There’s a popular assumption that when poets ‘grow up’ they’ll become novelists. It’s as if all ‘real’ writers are expected to produce a best seller. Yet for many poets, even if they do decide to launch into writing prose, finding a publisher for literary fiction is almost as hard as it is for poetry. Major houses want to sell, sell, sell. Feel the size, feel the weight. Never mind the quality. If you’re under 30, look like Keira Knightly and are a literary cross between Caitlin Moran and Brett Easton Ellis, you’ll probably find a publisher; but for others of a more meditative tone it might be a longer haul. Agents and publishers tend to be suspicious of poets. Recently an agent at a literary lunch at Black’s in Soho said to me “your publisher was brave to take on a poet”. Poets may like to believe that poetry is the new rock 'n’ roll, but in the commercial market it still smacks of something elitist and arcane; after all Harry Potter outsells Seamus Heaney.
So why should a poet bother with prose when writing poetry is already hard enough? For at least if a poem fails you haven’t invested three years of your life on it. But such pragmatism belies the complex process of writing and the different impulses that lead on that forked path, through the wood of words, to the less travelled poetic road on the one hand, and to long winding road of literary fiction on the other. These processes, I’d suggest, are analogous to the differences between the sprinter and the long-distant runner (to use a current Olympian metaphor.) The focused concentration, the burst of intense emotion that is the initial catalyst to the honed poem is similar to the compressed energy required of the sprinter. Whereas the long distant runner is able to take an overview, has time to consider the landscape, to contemplate different views and unexpected perspectives along the way. What the novelist needs is not so much the short sharp surge of the sprinter, but the stamina, endurance and ability to keep the final goal in sight, even when initially it is not always clear what that goal may be.
Since I was a child, I’ve always written poetry. Somewhere I’ve still got my first poem; a piece written as homework when I was about eleven. Two melancholy four line stanzas on trees in winter. I remember being startled by what I had done, surprised that I had made such a thing. Poetry became a retreat, a safe and utterly private place in which to withdrew in order to make sense of and name an often complex, painful and baffling world. It was as if, as a child, all my pent up emotion could only be expressed through the medium of a poem. As the poet, novelist and critic John Berger has written: “Poems are born of a sense of helplessness – hence their force.” The impetus, I believe, to write a poem is primal. But for it to be any good it not only must contain the exact and only words that could have been chosen for that particular poem, but its spaces must resonate with all that cannot be overtly expressed. The poet may not even have understood what has been written. For writing a poem, as for the visual artist drawing from life, is a ‘process’, a ‘reaching towards’ something that is largely unknown. It’s an almost contemplative act, a state rather than a statement. What John Burnside once described in a letter to me “as a process of self-forgetting.”
For John Berger: “poems are helpless before the facts. Helpless but not without endurance, for everything resists them. They find names for the consequences, not for the decisions. Writing a poem you listen to everything save what is happening now.” A poem then, (a poem of integrity and not simply a piece of linguistic choreography) is an echo chamber. What happens in the interstices is as important as the actual choice of words. It is when we listen to the silences, the places in between, that meaning begins to reveal itself. It is hard, as the late critic Peter Levi wrote in The Noise Made by Poems, to ask what a poem is for:
“you can only ask what it does, what it is. Form is always particular….by the form of poems we mean the profoundest structural element.”
The poem also has an atavistic relationship to music. Poems grew from the Greek chorus, the songs of troubadours and minstrels, lullabies crooned to a fretful child. These metrical and syllabic rhythms lie, I believe, deep in the depths of our unconscious, and are akin to the sound of our blood pumping, to our beating hearts. But what of prose? E.M.Foster wrote in his introduction to Aspects of the Novel:
“…the novel is a formidable mass, and it is so amorphous – no mountain in it to climb, no Parnassus or Helicon…It is most distinctly one of the moister areas of literature…a swamp. I do not wonder that poets despise it, though they sometimes find themselves in it by accident.
And Virginia Woolf noted on Tuesday, May 11th 1920:
“It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in and the sense of an impending shape keeps one at it more than anything”.
