The Servant of Two Masters

Amit Majmudar

Reflections on the Poem and the Novel

The poem makes the self strange. The novel makes strangers familiar.

Both the poem and the novel are tasked with rendering their subjects at once larger-than-life and lifelike. The poem begins with the larger-than-life and narrows it. The novel begins with the lifelike and expands it.

Size matters. In the novel, size is a function of duration. In the poem, size is a function of intensity. A two-line metaphor can weigh as much in the mind as one hundred pages. Collapse those hundred pages into a two-line summary, or expand that couplet to a hundred pages, and everything is lost.

There is nothing poetry can do that the novel cannot do. There is nothing the novel can do that the poem cannot do. (What they do separately now, they once did together in epic and tragedy.) Today it is the novel’s audience that grows impatient with purple passages, and the poem’s audience that grows impatient with length. A single restriction inheres in all forms even after they are mastered—and that restriction originates in the audience.

The novel allows itself diffuseness so it can tell a story. The poem denies itself diffuseness and restricts itself to the anecdote. A certain amount of sanctioned diffuseness made narrative poems possible. (This is one major reason for the decline in the reputations, huge during their lifetimes, of Sir Walter Scott and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.) To insist on intensity, as the poem does, is to insist on brevity; to insist on brevity is to insist on the image. The novel, by contrast, has all the time in the world. It can afford the slow exposition, the rising action, the climax, the denouement.

The novel, at its best, kills the novelist to give life to a character. The poem can give life to a character, too, but Prufrock will never shake Eliot the way Scrooge has shaken Dickens. The poem makes masks. The novel makes golems.

The novel makes life out of language. The poem makes language come to life. The best of either does the work of both. Joyce’s prose is often poetic, Larkin’s verse is often novelistic. In life as in language, hybridity breeds vigor.

Goethe, Kipling, and Hardy wrote both, but Victor Hugo is the truest poet-novelist. In his work, the division is taken to its greatest possible extreme. The novels, popular and sentimental, transfer very naturally to the animated film or the musical. The late poems are abstruse, allusive, God-mad. For Hugo, the novel is exoteric art, and the poem is esoteric art. They have a Mahayana-Hinayana dichotomy. In Goethe, Kipling, and Hardy, both the poem and the novel are pursued as exoteric arts. Passing from their novels to their poems, we find no sudden increase in the difficulty of the terrain, no drastic change in climate. Hugo, such a warm host in his novels, froths and goes crosseyed in La Legende des Siecles and Le Fin de Satan. He uses the novel as a sitting room where he can entertain readers, and the poem as a dark tower where he can escape them.

Ambidexterity is the least of literary virtues. The truly dual career (as opposed to the occasional prose work) dooms a writer to a two-front war. Energy and time drain from the form you are writing to the form you aren’t. To chase one is to stray from the other. But the real concern of the poet-novelist is not logistical. Consider: Hugo’s novels rank lower than Stendhal’s. At least in the English-speaking world, people revere Goethe but read Rilke. Hardy and Kipling, good writers of both poems and novels, are neither the best of poets nor the best of novelists. How much better to be a Tennyson or a Dickens—to be one thing completely! The novel and the poem may well reserve their highest gifts for the pure at heart. Lancelot wins a reputation; Galahad wins the Grail.

The novel gains its power from inclusion and the broad gaze. The poem gains its power from exclusion and sharp focus. This is not to say a novel “should” not be spare and limit itself to one character’s musings, or that a poem “should” not suck up unfiltered the detritus of everyday life. Nor that such work cannot be powerful in its way. But a certain kind of power, specific to either form, is lost when the principles of one guide the other. The novel becomes poetic but falls short of the poem. The poem becomes novelistic but falls short of the novel.

To call a writer “creative” is to use a hidden metaphor. The metaphor connects the writer and God. Writers do not create; they recombine. What they recombine are letters. When we speak of writers “creating” a character or “creating” a world, we are still speaking of recombination. Science-fiction worlds and literary characters are actually recombinations of the recognizeable. That is what gives them resonance and meaning. Inventiveness gives pleasure. Creativity estranges. This is why we can understand writers but cannot understand God.

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