What poetry can bring to prose


19 January 2024
Novelist Diana Janney explains why she includes poetry in her fiction and what makes poetry in fiction enjoyable to readers

Why combine poetry and fiction? What is it about interlacing my poetry into my latest novel A Man of Understanding, that has led both those who enjoy poetry and those who haven’t enjoyed it before to appreciate it? How does the novel add to the enjoyment of the poems? To answer these questions, we need first to remind ourselves of the purpose and motivation of writing poetry.

Poetry, like fiction, is a piece of imaginative writing. It can be motivated by a desire to express solely for ourselves our thoughts and contemplations, or it can be an artform that we wish to share with others. It is often at times of suffering, loss, grief, that we turn to poetry for expression. We become more creative. We abandon the more trivial aspects of life in favour of what really matters. We reflect. We seek to make sense of it all. We read thought-provoking books, we write poetry, we look for a spiritual outlet for our suffering. We may use poetry as a way of communicating the love we have for those we have lost. We seek to define what we’re going through, give it meaning.  

In A Man of Understanding, the poetry is at times a solitary reflection by a character, and at other times, a creative expression that is shared. One of the main characters, poet-philosopher Horatio Hennessy, named after the famous Roman poet Horace, seeks through poetry to break down the barriers to communication of emotion that exist between himself and his recently orphaned grandson Blue. It is through poetry that they both come to express those emotions and feelings that they have been hiding from each other and from themselves. Through reading the poems of Horatio and Blue - about twenty poems woven into the story - several of the characters gain a deeper understanding of these two, both of whom have suffered loss in different ways.  And when they create their first poem together, Blue can ask Horatio questions that he has been burning, but afraid, to ask about a grandfather whom, mysteriously, he’s never met, but with whom suddenly he is to share his life in a Finca in the mountains of Mallorca. The poetry adds another dimension to the plot and the characters.

Poetry gives a glimpse into the soul of the poet. We discover, as Horatio describes it, ‘what moves the soul’ such that the poem leaves an indescribable ‘aftertaste’ that lingers once we have left it. Similarly with other artforms – fiction, music, dance, painting, nature – that Horatio and Blue experience together in Mallorca and the South of France. Like savouring ingredients – herbs, spices, intense reductions – which we learn to recognise in fine food, Horatio teaches Blue how to appreciate good poetry, good fiction, beautiful music, great paintings. Like the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, Horatio believes that learning to recognise and appreciate good food is the start of the aesthetic journey. There is a similar intensity, reduction, immediacy, in the words of good poetry, as there is in the words of good fiction. There is a fundamental connection between different artforms such as poetry and fiction, and by juxtaposing them, these similarities are brought out.

However, the meaning of poetry can occasionally seem obscure and inaccessible. The reader wants to grasp its meaning, to understand what the poet is trying to convey, but doesn’t always know much or anything about the poet’s life, experiences, character. And this is where poetry in a novel is more accessible and can add another dimension to the poems.

Before reading the poetry in my novel, readers have already come to understand, connect with, the spirit of the character and experiences of Horatio and Blue, and through reading their poetry they reach a new level of understanding of these poets. And when Horatio and Blue create their first poem together, alternating line by line, readers recognise the motivation behind each line. Readers live their experiences with them, they want to know more about them, just as the characters want to know more about each other. The reader sees the raw emotion of the characters through their painful and joyous experiences. Horatio and Blue let readers into their secrets, fears, loss, suffering, guilt, hope. The poem is understood in the context of what we know through the novel about Horatio the man, the soldier, the philosopher, the father, the grandfather, the husband, the wit, the traveller, the clergyman, the atheist, the aesthete, as well as Horatio the published poet.

My aim in writing fiction is to create a story that is poetic in itself. The novel nourishes the imagination. Poetry within the novel ignites it.

A Man of Understanding by Diana Janney (COGITO, £8.99 Paperback) was the Runner Up Fiction Category in the People’s Book Prize 2023

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Read more on the contrasting experience of writing poetry and prose from Irish writer Susannah Dickey.