Anything goes when it comes to prose, but...
October 13, 2011 8:23 AM   Subscribe

What books/authors can you recommend where there is poetry in the prose?

I may be phrasing this too vaguely, but what I am looking for are authors like Denis Johnson (who began his career as a poet then began writing short stories then novels) and Cormac McCarthy where almost any passage can be read as poetry.
posted by holdkris99 to Media & Arts (53 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Billiken at 8:26 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Michael Ondaatje.
Anne Michaels.
posted by miles1972 at 8:27 AM on October 13, 2011

Thomas Pynchon. The prose is often interrupted by song lyrics, but I wouldn't call those poetic. However, there are many passages with very long poetic sentences.
posted by beagle at 8:29 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (who was a poet) is written in a really highly-stylized kind of prose that might be along the lines of what you're looking for.
posted by Paquda at 8:29 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

John Crowley
posted by shesbookish at 8:33 AM on October 13, 2011

Nabakov, especially Pale Fire. Virginia Woolf does this for me as well.
posted by katie at 8:35 AM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Saramago's Blindness.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 8:35 AM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

House of Leaves might be seen in this way.
posted by Windigo at 8:38 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Vladimir Nabokov.
posted by Diablevert at 8:41 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Jonathan Lethem, at least in Fortress of Solitude.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:46 AM on October 13, 2011

Seconding the Alexandria Quartet.

Also, Diane Ackerman's Natural History of the Senses.
posted by vacapinta at 8:52 AM on October 13, 2011

Alvaro Mutis - The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
Mutis is a Columbian poet who started writing novellas later in his career. Maqroll is a collection of these.
posted by incandissonance at 8:53 AM on October 13, 2011

Ohhh, have you read Just Kids by Patti Smith yet? Gorgeous.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:08 AM on October 13, 2011

"Name of the Wind" by Pat Rothfuss to a great extent, although I feel it was lost for the second book of the series.
posted by Angulimala at 9:12 AM on October 13, 2011

Great question! I want to check out the suggestions of others myself.

I think a good example of this is the English novelist Henry Green. Read his book, Loving. It's wonderful. Dream-like. He's philosophically somewhat opposed to the idea of character -- that people are truly individual, unique, and so forth. But surprisingly for a hardcore aesthete, the book is very plot-y.

The book is strange but very beautiful. I highly recommend you give him a try. John Updike called him a "saint of the mundane" in that if you want to immerse yourself in rich, poetic descriptions of everyday experience, he's the writer for you.

You might also like some of the novels of Samuel Beckett. I can only take his fiction in small doses, but you might like it.

William Carlos Williams wrote novels, too, and they definitely read like his poetic principles -- which I find a bit weird and hard to get into myself -- were applied to a prose sentences.

WG Sebald is another very poetic novelist, I think, whose process produces strange, but very readable, kind of mesmerizing stories.

All of the book tend a little toward the difficult/tedious in places, for sure. For a more fun example, I would recommend Haruki Murakami. Especially the Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World.
posted by Philemon at 9:12 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Loren Eiseley - The Star Thrower.
posted by datarose at 9:15 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry for the typos above. But this gives me a chance to second Michael Ondaatje. And I wanted to mention Virginia Woolf too.
posted by Philemon at 9:15 AM on October 13, 2011

Awesome question. First of all James Salter has the most beautiful style of prose I've ever read. It's lyrical and just plain gorgeous. I would suggest Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime.

Secondly - Richard Llewellyn in How Green Was My Valley - gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.

Thirdly - Marilynne Robinson in pretty much everything she writes. Gilead was mind-blowing.

And lastly and maybe surprisingly - John Williams in Stoner. What a fantastically poetic book that was.

Again - great question! I'm bookmarking it to see what else everyone says.
posted by AngryLlama at 9:18 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Ohhh, have you read Just Kids by Patti Smith yet? Gorgeous

As a matter of fact, I have and you are right! It's brilliant and definitely very poetic
posted by holdkris99 at 9:25 AM on October 13, 2011

Response by poster: One other I can suggest to people is Mark Helperin, particularly Memoirs from Antproof Case which contains the following passage which I consider my favorite passage of the sort (plus it's one of the best descriptions of the male obsession with and need to masturbate/have sex):

"Struggle starts at the beginning and before, and at rest the life in a man is like the cocked spring of a lizard's tongue, waiting unsprung for a fly to come. Even as you are still, the tanks fill up, detonations accumulate, schemes pile on, and dance halls are opened within the brain. Even priests, who attempt to be tame, are propelled by the very same force into rarefied precincts no less ecstatic than those they foreswear."
posted by holdkris99 at 9:37 AM on October 13, 2011

Nabokov: YES YES YES. Master of writing a sentence so beautiful, I want to print it out and frame it. Oh, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez!
posted by smirkette at 9:42 AM on October 13, 2011

Some that haven't been mentioned so far: Peter Matthiessen, Aidan Higgins, C by Tom McCarthy, all of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Faulkner. TS Eliot would read aloud passages from Kipling's Kim just for the sound of the language.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 9:46 AM on October 13, 2011

