Here’s an admission: I sometimes wonder why people bother with poetry. After all, the best novelists (Proust and Nabokov, to name just two) offer the reader page after page of language as precise, as unpredictable and as ravishing as the language of any poet—and the novelists simultaneously make their local delights serve larger structural or thematic ambitions (the generation of suspense, the play of ideas, the revelation of character, the depiction of society, the weaving of a thick, tragic sense of duration). In great fiction the language is not only satisfying in itself, but it also fulfils larger purposes of design: it is sculptural, in the round, gestural. Fiction makes a world, dense and social. Or, to change the figure, in poetry words are like notes from a flute, the tracery of a tune, whereas in fiction words are like notes of a symphony orchestra—compositional, the integers of a giant calculus.This is from an essay on James Schuyler, who obviously by White's lights must be offering that something indispensable and un-emulatable. Anyway, I value White's paragraph because it's such a succinct defense of fiction along the axis ofwhat? call it simply quality of languageand so is the perfect double to my objections to fiction. In other words, to tweak White's metaphor a little, I prefer listening to chamber music over symphonies because I can hear the individual instruments better, and pick out subtle patterns. (And a string quartet is capable of breathtaking feats of narrative and world-building, but perhaps I push the metaphor too far.) Also, it's impossible to imagine a symphony that could improvise with any success: you need a single instrument or small group to do that. In short, the symphonic seems overdetermined and unsubtle when compared with the lyric, yet no one would deny that the lyric is incapable of achieving sublime and overwhelming aesthetic effects.
I say all this, at the risk of seeming philistine, in order to demonstrate that I’m no friend to poetry unless it is indispensable to me, unless in does something no prose could emulate.
White's account also neglects the powers of poetry to integrate themes and social density over the course of a series or a book or a career. I find the social formalism of a poet like Rodrigo Toscano or Ed Roberson much more compelling than what I imagine to be their novelistic equivalents, if only because they both incite and leave room for thinking, whereas it seems to me the continuous immersive flow intended by most fiction repels or retards thinking as it sweeps the reader along his or her desire to find out what happens next. This is to leave aside what is still the major territory for lyric poetry: the exploration of an individual subjectivity. The novel can do this too, but such novels can feel thin or obsessive if they don't do some of the other things we traditionally expect from them: character development, plot, settings and descriptions.
Nevertheless, as a writer, the novel tempts me: but is it because I long for symphonic effects or for the increased prestige and listenership that accrues to symphonies? Symphonies are Romantic: you are unquestionably in the presence of (at least an attempt at) Great Art, and the completest possible rendering of Spirit. I don't sneer at such ambitions, or see them as mere nostalgia for a more unified, nineteenth-century-style culture; I'm just trying to tune in to my own signals through a great deal of static. The largest ambition is to express not just one's own Spirit, but the Spirit of the Age. What's the right medium for that? And how to foster the peculiar combination of arrogance and humility required for the task? I think it's a moral duty to find the largest possible scope for one's artistic ambitionsto push whatever talent one has as far as possible. But how does that imperative intersect with what readers want or need? Maybe it doesn't. You write for yourself and for strangers, like Stein saidrelying on the power of the and to suggest a sympathy, a common ground.