Top Poets’ Novels

Find here the secret dynamic of top flight fiction -- it’s poets wrote the best novels! Here are ten novels by poets that will zing any poet’s (or wannabe poet’s) heart, selected by Poetry Guide Bob Holman.

1
Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje
(Vintage Books, 1996) Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid stands as one of the great contemporary poem cycles (among outlaws, right up there with late lamented Ed Dorn’s seminal Slinger). Fame came via The English Patient, but for pure poetry read his extraordinary Coming through Slaughter, about Billy Boland and the invention of jazz -- this book sings...

2
Moon Palace, by Paul Auster

Moon Palace, by Paul Auster
(Viking Penguin, 1990) Paul Auster was a young poet as well -- his Random House Collection of 20th Century French Poetry is brilliant. (He is the sole U.S. citizen accepted into the Academie Francaise.) For a novel, we recommend Moon Palace, in which the poet protagonist is reduced to making furniture of his book collection... and then, selling the chairs off book by book for food.

3
Rule of the Bone, by Russell Banks

(HarperCollins, 1995) Also in this milieu is Russell Banks, whose early experimental fiction was published by Angel Hair (see the gorgeous Angel Hair Sleeps with a Boy in My Head: The Angel Hair Anthology, Granary Books, 2001) and whose Rule of the Bone is a Catcher in the Rye for the X (Y?) Generation.

4
Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, by Ishmael Reed

(Dalkey Archive, 2000) Originally published in 1977, it’s been reissued! Praise God who does not exist. His poetry lashes unleashings in the exquisite The Reed Reader (Basic Books, 2001). For your listening pleasure, see if you can come up with the hard-to-find Conjure (American Clave, 1985), the best staged poems ever to be musicalized ever. And do not forget Mumbo Jumbo (Scribner, 1996) -- it jes’ grew!

5
Dogeaters, by Jessica Hagedorn

(Viking Penguin, 1991) This is the root book, both for the poem-to-novel crossover (“The General’s Dream” chapter is completely unpunctuated) and for the flinging open of culture’s door from/to the Philippines. Hagedorn’s later novel about San Francisco in the 70s & the punk/poetry/performance scene at Mabuhay Gardens, Gangster of Love (Viking Penguin, 1997), is a little-known gem.

6
Push, by Sapphire

(Vintage, 1997) Following the daily life of 14-year-old Precious, pregnant with her second child, is by turns inspiring and horrifying, but ever powerful. Try the paperback -- Push underwent a major change between editions, making the already devastating tale into a masterpiece. After, you’ll need Sapphire’s poems, American Dreams, and Black Wings and Blind Angels.

7
Diary of an Emotional Idiot, by Maggie Estep

(Harmony Books, 1997) Maggie Estep established the MTV poet crown with “Sex Goddess of the Western Hemisphere” and “Hey Baby.” This novel and her stories in Soft Maniacs are guaranteed hilarious, rock’n’roll extreme, sexy sexy, and full-tilt just great writing. (And if you can find one of her CD’s you are one lucky poet!)

8
The White Boy Shuffle, by Paul Beatty

(St. Martin's, 2001) Paul Beatty’s another poet who launched out of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe with abrupt stutter cyber poetry and somehow filtered it into a totally brilliant prose style, in which The White Boy Shuffle and Tuff emerge as viscous but thrilling (as in, your mind is racing to keep up with Beatty’s sleek speed racer)... sad but true, up front and haunting.

9
The Enormous Room, by e.e. cummings

(Viking Penguin, 1999) e.e. cummings invented a poetry that enabled the human mind to grasp immediately what the art was about: to understand the multiplicity of meanings as he played with punctuation, spelling, syntax and form. But he also wrote one solid novel, decribing his harrowing experiences in World War I: The Enormous Room. A great gift for the Cummings fan.

10
Deliverance, by James Dickey

(Delta reprint, 1994) The first poet’s novel to be written with Hollywood in mind? That’d be Dickey’s Deliverance. Make a poet’s present from this brawling Southern academic: the novel, which is a mighty good read, the video (or better yet, the DVD), which is downright scarifying, and the “Dueling Banjos” bluegrass soundtrack.

Your favorite poets’ novels

Please tell us about the best novels written by poets you’ve read, whether they are brand-new or centuries old, by posting in this thread on the Poetry Forum.