Novels about poems or poetry

Former poet laureate Robert Hass has written of turning to poetry “out of need,” in search of “a lens to clarify and focus inchoate feeling. Once in a state of mute misery, I picked up Emily Dickinson, flipped around, and came across a couple of lines–

They say that Time assuages–

Time never did assuage–

and felt somewhat better, alive again.” Opposed to this kind of vital reading for Hass is “the novel which I use almost exclusively not to live my life, though what I read there invades my life constantly, frames ways I have of seeing and thinking about things, character, social life, states of consciousness, that the novel addresses.”
[Robert Hass, Yusef Komuyakaa, W.S. Merwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Gerald Stern and Susan Stewart, “How Poetry Helps People to Live Their Lives.” American Poetry Review 37 (2008): 32. In JSTOR:]

As a reader of novels, I can’t fully subscribe to that distinction, though I also can’t completely reject it. But whether you prefer your sustenance in poetry or prose–or suspect that the distinction may be overstated, unnecessary, or false–you may find something to enjoy in an area of compromise between the two: novels about poets and poetry.

  •  Byatt, A.S.: Possession –  Parallel storylines follow the tumultuous romance of two Victorian poets, and the race between two present-day researchers to reconstruct their history through archival records.
  • James, Henry: Aspern Papers and in ebrary – A man goes to great lengths to gain access to the private papers of a dead American poet who had been living in Venice.
  • Nabokov, Vladimir: Pale Fire – A novel in the form of a 999-line poem by the fictional John Shade, followed by a sometimes obsessive commentary by Shade’s self-appointed Boswell, followed by an index that should not be missed.
  • Carey, Peter: My Life as a Fake – Based on a real literary hoax.
  • Barker, Pat: Regeneration –  The first in Barker’s World War I trilogy, Regeneration follows the British poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen through psychiatric treatment for “shell shock” at a Scottish hospital. Many other characters, including their doctor, are also based on historical figures.

You can find more novels about poets by searching in the catalog for “Poets–Fiction” as a Subject.


~ Erica Jensen, Reference Librarian


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