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narrative poetry

The great English literary critic, William Empson, wrote a work called 7 Types of Ambiguity in which he promoted Ambiguity as one of the chief indicators of great literary texts, most especially of modern literary texts. Most contemporary poets start to publish when they learn this sort of ambiguity–to not over determine the meaning of a text, to make it somewhat ambiguous. Ah, but there is a great difference between ambiguity and slightness of meaning, poverty of meaning, or out and out lack of it–though most post modern editors would rather have a meaningless poem with poetic turns of phrase, than a clear poem that didn’t sound “poetic”. This just goes to show idiots wait on both sides of the fence.

To be ambiguous means the meaning floats, hovers, resonates, is everywhere present and no where seen. To be confusing means that the poet can not convey either the mood, voice, or cognitive meaning at all, or that neither mood, voice or meaning exist. How much a reader needs in the way of determination varies wildly. A language poet snubs any meaning that isn’t either ironic, dadaist, or so denuded of emotional resonance and voice as to be fey, contingent, hardly there. They have political “reasons” for this–or used to, having to do with authority, but now that thousands of poems have been written as “language” poetry, it has developed its own all pervasive voice. In short, their non-inaugurated I is as much a rigid orthodoxy as that against which they reacted.

Narrative poetry is, by definition, over determined–it has a story to tell. Lyrical poetry is poetry doing its utmost to draw attention to itself as an act of language–heightened speech, the vatic I, the extremes of both ecstasy and precision. All these “kinds” of poetry have their thousand gradations and often bleed into each other, and are better off for being somewhat mongreled. Each of these, done badly, will not achieve the ambiguity Empson extols. Each of these, done supremely well, can achieve all seven types of ambiguity and then some.

At any rate, on countless occasions a student has handed me a poem that did not do what Pessoa claimed a poem must do: make a bridge between the “personal” and the “human.” The personal is all Pessoa defines as endemic only to that particular consciousness. The human is the rough translation of that consciousness into an act of language that is capable of being apprehended and understood by the other. Great poetry not only makes a bridge between the personal and the human, but makes this bridge tentative, almost invisible, so that the reader feels at times as if they are composing the poem out of their own consciousness. This is why language poetry can be faulted in its theory though I believe their goal is commendable): they never take into account to what degree the reader already shares in the authority of the poem, co-creates the inaugurated I of a poem, how a poem, especially one in which the author does not seek too much certainty, can be co-opted by a reader as his or her poem. In short, it isn’t necessary to be non-linear, multi-voiced, non-authoritative. It is only necessary that the author leave enough room in the poem for the reader to step in and co-create it. I once had a student give me a poem in which dogs were bleeding and stars fell onto the bodies of lepers, and a coffin rose from the grave, and opened to reveal a guitar. The student was highly surprised and upset that I didn’t know this was a poem about the death of his beloved father. I realized he’d done the opposite of what Pessoa had said: He’d taken a well known trope (The death of a father) and personalized it to such a degree that no one would ever know unless he told them. This is fine so long as you don’t care that no one gets it. but if you do care, then a little clarity helps.

I am going to share a pretty good poem then by one of my students in the 350 class a poem that uses ambiguity effectively. The poet’s name is Carrisa Ely. Watch what she does.

An Image

She will remember everything
but the color of his harley. She’ll
forget which one it was
in line with all the others; was it red
or was it blue or was it black?
She’s too distraught in
the swirls of his vanilla ice
cream on a cone, it is sugar, it is
sweet the way his tongue follows
the ridges, is caloused hands
turning it.
He does this softly.
Softer than the cracked leather
of his clothes, than the part of his face
around the mouth, softer than the pavement
they both stand on now, a part.

And in this light, he makes her
think again of delicate things– bathing in
claw foot tubs, long cigarettes– God and
the sound walking.

The very end might be a typo. It imght be sound of walking (This is how it was published in arc of a cry), but there is no mistaking the sensual, erotic, sexual charge of this poem, even though the only action is of a “she” watching someone whose bike she can’t remember eating a vanilla ice cream cone. Why do we think the vanilla might just be her? Why do we think, if it isn’t her, she wishes it were? How does she know his hands are calloused, or is this a girl thing– much as men like legs? Note the wonderful mis-use of the word distraught, so much better than caught here: “She’s too caught up… distraught means this action is having an effect on her that is exquisite both in the sense of pleasurable and accute to the point of painful. What we have here is licking, and soft, and leather, and claw foot bath tubs, and long cigarettes, sugar, sweet, etc, etc, etc, but nothing is spelled out except she won’t remember his harley and she will remember everything else. This is ambiguity working to create an erotic charge. In point of fact, all the best erotic poems beat around the bush so to speak. Suggestion is always far more erotic than coming straight at it. We could ask Clarissa Ely if she meant it to be erotic, and she might say not at all, and that would be fine, because a writer is not the only author of the work. After it has been written, there is a different author every time it is read. Someone who wasn’t getting the erotic charge might complain and say: This is vague writing. We don’t even know his or her name, and who cares about some biker eating an ice cream cone? This poem skirts the danger zone. Someone else, someone looking for the sexual in everything, might think this poem too obvious. In short, it can be argued over, and that’s a large part of why it is a poem and not greeting card verse. It is very hard to argue over a hall mark greeting card. A poem might be said to begin when the arguments begin, when it makes us define what we mean by both meaning and poetry. Good job Clarissa.

