Monday, January 11, 2010

The Role of the Narrative in Long Poems

It makes sense that a form arising from the epic poem would have a strong connection to narrative. In a form that attempts to capture all the intensity of the lyric and extend that intensity over pages, what room is there in the contemporary long poem (or longish poem, the more than 60 line poem) for narrative?

I'm going to suggest that in some way or other, a long poem depends on narrative to make it function.

Think about it, we're talking about a poem where the reader has to turn the page more than twice. What can sustain the interest of the reader in a lyrical moment for more than a moment? A long lyric poem seems, when you think about it, to be a poem that is just too long.

When multiple moments are connected to each other, this implies narrative. A beginning, a middle, and end. There is some logic that ties the multiple scenes together. This is the nature of narrative and is implicit in length.

How explicit does narrative have to be to support the interest of the reader past the first few moments? Some of the most famous of long poems, including the traditional book-length poems, are autobiographies or biographies. The narrative is pretty explicit.

But the important thing is to have an idea of time passing within the frame of the poem, and to have markers in the poem that allow the reader to figure out which lines belong with which distinct lyric moment in a chain of moments. Sections are helpful, and maybe the simplest way to seperate out these episodes of lyric intensity.

Do a number of lyrics connected together make a long poem? No. Sometimes they just make a collection. I recently wrote about chapbooks and how they appeal to the "concept book." Do 14 poems about the same topic constitute parts of a long poem? Most people would say no. They belong together as part of the same work, order is probably important on some level, but if you could move the sections around and have the same basic effect, there is no narrative arc in the work. No beginning, middle, and end. Many collections will have a narrative arc that connects and orders the lyric moments. Does that make it a long poem?

No. A long poem is a poem where the individual pieces may stand alone, but not in their full glory and importance. Like a scene from a movie, it might be interesting, but the fact that more is going on is implicit in the scene itself. You know something came before, something comes after. And satisfaction is delayed until you know what.

That's what needs to go on in a long poem for it to be successful. The reader can't be satisfied with one page, with one part standing in for the experience of the whole poem. The reader must feel compelled to turn the page again and again. And this compulsion is created by the desire to know what happens. So something has to happen. Something must be hinted at or implied and then revealed. That's narrative.

So can a long poem exist that isn't a biography, and autobiography, or an epic? Absolutely. Some poems incorporate narrative as a mere whiff, a lingering scent of the narrative after it has left the room of the poem. Others fall in the middle.

"Her Island," Rita Dove's long poem about her trip to the island in Greece where legend places the kidnap of Persephone, is the capstone of a larger collection that traces the narrative arc through individual lyric moments that only mirror, rather than retell, the original story. "Her Island," is a collection of lyric and narrative moments that make up that larger story of her journey to Greece and her journey through these recapturings of the different elements of the story. One of the major ideas that gets circumvented in the poem is time. It passes, but rather than linear time, time is experienced as a cycle. Each sonnet is a section of the cycle you can wrap your head around as a reader, but the fact that repetition, the threat and promise of it, haunts the sonnet cycle is clear.

So what am I saying? The lyric lies about time. Wordsworth called poetry "emotion recollected in tranquility." There is an illusion that the lyric is somehow taken out of the action and exists in its own meditative bubble. This just doesn't fly after about 7 minutes. But with narrative, or the suggestion of narrative, (as simply implied as putting different dates and locations in section titles) time becomes concrete again, and this anchors the reader as they struggle to piece together the larger sense that they feel three pages demands.

Because three pages do in fact demand a larger sense of something!! The moments have to add up--have to tell as story! Such as in the wonderful surreal and ghostly Levis poems, "Linnets" comes to mind. The reader feels that this is the moment, in meditation, after all the action has occured. But they get the story, like flashbacks in a movie, fed to them in little amazing tidbits as they perservere through the poem. This narrative, and the confidence that there is a narrative, allows the reader to stop and enjoy the language. Otherwise, the reader might worry that they'll get to the end of the poem and there'll be no point.

This anxiety is created by time! The time the reader brings to the page creates the demand for revelation on later pages. When you turn the page, it's like an enjambed line magnified in it's effect of creating suspense. The reader has to keep in mind what they've read to make sense of what comes. And the more lines accumulate, the greater this suspense, the harder it is for the reader to keep everything they need in mind to find the resolution of the poem.

So be kind to your readers, long poem writers. Give them clear language, or fixed markers of episodes passing so they can close a chapter in their minds, carry a nugget forward with them into the next poem, and enjoy themselves. Give them a clear narrative they can follow with the comfort of narrative conventions, or at least the ghost of narratives past to fill them in on what's going on and why it matters so much.

Because if it doesn't matter more on page 3 than it did on page 1, what is the point?

1 comment:

  1. I think you are right! Narrative works, even if it is "the ghost" of a narrative, as you say. I read (and recently reviewed the book in which it appeared) a long poem by Alice George, "Conewango Creek," first published in Quarter After Eight, that I have always loved for the narrative in the background. There is a story, but the poem plays with the story, so we are not sure what really happened, yet somehow we can figure it out. There is natural suspense, from what must have really happened, and then another kind of literary suspense, from how she strings the variations together.

    I love linear time, and I understand we must live in it (I keep getting older), and I find it works in literature, and also some part of me doesn't believe in it. I am more and more immersed in nonlinear time, which also exists, and also find its place in literature.

    I am interested in how the Persian ghazal is couplets linked by theme, but can be composed by more than one person and go on and on.

    But I love a good beginning, middle, and end.