and then later in its colonies, that prose, specifically in the form of the novel, has taken over from poetry as the dominant language-based art form – though we should bear in mind that, for most of the habitable world, poetry continues to retain its primary status.

The ‘rise of the novel’, as the literary critic, Ian Watt, called his ground-breaking book of that name, is congruent with the rise of capitalism, with the development of individualism, personal life, privacy, the Protestant notion of conscience – all the things that we now think make us who we are. It is the novel’s job to articulate and instruct us in those values. It is through novels that we learn how to be ourselves, how to find our place in the infinite complexities of the world around us.

One of the reasons, I think, that poetry provokes such anxiety in contemporary western society is that it resists fulfilling that role of instruction upon which the edifice of the novel rests. As Plato recognised, real poetry unsettles us, it stirs our emotions. Adrienne Rich once called poetry ‘a wick of desire’: ‘It reminds you’ she said, ‘where and when and how you are living and might live'[34]. And in all this, it is something about the form of poetry that is so provocative.


Poetry as survival – Rukeyser

I don’t believe that poetry can save the world. I do believe that the forces in us wish to share something of our experiences by turning it into something and giving it to somebody: that is poetry. That is some kind of saving thing, and as far as my life is concerned, poetry has saved me again and again.

Muriel Rukeyser

Poetry as protection from earthquakes, chaos, and disorder

from Gregory Orr’s amazing essay collection Poetry as Survival:

The shape of a doorframe also represents a powerful architecture—during earthquakes, people are advised to stand in doorways because they are stronger and safer than anyplace else in a house. It’s possible to imagine the rectangle of a doorway as the rectangular shape of the page where a poem appears. When we are at an existential or psychological edge, the instability of subjectivity is potentially as dangerous as the chaos of a minor earthquake, and the rectangular shape of the page with its poem can be as reassuring as the doorframe in which we seek shelter.

In our daily lives, the image of the threshold can be useful, too. The threshold is that place where we become aware that we are on the borderline between disorder and order. It can be like standing at the brink of a cliff, or the edge of an ocean, or the beginning of a love affair. In other words, it can be threat or thrill (or, perhaps most accurately, it is both at once).

On a day-to-day basis our threshold is constantly shifting and disappearing and being repressed out of anxiety, whereas in poetry we seek out poems that can take us to our threshold (or one of our thresholds). It is just such a place where we feel most alive, where both exchange of energy and change itself can happen. It is on a threshold, at the edge, where we are most able to alter our understanding of the world and of our own lives in it.