Admit it—when you think “poet,” you’re picturing someone doing a 1950s-era beatnik impersonation, snapping their fingers while jazz plays in the background, over-enunciating and speaking in William Shatner-esque rhythms. In reality, poets have an incredible effect on the language we all speak—think of the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly explains how an artistic decision made by a designer two years ago results in Andrea wearing a particular shade of blue sweater. That’s what poets do for the English language.
They also write novels from time to time, and when they do, the novels tend to be pretty incredible. Here are five novels written by poets you should absolutely check out.
Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum
If you’re wondering what the term “precise language” might actually mean, read Essbaum’s remarkable debut novel, which tells the tale of Anna Benz, an American woman married to a Swiss man. Anna lives a comfortable life but lacks some inner quality, which gives her a taste for constant experience, including sexual affairs that quickly complicate her life. As Anna lies and twists to escape the consequences of her actions, Essbaum charts her descent in sentences that might as well be carved from diamonds: Beautiful, clear, and constructed with a precision of tone and vocabulary only a poet could achieve.
Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen
You might know Cohen best as the songwriter who gave the world “Hallelujah,” the Song Most Likely to Be Covered on a Reality Singing Show, but prior to his songwriting and performing career he was a poet, and then a novelist. Beautiful Losers, published in 1966, was Cohen’s second novel, and his last to date, and was originally received very poorly as the overly complex story of a love triangle involving people obsessed with Mohawk Indian saint Kateri (Catherine) Tekakwitha. Over time, though, we’ve come to realize this deep, complicated novel is probably the original Canadian postmodern work, and its rich language, allusions, and heavy doses of sex and mysticism come together to create something truly remarkable.
The Enormous Room, by E.E. Cummings
Cummings, the author of “anyone lived in a pretty how town” and many other notable poems that eschew punctuation, capitalization, and other traditions of form, only wrote two novels in his lifetime. Luckily, one of them is this moving and powerful autobiographical work describing his experiences as a prisoner after being linked to anti-war sentiment in World War I France. Mixing some of his trademark poetic style with a more traditional narrative voice, the book covers the four months he spent on the inside, not only telling a powerful story of the free expression of ideas, but also serving as a primer for Cummings’ more difficult writing to come.
Deliverance, by James Dickey
These days, when people think of Deliverance (whose author was, lest we forget, Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1966–68) they likely think of the film’s “dueling banjos” sequence. Deliverance is a powerful novel, written by a writer who uses words like bricks, building sturdy, beautiful structures. The novel has many deep themes and ideas, but can be read simply as a harrowing, dark adventure tale; a story of civilized men who enter an American “no-man’s land” as it’s about to be wiped away by a dam project and discover just what civilized means—and what it doesn’t.
The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje
Born in Sri Lanka and now a Canadian citizen, Ondaatje’s best-known work is likely The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize and was made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes that won the 1997 Oscar for Best Picture. But Ondaatje is also a celebrated poet, who published five collections of poetry before publishing his first novel. While eminently readable, the novel is poetic in form and content, with a rich collection of symbols standing behind almost every scene, granting it an unusual emotional and spiritual depth even as it remains a fascinating and satisfying love and adventure story.