“The difference between poets and novelists is this,” writes the poet Randolph Henry Ash to the poet Christabel LaMotte in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession, “that the former write for the life of the language—and the latter write for the betterment of the world.” In Byatt’s novel this has the glint of irony: a fictional poet contemplating his independence from the medium in which, unbeknown to himself, he exists. But it also contains the germ of a modern stereotype. The idea that poets and novelists possess separate and incompatible temperaments, like fortune-tellers and pharmacists, that poets are preoccupied with language (“for the life of the language”) while novelists are engrossed by society (“for the betterment of the world”), is a commonplace—perhaps also a consequence—of the paced battlements of the contemporary literary world. In this account, poets and novelists are not merely working at different kinds of writing. Their minds also work differently. Poets are introspective, miniature, and self-fascinating (“I am the personal,” Wallace Stevens declares in “Bantams in Pine-Woods”). Novelists are expansive, systematic, prone to looking through other people’s mail. Novelists are hardy gossips, bred to realism. Poets are post-Romantic waifs of imagination. Poets’ thoughts move cyclically, in rich depths of metaphor, while novelists’ thoughts accumulate in a straight line.
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