Inviting the Reader: Narrative Values, Lyric Poems
by Sydney Lea
The editor of an online journal recently asked 25 poets to complete the following in one sentence: “Poetry is…” Here’s what I wrote: “Nowadays, poetry consists of units of language that their authors call poems, and can range from conventional forms to prose poems and include anything in between.” I meant, obviously, that no one definition of poetry is available in our age. But was it ever?
The claim, That’s not poetry, which some make when, say, a poem does not rhyme, reminds me of the history of….poetry. What would John Milton, who came to hate rhyme, by the way, calling it “the invention of a barbarous age”– what would he have thought of fellow non-rhymer Walt Whitman, for example? What would Milton have thought even of William Wordsworth? What would Wordsworth have thought of Emily Dickinson? What would Dickinson have thought of Ezra Pound? And so on.
I begin in this way just to indicate that nothing I say tonight has doctrinal value. I try never to make the claim That’s not poetry, simply because there have likely always been almost as many different notions of what poetry is as there are poets.
So I have no sweeping take on what poetry may be. Even if I did, however, it wouldn’t be very important. What I’ll really be talking about tonight is my own practice as a writer. And my practice is my practice not because it represents the right way but because it’s my practice, if you’ll allow me some circular logic. I don’t want to make what I can do the measure of virtue in poetry and therefore imply that anything else is a vice. That itself would be a vice called narcissism. It would also exclude any number of my favorite contemporary poets, maybe in fact most of them, from my inner circle. And yet….
And yet what would any of the poets I mentioned make of the following poem in a recent New Yorker? What do you make of it?
A Ship’s Whistle
Years passed and I received no letter with the word “trombone.”
The distant cousins wrote, offered their shriller sympathies.
“What’s wrong with us?” Nothing I knew. Plugboard and Isinglass,
grimoire and cwm, friends all. Still I felt horribly alone.
Until one day it dropped through roundel light onto the mat.
I was tearing my dictionaries of hope–who, why, and what–
aApart when it sounded, that note pressing for home. Trombone.
And fearing it a dream was like waking in the wrong room,
not daring to believe in your return, or having come
to my senses after sickness. Veneer, mirror, and comb:
objects that shivered as relief swelled under them, they drew
lots to be turned to words which, soon as said, I knew
were brass. Years sliding past alone until– avast!– Trombone.
Well, I have no idea what those poets would make of that. Me, I can’t make head nor tail. Behind this poem, I suspect, lies some theory or aesthetic to which I am not privy, and to which I don’t find myself much moved to be privy. In fact, I wonder if the writer himself can have been MOVED to write this. I certainly can find nothing moving in it, and, as I recall Maxine Kumin wondering in conversation, “what’s the point of a poem with no feeling at all?”
But no, I can’t legitimately argue that the trombone poem is not poetry, for fear, again, of the narcissist’s presumption.
But I want to speak of narrative values in lyric poetry not merely because I employ them but simply because I think they can help us avoid the sort of density, even impenetrability, of the poem I just read– the sort of writing, as I see it, that can give poetry a really bad name even among people who read a lot, who come to libraries and good bookstores like this one. My friend Garret Keizer tells me that when the 1973 Arab-Israeli war broke out, Israeli conscripts rushed home to get their rifles, which they were obliged to own, and copies of poetry collections by the great Yehuda Amichai. That is an extreme example, of course, but perhaps illustrative: I find it impossible to imagine anyone’s running home for copies of “A Ship’s Whistle” before going into combat.
Before I proceed further, I should tell you that many younger editors are all but militantly anti-narrative. At 76, then, I’m doubtless quaint, and becoming more so in ways that I don’t even recognize, but that those younger people will. So be it. I’m old enough not to care what the smart and hip people think.
