Editorial note and reminder: Next Wednesday, September 25, at 7 p.m. we will host a second writing challenge (Writer’s Fourth Wednesday) featuring Victoria C. Slotto, novelist and poet. The subject of next week’s challange is Literary Allusion. So writers read on, enjoy, write and mark your calendars for next week’s event. Mr Linky, which enables you to share your work with everyone, will remain open for seventy-two hours. Victoria will visit all participants to read and comment.
Here British poet, author and poetry teacher, Myra Schneider offers some thoughts on the possibilities and pitfalls of narrative poetry …
Narrative poetry is so different from lyrical that in many respects it is like another medium. A narrative poem needs to be structured as carefully as a novel and is likely to be less dense than a short poem yet it must still carry a sense of poetry, be more than condensed prose. What excites me most about this form is the chance to use voices very different from my own, to explore character, viewpoints and situations over a period of time. A narrative can express an idea in graphic action rather than in presenting it as an argument. Importantly, this medium can offer a route to writing about material which couldn’t be tackled in any other way.
Narrative poems are often rooted in difficult childhood and family experience. The great pitfall here is the danger of simply relating events as they happened intermixed with an outpouring of feelings. Releasing every detail of a painful memory on paper may be essential as a starting point but of course raw writing needs to be transformed to communicate to others. Selection, structuring and sometimes a measure of fictionalizing are necessary to convey the underlying truth to the reader. Widening the context beyond the narrator’s own reactions is likely to be a valuable contribution to the poem.
Donald Atkinson in his semi-autobiographical book-length A Sleep of Drowned Fathers and Kate Foley in her much shorter poem The Don’t Touch Garden have both written brilliant narratives with lively dialogue and sharp imagery showing different viewpoints in telescoped scenes which feature key moments or situations. Atkinson presents family life and traces his relationship with a violent and abusive father to a climactic incident when he is in his teens. His mother, who is trying to stand up for the children, calls him to help when her husband attacks her. The boy punches his father who collapses and it comes home to the reader that in reality the brutal man is very weak. The last sections show him as rich, isolated, sad and dying by accident in an appalling sex parlour. Yet what emerges is the narrator’s compassion and love for his father.
In The Don’t Touch Garden the narrator is an adopted child trying to make sense of the feeling that she didn’t fit with her mother. The climax of her story is the discovery of a bundle papers which reveal her identity. The adoptive mother is as much a focus as the child and there are graphic scenes which depict sympathetically the story of her background, marriage, and longing to have a child. Foley’s father, with whom she had a much easier relationship, is characterized in telling scenes. Important too is the wartime period in which the child grew up. There are very poignant moments in this many-stranded narrative which is told with wit, humour and economy.
The memory of childhood and relationships with parents can bring up such a welter of material it is difficult to find a route to a poetic narrative even though there is a strong urge to do so. This was my experience. I wanted to write about the way I was dominated by my father during my childhood and adult life and decided to create a fictional parallel with a main character whose life was very different life from mine. However, I couldn’t keep the fictional equivalent of my father under control. He ‘demanded’ sections in his voice which showed him behaving exactly as my father did. The result was he blotted out the daughter character and the poem didn’t develop properly. Discouraged after six months, I almost abandoned the poem but Mimi Khalvati gave me some encouraging feedback and I saw how to proceed. Looking back I realize I needed to write these ‘father scenes’ to clear an overwhelming anger out of my head. When I began again I confined the father to a few short scenes and fleshed out the narrative, widening the canvas with characters all of whom had difficulties to face in their lives. After about eighteen months the compressed novel Becoming found its shape.
Of course childhood and difficult personal relationships connected with it is only one source of personal subject matter for poems with a narrative element. Many poets (and non-poets) feel the need to write about the death of someone close and such poems often have a narrative drive. Understandably there is a desire to record every detail of a last illness but, as magazine editors and poetry judges are all too aware, writers often fall into the trap of offering a sad but drawn out story in which the material hasn’t been transformed.
Douglas Dunn’s moving book-length sequence, Elegies, about his wife Lesley’s illness and his own life after she died has a narrative thread but it is worth noting it barely touches on medical details and it doesn’t hammer out the harrowing day to day decline of his wife’s strength. What Dunn does is to make skilful shifts in chronology so that poems which recall incidents when Lesley was well are juxtaposed with graphic moments during the illness such as the couple looking at a hanging mobile of three seagulls made by a friend, the night before she died. These poems are sad yet celebratory and reveal the kind of person she was. The later part of the book traces the stages of grief and mourning which Dunn goes through as he re-lives events and finds ways of continuing to connect with his lost wife. Very controlled language and different kinds of strict form counterpoint the overwhelm of grief in this very moving sequence.
