The best novels by poets

Who am I?

Corey Mesler has been published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Five Points, Good Poems American Places, and New Stories from the South. He has published over 25 books of fiction and poetry. His newest novel, The Diminishment of Charlie Cain, is from Livingston Press. He also wrote the screenplay for We Go On, which won The Memphis Film Prize in 2017. With his wife he runs Burke’s Book Store (est. 1875) in Memphis. I have a fondness for novels written by writers who are primarily poets. These five books are my favorites in that contracted genre.


I wrote...

Memphis Movie

By Corey Mesler,

Book cover of Memphis Movie

What is my book about?

Memphis Movie concerns a middle-aged filmmaker named Eric Warberg, an ex-Memphian who went to Hollywood and made it big. For many years he was a success out there until, after directing a few box office bombs, he found himself essentially out of work. Then the opportunity presents itself for a return to his hometown of Memphis to direct an independent film, a return to his roots in more than one way. With mixed feelings he returns home where he is greeted like a returning star.

Overall, the novel reads like a Robert Altman film, with many story strands making up the tapestry. One of the questions the novel asks is, Will Eric lose or find his soul, in his hometown, where soul has many meanings?

The books I picked & why

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Edsel

By Karl Shapiro,

Book cover of Edsel

Why this book?

Shapiro’s Edsel appeared in 1971, well after Shapiro had established himself as one of America’s greatest poets and 25 years after he won the Pulitzer Prize. Like many novels by poets, the protagonist is a writer, in this case a poet named Edsel Lazerow. Also like many other novels in this grouping the setting is academia. I’m particularly fond of academic satires, from John Barth’s Giles, Goat Boy, to Richard Russo’s Straight Man, to the novels of British writer, David Lodge. Perhaps I enjoy these romps because I am a failed academic—I went to college for five years without getting a degree. They had the audacity to suggest that I take Zoology! Anyway, this novel is a hoot, and unjustly forgotten.

Edsel

By Karl Shapiro,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Edsel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PAPERBACK


Quit Monks or Die!

By Maxine Kumin,

Book cover of Quit Monks or Die!

Why this book?

Quit Monks or Die! is something else indeed. It’s a mystery novel and a good one. It is set, yes! in academia, where a scientist and a graduate assistant are both found murdered. The scientist was working on an experiment involving monkeys. Does that have to do with why he was killed? Its cracker-jack plot, which involves animal rights, is complex but lucidly and expertly laid out. It's not just who done it, but what was done? This is not Kumin’s only novel but I believe it’s her only mystery.

Quit Monks or Die!

By Maxine Kumin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Quit Monks or Die! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in a small town that houses little more than a research lab and an engineering school, the body of the lab's director is found in a pit used for maternal deprivation experiments with monkeys. A few days later, a graduate student is found murdered as well. Are these deaths connected? And who's responsible for these murders? Written by one of America's greatest poets, this mystery is a scathing social commentary with a criminal twist.

Maxine Kumin is the author of poetry, novels, short stories, essays and a number of children's books. She has received several awards, including the Pulitzer…


Recovery

By John Berryman,

Book cover of Recovery

Why this book?

This book is more autobiographical, based on his struggle with alcoholism. Berryman had already written a book of poems, The Dream Songs (my favorite book of poems), which practically reads like a novel. It’s full of wit and playfulness and jerry-rigged syntax. Recovery is also witty but not quite as playful. It’s darker, of course. Perhaps one’s perception of it is colored by the knowledge that Berryman had committed suicide in 1972, a year before its release. So, it’s a melancholy book, yet its difficulties are human and common and, here, well-wrought by a poet’s grace.

Recovery

By John Berryman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Recovery as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the author's words, Recovery is a novel about "the disease called alcoholism, recognized by the American Medical Association only in 1964."


The Favourite Game

By Leonard Cohen,

Book cover of The Favourite Game

Why this book?

Leonard Cohen is one of my touchstones, an artist I take personally, someone who speaks to me deeply. He is best known as a singer/songwriter, the author of “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah.” He is not quite as well-known as a poet, but that’s how he started and he’d already published books of verse before his first album appeared. He also wrote two novels, the first when he was in his 20s. It is entitled The Favourite Game and it’s an autobiographical, Jewish, coming-of-age story. It’s so good it seems like an early Philip Roth novel.

In an interview, Cohen once said, “There’s no story so fantastic that I cannot imagine myself the hero. And there’s no story so evil that I cannot imagine myself the villain.” His protagonist is a little of both in this book. And the prose, as you might imagine is beautiful, simpler perhaps than in his poetry, but every line carries the symbolic weight of the book’s tender story. Here’s a funny aside: When it was published as a mass-market paperback in 1965, its tagline was “where sex is…The Favorite Game.”

The Favourite Game

By Leonard Cohen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Favourite Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this unforgettable novel, Leonard Cohen boldly etches the youth and early manhood of Lawrence Breavman, only son of an old Jewish family in Montreal. Life for Breavman is made up of dazzling color - a series of motion pictures fed through a high-speed projector: the half-understood death of his father; the adult games of love and war, with their infinite capacity for fantasy and cruelty; his secret experiments with hypnotism; the night-long adventures with Krantz, his beloved comrade and confidant. Later, achieving literary fame as a college student, Breavman does penance through manual labor but ultimately flees to New…


Pictures from an Institution

By Randall Jarrell,

Book cover of Pictures from an Institution

Why this book?

Pictures from an Institution, to my mind, is the best novel written by a poet. It’s comical, biting, engrossing, moving, and flat-out entertaining. Once again, we are back in academia, at a woman’s college based loosely on Sarah Lawrence, and never has academia been skewered more amusingly. Regarding the college, one character muses, “You Americans do not rear children, you incite them; you give them food and shelter and applause.” The novel’s jokes—aphorisms, wisecracks, putdowns—come so fast and furious one could lose track of the story, if the story itself were not so interesting…and jovial. It’s funnier than throwing a hardboiled egg into an electric fan. Pictures from an Institution is also learned and wise and, underneath the drollery, there is a basic humanism that does not allow you to dismiss the book as mere satire.

Pictures from an Institution

By Randall Jarrell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pictures from an Institution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beneath the unassuming surface of a progressive women's college lurks a world of intellectual pride and pomposity awaiting devastation by the pens of two brilliant and appalling wits. Randall Jarrell's classic novel was originally published to overwhelming critical acclaim in 1954, forging a new standard for campus satire - and instantly yielding comparisons to Dorothy Parker's razor-sharp barbs. Like his fictional nemesis, Jarrell cuts through the earnest conversations at Benton College mischievously - but with mischief nowhere more wicked than when crusading against the vitriolic heroine herself.


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