As the title of my presentation suggests, I want poems that invite readers in, rather than ones that exclude them, and this is what in my opinion narrative values can help us with. Mind you, I say narrative values, which is not the same as talking about writing narrative poetry– with actual plot, beginning, middle, and end. I have written a certain amount of such poetry, and I have surely enjoyed it in other writers, all the way from the extraordinary epics of Milton and Spenser to much of Frost’s longer work to Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie to a lot of Sharon Olds’s poetry to the matchless story-poems of B.H. Fairchild to fabulous things by Maine’s poet laureate, Wesley McNair (on whom more later).
Let me read another poem before I try to be more specific about this matter of narrative values, especially as they may apply to non-narrative, lyric poems:
Not since I was four or five at most
And in the first of so many striped tee shirts
Have I been this close to the flavour of safety.
I’m walking into town again, the child of hills.
You bought me fish and chips for lunch, my own
Adult portion because I asked for it, in Evan’s
Tiled restaurant, the Alhambra of takeaways.
Fine living robs the faculties of right judgment;
I turned, lost sight of you that afternoon in M&S.
Gone, and the unworn self at once puts on habits
Of wandering. (“Have you seen my … ?”)
They stood me on a counter. You appeared
And recognition bore away the riderless hoofbeats
Of fear. Pride claimed me, later, when you praised
My instinct to be visible, which soon became
The need to be noticed, a confused stage,
A knowingness that wasn’t what you’d meant
At all! You were relieved to see I’d asked for help,
Could be that lost and, knowing it, be found.
My deep-sea stripes helped you spot me,
Their clumsy colors sliding past, today, in town,
The blue and brown and silverflash of cars
Like keys to some fastness. High ground.
Without pausing for any detailed analysis, I’ll simply say that I’m much taken by this poem, which belongs to an Englishman named Will Eaves, who –astonishingly– also wrote that poem about the trombone– or about something.
I must say that I wonder what happened between 2011, the date of this poem, and 2015, the date of the trombone poem? What could have motivated the change from this manner to the manner of the one I led off with?
I can’t answer that, and it’s entirely possible that I miss the point of the later poem. But, so far as I can see, there are certain purely factual issues missing from that later one. Despite the author’s reference to his “dictionaries of hope–who, why, and what,” who, why, and what seem conspicuously absent from what he presents. Here’s where, for me, those narrative values come in, the values of conventional short fiction, ones that my generation learned about in grammar school: character, plot, and setting.
In any case, there are a few basic questions I pose to any draft I produce, and they are much related to character, setting, and plot. Who’s talking? To whom is he or she talking? Where is the speaker on delivering the words we read? Answers to these questions in the trombone poem are impossible for me to find. The speaker, whatever strange beast he is, could be anywhere as he waits for a letter containing the word “trombone,” though why he should desire such a letter is mysterious in the first place; so I lack a sense of setting. Who the speaker is remains totally unclear; I have no sense of character. I want that sense, and if I write or read a poem in the first person, I want the character named “I” to show some characterological qualities too– I am not interested in the thoughts or feelings of a mere pronoun. In this case, if the poem were unattributed, just for trivial example, we could equally imagine its speaker to be female as male. If I can’t even be sure of something so apparently minor as that, how may I be expected to know what my students have always called “deeper meanings”?
Who, why, what, where? If my poem can’t answer at least some of these questions, I feel I need to work on it further.
As the saying goes, I want to know, in my poem or someone else’s, what’s the story here? Not knowing that, not knowing, as my generation used to say, where the speaker is coming from, I feel not invited in but– almost intentionally it seems– excluded. I feel a need to know some encoded language, or some other secret, in order to enter the poem. Lacking the knowledge of who-what-where-why, etc., I turn away– and that, for me, is about the last effect I want to have on my reader. I don’t need a plotted story per se, but I want those seemingly factual issues to be as clear as possible.
