Poetry with Narrative

A motorcycle parked in an alleyway. Photo by Michael Wade on Unsplash

Narrative poetry has been around for millenia. It’s a poem that tells a story. The opposite of narrative poetry is lyrical poetry, which tells about a moment, a feeling.

In the 1990’s, lyric-narrative poetry was all the rage, and I spent way too much time trying to figure out how to define that. Labels are often more trouble than they are worth.

But who doesn’t like a story? And a story combined with poetry can be very, very lovely. You get plot, character, setting, and all the rich sounds of poetry.Epic poems, like The Odyssey, are narrative poems, as are shorter poems like “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. And by the way, a fabulous new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson came out recently. Highly recommended by me, and better people than me.

Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Aaron Smith write narrative poems. For some poets, narrative can be a way of working through trauma by becoming the storyteller and taking control of the story.

You know that saying “The winners make history”? Well, not necessarily. As Sharon Olds wrote “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”

The poem below, originally published in The Powow River Anthology and in my chapbook, The Glass Transition, is a narrative poem. Like many narrative poems, it’s written in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. The “Angels” mentioned in the poem are the motorcycle club, The Hell’s Angels.

Ladies Night

Hold a pebble in your mouth to reduce the sensation of thirst.
— Survival tip

It started in a washed-up biker bar,
First letting Judy, former puffer-queen
And party-girl for Angels brag on me,
Her college girl. The bikers lined up shots
And beers for me. I thought that I could take
The things I wanted from that world and walk
On whole to what I thought was next.
 The bar
Was full of idle whores who’d doped themselves
Together, piece by piece
so they could give
Up any piece they chose to later on.

Who did I think I was? They jumped me on
The sidewalk, snarled their hands around my hair,
My imitation pearls, as if these were
Just ropes to pull me to the leveled ground.
The pearls spilled off into the gutter, small
White mice escaping sudden light.
 The girls
Got bored and went back in the bar, left me
To limp away, to leave a trail of hair
Along the bricks. What did I give up first,
To get the things I craved? 
This story rolls
Just like a pearl inside my mouth. It clicks
Against my teeth, against all kinds of thirst.

Poetry: How to Read the Words

“Positive bright white neon white sign on dark background, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” by Lauren Peng on Unsplash

 

 

First, relax.

Speak the poem out loud.

Pay attention to the words.

All over the world, poetry was originally an oral art form.When only the elite could read and write, poetry was the art form of the people. People, poets and otherwise, memorized poems and recited them. The people reciting and the people hearing the poems all experienced the pleasure of poetry: its narratives, its meter, its rhymes, its imagery. No one felt left out.

During certain periods in history, evil powers (am I exaggerating?) conspired to make poetry inaccessible to the masses. They wanted to turn poetry into an elite venture.

But over and over again, poetry fought back. In the 1990’s, for example, the poetry slam was a powerful phenomenon that brought poetry’s power back to public venues and people who didn’t have (or want) college degrees. The New Formalists pushed for a revival of rhyme and meter, two elements of poetry that create pleasure. In America in the 21st century, poetry has risen up again as a political force as writers and audiences fight back against political and social oppression.

Poetry is powerful, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.

You might have heard that all interpretations of a poem are valid. That’s not true; poems must be read with attention to their words, and they mustn’t have meanings slapped on them willy-nilly.

But all great poems are open to multiple interpretations. Complexity is an element that makes poetry powerful, and complexity results in multiple meanings.

It’s okay to have a different reaction to a poem than someone else. Here’s an example of a poem that readers often have quite opposite reactions to: “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke.

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

[Could there be an invalid interpretation of this poem? Sure: It’s about a pink dinosaur roaming over mountains in search of a candy bar. The words of the poem certainly don’t bear that out.]

Back when I taught literature classes, I often chose this poem as part of the curriculum because the words of the poem do bear out two opposite interpretations. And more. Students usually argued about whether:

  • This is a poem about a warm and loving father-son relationship, or
  • This is a poem about an abusive father

Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally positive connotations: Dizzy, waltzing, romped.

Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally negative connotations: Scraped, battered, death.

Then there are words that can be taken positively or negatively, depending on the reader’s context: Whiskey, unfrowned, dirt, clinging.

Sometimes, a poem can tell you something about yourself. Sometimes, it can tell you something about an “other.” Sometimes, it even widens your understanding of the human condition.

In my classes, students batted this poem back and forth. It was a great delight to me when they concluded, as a group, that a relationship could be both violent and tender, that the father could be a hard-working mechanic who stopped off for a quick drink on his way home before romping with his kid, and a habitual, unkempt drunk whose unpredictable ways were frightening to a child.

Human beings are usually not one thing or another, wholly evil or wholly good. Complexity. Poetry can sing about that to us. All we have to do is pay attention to the words.

