Poets in Fiction: Ten of the Top…

In celebration of our upcoming ten year anniversary we are publishing a Top 10 list by a carte blanche editor once a month. This month’s list is brought to you by Patrick McDonagh.

I’m a poetry editor who reads a lot of fiction, and sometimes I enjoy the happy convergence when the fiction features a poet. So here is my very personal list of ten favourite fictional poets, and why I like ’em. It’s not a definitive top ten – it’s just my ten. In no particular order…

1. Winnie the Pooh is not just a cuddly bear. He’s a poet, and if you don’t know his oeuvre, you should take a rejuvenation session with your A. A. Milne collection. In Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, the pudgy plushie pours forth the poems, the songs, and, when words fail him (being a Bear of Very Little Brain), the hums. But not only are there poems: there is a philosophy of poetry. For instance, consider this exchange between Pooh and Piglet, after Pooh has thought up a poem about Tigger, ending with the line

“Whatever his weight in pounds, shillings and ounces,

He always seems bigger because of his bounces.”

Asked if he liked poem, Piglet responds,

`“All except the shillings… I don’t think they ought to be there.”

“They wanted to come in after the pounds,” explained Pooh, “so I let them. It is the best way to write poetry, letting things come.”

Later, Pooh describes his process to Rabbit after reciting his poem “Noise”:

“I sort of made it up,” said Pooh. “It isn’t Brain,” he went on humbly, “because You Know Why, Rabbit; but it comes to me sometimes.”

That may not be enough to turn him into a creative writing instructor and fill a semester’s worth of 75 minute classes, but he is just a stuffed bear, after all.

2. The poet Francis Xavier Enderby is the protagonist (of sorts) of four novels by Anthony Burgess: Inside Mr. Enderby (1963), Enderby Outside (1968), The Clockwork Testament (1974), and Enderby’s Dark Lady (1984); the four are collected in an Enderby omnibus, The Complete Enderby. The first novel was published under the pseudonym Joseph Kells, and then reviewed harshly by Burgess under his own name (Burgess lost his reviewing job with the Yorkshire Post when the deception was discovered). Despite these authorial shenanigans, F. X. Enderby proved enduring. The dyspeptic and flatulent poet composes while in the loo, tosses his manuscripts into his bathtub (but never bathes, so that’s OK), and confronts his various muses with scatological wit and inventive wordplay. Burgess, perhaps tiring of his creation, killed off Enderby in The Clockwork Testament, which was subtitled Enderby’s End (in which Enderby writes a film script based on a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem; the film features acts of violence against nuns that are in turn connected by popular media with apparent “copycat” violence – much as had happened when Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange was put on celluloid by Stanley Kubrick). But Enderby resisted Burgess’ attempt to do him in, and was resurrected in Enderby’s Dark Lady (wryly subtitled No End to Enderby).

3. How can a list of fictional poets not include Stephen Daedalus, of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? I don’t know. So this list does include him (but not the later Stephen Daedalus of Ulysses – that Stephen is older, disaffected, and less flamboyantly poetic). Daedalus could well be the archetype of the twentieth-century modernist-romantic, setting out, he claims to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Big goals, but Joyce, the man lurking behind the Daedalian mask, may have pulled it off. Famously, Stephen said, “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.” How many poets, or poets-in-waiting, have shared those sentiments…

4. Isadora White-Wing, the protagonist of Erica Jong’s seminal 1973 sex-psychoanalysis-and-feminism novel Fear of Flying, had slipped off my radar since I read the novel sometime in the mid-80s (I fear I date myself here…), but my wife picked it up recently, and Isadora came flashing back (prompted by Lynne reading hilarious passages to me each night as I tried to fall asleep…). Loosely autobiographical, Isadora is a young poet trying to make sense of the world she inhabits – which, in Wing’s case, if chock full of Freudians who are also trying to make sense of it for her. A smart, witty character, Isadora continued her adventures in How to Save Your Own Life and Parachutes and Kisses, but Jong seems to have retired her.

