I wrote a novel once, back in 2009, when I lived in Mantova in Northern Italy. I had to do it to find out if i could write them, if i was a novelist as well as a poet. It took 9 months, maybe ten months, solid writing, maybe 20 hrs a week on avg. Time I will never get back.
But it was worth it. I am not a novelist. I have no talent for, or interest in, developing character & plot. All the best bits in the novel were poetry bits. I sent it to ‘Ireland’s leading literary agent’, traipsed through snow & ice after paying for a mid-winter flight to go and see him, dreaming i was on my way to being a novelist and maybe even making a few bob out of the writing at long last. He pushed the manuscript across his mahogany desktop and said ‘What in the name of sweet Jesus is this’? 😂😂😂 And that was what every agent who was compassionate enough to reply to me said. What they meant was, this ‘novel’ is unsellable & so no-one will publish it. Fair enough – I have no beef with that – agents have to earn a living same as us all.
I have never had the slightest notion of writing a novel since, and that has been a most wonderful relief.
Lots of people get the notion of writing a novel. Most of the time it stays a notion. When you’re a poet like I am you feel a bit under pressure to try writing a novel, especially when you’re starting out. There’s an idea that starting out writing poems is just a way of warming up to write a novel. That the novel is the grown-up form, the one for writers who want to be taken seriously, to live in the real world. There’s the dream, again something the neophyte is more susceptible too, of achieving a bit of fame and, one I hear a lot, of signing a film deal and suddenly being able to afford a house in Dalkey – maybe even end up on Oprah Winfrey discussing your childhood! – no such rewards offered by poetry.
Underlying all this is the commercial ideology of our era – the only worth something has is the profit that can be made from it. By this ratio, poetry is worthless. People will pay for the novel, but they won’t pay for poetry, so poetry is worthless, so get a real job poet!
In truth it is entirely appropriate that people consider poetry a free gift provided alongside human existence – poetry is the effusion of the human spirit, the human passions, the human imagination. It is the sustenance in our oppression and our consolation for being born into a world where the beautiful must die.
People don’t pay for poetry in the same way they won’t pay to go to church in the hour of their grief, or to visit the grave of a loved one, or to embrace a cherished friend of one’s youth not seen for many years, or to laugh when they are happy, or cry when they are sad, or to suck air, or to drink from the river – they same way they won’t pay or they resist paying for any aspect of their own nature.
Poetry is co-natal with & irrevocably intertwined with humanity. It was born with us & it will die with us. Poetry sang us into being at the beginning and poetry will chant us out the gateway at the end. It is not a creature of commerce and the machine, but of our species-being. It is not dependent on the commercial machine and it will not die out when the commercial machine collapses – in fact poetry may come into its own & once again take its place as the central literary art in this era of systemic breakdown. After all, It requires only humans to exist.
So you can appreciate it when I say I’m not too bothered about not making it as a literary novelist, though I am in awe of those who do – it is hard work – give me a building site anyday of the week, believe me.
As it happens my efforts as a builder, the job most of the male members of my extended family do, were like my efforts as a novelist – you might scratch your head and wonder ‘What in sweet Jesus’s name is that?’ when confronted with the kind of ‘house’ i might build if left to my own devices – but you sure as hell wouldn’t live in it 😂
My failure as a novelist was a necessary step on the way to discovering and evolving into my own true nature as an artist, and in understanding at a deeper level the true nature of my art. For this reason I recommend any young poets who have an itch to write a novel should go ahead and do it, if only to get that itch scratched and forgotten about, as I did.
Or maybe even even end up succeeding where I failed. You won’t know til you find out!