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Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke.
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
NARRATIVE POETRY Despite the predominance of lyric poetry, narrative poetry has prospered in 20th-century American literature, and its conventions have undergone innovative reconsideration unrivalled since the English romantic era. In contrast to the intense utterance of the lyric, which typically speaks from a single moment in time, conventionally the narrative is a poetic genre that tells a story, binding sequences of events via plot and character. Historically, the narrative subdivides into epics, such as John Milton's Paradise Lost (1674), romances, such as Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1385), and shorter ballad forms. But the changes in modes of storytelling, particularly those affected by modernist experimentation with the prose novel, have made it necessary for narrative conventions to change as well.
In the years before modernism, American writers in particular envisioned poetry as fundamentally distinct from story. Walt Whitman transformed epic poetry from the narrative mode to the lyric sequence. Earlier Edgar Allen Poe had contended, in his famous essay "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846), that all poems should be readable in one sitting. These factors, alongside the rising popularity of the prose novel, divided narrative from poetry so that by 1915 modern poets, such as Ezra pound and H. D., considered the lyric the defining genre of poetry and rarely allowed their early work to include traditional narrative elements. However, as Marjorie Perloff suggests, many poets continued to discover that "to tell a story is to find a way—sometimes the only way—of knowing one's world" (417). To conceive of fragmented events as continuous, with a beginning and an end, is a way for the imagination to endow them with meaning, "to impose its own order on what is," as Sylvia plath observes in her poem "On the Difficulty of Conjuring up a Dryad" (1957). In the face of Whitman's conception of America's expansive, irreducible diversity, American poets have felt the need to refashion the narrative to accommodate their visions of a fragmented and discontinuous modernity. Although some poets continued to use conventional narrative forms, the most interesting innovations have occurred by combining the narrative with the brief, intense character of the lyric.
Modern American narrative poetry falls into two categories. The first is the conventional narrative mode, either in the short form of Robert frost's ironic stories or the epic scope of James Merrill's the changing LIGHT AT SANDOVER (1982) (see also LONG AND SERIAL poetry). The second and predominant form is the narrative-lyric, which combines the psychological drama of the lyric with the narrative's descriptive sequence of events. Poems by Elizabeth bishop and Rita dove, for instance, typically begin with narrative description and move into meditation, in which the lyric voice realizes a connection between itself and the unfolding story.
The reassuring patterns that the conventional narrative offers—a beginning and an end, an authoritative third-
person speaker—often invite a wider readership than the difficult diction of the lyric. Though not a predominant mode, the conventional narrative provided a vehicle for modern poets who avoided the experiments of T. S. eliot and Pound and turned instead to Thomas Hardy or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, two precursors to the modern narrative. Frosts narratives in North of Boston (1914, 1915) were great popular successes that offered readers scenes of rural life and hardship in clear, everyday speech. "The Death of a Hired Man," which David Perkins has called one of "the finest short narrative poems written ... in the twentieth century" (241), is composed mostly of dialogue, through which Frost unfolds the tragedy of an old man preparing to die. Forecasting modern innovations in the prose novel, Frost's virtual exclusion of an omniscient narrative voice produces more complex, interesting characters, and the resultant irony and ambiguity haunts his other tales as well, including "A Hundred Collars" (1914, 1915) and the ghostly "Witch of Coos" (1923). Stephen Vincent benéts popular success, John Brown's Body (1928), is a long narrative poem that utilizes the conventions of epic, and Edwin Arlington Robinson's Arthurian narratives, Merlin (1917), Lancelot (1920), and Tristram (1927), also found great favor with American readers, with their traditional meters and detached, objective narration (see prosody and free verse).
Undoubtedly the most successful and sustained narrative poem of the 20th century is The Changing Light at Sandover, a poem of some 17,000 lines based on Merrills experiences with a Ouija board. In three books Merrill invokes poets of the narrative tradition, including Homer, Dante, and W H. auden to guide him through his sometimes tragic, sometimes comic encounters with the spirits of the dead. The poem observes mainly conventional rhyme schemes and switches between Dantean terza rima and Augustan couplets. The Changing Light at Sandover has been heralded as the postmodern generation's epic, encompassing everything from chemical biology to world wars. Merrill's speaker deftly uses repetition and allusion to build his fantastic image of the supernatural universe, as he says: " bit by bit, the puzzles put together / Or else it's disassembled, bit by bit. Hot pebbles." The speaker reveals that he "yearned for some unseasoned telling found in legends," and in defense of his unusual choice of verse over prose, he asks: "Since it never truly fit, / why wear the shoe of prose? In verse, the feet went bare." Far from detached, Merrill's speaker is enmeshed in the writing of his own poem, consistently reflecting on earlier passages and on the craft of narrative poetry itself. Though composed primarily of long stretches of conventional narration, Merrill's poem also uses the innovations in poetic storytelling form (the narrative-lyric, symbolic logic, reflexive comment on narrative as a genre) that have defined and resuscitated the narrative mode in 20th-century American poetry. Other conventional narratives include Robinson jef-fers's "Roan Stallion" (1924) and The Double Axe (1948), Randall jarrell's Orestes at Tauris (1948); many of John Crowe ransom's poems; Robert lowells The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1946), Robinson's Glory of the Nightingales (1930), Robert Penn warren's "The Ballad of Billie Pots" (1943), Wallace stevens's "The Comedian as the Letter C" (1923), and the verse segment of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire (1962).
