"Poetry in Fiction": A Range of Options

By Bauer, Matthias | Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate, May 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

"Poetry in Fiction": A Range of Options


Bauer, Matthias, Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate


"Poetry in Fiction," the title of a special section in this and the following issues of Connotations, is deliberately ambiguous.1 It may denote the fact that works of fiction occasionally include poems or that poems are referred to within the narrative, and it may mean that fiction can be or comprise poetry, that we may note and discover poetry in the fictional prose text. We may realize its "poeticity."2 Our suggestion is that these meanings of "Poetry in Fiction" belong together, even though they may not all be present in the same work. What I hope to do in these introductory remarks is to suggest some of the dimensions or perspectives in which this link can be seen but also to draw attention to some of the conceptual and terminological problems involved. We all know, more or less, what fiction is and what poetry is. But joining the terms makes us realize that we are by no means always sure what we are talking about.

The difficulties begin when we consider the kind of terms we are combining. In one perspective, they refer to genres. Analogous titles would thus be: drama in fiction; or: sonnets in tragedy. But it is hard to delimit these combinations to genre. Only think of: comedy in fiction-this will not only, or it will even only rarely, refer to actual comedies within fiction. "Comedy" in this context rather refers to what Alastair Fowler has called a "mode" (i.e. comprising a more limited set of representative features, such as a specific kind of denouement and anagnorisis; he gives the example of Emma being a "comic novel" and says that "modal terms tend to adjectival"; 106). "Poetry" (or rather "poetic") can be such a mode, too, even though there has been an ongoing debate about its constitutive elements. New genres can develop by the mixing of modes. Plato in the Politeia anticipates this when he speaks of "epic poetry" in which the mixing of mimesis and diegesis contributes to the epic mode being present in poetry (392D-394D). One of the early definitions of the novel also refers to such a mixture: When Henry Fielding describes Joseph Andrews as a "kind of Writing," which he does "not remember to have been hitherto attempted in our Language," he famously calls this novel, this new kind of writing, a "comic Epic-Poem in Prose" (49). If fiction is epic poetry in prose, however, the very notion of "poetry in fiction" will draw our attention to the fact that we are not only considering genres and modes but also the way in which something is written. "Poetry in fiction" may also mean "verse in prose." For even though "poetry" in this more general sense of a mode may be written in prose, we tend to think of poetry as something being written in verse.

The terminological confusion that may arise is a familiar one. Several contemporary writers about prose, such as Simon Goodhill in The Invention of Prose (on ancient Greece), and Wlad Godzich and Jeffrey Kittay in The Emergence of Prose (on medieval French literature), begin by citing the bourgeois in Molière's comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme. In this play, M. Jourdain hires a maitre de philosophie who is to instruct him in the art of writing a love letter to a lady of quality (2.4). The teacher asks him if he wants to write it in verse, which the bourgeois denies. But when he is asked if he wants it to be written in prose, he denies this too, which causes the teacher to explain to him that it must be either the one or the other: "Everything that is not prose is verse, and everything that is not verse is prose" (Godzich and Kittay ix). M. Jourdain is proud of having discovered the competence of speaking prose, an ability he never knew of, and goes on to impart his newly acquired knowledge to his wife. Unfortunately, however, in repeating his teacher's statement to her he somehow gets it wrong; what he says is: "Everything that is prose is not verse; and everything that is not verse is not prose" (x). Godzich and Kittay suspect Molière's bourgeois, while he is the butt of his author's ridicule, to have stated a deeper truth (cf. …

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