The Folds of a Writer

One last thing like this.

I used to think that poems were primarily personal, and that novels were primarily social. That poets had a passion which compelled them to retreat into themselves, and that novelists had a duty which required them to go out into the world and roll around like pigs.

I still think this on the whole. There is a keener distinction though: the poets retreat inwards, it’s true, but it turns out they are not any more exposed and they are certainly no more vulnerable. See, the poets know what they reveal about themselves, they know even if what they reveal are their most ugly parts. Novelists, however, don’t know what they reveal. The novel can be wrapped in packaging and doused in repellent, but there is no way for the author to know what the book will reveal about them once it’s been published.

We learn nothing we didn’t already know about Ted Hughes when we look back at his poems. We sometimes learn something about novelists though. Take Piet, from Updike’s Couples, who does nothing to assuage our suspicions that Updike was a closeted misogynist, as, like a mini town-crier, he vividly describes the state of his creator’s corpse from atop the author’s headstone. (Pnin, from Nabokov’s Pnin, has the opposite effect, his generous silence giving readers hope that his author might not have been so obsessed with young girls).

Auden’s The Novelist compares the personal poet against the worldly novelist, but, more than that, the poem shows how novels come to reveal the folds and the failings of their creators over time. (NB: the conditional which comes at the close.)

 

The Novelist

By W. H. Auden

Encased in talent like a uniform.
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone.

They can dash forward like hussars: but he
Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
How to be plain and awkward, how to be
One after whom none think it worth to turn.

For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too.
And in his own weak person, if he can.
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.

 

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