While reading Karen Russell’s stellar hit, Swamplandia!, I did a double take.
I know the book is intended to be a novel and it certainly reads like one. It has a story: a beginning, a middle, an end; a protagonist, a climax, etc. Despite these facts, Swamplandia! reads, to me, like one big, epic poem.
Nowadays we rarely see long poems in the poetry world. What happened to those epics, like the Iliad, which frame western literary history as we know it? I think perhaps they’ve dissolved into a certain kind of novel —one that reads like poetry and presents as a novel. One of the reasons for this “re-formatting” may be the publishing industry’s preference for novels over shorter forms of writing, and all of poetry, in general. Writers know it’s certainly more lucrative to write 300 pages then to write 100, and to produce full-length novels rather than novellas. This preference is uniquely contemporary, and for that reason, I seem to stumble upon true poetry in the novels of certain modern and contemporary writers.
Russell’s language is unbelievably rich and compelling. She spins fantastical images out of just a few words and seamlessly integrates those images into the skeleton of a novel. Her aptitude for poetic imagery recalls one of my favorite writers, Truman Capote. He had such a gift when it came to melding poetry with narrative writing. His phrases are stanzas. His pockets of imagery, small treasures. For example, in Other Voices, Other Rooms he writes,
“Evening silvered the glass, and his face reflected transparently, changed and mingled with moth-moving lamp yellow; he saw himself, and through himself, and beyond: a night bird whistled in the fig leaves, a whippoorwill, and fireflies sprinkled the blue-flooded air, rode the dark like ship lights.”
So what makes it poetry? Couldn’t it just be great description? Sure, it is great description, but the description is a story in itself. The combination of imagery and story create a poem. If viewed through this context, the excerpt above blossoms as a poem within a novel. I imagined Other Voices, Other Rooms as a gallery of poems that, when strung together, built the greater whole of a novel, in the way that Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son consists of several intertwined short stories designed as a novel in total.
Poetry abounds in Swamplandia!. The book takes place in and around the fabled swamps of Florida. Often the landscape feels as alive as the characters. Russell’s incredible blend of fantasy, raw emotion, poignant moments, and technical craft are a whirlwind of fresh air, sucking the reader to its depths—the very heart of the novel. Russell writes such transformative passages as,
“I blinked my eyes and the ants streamed wetly, then spiraled into a black kaleidoscope. Above me the yellow moon kept traveling behind clouds, and the mosquitoes filled the clearing with their static. Leaves lost their transparency for whole minutes. I stiffened and my eyes flew open and when the pressure eased I could hear my breath again.”
While the paragraph can certainly be defined as prose, it surpasses mere description. The emotion that Ava, the protagonist, feels runs away with itself, leaving the reader with a moment of pure poetry.
While there will hopefully always be a large handful of presses that publish poetry exclusively, I see a lot of self-proclaimed poets turning to fiction or even memoir writing because those forms are more sought after by the publishing industry. I think as time passes, we will see some truly extraordinary writing that reveals poetry embedded within its paragraphs. As poems become less appreciated in the commercial sector, poets with a flair for fiction writing are striking gold.
The truth is that poetry is an essential component of the human condition. As long as we write, poetry will never disappear completely. Just as it takes to the Twitterverse, the revival of the prose poem through the platforms of fiction and memoir is a trend to watch out for. Unless the publishing industry changes course, I see a spike in the prose poem/novel hybrid and I couldn’t be more excited.