A simple Google search for the phrase “against narrative” will lead you to any number of websites in which someone declares that narrative is tyranny of some sort. We are swept up by its momentum, we lose our minds to someone else’s version of reality. This resembles Plato’s arguments against the social utility of poets, who give us images instead of the truth. But arguments against narrative ignore two things: narrative is a natural and unavoidable function of the human brain, and we might just be smart enough to understand what game we play when we assent to a narrative. In other words, we might be able to read critically and for pleasure at the same time, the way children playing a game feel its reality and know all along it is a game.
Art is a bondage to which we assent for the pleasures it offers, even as we rebel by questioning its purposes and methods. Being “against” narrative is rather like being “against” melody. It is asking for a more impoverished range of experiences in art due to fear of immersion. Fear of narrative is like a fear of swimming in the sea.
Consider the way we dream—not in coherent narratives, but in flashes of imagery fired at incredible speed. The brain works all night, taking these disparate images and turning them into montage or semi-coherent narrative. Sometimes we wake feeling tired, as if we have been working away at an unsolvable problem, because the brain has been laboring to connect these dots. Poets who attempt to avoid narrative usually end up creating work in which we will find the narrative anyway because that is what the brain does.
2. The Freedom of Narrative
Another way to think about narrative: it is a form of ambiguity. A story may have an utterly traditional shape and conventional resolution, yet we may feel very differently about it from our neighbor. The Bible is a case in point, but so is a Ross MacDonald novel. We may like it or dislike it. We may feel attraction or repulsion for its characters. We may have laughed or been frightened or bored at different moments. Narrative is a field of freedom to be entered individually by each reader.
So art is not bondage after all, but offers an area of free exchange, as individual as dreams and relatively open to differences of experience. You should only be afraid of the power of narrative if you assume you have nothing to say about how you experience it.
3. The Trouble with Taxonomy
The variety of narrative poetry is such that it must defeat any attempt to sort it into a manageable taxonomy. Evidence to suggest the futility of classification: in 1819, Wordsworth published “The Waggoner” and Byron the first cantos of Don Juan, while Shelley composed “The Mask of Anarchy” and Keats “Lamia.” What besides verse measure and the fact that they are in English brings these poems within the compass of a definition more specific? And more useful? The distance between Crabbe’s deliberate plainness and Keats’s deliberate brilliance suggests that, if these poems are members of the same family, they are as in Wittgenstein’s sense, as A and Z are members of the same family, sharing “family resemblances.”
̶ T. V. F. Brogan in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
4. Narrative and Time
A narrative is usually (but not always) longer than a lyric—and this is to say too little about the interrelatedness of genres. Narrative has its meaning in a different relation to time. The duration of narrative typically contributes to its meaning. Compare E. A. Robinson’s sonnet, “Reuben Bright,” with its terse and affecting image of grief, to the long, grueling narrative of the Iliad, the separate griefs of Achilles and Priam. One feels the latter differently because one has lived longer with the story. Both works are powerful, even uncanny, but the experience of reading them differs. To take a genre usually associated with prose but also possible in verse, the novel is a distinctive type of art because of its relation to time. Novels can make us feel the passage of time more acutely than other kinds of art because we age as we read them. At the same time, a long story often has a shape as carefully constructed as a sonnet. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse presents us with a formal experience, emotionally intricate and every bit as much involved with the passage of time as the twelve-novel sequence by Anthony Powell entitled A Dance to the Music of Time, a work it took me two years to read. Woolf’s formal arrangements of chronology are key characteristics of her narrative technique.
Narrative shape conveys meaning as much as lyric shape. A short story in verse may feel lyrical and charged from start to finish, while an epic or novel in verse might move in and out of lyric modes, changing its level of verbal intensity from time to time.
5. Narrative and Verse Technique
Narratives in verse have one advantage over narratives in prose: verse itself. Look at the way Eve relates her dream to Adam in Book V of Paradise Lost:
“So saying, he drew nigh, and to me held,
Even to my mouth, of that same fruit held part
Which he had plucked: the pleasant savory smell
So quickened appetite that I, methought,
Could not but taste. Forthwith up to the clouds
With him I flew, and underneath beheld
The Earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide
And various. Wondering at my flight and change
To this high exaltation, suddenly,
My guide was gone, and I, methought, sunk down,
And fell asleep; but O how glad I waked
To find this but a dream!”
