Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Top 10 novels featuring poets

The award-winning author Colum McCann selected his top 10 novels featuring poets for the Guardian. McCann's most recent novel, Zoli, a story of a Gypsy poet and intellectual, will be published in England in September 2006 and in the United States in early 2007.

Here is the rationale for his list:

"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."

Here are a few novels that made McCann's list:

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.

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.

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.

The Dog Fighter by Marc Bojanowski

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.

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.

The entire list is here.

About Colum McCann:

Colum McCann is the author of two collections of short stories and three novels, including This Side of Brightness and Dancer, both of which were international best-sellers. His fiction has been published in 26 languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ and other places. He has written for numerous publications including The Irish Times, Die Zeit, La Republicca, Paris Match, The New York Times, the Guardian and the Independent. He also has written a weekly column for RTE's "Round Midnight" show and Village magazine in Dublin.

In 2003 Colum was named Esquire magazine's "Writer of the Year." Other awards and honors include a Pushcart Prize, the Rooney Prize, the Irish Independent Hughes and Hughes Novel of the Year 2003, and the 2002 Ireland Fund of Monaco Princess Grace Memorial Literary Award. He was recently inducted into the Hennessy Hall of Fame.

His short film "Everything in this Country Must," directed by Gary McKendry, was nominated for an Oscar in 2005.

--Marshal Zeringue