In his classic essay about the new journalism, Tom Wolfe maintains that he — along with most other traditional journalists of the 1950s-1970s secretly wished to be novelists. I won’t second-guess Wolfe; some people say that Wolfe has proven himself as a novelist in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” But many of the passages and monologues in his earlier, groundbreaking work, such as “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” are much more poetic in content and vision and much more powerful as poetry than as narrative. This is equally true with Norman Mailer’s creative nonfiction efforts, “Armies of the Night” and “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” and even John McPhee’s incredible cataloging of facts, statistics, observations and impressions in “Looking for a Ship” or “Coming Into the Country.”
Contrary to popular belief, poetry is much closer to nonfiction than one might imagine. On the most basic level poems are, in essence, nonfiction — spiritual and literal truth — presented in free form or verse. In addition, the skills and objectives of the best poets are the skills and objectives most vital in the writing of “fact” pieces.
For example, one of the most formidable challenges of the nonfiction writer is to learn to develop a narrow and targeted focus. We devote weeks, months and sometimes years to the study and observation of different subcultures, places and ideas. In any given piece, journalists and essayists can tell many stories, go off on dozens of tangents, while gradually concentrating on what all of their research, ideas and interviews mean. Poets seem as consistently in control, not only of the structure of essays, but also in scope and range of vision. They seem to translate and communicate complicated ideas with compact specificity, while being impactful, informative and dramatic, which is what good creative nonfiction is all about. Poets are oriented toward the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) propagation of a social cause — a trait in consort with the deepest and most noble of journalistic traditions.
The poets who have been submitting prose to “Creative Nonfiction” also have exhibited a great facility to construct scenes with extraordinary tension, specificity and economy. I once thought that no one could capture a powerpacked portrait of real life more accurately than Gay Talese. His soliloquy to the building of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (“The Bridge”) and some of his intimate profiles of celebrities (“The Soft Psyche of Joshua Logan” and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the latter to be republished in an upcoming issue), were unequalled in dramatic intensity and power of observation. But read Margaret Gibson’s memoir or the memory fragments by Charles Simic in this issue. Or Christopher Buckley, Steven Harvey, Adrienne Rich. Repeatedly, and often in just a couple of sentences, these writers draw pictures so taut and characters so vivid that scenes seem to explode on the page.
When I began publishing “Creative Nonfiction,” I expected to be establishing a special outlet for the work of journalists, essayists and fiction writers, primarily. This has indeed happened. But, as you will see in “Poets Writing Prose,” poets too are becoming a growing and vital voice in this emerging genre.