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courtesy of Björn Sigurjónsson
Most readers feel comfortable distinguishing poetry from prose—we often unthinkingly accept that there is an essential difference between the two.
When I look at a sonnet, I know it’s a poem. When I look at Ulysses, I know it’s a novel. But if you asked me to defend those classifications, I would probably resort to citing popular conventions: Poetry has stanzas! Prose has no meter! Novels are prose! Poet and novelist Jesse Ball, who earned his MFA from Columbia, encourages readers to think critically about these questionable distinctions in The Way Through Doors, his second novel, published in February 2009 by Vintage Books.
The Way Through Doors begins when pamphleteer Selah Morse sees a young woman get hit by a taxicab. She is badly hurt, and has no identification on her. Selah brings her to the hospital, poses as her boyfriend, and receives bizarre instructions from her doctor: He must keep the young woman awake for 18 hours, telling her everything he can remember about her life, or the memory loss that she suffered from the accident will become permanent. Despite knowing nothing about the woman’s life, he keeps her awake by telling her stories, hoping that she will recognize bits of herself in his fictions.
At this point, the frame story melts away. Selah’s stories intertwine, characters within stories tell their own stories, and the role of narrator constantly shifts. The resulting web of fragmentary myths and fairy tales is the heart of Ball’s novel.
But to call The Way Through Doors a novel is really a contentious claim—from some angles the book looks more like a collection of thematically related poems. Ball even substitutes traditional pagination for a system of line numbering reminiscent of epic poetry (the book closes after “line” 1905). “A page in one of my novels could have been a poem,” he admits. “But I think the decision to write fiction is a good one at this point, because a lot of people are not interested in poetry, or they’re afraid of it, and yet that same person will take great pleasure in a novel.”
Are readers really afraid of poetry? Do we feel safer reading prose? Do we need to be tricked into reading poems? Novelists like John Grisham, James Patterson, and Danielle Steel consistently fill the New York Times Bestseller list, while poets almost never make the cut. This sad discrepancy in popularity could be due to a natural human obsession with predictability—mass-market fiction writers understand that most people love reliable formulas. In a mystery novel, predictability is guaranteed: you know the detective will solve the crime. Similarly predictable formulas are crucial in all popular media: a 30-minute sitcom will have several jokes before each commercial break, a three-minute pop song will have verses and choruses, and a two-hour blockbuster will adhere to the three-act structure. In each case, the consumer knows what to expect, which makes him feel safe.
But the rules for poetry are less clear-cut, which might explain why some readers fear or avoid the medium. Ball affirms that “a book of poems doesn’t have the narrative burden of a novel” because it doesn’t need a clear narrative arc or a central character. Lacking these conventions, poetry is never as predictable as mass-market fiction or Hollywood films. In fact, because the conventions of popular fiction, music, and film are so embedded in our culture, poetry, a lawless medium in comparison, can be terrifying.
So how should The Way Through Doors be approached? Should readers bring novelistic expectations along for the ride, or should they discard them at the door? The latter choice would be best, for Ball’s delightful and fascinating book strikes a powerful balance between the traditions of poetry and prose—demonstrating that a piece of writing doesn’t have to be branded as one or the other.
Readers like it when they can relate to a text. They often break a work’s obscurities apart by searching for the familiar, the understood. Yusef Komunyakaa, an American poet and professor, and Jesse Ball deliberately make this pursuit a challenge. The incorporation of memory in their work, an unreliable and hazy theme by nature, enhances the unpredictable patterns in their language.
Ball’s ambiguous narrative, which mingles poetry with prose, makes it harder for the reader to fully relate to his novel. To Ball, the confusion born from this style delivers realism, an opinion that Komunyakaa shares in his own poetry. As Komunyakaa claims, poetry “is a way of expanding and talking around an idea or question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault.”
Both authors channel this realism through their descriptions of memory. Komunyakaa’s “A Good Memory” describes memories that are not necessarily connected, but are placed together to emphasize their random, nonsensical pattern. Some of Komunyakaa’s titles, such as “Translating Footsteps” and “At the Screen Door,” express the same idea as Ball’s The Way Through Doors—that of moving in and out of spaces. Memory, like poetry, has no clear explanation or destination, but is what remains.
—Elisa de Souza
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