March 21 is World Poetry Day, and to celebrate we’re sharing five prose authors whom you might not know have poetry collections under their belts.
We all know poets who have turned out a novel or two—Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, Rainer Maria Rilke, to name a few. There are also authors known for their dexterity in both fields, such as Dylan Thomas, Sherman Alexie, and Alice Walker.
But for World Poetry Day, we thought we’d share some authors known for their prose who also have poetry collections. As fiction writers, we sometimes neglect or forget the pleasure and craft of writing poetry. These authors—some of whom started their writing careers as poets—show that not only can you do both, but that writing poetry can strengthen our skills as prose writers. Plus these collections are a great way to rediscover the writing and souls of our favorite authors.
Share your favorite cross-genre authors in the comments and follow #WorldPoetryDay online for more celebration of the verse.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is best known for her award-winning science fiction such as the Earthsea Series and The Left Hand of Darkness. She’s also put out several nonfiction collections discussing the writing world and her career, such as Dancing at the Edge of the World and Steering the Craft. But Le Guin has put out several poetry collections, including Hard Words, and Other Poems (1981), Incredible Good Fortune: New Poems (2006), Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems (2012).
As a bonus, Le Guin also translated the work of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the only Latin American woman to receive the Nobel prize.
The papers are full of war and
my head is full of the anguish of battles
and ruin of ancient cities.
In the rainy light a great blue heron
lifts and flies above the brown cattails
heavy, tender, and pitiless.
—from “Here, There, at the Marsh”
It should come as no surprise that the great essayist, playwright, and novelist James Baldwin also wrote verse. That being said, his poems and collections of poetry never got widespread attention during his lifetime, which is why Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, published in 2014 by Beacon Press, is so important. The book collects the original poems of Jimmy’s Blues, originally published in 1983, plus the poems from a rare collection called Gypsy. With a new introduction by poet Nikky Finney, this makes an important and accessible collection from Baldwin.
No man can have a harlot
for a lover
nor stay in bed forever
with a lie.
He must rise up
and face the morning sky
and himself, in the mirror
of his lover’s eye.
—from “A Lover’s Question”
Acclaimed author Louise Erdrich has been writing award-winning fiction (including novels, short stories, and children’s literature) for decades; her novel Round House won the 2012 National Book Award. But she’s also released several collections of poetry.
In a 1987 interview, Erdrich discussed her collection Jacklight (1984) saying, “Poetry is a different process for me than writing fiction. Very little of what happens in poetry is conscious, it’s a great surprise. I don’t write poetry anymore. I’ve in some ways lost that ability. I’ve made my unconscious so conscious through repeated writing of stories that I don’t seem to have this urge to let certain feelings build until they turn into a poem.” Thankfully, she was wrong—she’s authored two poetry collections since Jacklight—Baptism of Desire (1989) and Original Fire (2003).
We have come to the edge of the woods,
drawn out of ourselves by this night sun,
this battery of polarized acids,
that outshines the moon.
Dorothy Allison, author of the acclaimed Bastard out of Carolina, among other works, published a chapbook of poetry in 1983. The book, called The Women Who Hate Me, addressed many of the same issues as her prose, including lesbianism, class issues, and identity, plus a good splash of women’s lib political in-fighting (hence the title). It was rereleased by Firebrand Books in 1991 but still not so easy to find at your average bookstore.
We all nourish truth with our tongues
not in sour-batter words that never take shape
nor line-driven stories bent to skirt the edge
of our great exhaustion, desire, and doubt.
We all use simply the words of our own lives
to say what we really want.
—from “We All Nourish Truth with Our Tongues”
Cisneros, who would get great acclaim for her 1984 coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street, began her creative writing life with poetry in high school. She once said about her early poetry, “I rejected what was at hand and emulated the voices of the poets I admired in books: big male voices like James Wright and Richard Hugo and Theodore Roethke, all wrong for me.” Cisneros would soon forge her own path and discover her own voice. Raw and unapologetic like its title, the 1994 poetry collection Loose Woman delves into sex, relationships, heartache, and women reclaiming their bodies and choices. Like her fiction, her poetry alternates between English and Spanish, and delves into Latina identity and culture.
on the other side of the bed
is only books, not you. What
I said I loved more than you.
Though these mornings
I wish books loved back.
—from “Bay Poem from Berkeley”
by Kjerstin Johnson