Zoli, the latest novel from the award-winning Colum McCann, published last month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, tells the story of a Romani poet, following her from her early days with a travelling company of harpists to a life of fame under the socialist government of Czechoslovakia, to exile and a sort of return. Here he chooses his top 10 novels featuring poets.
“The American poet and fiction writer, Jim Harrison, has said that poetry at its best is the language you would give your soul if you could teach your soul to speak. Poets, he says, are an odd sort who feel called upon to make up strange, lovely songs about death and the indefinite reprieve we are all in the process of travelling through. Strange then, that there are so few poets at the centre of novels. Maybe it has to do with the old adage that poets can’t drive and they also bum the novelist’s cigarettes.
“In any case, poets have their fingers on a different pulse and it’s generally a tough thing for a novelist to conjure up such a reliable poet. You end up swimming in waters that most other sensible people drown in. Still, all things excellent are both difficult and rare – and every now and then the novelists get it right. This, then, is an eclectic list of novels in which poets appear and sometimes disappear. The difficulty, as with any list, is in establishing where the silences are, or to make excuses for them. There are many novels about poets that I have left out: Kerouac’s On the Road, AS Byatt’s Possession, Nabakov’s Pale Fire, Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and countless others. I have also included some raw contemporary books that haven’t had a proper run against time yet. Not everything that I have chosen will rhyme for readers, perhaps because, like much good poetry, they’re not always supposed to.”
1. Stoner by John Williams
One of the great forgotten novels of the past century. I have bought at least 50 copies of it in the past few years, using it as a gift for friends. It is universally adored by writers and readers alike. The opening page declares John Stoner to be more or less a non-entity, his name becoming to older colleagues “a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones a sound which evokes no sense of the past.” Born into a rural farming family, Stoner leaves the land to study and is soon sideswipped when, in a compulsory English class, he is asked to interpret a Shakespearian sonnet. Against all expectations, he becomes a professor of the classics at the University of Missouri. He teaches; marries; has a tragic yet gorgeous affair. He fights no obvious wars, nor wins any grand intellectual battles, except that with poetry. The book is so beautifully paced and cadenced that it deserves the status of classic. If any further recommendation is needed, the book was also a favourite of the late John McGahern who revered its profound craftwork.
2. My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey
Carey is one of the great ventriloquists of contemporary literature. My Life as a Fake is based on a real literary hoax that transfixed Australia during Carey’s childhood: in the novel a phantom poet taunts and haunts us. No matter what the time or place, Carey is the sort of writer who is always there when the bread comes out of the oven.
3. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
“It’s a novel about laughter and forgetting, about forgetting and Prague, about Prague and the angels …” This great, polymorphous work is also an ode to innocence, philosophy, poetry and the sense, as Kundera says, that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
4. Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Another book of memory and forgetting. If I were to take a box of books with me towards wherever it is go when we’re finished with where we are now, Fugitive Pieces would be one of these. A poet, or rather a series of poets, lives at the book’s very heart. Fugitive Pieces begins with a stunning image from the Holocaust and moves ever outwards. It is a novel to be surrendered to and its triumph is the dignity it allows its reader and its central character, Jakob Beer.
5. The Swing of Things by Sean O’Reilly
At the opening of this contemporary novel, an Irish street poet intones for passersby: “Poetry on tap, the great classics of Irish literature. Joyce and his chamber pots. Wilde and his twilight balconies. Yeats and his randy ghosts. I’ll take you turf cutting with Heaney or onion eating with Swift … ” The lad of the ceaseless hum becomes a major character in this novel from a young Northern Irish writer whose is now, perhaps, one of the most vital voices in current Irish literature.
6. Shadow Box by Antonia Logue
Another young writer from Northern Ireland, Logue writes about the intertwined lives of Mina Loy, the modernist poet, Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champion, and Arthur Craven, the shaky human ground between the two. What a splendid cocktail, wonderfully well written. Words, like punches and dolphins, arrived in the most unexpected places.
7. Winslow in Love by Kevin Canty
A novel that came out last year and just didn’t get sung the way it should have been. Winslow, a burned-out poet soaked in gin and misery, takes a position at a small Montana College. He falls in love, as older poets seem to do – ridiculously backwards, as if with a younger self. Only someone as brilliant as Canty is able to drag us out of the college novel genre and bring to life a landscape of age and desire worthy of a Yeats poem.
8. Snow by Orham Pamuk
A Turkish poet spends a dozen years as a political exile in Germany. He returns to witness firsthand the clash between radical Islam and western notions. Beautiful, discursive, looping, intricate, bawdy, this is a novel that wanders in the very best sense. Whenever I go back to Pamuk’s novel, I remember where I was when I first read it.
9. The Dog Fighter by Marc Bokanowski
A very fine debut novel from a young Californian writer. The story concerns a drifter in Mexico doomed to dog fighting. It’s a peculiar and savage curse but rather than celebrating gore, the book becomes a meditation on language and choice. The character of “The Poet” – who happens to be the hero’s conscience, or maybe his anti-conscience – is beautifully conjured. He sits in the square, smoking, opening up odd boxes of language and aphorisms.
10. Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce
I just couldn’t leave Joyce’s novel off this list. We tend to forget that there’s a good degree of irony in Stephen Daedalus’s adolescent urge to “go forth and forge in the smith of my soul, the uncreated conscience of my race.” The deeper irony is that Joyce himself accomplishes that high desire in his later novels where he does indeed “create life out of life.” This is one of the world’s most acutely realised portraits of a poet-in-training. Impossible for it not to be both a beginning and an end.