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Steve Sneyd: Photograph copyright   Gerald England, 2001

A talk by Steve Sneyd at the Purple Patch Poetry Convention in the Barlow Theatre, West Midlands. June 15th-17th, 2001.

Why include poems within novels? What are they doing there, and how do they affect our reading of the novel - and the poem itself?

Steve Sneyd discussed these and other aspects of this little noticed phenomenon in a half-hour talk in the Theatre on Saturday afternoon to around twenty Conventioneers.

He introduced the topic by talking briefly about the areas he planned to cover, and mentioning some of the key examples he would cite.

The main body of the talk began with a short look at some historical background covering ways in which earlier cultures and forms of writing had combined prose and verse.

Sneyd then talked about personal, as distinct from structural, reasons, which could be influencing contemporary fiction writers who include poems within their novels, among them the opportunity it offered to put their own poetry before a wider, different readership.

He then discussed a variety of different functions poems could serve within novels. These ranged from the ornamental, basically present as in effect extended epigraphs, or those "giving characters something to quote when words failed them" at one extreme, to books where the poems included serve essential roles in illuminating character or driving plot.

These various possible functions were illustrated with examples, chosen almost exclusively from cases where the novel's author was also the poems' writer, even if they were, in the story context, presented anonymously or ascribed to characters within the narrative. Many, although not all, the indicative examples chosen came from genre novels, particularly science fiction ones, where, the speaker noted, the practice of including poems is relatively frequent.

In the process Sneyd also talked about the actual forms taken by such included poems, including pastiche, parody, and presentational variants, like concealment by setting as, and within, prose, denoting the poems as rock/song lyrics, and using concrete poem layout to express character disturbance.

The lights in the theatre, incidentally, throughout the talk exhibited a habit of dimming intermittently; some mischievous sentience seemed at work, since the dimness nadir seemed to be reached every time the speaker started to read a poem quote from one of the novels discussed!

After looking in such depth as remaining time allowed at the use of poetry within two novels in particular, Brian Aldiss' psychedelic novel 'BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD' of the late 60s, and A.S.Byatt's 'POSSESSION' of the 90s, Sneyd then made a few final summarising remarks before a brief but lively question and answer cum discussion with the audience.

Looking at particular aspects of the talk in more detail, introductory remarks included the point that the talk was not to be about the very different phenomena of the verse novel, of the novel that bases its plot on that of a classic poem like BEOWULF or the KALEVALA, or that of prose-poetry except in passing the purpose here was to look at inclusion of actual poems, or parts of them, within prose novels.

Sneyd talked about how an association of poems and prose had very ancient origins, instancing verse inclusions, as embellishments, or encapsulating high emotion, passion, elegy, grief, the ritual/sacred, etc, in early Welsh and Irish oral narrative, adding, as an aside, that when such came to be written down, the fact scribes often clearly felt the poetry but not the prose was worthy of recording helps explain the baffling quality, to us, of much such verse; we have lost the prose context identifying people and events alluded to without explanation in the verse element. The way European folktales often take the form of chantefable, a mix of verse and prose, and an Oriental instance, the Japanese haibun, again embedding verses in prose, were also mentioned.

He pointed out that this association with the original, "mainstream", storytelling tradition helps explain why the inclusion of poetry within narrative fiction has continued with books aimed at children giving as a contemporary instance the verses in the HARRY POTTER books and by association within books that have an overlapping child and adult readership, contents being open to multiple layers of interpretation, like Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS, or earlier Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND and Kipling's PUCK OF POOK'S HILL.

The link with an earlier narrative "mainstream" may also help explain the fact that inclusion of poetry within novels is commoner in science fiction (SF) and fantasy genre novels, and that the writer's connections with SF explain some cases of appearances in "mainstream" novels, citing the fact that the long scene-setting poem in D.M.Thomas' 1981 WHITE HOTEL first appeared much earlier in the science fiction magazine New Worlds.

Sneyd's discussion of functions poems could serve within novels began by referring back to the suggested categories in a 1977 article by American writer Robert Frazier, the only one to the speaker's knowledge, hitherto looking at the phenomenon of poems in novels in any depth. After summarising the definitions of four categories for poem usage in novels - Attachment, Enhancement, Supplement, Content - given in the article, "POETRY IN THE MAJOR S.F. NOVEL", in the American magazine Speculative Poetry Review # 2 - Sneyd then indicated how he intended to develop and add to these, in particular by examining the ways poems functioned, and served different purposes, within a variety of novels.

He first pointed out that, in choosing examples, he had concentrated on ones where the author of the novel was also the writer of the poems included, rather than borrowing from elsewhere, the only exception to be mentioned being Samuel Delaney's 'BABEL 17', where the poems extracted were by his then wife, Marilyn Hacker. He noted, however, that normally, even when the poems are by the novel's author, within the story setting they are usually presented either as anonymous - material traditional to a society pictured in the novel, folk, for example - material of unknown authorship, or ascribed to a character or characters within the narrated context and setting.