Clearly it is not meter alone that makes meaning here; I could put other words with other meanings on the same pattern and would feel differently about them. But these words in this pattern appear intended to augment meaning, to mean in a different way than they would mean otherwise. The exhilaration of flight one feels in this passage arises partly because it starts mid-line: “Forthwith up to the clouds / With him I flew.” Whoosh—we’re airborne. The view of earth is also beautifully set up by a line break: “and underneath beheld / The Earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide / And various.” This knowledge of earth long before mankind could fly surely endeared Milton to the Romantics as much as the anguish of Satan did—it links the epic to a character like Victor Frankenstein, the seeker after knowledge. When Eve descends to earth, the pacing of Milton’s sentence within the lines very slightly delays the landing: “My guide was gone, and I, methought, sunk down, / And fell asleep.” That little interjection, “methought,” does not just fulfill the blank verse meter; it also holds off the verb to the end of the line, letting some air into the motion of the verse.
Re-reading Paradise Lost does not always thrill me as much as this passage does. I get worn out by some of it—or perhaps I should say I admire it more than I love it, and this is one of the dangers the narrative poet faces. Milton’s theological story is sometimes less gripping than Homer’s battles and voyages, I confess. But this is the way we read great works—by changing our stance toward them over time. We assent, we resist. We are free.
6. Avoiding the Documentary
Rhetoric and verse technique lift some narratives out of the doldrums, and it is fair to say that a good deal of narrative poetry I read lacks that element of lift. A certain kind of documentary historical poem—the family sequence accompanied by photographs, the biography in verse—can prove terribly dull because the writing isn’t doing anything of interest—and this is true of narratives we might call naturalistic as well as more speculative types of writing. Dull narrative verse leaves all narrative verse open to the charge of dullness, and those of us who write narrative poetry need to prove ourselves with every outing as much as the lyric writers do. A good story is a lovely thing, but it can be told dully by writers who are, for example, too much in love with their own research. Bright Star, Jane Campion’s recent film about John Keats, was more interesting as a story about Fanny Brawne than about the poet, partly because it did not always liberate itself from textual evidence. In some of the dialogue Keats quotes his own letters, as if the filmmakers could not quite imagine a language for him as a character. By contrast, in his novella ABBAABBA, Anthony Burgess has the audacity to imagine Keats cursing and battling conventional religion during his last days. The historical narrative that too slavishly quotes letters of the time falls into the danger of seeming merely documentary rather than fully imagined. Some readers of my own verse novel, Ludlow, imagined they were complimenting me when they said I must have done a lot of research to write the poem, but I am proudest of the research I forgot or left out, the material I invented rather than the material I borrowed. Compare reading a good history of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia to reading War and Peace, in which Tolstoy imagines the parents he never really knew and makes them important characters in his story. The author of successful narratives is building a universe, competing with the builder of the one in which we imagine we exist.
Historical or not, researched or not, good narrative verse must have the drive and force of good storytelling, and must also offer the pleasures of fine writing, moments where diction or line or the interaction of sentence and line or other matters associated with technique demonstrate the necessity of the chosen form.
7. Dramatic Voice
In all poetry, one quality that separates the sheep from the goats, as it were, is dramatic voice. I do not know how to define this term, but I can see that it is caught up in a marriage to all other technical matters that make a good poem. Dramatic voice is partly the sense we have, when reading a great poem, that a person is “talking” or that the poem embodies a person in a particular state of passion or conflict or intensity.
B. H. Fairchild’s great dramatic monologue, “Frieda Pushnik,” begins with the sentence “These are the faces I love.” It ends, “let me be one of them.” Within these emotional parentheses we get the voice of a highly articulate, spiritually challenging woman who happens to be an armless, legless sideshow attraction. We get a narrative in an unexpected voice that schools us in empathy, and we get a dramatization of identity. She is on display, judged by strangers who pay to see her and hear her speak. But she is also looking out at them, judging them. Like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” this is partly a drama of seeing and being seen, which asks us to imagine an epistemology of the self, and by implication raises larger questions about creation and the existence of God. The poem is also an intensely moving story—she tells us about three people who paid particular attention to her, each for different reasons, and her reactions to these three characters (including the photographer, Diane Arbus) reveal something of her tough compassion.
The shape of Fairchild’s narrative is utterly formal before we even begin to talk about his verse line and his use of long and short sentences—his highly rhetorical way of writing stories. The build of a longer sentence is also keyed to the passage of time—the duration of the monologue, the way it rises in emotive power and closes with that short sentence answering the opening, contributes to the emotional charge of the poem. Here are the final twenty lines:
He came twice. And that second time,
just before I thanked the crowd, I’m so glad you could
drop by, please tell your friends, his hand rose—floated,
really—to his chest. It was a wave. The slightest,
shyest wave good-bye, hello (and what’s the difference
anyway) as if he knew me, truly knew me, as if,
someday, he might return. His eyes. His hair, as vivid
as the howdahs on those elephants. In the posters
where I’m not. That day the crowd seemed to slither out,
to ooze, I thought, like reptiles—sluggish, sleek, gut-hungry
for the pleasures of the world, the prize, the magic number,
the winning shot, the doll from the rifle booth, the girl
he gives it to, the snow cone dripping, the popcorn dyed
with all the colors of the rainbow, the rainbow, the sky
it crowns, and whatever lies beyond, the One, perhaps,
we’re told, enthroned there who in love or rage or spasm
of inscrutable desire made that teeming, oozing,
devouring throng borne now into the midway’s sunlight,
that vanished, forever silent God to whom I say
again my little prayer: let me be one of them.