Does this mean that as writers we need to “dumb down” our poems? Scarcely. Poetry by its nature is engaged with complex feelings and thoughts. But there is a vast difference between complexity and mere complication. In my view, it’s the distinction between the poem about the child’s getting lost in Marks & Spencer and the poem about waiting for the word trombone. It is also the difference, to my taste, between Robert Frost, one of the most complex minds in our literary history, and Ezra Pound, one of the most complicated.
If as poets we present complex material, we are already challenging our readers to pay very close attention. There is no speed-reading of poetry, no scanning for story. Why would we want to expand that challenge to include what I have called simple facts: who, what, where, why? Again, the presentation of such facts is what I call the invitation to the reader. To use a famous example, that reader may say, “This is tough stuff to sort out, but at least this much I can know”:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
We have a starting point for the famous instance I use here. A sort of door has been held open to us as we move into a poem that, though often reduced to a mere pep talk about self-reliance, is in fact profoundly ambiguous and finally even mysterious, perhaps like all good lyric.
No, the inclusion of narrative values does not dumb poetry down. In fact, the introduction of such values is often very subtle, even oblique, rather than in-your-face or simplistic.
Consider this poem by James Wright:
Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
This poem is clearly a first-person commentator’s indictment of a social structure that is ruinous, and whose priorities are badly skewed. Right?
Well, not so fast. Let’s go back to those basic narrative questions. The very first line of the poem indicates that the speaker himself is in the Shreve High stadium. He is a participant in what he seems outwardly to condemn: a sterile and fragmented social world (even the night watchman is a ruptured one), in which ruined adults heroize the sons who will soon join them in this erosive context.
And yet there is something beyond mere violence and rupture in what the speaker beholds; there is also something ennobling, a fact that leads to the imaginative genius of the phrase “suicidally beautiful.” Not suicidal, period. Not beautiful, period. No, both at once– which tells us a great deal about the man whose voice we hear in the poem. He is simultaneously morally taxed and enthralled.
So, as you can see, the character-setting-plot complex, the who’s-talking-to whom, where, and why complex– this can be, and usually is, implicit rather than explicit. It usually leads to a sort of open-endedness as in “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio.”
Here’s a further example, by a dear friend, the former poet laureate of Delaware, Fleda Brown; it is brand new, she tells me, and thus far unpublished, It is obviously, a sad story, and one familiar to any of us who has said goodbye to a strong-willed parent, one who stirs in us both affection and resentment.
What I Should Have Said
Crossing back on the Mississippi bridge, its harps
lilting away, small islands whispering shades
of gray, and the trees, banks, frozen river, all textures
of hoarfrost. What I should have said to my father
was, sure, call me Cordelia, old fart. Facts.
Stick to facts, you taught me. There is no God.
What I know of you is ancient, and hard, lacking
this recent sentimentality. Stone in the road,
stone in the throat. Back when all should have been
possible, but wasn’t, wasn’t! Oh how we suffer,
how we all suffered, with it. A lifetime
of watching you build a boat to sail away in. Shall I
now be the one to watch over you as you navigate
the ashes, shivering thin? I didn’t say the most
important thing, did I? Suspended, this pageant
of anguish. When I was twelve, I flew into a rage,
stomped out to the yard. You typed a letter, folded it
into a paper airplane, flew it out to me. I only
remember it said you didn’t understand me at all,
but you loved me. Did it say that? Was love part
of it? I mostly remember the distance, the trembling
anger, that nothing, nothing would bridge
between us, that I would love and hate you forever,
equal portions, taking care not to love
so much I’d never escape.
That is, to repeat myself, complex stuff, but, to quote the poem, much of what Brown does here is “stick to the facts.” The point of view, the circumstances, even the physical ones, are clear, though its subject cannot be reduced to one “meaning,” or “message.” As Frost, our first Vermont state poet, once said, “If you’re looking for a message, call Western Union.”
Here is another poem that greatly moves me. It is by Wesley McNair, poet laureate of Maine, whom I mentioned earlier:
For My Wife
How were we to know, leaving your two kids
behind in New Hampshire for our honeymoon
at twenty-one, that it was a trick of cheap
hotels in New York City to draw customers
like us inside by displaying a fancy lobby?
