Sunday, December 5, 2010

The What For Question

A student approached a colleague after class one day. The day’s lesson in English as a Second Language had been on some difficult grammatical concept native speakers take for granted, sequence of tenses, let’s say. The student looked her teacher earnestly in the eye and asked, “What for, Victoria? What for?”

That student’s question sticks in my head. It’s one I’ve been asked—that is, in spirit—whenever someone finds out I’m writing a novel in verse. Why would a person want to do that?

The question comes from fellow writers as much as it does from those who do not aspire to write. If the writer doesn’t write poetry, the question is usually practical. Why, if a person wants to write a novel, wouldn’t he just write a novel? Who reads poetry anyway? With Prosers, the problem’s fear. They’ve had some pretty heavy verse thrown at them in bite-sized chunks, so dense it’d take a winter to chew. They think, as Billy Collins put it, they must “tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.” Poem as enemy insurgent, as foreign combatant.

If the writer’s a poet, the “What For Question” ultimately stems from the fact that almost no Poet wants to read anyone else’s poem if it might be longer than one page. This aversion seems to apply to any poem, no matter how short the line. You could have a poem with three syllable lines, hand it to a fellow Versifier, I guarantee she’ll look at the staple first, then say something like, “Oh, it’s long.” Give her a week to read it, a week later the Poet’ll say, “So sorry, I didn’t have time.”

When I began writing Constance, Or, I finally had to abandon the poetry workshop—like our first parents did the Garden. They’d been halcyon, those days in the workshop, but I’d been pushing it for years. First two. Then four. I’d even agree just to take it one stanza per week, but then invariably some Poetaster would be upset that they had been expected to remember what someone else had written, like longer than five minutes.

I make fun of the poets, but I’m worse than any of them. The truth of the matter is this: I read novels. I write verse. It was inevitable, like those old Reese’s Peanut butter cup commercials, one day my novel was going to land in my verse.

Two great tastes that taste great together?

We’ll see.

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