Poetry and Prose

I’ve started reading and writing prose again after ten years of mostly reading and writing poetry.  One big thing I’ve noticed, from a writing perspective, is that when I share my work with other people, they assume that my poetry is personal, written from my own experience, but they assume my prose is fictional.  It doesn’t seem to matter if I use first person or third person or any other person, if it’s a poem, it’s about me, if it’s prose, it’s something I’ve made up.

I *do* write a lot of personal poetry, I admit, but not always.  I’m not averse to rearranging the truth, if it makes for a better poem.  And in my prose writing, I often want to mine my own life for material. It’s rather liberating to know that however personal I am in prose, readers assume they’re reading fiction – not now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag, however!

I’m currently reading The Maples Stories by John Updike, 18 interlinked short stories which the author himself acknowledged to be largely autobiographical.  Richard and Joan Maples, characters in each of the stories, were based on Updike and his first wife, Mary E. Pennington.  Of course, I only know the fact of the autobiography in retrospect.  Perhaps when the stories were first published (from 1956 onward) they would have been presented as fiction.  Updike, or at least Richard Maples, is, rightly, criticised for being misogynistic .  Several sections in the early Maples stories (I’ve only read three, so far) took my breath away, and not in a good way.  Richard Maples frequently describes and denigrates Joan’s appearance in a deeply unpleasant and vicious manner:

“In the morning, to my relief, you are ugly. Monday’s wan breakfast light bleaches you blotchily, drains the goodness from your thickness, makes the bathrobe a limp stained tube flapping disconsolately, exposing sallow decolletage.” (from Wife-Wooing).


“Her hand, distinctly thirtyish, dry and green-veined and rasped by detergents, stubbed out her cigarette in the dashboard ashtray.” (Giving Blood).

However bad this lockdown is, I’m glad I’m not Joan Maples trapped in this marriage, nor as bitter as Richard is.

“His hope, of turning the truth into a joke, was rebuked.  Any implication of permission was blocked.  ‘It’s that smugness,’ he explained, speaking levelly, as if about a phenomenon of which they were both disinterested students. ‘It’s your smugness that is really intolerable.  Your knee-jerk liberalism I don’t mind.  Your sexlessness I’ve learned to live with…’ (Giving Blood).

Ouch and double ouch, even if I can’t help admire the elegant writing.

I like to think that the Maples stories are only loosely based on Updike’s life and I hope he was able to remain on speaking terms with the mother of his four children.  I’m reading Updike as research for my own stories that use personal history as their subject matter and they were also recommended by the wonderful writer Lorrie Moore in an interview I heard on radio.

This blog post was written in response the Discover Prompt ‘Pairs‘.  Poetry and Prose aren’t really a pair at all, are they?  Perhaps I should’ve written about what I saw when I looked up and what I saw when I looked down this morning in my garden – blossom on our pear tree and forget-me-nots growing along the garden path.

Or perhaps I should’ve written that it’s Maundy Thursday today, or Holy Thursday, the night when Catholics across the world will commemorate the Last Supper, the night before Jesus died, when he washed the feet of the Disciples to teach them about giving service to others.   I’ll light a candle and put it in the window as a sign of thank you to those who are giving service to others now, hospital staff, teachers and school staff, shop workers, refuse collectors, cleaners, carers.  I’m safe at home, they’re out on the frontline.  Perhaps that’s more of an opposite than a pair.  I hope you’re all safe.

8 thoughts on “Poetry and Prose”

  1. This ‘elegant’ writing and terrible subject matter is a very dangerous and tricky one: Lollita is the prime example. But you could call on Celine easily enough. No doubt there are too many examples to count. But the intent, I suppose, is the crucial factor: was it intended to be a challenge to the reader, and if so, why?
    I have not read much Updike, but have been impressed by his style. I suppose I just dismissed his obvious misog’sm as the product of his time. Which is in itself dangerous. Do we denounce these writers, then, for not transcending the mores of their time? Lollita, is another matter completely, I think.

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    1. Yes, it’s so interesting and terribly dangerous, as you say. In Updike’s defence, or Richard Maples defence, he acknowledges his failings and his wife’s astuteness about these failings, in the Maples stories – although no female character is ever fully written (not in any Updike I’ve read but I’m not an expert). I’m not an expert in Nabakov or Celine, either! I don’t want to dismiss a writer or any artist because of their terrible failings. I know that many people do. You suspect that Updike wouldn’t be published if he was writing today – but nor would he write the way he did, perhaps? I don’t know Michael! Can you think of any women artists who should now be on a banned list?

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  2. Yes I think that’s quite common, people assuming that poetry is about the writer/speaker, and prose not necessarily. I’ve had an unpleasant experience with a wider family member assuming that a poem I wrote using another (long deceased) family member’s name was non-fiction. Along the same lines it always puzzles me that poetry comes under non-fiction in the Dewey system.
    Coincidentally I’ve just had a long chat, in the sunshine, with a young man (who’s helping me with shopping at the moment) about ‘what is truth’, including ‘facts’. One upside of the current situation, a leisurely afternoon cuppa and chewing the fat!

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  3. I once read “Rabbit, Run” for a book club, and it’s considered one of Updike’s most famous works and an American classic. Being a fan of John Cheever, I thought I would enjoy it more than I actually did, but I ran into the same problem in that I found the writing to be misogynistic, and I also attributed it to the time that it was written. Thanks for the affirmation that I wasn’t being overly sensitive!

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    1. Yes, I’ve only read snippets of the Rabbit books (there’s a whole series of them) and I’ve heard them abridged on BBC R4 (brilliantly read by the British actor Toby Jones) and enjoyed some of what I’ve heard. I don’t think I could face reading a whole book of his but I actually love these short stories, at the same time acknowledging the misogyny. As Michael commented further up, it’s so tricky. I love John Cheever’s short stories, by the way and I believe Updike was also influenced by him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, Cheever and Updike were contemporaries, but I have enjoyed Cheever’s writings more as I see them as better satirical critiques of suburbia with less misogyny(?) I think Cheever (like an early Larry David) poked fun at the main characters so it came across as more humorous.

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