Arriving in our fourth-floor room, we found
a bed, a scarred bureau, and a bathroom door
with a cut on one side the exact shape
of the toilet bowl that was in its way
when I closed it. I opened and shut the door,
admiring the fit and despairing of it. You
discovered the initials of lovers carved
on the bureau’s top in a zigzag, breaking heart.
How wrong the place was to us then,
unable to see the portents of our future
that seem so clear now in the naiveté
of the arrangements we made, the hotel’s
disdain for those with little money,
the carving of pain and love. Yet in that room
we pulled the covers over ourselves and lay
our love down, and in this way began our unwise
and persistent and lucky life together.
In a review of McNair’s The Ghost of You and Me (2006), the late, great Philip Levine admired the poet’s “many skewed and irresistible characters who manage to get into odd situations for which there is only one remedy: to persevere. … He strikes me as one of the great storytellers of contemporary poetry.” I think that inclination to story –perhaps especially in the physical details that the poet so cannily remembers and turns to his use—is patent in this quirky and wonderful love poem. One gets a very clear sense, for one thing, of that character named I. You can find the same qualities in his latest, and perhaps his best collection, The Lost Child, which, a bit as with Fleda Brown in the poem I quoted a moment ago, involves saying good bye to a valiant, beloved, and profoundly difficult parent– in McNair’s case, a mother.
So values of story, whether explicit or, more often, implicit, manage what I call inviting the reader into the poem. But I think there are other things that those values can provide a poet. First, and perhaps most essential in my view, the obligation to provide narrative content serves as a brake on mere self-involvement, or –to use my term of the day—narcissism
In the late seventies, I read an essay by the fine poet Brendan Galvin on poems he called “Mumblings,” in which an unidentified first person “tries to tell the reader how he ought to feel about the nonspecific predicament of another, often unspecified person.” Yes, I thought, or else the poet addresses an unidentified second person about the cloudy difficulties of his/her relationship with that second person, or yet a third, also unidentified. I, too, disliked the verse Galvin attacked, especially for its evident assumption that a poet, merely by so designating him- or herself, could lay claim to an interesting inner life, because, after all, a poet is ever so “sensitive.” Surely, I believed, an “I” was interesting only if he or she proved to be, which meant among other things that he or she must cogently reveal at least a hint of identity in the writing itself.
Not that all ’70s poets mumbled in the way Brendan had mocked. Some relied on image, whether deep or shallow, plain or surreal. And yet these writers, too, seemed often to exclude me from their work’s deeper resonances. Just as I was expecting some authorial commitment, a poet would turn to notice, say, a pigeon carrying a snip of someone’s necktie through a raincloud, or whatever. Subject matter, so to speak, never quite came out in public. Image is crucial to poetry, of course: it is at the root, etymologically and otherwise, of “imagination.” Much, much good and even great poetry has relied on little else; but if you have any yen for testimony in a poem, it is important to remember, as my old friend Stanley Plumly once noted, that the image has no voice.
What I am suggesting is that a lyric poem ought to have subject matter, and that that subject matter should extend beyond the joys and frets and desires and worries of one solitary self. This is true even– no, in my opinion it is true especially—in first-person poems, too many of which, it seems to me, are vaguely akin to certain messages sent out on Twitter. Frankly, I really don’t give a damn that you’re well pleased, say, to have made a money-saving purchase at Costco. I am not, to stay with the technological analogy, interested in your selfie.
I have found narrative to be a check on my own narcissism, which is as pronounced as anyone’s. But here’s another opportunity it can provide, something more positive, and to me more intriguing, though it may not be, and need not be, for everyone: it can open my poems to testimony. I could also call it rhetoric, in the classical sense: the language of persuasion, of argument, even of abstraction, which we are too often witlessly warned against.