A story is a form. A form is often imaginatively liberating. The empathy Fairchild achieves in his poem might not have been possible by other means, and empathy is a civilizing value. We become monsters when we shut it down.
I would argue that this elusive quality, dramatic voice, also drives the best narrative poems—not just dramatic monologues, but any stories related by and for human beings. The sense of personality behind a storytelling voice can be a marvelous engine, and writers who have self-consciously removed that personality from their prose and verse are doing their readers no favors. Are Dickens’s characters less alive because his narrators are alive, combative, funny, rhetorically sophisticated? The multiple voices of an experiment like Joyce’s Ulysses give the book a variable humanity—they are not merely narrative strategies in some abstract way, but are colored by character. Of course in Joyce’s book there are exceptions to this—perhaps some of the “Sirens” section is in some way pure lyric rather than dramatic or narrative voice. But other sections—“Wandering Rocks” leaps to mind—have a lovely way of conveying human presences individually and in cinematic or symphonic sequence.
As an example of verse technique married to dramatic voice, let’s look at a poem I mentioned earlier, Robinson’s narrative sonnet, “Reuben Bright”:
Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.
And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.
It’s not just Reuben’s character that is illuminated here, but a community’s. The narrator evokes understanding of the town’s attitudes toward work, even the compassion of some of its citizens, who can cry to see Reuben cry. The narrator is a person too, who feels no superiority to the butcher, knowing that grief is available to all of us. As for technique, notice the way the first two lines are modifying clauses conveying information, then more than information as the third line introduces a person who “would not have you think that Reuben Bright / Was any more a brute than you or I.” Notice as well the easy management of a difficult form, the Petrarchan sonnet. Far from impeding the narrative, it actually abets it, particularly in the movement from the octave to the sestet, and the sestet’s seemingly effortless progression to that wrenching final image.
The poem was once misprinted in a major anthology so the ending read “and tore down to the slaughter-house,” which might only caution us about how close comedy and tragedy are to each other, but it also underlines the precision with which Robinson let the actions of his character convey more than he could relate in words. This is good narrative technique—the balance of showing and telling, the revelation of character through action, as Aristotle observes in Greek tragedy.
Dramatic voice is of course most obvious in verse drama—the rage of Lear, the jealousy of Leontes creating intense variations in blank verse technique, the rhetoric of Jacques lending melancholy wit to the proceedings in another kind of play. Yet even the rhymed free verse of a poet like Kay Ryan, one of the least involved with narrative of any contemporary I can think of, conveys personality—and that is part of its ineffable charm. The presence of personality in verse offers particular engagement, whether the verse is experimental or traditional or both, whether it is narrative or dramatic or something else altogether.*
8. The Broken Rosary
Narratives are forms, then. Whether or not we know their ends when we set out, we eventually begin to expect or dread them, and these anticipatory feelings are related to the way we respond to any kind of repetition—rhyme, meter, stanza, refrain, etc. A form establishes an expectation that is either met or denied. When expectation is fulfilled we might be in the hands of a very conventional story, but it still might convey disturbing or complex experience. When expectation is thwarted something else happens. Fairchild’s “Frieda Pushnik” allows a woman others would call a circus freak to speak as eloquently as Henry James (and with a good deal more passion). Robinson’s sonnet conveys the emotions of a man who makes his living as a butcher, and does so largely through a few simple gestures. John Keats, in “The Eve of St. Agnes,” creates a narrative mood I can only call spellbinding not only by relating a story, but also giving it a charming, spooky, erotically-charged atmosphere:
They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
Where lay the porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flagon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:–
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones:–
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.
And they are gone: aye, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm. …
Like sets for a Cocteau film, the house and its doors are animate, the lovers moving into impossible perfection, leaving the ordinary world behind. The poem ends by circling back to its beginning, the weary beadsman telling his rosary, while these Spenserian stanzas, beads strung on a magic narrative, remain open, unlocked, even as they close.
* I am aware of objections that we should not think of characters as people, but I don’t care about them. Why should I, when I usually think of people as characters?