5. Aurora Leigh is the titular protagonist of (ahem) Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It isn’t exactly a novel, but it is exactly a verse novel, and at its debut in 1856 it was the first long poem to take the idea of the Victorian novel – realism, an interest in social issues and the function of art, a concern with personal identity and relations in the face of a rapidly changing environment, and so forth – and transform it into blank verse. Over twelve chapters Aurora makes her way as a poet and a woman despite the sexist culture of her day, to be fulfilled as both. Of course, she marries in the end, and that seems to be part of the fulfillment… but she stays a poet all the way through (OK, getting married helps her regain her muse too).

6. In Carol Shields’ 1987 novel Swann: A Literary Mystery, the poet in question is one Mary Swann, an obscure mid-20th century poet from southern Ontario. And the question behind the mystery is, whatever happened to Swann? The novel won the 1987 Arthur Ellis Award, given by the Crime Writers of Canada, and was Shields’ most commercially and critically successful work prior to The Stone Diaries and Larry’s Party. Excerpts from Swann’s work are scattered throughout the novel:

A morning and an afternoon and

Night’s queer knuckled hand

Hold me separate and whole

Stitching tight my daily soul.

But no-one really knows anything about her. Who is she? What do these fragments of poetry mean? And why have all traces of the poet vanished? I remember loving this novel when I read it around 25 years ago, and it was an early pick for this list.

7. Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte are two Victorian poets in A. S. Byatt’s brilliant 1990 novel Possession: A Romance, and are alleged by Wikipedia to be loosely based on Robert Browning (or maybe Alfred Tennyson) and Christina Rossetti, respectively. In the novel, the secret lives of these poets are reiterated in the lives of two scholars researching them and trying to learn more about these poets and their obscure relationship. Byatt isn’t shy about giving them plenty of poetry, too – fragments and complete poems by Ash and Lamotte are popping out of the poets’ archives throughout the novel.

8. Adam Dalgliesh, poet and Detective Chief-Inspector (and eventually Commander) with New Scotland Yard, appears in fourteen novels by P. D. James, from 1962’s Cover her Face to 2008’s The Private Patient. He’s named after one of James’ old English teachers, Miss Maisie Dalgliesh, who had clearly had an influence on the young Phyllis Dorothy. Dashing, almost Byronic (he’s seen a lot of ugly stuff, and it makes him rather intense and morose, like a good Byronic poet), when Dalgliesh isn’t writing poetry or delving into the darkest recesses of the human psyche to figure out who killed whom, he’s charming ladies with his gentlemanly demeanour (until The Private Patient, when James has him tie the knot with a Cambridge lecturer). In a 2001 interview with The Guardian, James said of Dalgliesh that “I gave him the qualities I admire because I hoped he might be an enduring character and that being so, I must actually like him. I can’t help thinking that logically he would have been a musician. There’s something about him that reminds me of my more musical friends. But I don’t know enough about music to make this credible, whereas I do understand the poetic imagination, so I thought, all right, I’ll make him a poet.”

9. I confess: I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read about it, and of course I’ve seen the film. So maybe this is cheating, but I’m putting Boris Pasternak’s Yuri Zhivago on the list. The protagonist of Pasternak’s 1957 masterpiece Dr. Zhivago is not only a poet, but also a doctor! That’s very handy, because if for any reason Yuri cannot practice medicine, he’ll have poetry to fall back on.

10. I’ve appreciated the wit and wordplay of Nicholson Baker since I first came across him. I read his 2009 novel The Anthologist, starring poet Paul Chowder, shortly after the appearance of the paperback version, and bits of it come back to me still. Not only is Chowder a poet – he’s editing an anthology, so lots of poets make an appearance, from W. H. Auden to Walt Whitman. And, in his inimitable way, Baker plays with them and gives their poems, and fragments thereof, new life (not to mention the bits of Chowder fragments that appear). I’ve never appreciated Coventry Patmore so much as when reading this book… it was a revelation.

That’s my top ten list. And for what it’s worth, a little web search has informed me that The Guardian compiled this kind of list in 2011 as well as in 2006. There’s a bit of overlap between those lists and this one, but not so much. The Guardian also published an interesting tangential list of Top Ten Verse Novels, including, naturally, Aurora Leigh. Indulge!!

In addition to being poetry co-editor of carte blanche, Patrick McDonagh is a Montreal-based writer & a part-time faculty member in the Department of English at Concordia University. He is the author of Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool UP, 2008), as well as articles that have appeared in The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, and too many university publications to count.