Yet why should rhetoric, so understood, be a goal at all? I’ll answer indirectly. Having not only conducted but also visited many a workshop, I’ve often noticed a kind of anti-rhetorical rhetoric among teachers and participants, implicit in the mantra, “Show, Don’t Tell.” Over and over I’ve heard this buzz phrase; and I’ve been thankful that most of our more revered poets have never heeded it. Consider
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Even though Yeats himself polarized rhetoric (which he said came of our quarrels with others) and poetry (made of quarrels with ourselves), he went ahead and composed that great sector of “The Second Coming,” which is rhetorical to the core.
Or, for further example:
1. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
Little we see in Nature that is ours …;
2.Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty
That is all ye know on Earth
And all ye need to know…
3. Publication — is the Auction
Of the mind of Man –
Poverty — be justifying
For so foul a Thing….
4. Time present and time past
are both perhaps included in time future …
The list could be endlessly extended, but whatever our tastes, few would think immediately to send the authors of these “telling” lines– Wordsworth, Keats, Dickinson, Eliot– back to workshop for the sin of too much telling. The plain fact is that to banish rhetoric, to banish telling, to banish abstraction from lyrical poetry– that would be to banish some of the most memorable lines in our poetic history.
Let me close, as I am apt to do, with Robert Frost, and to a poem whose rhetoric is easy to hear, since that’s almost all there is: “Provide, Provide” is chiefly persuasion, verging even on preachiness.
The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag,
The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.
Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.
Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.
Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on simply being true.
What worked for them might work for you.
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard.
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship by your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
If you’re counting, you’ll see that this poem offers four short lines of showing –
The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pale and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag,
The picture pride of Hollywood,
and then it offers seventeen lines of pure telling. Not a trace of image, none of metaphor, not a single “poetic” device whatever, except of course for rhyme and meter.
But note that those opening four lines, the lines that show, constitute a narrative, however minimal: famous beauty becomes crone. Period. On the strength of this short-short story, the author moves straight to rhetoric, which begins as wry musing and, though Frost doesn’t purge the wryness (he rarely does, in any poem), concludes as realist argument:
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
If you agree that Frost here “gets away with” flouting the show-don’t-tell injunction, you may see that he does so exactly because, in that opening mini-narrative, he has shown. Narrative is his means to that end of rhetoric, of argument, persuasion. You may not buy the argument, but you will hear it out, because you know where that argument is coming from. Had that opening mini-story not existed, you’d have been tempted to dismiss everything that follows as mere opinionation, unassociated with any recognizable reality. Narrative is the very grounds on which the poet bases his conclusions, ambiguous as they remain, as always in Frost.
Once again, that is, I think this poem passes the who-what-where-why etc. test. And it shows that a writer needn’t overdo the narrative values of his or her lyric. We know just enough about the speaker’s identity in “Provide, Provide” to feel invited in: it’s enough for us to understand that he is one who has seen a formerly beautiful and idolized woman reduced by circumstance to meniality. We know the “where” aspect too: he was on hand to make the observation; we need no more location. In very brief compass, that is, Frost earns his authority to comment.
As I say, not everyone may aspire to rhetorical poetry, to testimony, and even I have a satchel full of Frost poems that I prefer to this one, great as it is in my opinion. Maybe my interest in narrative as a means to argument has simply to do with my being contrarian by nature: if I’m told I can’t do it, I want to try. Or, related, that interest may come from the sort of Frostian impulse he describes in “Two Tramps in Mudtime”; it is no moral failing if you don’t share that impulse. As I’ve said right along, I can only speak from my experience as writer and reader. It is not the “right” experience– unless you want it to be. To quote that great liar Donald Rumsfeld, It is what it is. And here is what it is:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
Thanks to Vermont Poets and Their Craft Edited by Neil Shepard and Tamra J. Higgins
ISBN: 978-1-7327434-4-1 Pub Date: April 23, 2019