Many young poets can not accept that telling a story, or relating some sort of narrative arc is conducive to the highest aims of poetry. Of course this is a confusion between story telling and narrative. They are not the same. Narrative is the pulse and rhythm of being. Whitman is an intensely narrative poet, as is Emily Dickinson. Stories stay in touch with this pulse of being in the most obvious ways. The great triumph of Chekhov is that he muted the obviousness of story, blurred the distinctions between plot and character, and took prose into territories of consciousness previously known only to the most subjective and simple of lyrical poems. Story may be destroyed, but never narrative. If I write

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree

I am, for all my pretensions to surrealism, still in the arms of narrative. The sun is doing something (batting its eye lashes)i This is the action at the scene. Oy vey is an ejaculation that means, roughly: “Oh brother,” or “For crying out loud,” or “Oh my God” so it implies an attitude. If I say I am a tired tree, then I am implying a state of being, and the reader will connect the dots. The batting of eye lashes is an age old signifier of vanity or flirting. I may not follow this line consciously, but it is there. So lets continue:

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree.
Strange omens creep forth from Canada.
The sky is dressed in drag.
How shall I desist from wandering the earth
in search of pomegranates?
Death to stars and cardboard!
Death to the wan smile of the lost.
Forgive me my trespasses.
I am a tired tree
half in love with sudden lightning
and the vagrant grin of years.

There is no story told here, but there is narrative arc. The poem might seem nonsensical, especially if you insist on logical exposition or a concrete point (which is journalism and information–not narrative). If you meet the poem on its own terms line for line, you may notice a strange lament. The tree is tired. It is half in love with lightning (death wish) and the vagrant grin of years. The voice is vehement in what it wants to die: stars, cardboard, the wan smile of the lost. This is an arbitrary list, but have you ever listened to a cranky sick person complain:? To quote my Aunt Mary two weeks before she died: “No soup! The hell with soup and styrofoam. Where is my bone china? You’re killing me!”

The problem students have with narrative is its mundanity. It is not the narrative, but the absence of verbal surprise they are missing. Verbal surprise is always overrated by young poets. They mistake confusion and flash for lyricism. Lyricism breaks forth when the narrative arc, the interior laws organic to the poem are compelled, even forced to sing and this singing is so close to insanity or sheer ecstasy as to risk the loss of sense. Take this snippet from Hart Crane that baffles many a sensible soul:

The mustard scansions of the eyes.

It is, indeed, a strange phrase, but let’s consider (beyond Cleanth Brooks) where Hart Crane lived. He lived in the same apartment that had been occupied by the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. He knew scansions (bridge abutments) like no one else. They could have been painted a mustard brown or yellow–in keeping with hazel eyes. When I first read this line I was in awe of his accuracy, a precision so intense it blighted the sense and construct of the actual thing described. Of course I was reading my own life into the poem. I once loved a girl who stood at dusk under the El, and she had yellow or mustard specks in her eyes, and the scansions were reflected in her irises. When I read this line, I thought Hart Crane had hovered like a ghost over my experience. I was reading into the poem which leads me to another point: even if you provide no story or narrative, the reader will provide one, and if not, then the reader is immured in a construct of non-narrative so pure as to be pissant.

John Ashbery, the darling of many poets opposed to story telling and narrative, is an intensely narrative poet. His narratives shift from line to line, moment to moment, disappearing and dissolving in the current of the poem. He is the master of the story that “Almost” happens. He makes a gesture towards story and betrays it, but he does not betray narrative.

Many poets try to escape narrative by destroying syntax. Lets try it:

Orion of graves
graves of the discontent
watermelons in the breeze
breeze absolving the moon
and the hermit
and the celebrity
and the soul survivor of the war
and the judiciary
and the past-enormous–lopsided tits
Pray! Pray for the thigh I am licking.
Pray for Betty Crocker!
And the and and the and and the and
loose cowboys
suspended adorations.

OK, only a couple of sentences. Why pray for Betty Crocker? Yet the poem obeys its own immutable laws of disconnection. That in itself is a ceremony and a narrative. ask: How do we make narrative beyond mere story telling? I tell you, no good story obeys story telling. It obeys narrative–the arc of being.