Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Coetzee on Prose and Poetry

Here's one way the young J. M. Coetzee thought about the difference between prose and poetry (from his memoir Youth):
In poetry, the action can take place everywhere and nowhere: it does not matter whether the lonely wives of the fishermen live in Kalk Bay or Portugal or Maine. Prose, on the other hand, seems naggingly to demand a specific setting. (62-63)
He goes on to say that he cannot write about London (where he is living at the time) because he does not know it well enough yet—and thus implies that he can only write about South Africa, where he grew up.

This could be a commentary on Coetzee's own work, for at the time when Youth was published (2002), he had published eight novels, only one of which does not have "a specific setting": Waiting for the Barbarians is set in an imaginary, unnamed "Empire." Foe and The Master of Petersburg complicate the point, but neither fully contradicts it: Foe might even be the London novel that the younger Coetzee feared he could not write, while imagines a Petersburg that Coetzee the author fully inhabited, in a sense, in his extensive reading of and about Dostoevsky. — The rest of those previous novels are set in South Africa, and the three he has published since are very specific about setting (except perhaps for one or two sections of Elizabeth Costello).

Still, a statement like the above in a memoir is somewhat unstable (even if it is not as unstable as it might be if uttered by a character in a novel). A memoirist might be asserting this position as his own, but he might also be saying that the position is one he once held but now finds mistaken. A more straightforward memoirist than Coetzee would probably make explicit whether he agreed or disagreed with his younger self on this point, but Coetzee never says anything like "what a fool I was" or "I already knew that." He establishes distance from his younger self by writing about himself in the third person and the present tense, but it is not always clear whether that distance is ironic or not. (See my thoughts on this in Boyhood from 2007 here.)

Finally, though, it is worth considering the truth of the claim that prose demands a specific setting while poetry does not. One should be more precise: novels demand a specific setting while lyric poems don't. Put that bluntly, it's surely not true (Kafka, anyone?), but as a rule of thumb it seems accurate to me: lyric poetry can be very unspecific about setting in a way that most novels could never get away with being.


Joseph Hutchison said...

There's probably a corollary to this idea. Fiction involves actions, and actions take place in a defined space. Doesn't matter if the space is "real" (London, South Africa) or "imaginary" (a faceless bureaucratic building, outer space). The writer must define the space, at least minimally. Lyric poetry doesn't necessarily require a space; it doesn't necessarily even require actions. Maybe this is why there's no realist tradition in poetry such as there is in fiction. In fact, poetry exists in what we might call an imaginal (in Henry Corbin's sense) tradition. The actions required by realism (he sat down, he picked up a fork, he ate) and the bric-a-brac of scenic detail aren't imaginal requirements and so poetry can get along fine without them, as any number of Shakespeare's sonnets or Ashbery's wandering meditations show.

Donald Brown said...

I'm not sure I fully agree, but I do see the truth in the statement; in fact, it captures something that I would never have stated quite so baldly in my own youth, but which I implicitly understood. I wrote lyric poems because they did not have to be set in a specific place, and any of the specific places I knew I had no wish to write about or depict. And lots of fiction bored me for that reason: it all seemed so unimaginatively local and literal.

Andrew Shields said...

Joseph, your comment reminds me of Christian Wiman's review of Glyn Maxwell's verse novel "The Sugar Mile": it was precisely the "space-and-time-defining" stuff in the verse novel that irritated CW.

Don, doesn't your novel take place in specific places you once had no wish to write about?

Donald Brown said...

Sure does. It was a 'long, strange trip' to get to that point, believe me.