As to motives which led contemporary novelists to include poems in this way, as well as the practical reasons to be looked at, motivations could involve the author being someone constrained by literary market economics to write prose but at heart a frustrated poet, a desire to find a wider, and different, audience for his or her own poetry, even an urge to "spread enlightenment" and to "trojan horse" a non-poetry readership into reading some poetry, a feeling perhaps that the presence of poetry would make the book seem more serious and worthy of critical attention, and even as a means to express ideas or emotions perhaps difficult for the writer concerned to give free rein to in prose.

The functions the poetry could be serving within the novel would be looked at in terms, in the main, of what practical purposes they could be intended to serve from the author's point of view.

Attachment, to use Frazier's first term, would include presence as, in effect, extended epigraph, short poems as chaper headings, and so on, merely ornamental, or just generally lending an air of seriousness and "higher purpose", or to contrastingly bring light relief lest a novel seem to become over-serious, as in the humorous songs the characters in Brian Aldiss' 'THE EIGHTY MINUTE HOUR' burst into on occasion, as if finding themselves suddenly in a Broadway musical; it would also include use to achieve such incidental benefits as visual variety, giving the reader "eye relief" by breaking up solid blocks of prose, and so on. American critic Scott Green also light-heartedly noted, in discussing the presence of poetry within the fantasy novels of Lin Carter, a further variety of such attachment, used more for the benefit of a stymied writer, than the reader - "poetry" is "in his novels, primarily to give his characters something to say when words fail them!"

Frazier's second category, enhancement, would involve a stronger degree of "added value" as such, heightening and intensifying the overall mood the book as a whole is intended to induce, as in the satirical or ironic chapter introducing poems in three John Brunner SF novels, 'THE SHEEP LOOK UP','WEB OF EVERYWHERE',and 'THE INFINITIVE OF GO'. Into his third, supplement would come such areas as use of poems to frame the prose narrative and help enfold the reader in its world, for example setting the scene via a prologue in verse, as in the introductory "SPACE IS DARK" section, somewhere between poem and prose-poem - a text later adopted by the space rock band Hawkwind as a song lyric - of Michael Moorcock's 'THE DARK CORRIDOR' .Again, a verse epilogue can be used to control the reader's exit from the prose narrative, leaving him or her in the state of mind and with the final impression sought by the author.

As a generalisation, none of these first three categories are integral to the book, let alone self evidently necessary to its wholeness.

The most interesting - and diverse in its possibilities - category is that which Frazier called Content. Here is where the poems included perform functional roles, sometimes ones difficult, even perhaps impossible, to readily perform in other ways within the context of the particular book's narrative, so that they become not just integral, but essential to the book.

This direct involvement can take a variety of forms.

The poems can be used to give roundness and conviction to the portrait of a character, forming a key part of obtaining the reader's willing "suspension of disbelief."

For example, where the character is described as a poet, conviction can be added by providing examples of his/her work as in Anthony Burgess' 'ENDERBY' series, or in Thomas M. Disch' near-future SF novel of a poet, Louis Sacchetti, being subjected to dangerous medical experiments while a political prisoner, 'CAMP CONCENTRATION'. Likewise, the lyrics of a rock singer/songwriter can be included to give added reality to the portrayal.

Included poems can be used to convey character, and particularly inner thought, soliloquy as it were, or mental state, abiding or temporary. This can apply whether the character be presented as a poet, or at any rate someone who on occasion turns to expressing self through poetry, or as quoting or inwardly remembering the poetry of others to express feeling or respond to situations and events. It can even include the situation where the presentation of thoughts as taking on poem form, without the character necessarily intending this, is used by the author to convey extreme disturbance, or at any rate disruption of usual personality or mode of thought ~ as an side, in SF this change to expression in poem form was noted as a shorthand way of conveying computer malfunction, or worrying development of humanlike consciousness and emotion!

In other words, poetry functions for the narrative as a representation of a kind of gateway to altered, other mental states - whether via a drug-saturated environment, as in the Aldiss novel 'BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD', which the speaker returned to later, or via emotional or other stress. This last was exemplified in instances, passed round the audience, of the use of concrete poems to convey the thought-screams of a central character undergoing in the novel a disastrous space voyage, 'BLACK CORRIDOR', mentioned earlier.

The poetry can be used to heighten and focus atmosphere in a way much more integral than in the earlier categories, since in this case it is functioning to express, and change the mood of characters, rather than just readers external to the narrative.

It can function to multiply the ways in which characters or events within the narrative can be seen, to give alternative takes as it were, a point about additional dimensions Sneyd returned to later when discussing 'BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD.'

Perhaps poetry becomes most totally integral to prose narrative when it becomes what Sneyd described as the McGuffin of the plot. A term of film director Alfred Hitchcock', this is the actual prime mover which gets the story moving, that which the characters seek, the mystery they need to unravel, the engine-cum-wheels of the narration.