The Tale of Genji
A story passed down from 11th century Japan about a prince who becomes a commoner in order to avoid political attacks and....that's as far as I've read so far. I read very, very quickly, but I love going over each line slowly, as well as lingering over the footnotes. The link shows the version I have.
posted by DisreputableDog at 9:55 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Richard Powers has a quality of wordplay in his novels that might count. I particularly liked Prisoner's Dilemma and Galatea 2.2.
posted by gauche at 9:56 AM on October 13, 2011

The classic example of this is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the year after the novel's publication. The poetry in the book is also good enough to have been published separately.
posted by alms at 10:22 AM on October 13, 2011

I came here to recommend Tolkien, as well, but since someone else beat me to it... perhapsPossession, by A.S. Byatt. I'm not sure it's quite what you're looking for, and personally I think that its prose is quite a bit better than its poetry, but perhaps you'll enjoy both.
posted by divisjm at 10:23 AM on October 13, 2011

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Sections of the book feel like a long form, free flowing poem.
posted by glaucon at 10:24 AM on October 13, 2011

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse. It's written in free verse.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:30 AM on October 13, 2011

This might be cheating but if you're looking for poetic language in more novelistic works, why not novels in verse? Some favorites of mine are Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, the Illusionists by John Fuller, and Eugene Onegin.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 10:38 AM on October 13, 2011

Wonderful suggestions here!
To them add Jim Harrison, a terrific poet as well as novelist.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:39 AM on October 13, 2011

Lydia Davis.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:53 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've only read Lush Life but there's a lot of the poetry of human voices in Richard Price -- skip to the 22nd minute of this interview for an example. Also Sir Thomas Browne.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 11:30 AM on October 13, 2011

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 12:25 PM on October 13, 2011

Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness.

Actually, the first thing that came to mind was Forgetfulness by Michael Mejia. It's a fictional retelling of the life of Anton Webern, so it's pretty niche-y, but it's just fabulously well-written.
posted by sleepingcbw at 12:25 PM on October 13, 2011

I always answer the many variations on this question in the same way: Mervyn Peake - The Gormenghast Trilogy.
posted by Decani at 1:47 PM on October 13, 2011

Amy Hempel
posted by buriedpaul at 2:15 PM on October 13, 2011

Less highbrow, YA, (and not sure if this suits your purpose, but poetic nonetheless):
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (there are several Weetzie Bat books).
posted by Glinn at 2:18 PM on October 13, 2011

Response by poster: Ah Yes, Weetzie Bat is an all time favorite.
posted by holdkris99 at 2:22 PM on October 13, 2011

Samuel Delany. All of his novels are lovely but I think Dhalgren is especially poetic.
posted by Fiorentina97 at 3:14 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ray Bradbury
Harlan Ellison
James Joyce
Gene Wolfe
Micheal Moorcock
Nelson Algren
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:06 PM on October 13, 2011

Anything by Jerry Spinelli. Stargirl is a favorite. (But yes, YA. Still poetic.)
posted by eleanna at 4:09 PM on October 13, 2011

Cordwainer Smith, the science fiction writer. Look for a collection of his short stories. His Drunkboat was my path to Rimbaud.
posted by y2karl at 4:18 PM on October 13, 2011

Erica Jong, Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath have all published both fiction and poetry.
posted by brujita at 4:19 PM on October 13, 2011

If you want to listen to poetic prose, go to the Caedmon Dylan Thomas collection.

Thomas was a magnificent reader, and the set includes two virtuosic prose pieces, "A Few Words of a Kind" and "A Visit to America." As you listen to them, one phrase after another goes deep into your memory. They're also very funny.

Amazon has an audio download of A Visit to Ameica, but I recommend getting the whole set.
posted by KRS at 7:38 PM on October 13, 2011

If you're looking for Tolkein-esque poetry, but not quite so "let me write 2 pages on the light through the trees", try Guy Gavriel Kay. Also, his fantasy mostly falls on the historical side of fantasy, and less the elves and fae kind, though he does his share of that as well.
posted by booksherpa at 8:30 PM on October 13, 2011

Harry Martinson's Aniara is a 1956 Swedish epic poem in free verse about a broken spaceship on a trajectory into nowhere that's absolutely visionary and amazing — it won him the Nobel prize.

Basho (the haiku poet) did lovely travel journals which have quite poetic prose, and are also sprinkled heavily with scenic haiku.
posted by mbrock at 9:31 PM on October 13, 2011


Ivan Doig
posted by BlueHorse at 9:42 PM on October 13, 2011

Featured recently in the Blue: the inimitable Brian O'Nolan.
posted by trip and a half at 10:45 PM on October 13, 2011

Janice Galloway falls into this category for me. And Ulysses is a much easier read when you treat the text as oddly-formatted poetry rather than prose.
posted by mippy at 8:53 AM on October 14, 2011

Book of Promethea by Helene Cixous
The Obscene Bird of Nigh by Jose Donoso
posted by LittleMy at 10:19 AM on October 14, 2011

Lord Dunsany, who was basically to Tolkien as Tolkien was to everyone else in fantasy, wrote some of the most beautiful and poetic prose I've ever read. Start with The King of Elfland's Daughter.
posted by Errant at 1:49 PM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

or Time And The Gods
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:28 PM on October 14, 2011

What about Melville's Moby Dick?
posted by costanza at 8:39 PM on October 15, 2011

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