Poetry in Novels by mattsteinglass
May 17, 2007, 11:01 am
Filed under: Books

I’m reading Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty”, which is wonderful, and in Book 2, Chapter 2, she pulls off a trick few novelists could manage: she inserts a poem ostensibly written by one of the characters, the renowned poet Claire Malcolm; and it’s good. (It had better be, given that the Malcolm is supposed to be a tenured, first-rank poet.) The poem, notably, is entitled “On Beauty”, which is doubly risky because clearly now the poem is intended to be read thematically towards or against the entirety of the novel — so if the poem fails, then there’s a substantial risk of throwing the weight of the novel itself awry.

But one of the tricks Smith uses to artfully set the poem up is worth noting: Claire is depicted, through the first 150 pages of the book, as someone who may well be shallow, and is certainly more than a bit irritating. She launches into left-wing political harangues at the slightest provocation (and sometimes without it), with an ungrounded literary academic’s flightiness and hyperbole, perfectly captured but not belabored in Smith’s dialogue. She is insistently, wearyingly enthusiastic, forever hauling out recherche adjectives to capture the purported aesthetic quiddities of experiences that are simply not that interesting; she seems compelled to demonstrate at every moment what an inspired person she is. Even her presentation of her 30-year-old poem, in the scene, is falsely coquettish (“God, I look so ridiculous!” she says of the author photo, in which she is stunningly gorgeous at 23; after she reads it, “Oh, it’s just old crap”) — so we are prepared for the poem to fail, or to succeed. We approach it with suspense: will it be good? Is Claire Malcolm a fake? And when, as it turns out, it is good — when it appears that, despite her apparent shallowness, Claire has depth — then we get one of those fabulous moments, like in Flaubert or Dostoevsky, where a character oscillates kaleidoscopically between absurdity and grace. Of course, the illusion of “depth” is created here by allowing this character to share, for a moment, the voice and concerns of the author (with the irreducible conflict between moral empathy and the sense of, or desire for, beauty); this is a trick of focus, sketching a character deliberately shallow against the voice of the author, so that when the character then becomes a channel for the voice of the author, there is a sudden transition to depth, which becomes an analogy for the kind of epiphanic depth of vision regarding our lives which we pray for, for ourselves, and which is the whole point of novels.

Anyway, this reminded me of a similar maneuver executed by Graham Greene in “Orient Express” (a book which he, also false-coquettishly, termed one of his “entertainments”, rather than a real novel). Towards the end of the book, he has another character discover a few lines jotted down on the back of a photo of a beautiful young lady who is the kept lover of the tough lesbian reporter, Mabel Warren. We’ve seen Mabel, so far, as a vicious, pitiless, constantly scheming woman, smart as hell but apparently contemptuous of feeling or sincerity. Her relationship with her lover is one of possession and fear of loss. And then, with Mabel off the scene, we get these few lines, clearly written by Mabel, read by a character who has no inkling of what they mean; and they are wistful, regretful, contemplative, gracefully composed, and sad without sliding into self-pity. We know, for that matter, that Mabel’s lover lacks the literary sensibility to appreciate the lines written to her. These are lines offered to no one, to the universe — the sort of wasteful communication one might have expected Mabel to disdain. They must be taken as addressed to the reader directly, since they can be addressed to no one else. And again, this flat, ironic character telescopes out into tragic depth.

In contrast to these two successful insertions of poetry into novels, one might set the poetry written by the John Ash character in Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”, which is frankly pretty crappy. It fails in the way I think most poetry in novels fails: it sounds like poetry written by a Wallace Stevens-ish Connecticut WASP mid-20th-century poet ought to sound, but without actually having any autonomous legitimate substance to it. One can make a number of excuses for this — Nabokov was attempting to write poetry in a second language, and then present it through the eyes of a hilariously unreliable narrator; and Nabokov is himself a rather cold and mathematical writer, in Russian as well as English, so it’s not surprising if the poetry comes off as rather formal and crossword-puzzlish.

But I also think Nabokov makes a narrative-stance choice which sets the poetry up to fail: he casts his poet, Ash, as the sound, legitimate voice of genius, filtered through the ludicrous and shallow madness of his unreliable narrator (who persists in absurdly interpreting Ash’s poetry as a set of coded references to the comical history of the pederastic kingdom of Zembla). This sets the reader’s expectations too high. Ash’s rather dull poetry can’t bear the weight of expectation Nabokov places on it. (It is of course possible that Nabokov intends for Ash to be a pompous and overrated poet, but that seems to me to render the whole novel a bit dismal.)

The message for novelists is: if you’re going to insert a character’s poetry, make sure to cast the poet as, at least potentially, a shallow fake or a hard-assed cynic. Set the reader up against the expectation of beauty or sincerity. Then drop in the lyricism. You need the flatness to make your depths look deep.

2 Comments so far
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I’ll give you my booklist, if you give me yours. Swaptime!

Comment by Thông

Okay but mine is kinda short lately…I’ll drop it at your site man.

Comment by mattsteinglass

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