Poetry to Prose
According to novelist and short story writer Joyce Carol Oates, “poetry focuses upon the image, the particular thing, or emotion, or feeling, while prose fiction focuses upon motion through time and space.” Based on this distinction, literary creativity is an impulse that originates in the desire to reflect or capture, in varying degrees, that which exists in the experience of the artist. For many writers, their lives of creativity began, accordingly, in the realm of poetry: that is, with a static regeneration of “the image, the particular thing,” the conceptual. Making the transition from poetry to prose, then, marked a similar transition in stylistic intention: a tendency towards overtly mobile or teleological narrative.
Updike, from Poetry to Prose
Many writers, such as John Updike (and even Oates herself,) have managed to continue generating both poetry and prose with equal regularity since they first began their careers. Updike, whose initial publication was itself a poetry collection, entitled The Carpentered Hen and other tame creatures, is perhaps best known as a novelist ans short-story writer, regularly contributing his short fiction to the New Yorker. However, his first accepted submission (to the New Yorker, in 1954) was in fact a poem entitled “Duet, with Muffled Brake Drums.” Poems constituted a significant portion of his contributions to magazines, and continued to provide his prose with an air of humor and levity long after he began to focus on long-form fiction. He considered poetry to be a similarly stimulating alternative to prose writing, deferring to poetry when stuck on a prose project. “I try to vary what I am doing [in my writing], and my verse, or poetry, is a help here.” Originally an aspiring cartoonist, Updike’s ability to visualize his prose with the sensibility of an artist, as well as articulate his visions with the creativity of a poet, led him to approach his writing with a degree of aesthetic craftsmanship. The evocative atmospheres and language of his prose writing was supported to a large extent by his poetic vision, and contributed to his uniquely creative style.
Atwood and Carver
Poetry has also served as a springboard for the careers of writers, who go on to focus their efforts on prose more often than poetry. Margaret Atwood and Raymond Carver began their careers as poets, publishing several books of poetry (to immense critical acclaim) before moving onto the novels and short fiction that would define their bodies of work. In Carver’s case, he saw it as a conscious, personal choice to focus more on short stories later in life. Atwood continues to write poetry, but to a lesser extent. In a 1990 interview, Atwood described the difference in processes between writing poetry and prose. For her, the poems she writes uncovers issues that are later worked out in her prose writing. Similarly, her poems lack the formal structure that her novels require in order to be written. “Writing poetry is a state of free float,” Atwood says, meaning that as a process it is much more free-associative. The liberality of the poetic form allows her to directly tap into hidden truths that take much longer to flesh out in her prose.
Denis Johnson, the reclusive novelist of critically acclaimed works such as The Stars at Noon, Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke, started out writing poems, amidst an adolescence and early adulthood of heavy substance abuse. As a student at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, he drank regularly with Raymond Carver himself, meanwhile producing dozens of poems and few prose pieces. While many expressed concern for his well-being, Johnson was initially apprehensive about giving up the bottle, under the impression that he couldn’t produce good-quality work in the same way without his addictions to fuel him. However, once he became sober, Johnson began writing long-form fiction, publishing his first novel, Angels, in 1983. Since his first novel, Johnson’s poetic output has diminished over time. Currently, he is known primarily as a novelist, and as the author of Jesus’ Son, which many claim to be his best work. While poetry provided Johnson with a creative outlet with which to express his pain and desperation, it is in his prose that he found a mature and contemplative voice with which to look back on his life as an addict.
(Featured image: “Nubes, desde arriba” by Pablo M Fernandez)