Many different kinds of personal material can trigger narrative poems. Gwyneth Lewis’s book-length Hospital Odyssey was inspired by her husband’s serious cancer illness and the frustration and fear she endured while he was undergoing treatment in an NHS hospital with all its inadequacies. Lewis turned the experience not into a painful account but a hugely inventive epic in nine books. She drew on the quest tradition, in particular Dante, but also created an extraordinary world in which matrons and consultants turn into creatures, diseases are personified, and microbes hold a manic ball. Maris, the heroine, is accompanied by two helpers rather as Dorothy was in the Wizard of Oz. Her search for her husband, Hardy, and for a way to find a cure that would save his life, takes her deeper and deeper into the underworld of hospital which perhaps is also a metaphor for the space in the human body. Lewis, following the literary tradition, sometimes addresses the reader and she is speaking for herself when she says the odyssey is one of healing that takes place in the head:
There is satire and burlesque, as well as extremes of feeling in this complex and ambitious story. The whole, written in five line rhyming stanzas, is an extraordinary achievement and a wonderful illustration of how trauma can be transformed into a work of art which universalizes it.
Life experiences which have no direct connection with personal difficulties can also be the basis of narrative. I found it exciting to draw on my years of teaching disabled adults in writing Voicebox. The poem is entirely fiction but the trigger for the pivotal character, William, was a composite of clients I worked with, each of whom was wheelchair-bound and had speech problems. William, frustrated by his disabilities and his over-protective mother, is intelligent but antagonistic towards his mother, generally obstreperous and he lives mostly in fantasy. His outlet for self-expression is via his computer. Inventing him was liberating, great fun and extended my writing. Here is a brief excerpt from a poem he wrote after he’s seen a heron in a local park he went to with Katie, a neighbour and teacher, who’s taken an interest in him.
At middnight when the moon
berns whitely in the sky
William kreeps out to kiss his grilfrend
and heron snaps his beek at Mum
awders her to come to the park…
The thirty page poem is written in the voices of the four main characters, one of whom is Millie, William’s mother. All of them are in one sense or another finding their voices. I had already delved into this subject which has been an issue in my life. In Voicebox I found a new way to explore it.
Drawing on myth or fable also offers possibilities for narrative poems. In her book-length sequence, Meadowland, Louise Gluck harnessed the Odysseus story in a remarkable way. She interweaves poems in which Penelope, Telemachus (the son of Odysseus and Penelope) and Circe, in particular, put forward their own views. These offer a modern interpretation of the legend which connects with the story, also told in voice, of two contemporary un-named characters, whose marriage is falling apart. There is cutting humour as well as tenderness and pain in these poems which clearly reflect on personal experience. Gluck often draws on myth. In her book-length sequence Vita Nova, which has a strong sense of mourning, she turns to the Orpheus and Eurydice story. Classical stories, when used effectively as a base, heighten and universalize subject matter. Anne Cluysenaar makes the narrative of The Epic of Gilgamesh a frame for Clay, a long poem with different strands of reference including a strong meditative element.
I found re-telling the Orpheus story in contemporary terms and placing it in the London Underground offered surprising opportunities. With its many escalators, corridors and dark tunnels the Underground always fills me with a sense of drama and often seems to equate with Hades and other metaphorical underworlds. Details about the buskers, the dreadful suicides on the line, individuals I’d observed such as a thin pale girl with syringe marks all the way up her arm, gathered in my head. I pictured Eurydice following Orpheus up a long escalator before collapsing and envisaged him as a flute-playing busker who falls for a drug addict. Then I saw the drug pusher on whom Eurydice had been dependent, as the underworld king who would separate the couple. Other parallels suggested themselves. The myth seemed to strengthen my story and it allowed me to treat contemporary material I would not otherwise have dared to touch.
Historical characters and events can also be potent subject matter for narrative poems. It is crucial, however, in using this kind of material or classical stories that the poet brings something new to it. If there isn’t a re-interpretation or if the poet hasn’t found in the original material a driving point which gives the poem an illuminating focus the result is likely to be little more than a re-telling and will fail because it has no life of its own.