Like the medieval romance, the modern narrative-lyric often employs a single "heroic" central figure, a personage who describes a sequence of events and ruminates on its larger, philosophical significance. In contrast to the traditional third-person grammatical form, the first-person "I" of the narrative-lyric shifts the focus from the events themselves to their meaning for the speaker, who connects them through images that often reveal something about his or her psychological or emotional state. The events need not employ plot nor designate a clear beginning and end. In fact, the speaker assumes the function conventionally fulfilled by plot—a meditating consciousness that connects disparate events, ordering them around its own insights. For instance, Bishop's "in the waiting room" (1976) follows a young speaker to a dentist's office, where she waits for her aunt while looking at magazines filled with photographs of volcanoes and aboriginal woman, when there is a sudden sound; from the inner office "came an oh! of pain / — Aunt Consuelo's voice." The speaker's mind combines the exclamation of pain, the striking photographs, and the elderly women around her in the waiting room into a realization of her own unique identity and of the feminine and human attributes that "held us all together or made us all just one." Before the poem ends the narrative resumes, but the "slush and cold" of the story have now become symbolic elements of the speaker's changing consciousness. Bishop's fictional narrative isolates a single psychological moment in time in which the speaker discerns an essential connection between the self and community, or storyteller and story.
Other poems, such as James wright's "Snowstorm in the Midwest" (1971), employ a similar technique, but the narrative element is even further submerged in a symbolic landscape: The poem's speaker steps "into the water / of two flakes. / The crowns of white birds rise." Instead of distinguishing narrative from meditation, Wright's poem combines the two in a series of moving images and symbols, suggesting that the narrative itself is an allegory for the mind's realizations. In her discussion of Wright's poem as exemplary of the return of narrative in postmodern poetry, Perloff writes that the speaker "relives a particular situation or set of events in the past so as to come to terms with . . . the present" (413).
Though he also utilized more conventional narrative form in The Mills of the Kavanaughs, Lowell often incorporated narrative elements into his shorter lyrics. His acclaimed "Skunk Hour" (1959) describes a sequence of tangential, unrelated events—a wealthy heiress's downfall, a millionaire's bankruptcy, the speaker's visit to "the hill's skull"—culminating in a morbid insight, which is also the speaker's first and only reference to himself: "My mind's not right . . . / I myself am hell." The meandering narratives of decay and isolation crystallize in the speaker's brief realization, and when the narrative concludes with a description of a mother skunk skulking in the garbage pail, we discern a melancholic continuity of thought despite the seeming disconnections. In his comments on Bishop, which also apply to himself, Lowell sees in the narrative-lyric mode hints of Frost's storytelling technique and William Carlos williams's lyric epiphanies, whose "purpose is to heighten or dramatize the description and, at the same time, to unify and universalize it" (77). And Helen Vendler remarks that "even in Lowell's most obscure moments, the presumption of story . . . held fast, no matter how murky the story nor how rapid the utterance" (145). Lowell's more confessional poems in Life Studies (1959), such as "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" and "Dunbarton," employ similar narrative techniques—lack of plot, quick shifting of scenes, first-person speaker— but emphasize the significance of the story's details by refusing to offer a final unifying moment of realization. Plath's earlier poems, such as "Sow" (1957), "Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers" (1957), and "Blackberry-ing" (1960), also relate trivial events that move subtly toward a universal insight. In "Sow," the speaker is led on "a tour / Through his lantern-lit / maze of barns" where the speaker's neighbor keeps his prize sow hidden. As the poem closes, the narrative of this labyrinthine quest leads to a "vision of ancient hog-hood" and a beast that swills "the seven troughed seas and every earthquaking continent." Plath's brief, hyperbolic story funnels into the ecstatic insight of the lyric, finding common events capable of yielding a visionary wonder.
Frank o'hara is another poet who successfully combines narrative and lyric with innovative results. Contrary to Plath's technique, his "I do this, I do that" poems, as he called them (qtd. in Gooch 288), revel in narrating the intimate details of his daily life without universalizing. Rather than move toward meditation, o'Hara's speakers remain concerned with detail and frank honesty, suggesting poetry's inability to impose a single meaning on the apparent formlessness of experience. For instance, "the day lady died" (1960), an elegy for jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, narrates a string of seemingly inconsequential "pseudo-events"—a shoe shine, buying a hamburger and milkshake, perusing a poetry magazine "to see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days"—until the speaker glimpses a newspaper headline announcing Holiday's death; he observes that he has begun to sweat and recalls "leaning on the john door in the 5 SPoT [jazz club] / while she whispered a song along the keyboard." Rather than resolve into a single psychological insight, the present-tense narrative remains fluid and descriptive. O'Hara's poem elicits an elegiac pathos (a feeling of sympathy or pity) by accumulating subjective and personal details
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around a missing central event: the death for which the poem is composed.
other narrative-lyrics include Dove's sequence in Thomas and Beulah (1986), John berryman's loosely autobiographical dream songs (1969), Williams's fragmented "Spring and All" (1923) and sections of pater-son (1963), Eliot's "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleinstein with a Cigar" and "Sweeney Erect" (1920), Warren's "Pondy Woods" (1935) and "Kentucky Mountain Farm" (1935), many of Denise levertovs volumes, including The Freeing of the Dust (1972), Robert hayden's "The Dream" (1970), and H. D.'s trilogy (1944) and helen in egypt (1961).
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