Wednesday Writing: Rereading a Novel Like a Poem


A novel is not a poem. But in a sense, a novel is a poem, if a poem could be as long as a book, or even as long as a series of books. 

All of the old books, of course, began as poems. But that was in the days when every poem was a song and many people didn’t take in the story with eyes, but with ears and tongues. The Shanamah, a Persian epic I wrote about for my senior thesis in history, for my BA, was nine volumes of poetry. I am sorry to say I was not able to read it in the original Persian. I read a turn of the 20th century translation in English couplets.

Reading nine volumes of couplets becomes wearisome, which is why novels are not written in couplets. Of course, most contemporary poets, sneer at something so prosaic as a rhyme in a poem. Rhymes are out of fashion. Perhaps poems have become envious of novels, with the spacious longitude and latitude of their prose. 

But I occasionally become envious of the old poets, those who rhymed, and occasionally I sneak rhymes and alliteration and other poetic devices into my novels, always furtively, hoping to get caught, but fearing being caught out at the same time. Granted, in Epic Fantasy, one of the delights of the genre is that I can insert poems into the songs of my characters. The entire series, the Unfinished Song, is named after one such poem (song). Ironically, I finished this poem before I finished the first novel. 

Except, secretly, the entire novel, the entire 12 book series, is all an extension of a single poem. The series, despite the title and despite any evidence to the contrary, will come to an end as well. (I will finish it, dear reader.) And yet I hope that in a sense, it will not end.... I hope to make it recursive, which is just a fancy way of saying that I hope that it is a story that readers will be able to re-read with as much pleasure in the third or seventh rereading as in the first. 

In Next Word, Better Word, which is about the craft of poetry, Stephen Dobyns compares a poem to another form of art, a visual painting or sculpture, which is apprehended 'all together' and 'all-at-once':

The fact that a poem, like music, is a sequential art with information coming out of an apparent future would seem to argue against its being 'wisdom communicated in its all-at-once state.' Indeed, different parts of a poem may be propositional, as in a Shakespearean sonnet. But our ambition in reading the poem is similar to the grasping of beauty, seeing a number of parts altogether, having a sense of an integrated, harmonious whole. This is different from working through a series of propositions to a conclusion [as in non-fiction]. In a poem, we move through the parts sequentially, though our ambition is not to experience the conclusion, but rather to experience the whole structure of which the conclusion forms one element. This what makes the entire poem a symbol of affective life. Could it be said that the keystone of an arch is the conclusion of the arch?

[The surprise ending of a poem] returns us to the beginning, at which point we begin to see the poem holistically. The poem's information again comes to us sequentially, but we also hold it in our memory as a complete thing. We read it through the lens of the conclusion. The parts come to depend on each other as the stones in the arch depend on each other, with the conclusion forming the keystone.

A novel is not a poem; but it can offer pleasures after its conclusion is known, much like a poem. The novel ends without ending, if the reader desires, for a rereading circles around the hidden theme and reveals almost a new story, the same story shown in a new light, painted with new colors.

In the first reading, I hope the reader stumbles across many surprises. I strive to put in twists and turns, unexpected bends in the river of the story. Yet surprises must never exist for their own sake. As a reader, or a television viewer, I despise a gratuitous surprise, that shock thrown in only to mock the expectations of the reader or viewer. As a writer, I eschew, or try to, whatever repulses me in the reader's seat. 

The fact is, whatever surprises I  may pull off in the first reading will no longer be surprises in the second, or third, or any reading after that. If the story is to be just as enjoyable, or even more, so, once the secrets are shared by the reader, the secrets have to be of a certain quality. If done right, what was once a mystery turns into a thriller; now the reader shares the author's knowledge of what is coming, while the characters themselves, still trapped in the chronology of the narrative, have no idea. When the reader is in on the secret, she can giggle and hum in anticipation of what she knows coming. 

Re-reading Lord of the Rings, I take no less pleasure because I know that Strider is really Aragon, that Eowyn can defeat the Witch-King, that Boromir will fall to the temptation of the ring, but Faramir will not, or that only Gollum will save Frodo from himself. On the contrary, as I anticipate my favorite scenes, coming up, a thrill of pleasure races through me. Sometimes I flip through pages of lesser tasty scenes to reach my favorites all the quicker. Other times I make myself savor and reread at the pace I normally read, word by word and page by page, the better to enjoy the buildup to the bits I am most adore. Usually that is not the final scenes, but when I reread a book, I am caught up in it again, and read breathlessly, late into the night, until the end.


You can find all the books of The Unfinished Song in order here.