Elaine Feinstein was drawn to Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, because she identified strongly with his sense of always being an outsider. His story was a strange one. The son of a poor Jewish tanner he was assimilated into European culture by the accident of family baptism and education, managed to move from a profligate life in Venice to the Emperor’s Court in Vienna and then, when out of favour, he made his way to New York. Amazed by his nerve and his ability to live on his wits as much as his talent, she conceived the narrative as a dramatic monologue, making da Ponte look back over his past with all its ironies at the point when he is living a humdrum life in America. The skilfully written poem, a salute to the librettist’s survival, points up the ironies of his ever-changing fortunes. It moves swiftly through his story but with graphic detail and the teller sometimes steps out of chronological order to make comments. The five line rhyming verses in iambics are a marvellous counterpoint to the subject matter. Form, of course, whether strict or free is as crucial in a narrative poem as any other.
Dilys Wood’s poem, The South Pole Inn, was triggered by a desire to write about early Antarctic exploration but she knew she must find an indirect approach to this well-documented subject. She hit on the idea of a dramatic narrative set in Ireland long after the main expeditions, intending to show the heroism of the men through the eyes of a woman. She chose Nell, wife of Tom Crean one of the participants, set the action in the Creans’ inn in Ireland and interwove the expedition material with references to the Irish troubles. She also invented a love-affair between Nell and Frank Worsley, another member of the expeditions, presenting him as a man who was more understanding of women than Tom. Combining fact and fiction was a challenge. There were others, in particular researching into the Irish Troubles and life in Western Ireland in the 1920s and later. She went to Ireland to see the South Pole Inn and the area round it. She also had to make sure the voices of its characters, were authentic. Nell was perceived as a capable woman frustrated by the way her husband sidelines her from ‘male’ action and as her story developed the theme of woman’s role became a major one. It was a tussle to control the plot and integrate the themes but after several drafts a remarkable poem emerged.
Research, which is often essential when using known sources for a narrative poem, can also be a pitfall. It is all too easy to be carried away by fascinating information and include it without considering whether it is really relevant. Driven by anger that 150 years ago women were so powerless and that many women in the world still are, I wanted to write a poem about Caroline Norton. She was the first person in Victorian times to gain some rights for married woman and my intention was to highlight this as I felt she should be much better known. The problem was how to select details from her complicated life which would show how much she had to fight against and endure so that the reader would recognize the significance of her achievements. To do this, however carefully I selected, many facts needed to be included but the danger was the poem would read simply as an account. It was only when I hit upon the idea of a repeat with variations such as “What she did”, “What she didn’t do” to give a rhythm and act as a hook for selecting material, that I could begin.
In the last twenty years or so narrative poetry has reassumed its place as an important genre for some leading poets writing in English, including Derek Walcott and Les Murray. There isn’t space here to examine the wide canvasses of their epics, Omeros and Fredy Neptune. Omeros is set mainly in St. Lucia and Walcott weaves together fictional narratives based on the island’s present, past and his own experiences, creating some parallels with the Iliad. The island has played a crucial part in Walcott’s life and in this poem, among others, it features as a dominant character. I should mention that place often plays key role in narrative and this applies to several of the poems I’ve written about in this essay – Hospital Odyssey, for example. In Fredy Neptune Murray writes in an alter ego as a rough and ready Australian of German origin to produce a verse novel written as Fredy’s fantasy adventures. These take him to many parts of the world and incorporate the history of the period from the end of World War 1 to soon after the end of World War 2. Early in the story the shock of seeing Armenian women burnt to death by a mob makes him his lose his sense of touch, a condition which has metaphorical implications. In the later part of book he rescues a mentally disabled German boy. This strand of the story, which is haunting, was a way for Murray to write about his autistic son.
Omeros and Fredy Neptune are among the highest poetic achievements of our age. There are many pitfalls to be faced in writing poetic narrative but I hope I’ve shown the possibilities of the mode are unending.
A Sleep of Drowned Fathers, Donald Atkinson, Peterloo 1989
Migrations, Anne Cluysenaar, Cinnamon Press 2011
Elegies, Douglas Dunn, Faber 1985
Gold, Elaine Feinstein, Carcanet 2000
Night & Other Animals, Kate Foley, The Green Lantern Press 2002
Meadowlands, Louise Gluck, Carcanet 1998; Vita Nova, Carcanet 2009
A Hospital Odyssey, Gwyneth Lewis, Bloodaxe 2010
Fredy Neptune, Les Murray, Carcanet 1998
Becoming, Myra Schneider 2007; Multiplying The Moon (Voicebox, Orpheus in the Underground), Enitharmon 2004, What Women Want, Second Light Publications 2012
Omeros, Derek Walcott, Faber 1990
Antarctica, Dilys Wood, Greendale Press 2008
The illustrations were not included in the original article and were added here by me. The portraits are the property of Myra Schneider and Dilys Wood and copyrighted. Book cover art is copyrighted and used here under fair use. J.D.