8 Famous Novelists You Didn't Know Were Poets, Too

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 10: 'The Color Purple' author Alice Walker attends the 'The Color Purple' Broadway Opening Night at The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on December 10, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images)
Source: Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

April is National Poetry Month, and while you should always have your nose buried in a volume of verse, this is an especially great month to lose yourself in metaphor and meter. If you're new to poetry or just haven't spent much time with the stuff, you're not alone — but that can make digging in kind of intimidating. However, some of your favorite novelists are also poets, and their work is a great place to start. 

Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje might be best known for his lush epic The English Patient, but the Booker Prize-winner is also a well-published poet. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems, which traces the life of Billy the Kid through verse, is perhaps his most famous collection.

Alice Walker

Walker is an activist, womanist, total badass, and poet. Her novel The Color Purple is widely acclaimed and influential, but her poetry is just as moving. Walker's latest volume, the brilliantly-titled Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, was released in 2010.

Russell Banks  

Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter is beautiful enough to be considered poetry (seriously, read it if you haven’t) but he has two poetry collections under his belt, too, both winterishly-titled: Waiting to Freeze and Snow.

Margaret Atwood

As one of Canada’s most prolific and well-respected writers, Atwood has won accolades and devotees for novels like The Handmaid’s Tale, but she has written as many poetry books as she has novels. Admirers and newcomers to her work should pick up her 1961 volume Double Persephone.

John Updike

Aside from winning the Pulitzer (twice!) for his Rabbit novel series, Updike also published nine poetry collections in his lifetime. Fans of his frank approach to sex will dig his salacious poem “Cunts: Upon Receiving The Swingers Life Club Membership Solicitation.”

Vladimir Nabokov


If Lolita tops your favorites list (no judgments), track down Nabokov’s poem “Lilith” (from Poems and Problems) whose focus on the sexuality of a young girl is widely considered to be a precursor to his highly controversial and popular novel.

Herman Melville

Sure, Moby Dick is impressive and all, but Melville is responsible for Clarel, an epic poem (18,000 lines) that’s longer than both The Iliad and Paradise Lost. Privately, he wrote much more poetry than he did fiction, but his talents as a poet were largely overlooked in his lifetime.

Erica Jong

Her novel Fear of Flying is a pillar of feminism’s second wave, and Jong’s poetry is an extension of that movement’s values. Her poem “Nursing You" is guaranteed to bring your feminist fever to the surface, with lines like “I am the second daughter / of a second daughter / of a second daughter, / but you shall be the first. / You shall see the phrase / 'second sex' / only in puzzlement, / wondering how anyone, / except a madman, / could call you 'second' / when you are so splendidly / first."



Must Reads