When I once asked the poet and novelist Helen Dunmore what motivated her to choose either poetry or prose, she answered:
“It’s not entirely a matter of choice, perhaps. The novel chooses you, because it is the right container for what you want to write, just as the poem chooses to be written as a poem and nothing else. In the same way some stories can only be short stories, while others expand and become complex in a way which soon reveals that they are really novels. But the more I write, the less I believe in the writer as ringmaster, exercising and marshalling forces.”
For me, the desire to write a novel has been a long-standing obsession. As a child I dreamt of being Emily Bronte, (but that might have had something more to do with my fantasy of running off with Heathcliff than any literary ambition). Though as an adult I began to see that Virginia Woolf’s stoicism would probably prove to be nearer the point. I had over, a number of years gathered, a mass of material. (Some turned out to be useful, much more to be useless). Starting my first novel, Depth of Field, I felt like the puppy in the Andrex loo-paper ad, unable to extract myself from the sheer mass of words and find a form. It became a private wager to see if I had the stamina to shape it all into something, the strength of mind to keep on going. I dreaded being one of those people who claimed that one day I’d ‘like to write a novel’. It was not quite do or die, but it was do or shut up. But to write a novel is not only an enormous undertaking in terms of time and commitment but also an embarkation on a journey, particularly for a poet, into another country. I found there different customs, flavours, traditions. I wanted to write about how we construct memory and notions of the self. History and the past are subjects that seem to lend themselves to the discursive linear text of prose. Ruptures and hiatus can be created. Counterpointed voices and points of view juxtaposed one against the other. For as Walter Benjamin wrote in Illuminations: “History is the object of a construct whose site is not homogenous.”
I began to walk around the streets of Whitechapel where part of Depth of Field is set. I had become preoccupied with searching out my lost Jewish roots. For mine was a Home Counties childhood of pony club gymkhanas rather than Saturday schul in Golder’s Green. I went to the British Library to do research. This was to be the long haul. But I also had to find a form. Having read my Barthes during my MA at the University of East Anglia, I knew that to begin a novel unaware of post-structural trends would simply be naive. But in that case, where to start? I finally alighted, well into the book, on a structure that moved backwards and forwards between past and present. The protagonist, Hannah, is a photographer. It was she who gave me the idea. Instead of chapters the book is arranged under the headings of the photographic process from Setting the Focus though Exposure and Changing the Aperture. Slowly these phrases took on a metaphorical quality, illuminating the central character’s struggle for autonomy. The ‘eye’ of the camera and the ‘I’ of the central character began to merge, to become both the aperture and the vehicle through which I could describe this particular world. It seemed as though I, too, was following a similar process – from the murk, as it were, of the developing tray, to the crisp focus of The Final Print. It felt as though I had set out on a long voyage with neither compass nor map. Slowly I began to integrate something of a poetic sensibility into a linear prose narrative. It was a lengthy process of self-discovery.
I soon realised that prose requires not only a different form to poetry but also a different aesthetic and philosophical perspective. I found the reliance on the image didn’t work the same way in prose. Closer to actual speech, phrases that appear to strive too officiously for originality seemed to be in danger of looking as purple as Barbara Cartland’s favourite hat. Yet I did not want to jettison all that I valued about the language of poetry. This meant attuning my ear to new rhythms. Without a blueprint it was simply a question of trial and error. Perhaps being a journalist helped. For like good poetry there is something about the exactness of good prose that, for the reader, is like falling in love at first sight. The opening lines of a book such as Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces, Cormac McCarthey’s All the Pretty Horses, or Margaret Atwood’s Cats Eye grab the reader by the throat. Within a few words one is drawn in and it is clear that here is a writer in control of tone, line, voice, point of view as well as the power of visual imagery. To quote Woolf again:
“The test of a book (to a writer) is if it makes a space in which quite naturally, you can say what you want to say. As this morning I could say what Rhoda said. This proves that the book itself is alive: because it has not crushed the thing I wanted to say, but allowed me to slip it in, without any compression or alteration.”
