William Faulkner Makes Us Wonder: What's So Great About Poetry, Anyhow?

William Faulkner Makes Us Wonder: What's So Great About Poetry, Anyhow?

10:03am Apr 30, 2015
Before William Faulkner became a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, he published some unsuccessful poetry.
Before William Faulkner became a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, he published some unsuccessful poetry.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Poetry is the secret story, the story behind the story — or, as Wordsworth puts it, what is "felt in the blood and felt along the heart." Poetry is language broken down, chiseled, and refined, made to say what is unsayable through any other means. And while it is singular and limitless in its power to affect, poetry is bound to the senses, to memory and to place.

There's a reason I can call poetry the highest form of artistic expression without thinking twice about it. And even though most Americans today don't acknowledge the art form all that much, you'd be hard-pressed to find a sensible person who doesn't respect or — if only from a distance — admire the magic in it.

Around this time of year, I always think of William Faulkner. Here's why: For all of his achievements, his Nobel Prize for Literature, his Pulitzers and National Book Awards, his mug on a 22-cent postage stamp — the man still fell short. And it wasn't that he dropped out of high school and did only a few semesters of college, or that he was once fired by an employer for reading on the job. These were small missteps and shortcomings that were basically inconsequential in the long run. The larger issue is that, in his own view, William Faulkner was a failed poet. Failed.

"Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first," he told The Paris Review in 1956, "finds he can't, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing."

What you may not know is that before his first novel, Soldier's Pay, Faulkner had written two books of poetry, Vision in Spring in 1921 and The Marble Faun in 1924. While he'd long dreamed of being taken seriously as a poet, the verse was always second-rate and not particularly significant. Eventually he abandoned his efforts as a poet to focus solely on his fiction.

According to Faulkner, novelists are an inferior breed of writer. It's the poet who holds the top job, the most prominent calling in the business of words. Thing is, few are fit for its demands. Ernest Hemingway, who never sought to be known as a poet, naturally tried his hand at verse. He wrote war poems and love poems and a ridiculous one called "I Like Canadians." And much like Faulkner, the results were forgettable at best.

The world of letters is fraught with writers who started out as poets and went a different direction later on in their careers. Hans Christian Andersen, immortal for stories like "The Little Mermaid" and "The Ugly Duckling," only turned to fairy tales after failing as a poet and playwright.

The late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño too began as a poet. The difference between Bolaño and Faulkner, however, is that Bolaño was actually pretty good at it. In fact, the poems collected in The Unknown University and The Romantic Dogs reveal a sly and engaged craftsman who was more than worthy to retain the title of poet. His reasons for taking up fiction were monetary: With a family to support, Bolaño believed he could earn more by writing novels and short stories, a decision that proved to be wise and true. But he always saw poetry as superior. Once, when asked, "What makes you believe you're a better poet than a novelist?" Bolaño answered, "The poetry makes me blush less."

In honor of National Poetry Month, we invite our readers to join in on the discussion. What is it about poetry that causes so many readers and writers to view it as a superior art form? And, in light of Faulkner's assertion, what makes someone, especially one with such towering skill as a wordsmith, a "failed" poet?

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove.

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