Examples cited included the Robert Robinson detective novel 'LANDSCAPE WITH DONS', where the discovery of a lost Chaucer poem, later proved to be a modern fake, triggers the events of the story, and where the forgery finally proves to contain an acrostic clue to the identity of the killer, and, a much more subtle example, Samuel Delaney's 'BALLAD OF BETA-2', in which a folk song ascribed to stranded space colonists leads, through an anthropology student's step-by-step unravelling of the picture of actual past events hidden beneath its ostensible simplicity, to overarching insights into the capabilities, good and evil, of humanity.

Sneyd completed discussion of this functional usage with a particularly unusual example of poem as plot driver, Tim Power's 'ANUBIS GATES', a time-travel story in which a contemporary academic studying the works of Victorian poet William Ashbless travels back to his time, finds no trace of him, and, to prevent a breakdown of contemporary reality, is forced to "write" the Ashbless poems he knows from his studies - thus creating an elegant paradox as well as a narrative motor.

A short overview followed of the actual forms poems could take within a novel, including strict form, free verse, and more experimental forms like the concrete already mentioned, or variants to be described as the work of non-human poets, including mechanistic or number-heavy structures, ascribed by the story to computers. A little more was said about poems as ostensible rock lyrics, either ascribed to a musician or group within the narrative, as in Aldiss' 'BROTHERS OF THE HEAD' novel of a Siamese twin rock group or, as in the case of Moorcock's 'ENTROPY TANGO', used as inter-section links to give a "concept album" feel to that novel of the across-time working out of the Pierrot-Columbine-Harlequin triangle.

The question of purpose for using pastiche and parody as a stylistic device for poems within novels was looked at, with examples including John Brunner's "THE SHEEP LOOK UP", a near-future catastrophe novel: there the author begins each chapter with a parody of a poem style of a different earlier age, using these black humour pastiches to both satirise and focus the reader's mind on the historical patterns of human behaviour which have led to the ecological and social breakdown the story chronicles. Roger Zelazny, by contrast, took a respectful approach in his remintings of traditional religious poetry, including Navaho, Hindu, and the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton's "HYMN TO THE SUN", for use in extract form within such SF novels as 'EYE OF CAT' - attempts to recapture a mind-invading alien - and 'LORDS OF LIGHT' wherein future space colonists adopt the personas,and powers, of Indian deities.

In an intriguing development, Zelazny later separated the poems from the novels, for separate publication as a collection.

All these were situations where the poems are visibly such within the novel. The case was also mentioned of the ways in which the poems can remain hidden, either deliberately concealed by the author, as in James Branch Cabell's satirical fantasy 'FIGURES OF EARTH', where a dozen rhymed and metred poems are set as prose within the text, or cases where the writer is unconsciously drawn into the compression, clarity and imagery, not just of prose-poem, but of accidentally embedded "found" or at least "findable" poems.

This led the speaker into his discussion of BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD, Brian Aldiss' 1969 novel of a Europe in the aftermath of a war in which psychedelic drugs have been used as weapons, resulting in an environment so saturated that the population is continually "high". The novel, as well as the sections set out as poems, some third of its length, also contains in much of its prose, particularly where the viewpoint is from within characters, a stream of consciousness frequently prose-poem in nature.

Both in such prose, and in a number of the poems and texts ascribed as the lyrics of the stoned groups accompanying the novel's migration cum crusade of youth following the self-proclaimed Messiah Charteris, Aldiss aims to convey the psychedelic-saturated mental condition of the characters via Joyce-like wordplay, Carrollian word portmanteauing, etc; Sneyd quoted comments Aldiss himself had made about employing a brain research technique of the time, auditory de-stabilisation, to develop these wordplays. Aldiss had also noted, as a general point about the book's extensive inclusion of poetry, that the purpose it was intended to serve was similar to that of the multiple eyes and faces of Cubism, that is, to multiply the viewpoints the reader gets on the characters and provide additional dimensions casting added light upon the action of the story.

In the final instance of a novel employing poetry discussed, A.S.Byatt's 'POSSESSION', Sneyd first briefly indicated the way the novel operates on two timescales. In the present, it is a story of competing academics pursuing the documents of a suspected sexual relationship between two famous Victorian poets. In the time of the latter, it is an account of the slow development, and swift unravelling of that relationship. The poems exchanged by the two imaginary poets, and those published by them, each poet given an effectively individualised style by the author, and including lengthy extracts of an epic of the serpent-woman Melusine's tragedy "by" the female Victorian poet, serve a variety of functions in the novel; they are plot McGuffin, providers of ongoing clues to the contemporary investigation. At the same time, they illuminate the characters of the two poets, and the elements in their characters and situations which create and then destroy the relationship, in the process affecting both them and the content and nature of the poetic work they continue to produce, and additionally are effective in convincing the reader of their quality and interest as makers of genuine poems - a tour de force on Byatt's part.

'POSSESSION', the speaker concluded, thus serves effectively to encapsulate the purposes - and potentialities - of this hybrid form, that of poem-within-novel.


Read another poem by Steve Sneyd.

Read Steve Sneyd's article on The Number Of Language

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