And my new novel, Girl in White? Well the genesis for that was a trip many years ago to do a reading of my first poetry collection, Everything Begins with the Skin, in Bremen. There I discovered the work of the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. I knew of her vaguely in my role as an art critic. There is a wonderful self-portrait in the Courtauld Institute and, although rather forgotten in this country, she made a number of appearances in seminal feminist texts on art in the 70s such as Griselda Pollock’s Old Mistresses. Although I wrote a book of short stories, Rothko’s Red (Salt) before I got round to Girl in White, the idea for the novel slowly insinuated its way into my brain. What appealed was that the events of Paula’s life provided a narrative arc (something that is often hard for the poet who prefers minutiae and the moment) and a story that echoed many of my own concerns.
As I don’t read German it took a long time to do the research and track down the necessary material. But I was not writing a biography but a novel and, again, needed to find a form. In the end I framed Paula’s story with that of her daughter’s. In my novel Mathilde is purely fictitious, a voice to investigate her mother’s life, as well as a presence who attempts to make sense of the fatal shift that took place within German culture. When the book begins it is 1933. Mathilde, a young musician, finding herself pregnant by her Jewish violinist lover, flees the disruptions in Berlin to return to the remote village where her mother died only days after her birth. It is here that she begins to unravel the story of her mother’s life in Worpswede among a community of artists living on the wild north German moors. There, Paula witnessed the downtrodden lives of peasants, married the older painter Otto Modersohn - a marriage that soon became an emotional and creative prison - and met the young poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a complex and intense relationship. Caught between a desire to embrace the new movements in art and the obligations of marriage, she left Otto to pursue her career in Paris with no means of obvious support. Through Mathilde we see Paula's struggle to achieve independence and recognition as an artist, as well as fulfilment as a woman.
Paula Modersohn Becker was a painter ahead of her time, deserving of a place alongside the likes of Gwen John and Frida Kahlo. In writing her story I hope that I’ve managed to show her vibrant personality and bring attention to the legacy of the powerful paintings she left behind after her early death at 32. But most of all this book is a meditation on loss and love, ambition and compromise, longing and desire; one that I hope will touch people and resonate with their own with lives and struggles.
Writing a novel is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s not that it is better or worse than writing poetry, but different and often despairingly painful. And just because I’ve managed to do it a couple of times doesn’t make the next time any less daunting. Yet the continuing challenge beckons both terrifying and seductive. For as Walter Benjamin sagely wrote in his essay The Storyteller: “In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of living.” Perhaps in this age of ‘the expert’ it would be more judicious to try and master only one form rather than attempt to be poet, fiction writer and art critic. But, like John Berger, I also believe that poems are ‘born out of a sense of helplessness’ and that prose allows for different explorations, while like Helen Dunmore, I’m not sure anyway, that it is really a matter of choice. So I expect I shall go on attempting to do it all.
© Sue Hubbard 2012
"Girl in White is a triumph of literary and artistic understanding, a tour du force: Masterly, moving and beautifully written. Hubbard goes where few dare go, and succeeds. You are the less for not reading it."
-- Fay Weldon
"Imagine a chest of drawers - unopened for a hundred years... A woman opens the drawers, unfolds what she finds and, as she does so, the garments become stories... of some exceptional, lonely paintings, which had a considerable influence on “modern” German art... those intimate folds become interstices of History... I recommend this haunting book..."
-- John Berger
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. She has published three books of poetry, a collection of short stories, Rothko’s Red, (Salt), a novel, Depth of Field, (Dewi Lewis) and a book of art essays, Adventures in Art (Other Criteria). Sue has written regularly for The Independent,The New Statesman and many of art magazines. She was awarded a major Arts Council Award to support the writing of Girl in White. Her new poetry collection: 'the remembering and forgetting of air' is due from Salt next year. You can find out more about Sue and her work at www.suehubbard.com.
(An abbreviated version of this essay was originally published in Poetry London.)
'Girl In White' can be ordered from: www.inpressbooks.co.uk/girl-in-white/
'Depth of Field' can be ordered from: Amazon and www.dewilewispublishing.com/
'Rothko’s Red' (short stories) and 'Ghost Station' (poetry) are available from: www.saltpublishing.com.
For review copies of 'Girl in White' and high resolution images contact firstname.lastname@example.org; to arrange interviews author contact email@example.com. Sue Hubbard is represented by The Zeno Agency.