Poetry on Weather

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Like most people in 21st century America, I’ve lived through a good bit of weather: historic blizzards, historic heat waves, historic hurricanes, historic droughts, historic rains. One thing I’ve never experienced personally is a tornado, but I’m okay with that.

Weather has been a rich subject for poets across all boundaries. No matter our country, continent, time, or season, we all experience weather in very intimate ways. If we commute, the rain or snow can tangle up our days; if we garden, the sun and rain can feed us; if we take our leisure time outdoors, the weather can delight us — or make us miserable.

No matter how old and cranky I get, I remain a fan of the British Romantic poets. Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley is, I admit it, a little adolescent (“A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.”), but it still thrills me.

Remember “Who Has Seen the Wind?” by Christina Rossetti?

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind? 
Neither you nor I. 
But when the trees bow down their heads, 
The wind is passing by.

More modern poems about weather include Snow by Naomi Shihab Nye and Flood by Eliza Griswold.

Not surprisingly, poems “about” weather, whether old or new, are often about something else, too. Poets are devious.

Here’s one of my poems “about” weather, in this case, Hurricane Matthew, which raked the Southeast coast of America in 2016. It was originally published in Tuck Magazine, and picked up by a reporter for a regional South Carolina magazine who wrote an article about it, including an audio recording of the poem.

Poetry: Imitation vs. Stealing

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T.S. Eliot (why do I keep bringing him up when I claim to resent him?) is credited with saying “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Of course, it’s plain wrong to plagiarize, and Eliot’s statement shouldn’t be taken as a license to lie. In fact, if we practice good research habits and read the statement in context, it becomes clear exactly what he meant by “steal.”

One of the surest of tests [of excellence] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

So, it’s okay to “steal” an idea or feeling from another poem as long as (to quote another much-resented writer) we “make it new.”

Modernists like Eliot and Pound were not the first to grapple with the distinctions between imitation and theft. Generations of poets have been influenced and inspired by their forebears.

The literary critic Harold Bloom devoted an entire book to what he called “The Anxiety of Influence,” arguing that all literature is a response to the work that preceded it. The book, published in 1973, was the literary equivalent of the Biblical dictum, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What creative person wouldn’t become anxious at the idea there is no possibility of creating anything wholly new?

Maybe mature creative persons don’t become anxious. Readers of poetry may come across epigraphs that openly acknowledge the influence of other artists. Those epigraphs are usually framed as “After Jane Doe.” Or, sometimes the title of the poem tells us who the poet is imitating, as in “After Horace” by Carolyn Kizer.

Here’s an attempt of mine to “make it new,” originally published in Mezzo Cammin. It’s an imitation — or theft — of a poem by Louise Bogan titled “The Changed Woman,” which got me thinking about how not changing can be a way to accomplish change.

The Unchanged Woman
— after “The Changed Woman” by Louise Bogan

Again she bears what she once bore,
And not because she has forgotten
The weight. Asleep, she opens the door
To peace: a single chair, pale cotton

Shift, empty pages. No fuss.
Awake, the garden reminds her of
Her choices: dahlias, hibiscus
Weighed down by honeybees’ love,

The way some women bend below
Their children’s weight. Not her. She dead-
Heads blossoms past their first hello
And brushes past the bees that spread

Their busy legs and baskets, winnowing
Out pollen she doesn’t wish to capture.
Her burden isn’t in the finishing,
Or mundane seeds that once were rapture.

Poetry on Aging

“Old grandmother with gray hair and a wrinkled face closing her eyes in black and white.” by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Aging is the sort of inevitable, non-negotiable topic that fascinates poets. Birth, school, work, death, in the immortal lyrics of The Godfathers.

Some of us fight aging. Some of us embrace it. Whichever approach is yours, though, aging beats the alternative. In the immortal words of someone.

People in my family die young. Maybe that’s why I’ve always wanted to be old. Or maybe it’s because I’d hoped to be old and wise, to stop making the same foolish mistakes over and over again.

That hasn’t happened yet, but aging has made me lazier, meaning that I now have no energy at all to boss other people around about how to spend their days. It’s all I can do to manage my own days.

One of my favorite poems that examines aging is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, even though I harbor great resentment against Eliot for his efforts to turn poetry into an elitist art form.

W.B. Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old” is about aging, but it’s also a love poem, sort of. “Warning” by British poet Jenny Joseph starts with the famous, exuberant line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.”

The poem below, originally published in Poet Lore, is not particularly exuberant.

When It Descends

Winter, tell me how my body
makes changes without me. You know.
Your beautyberry is gone again, eaten by cardinals.

The nights grow longer and call me to their altars:
bedsheets I stroke like a lover’s skin,
bedside table piled with books, breeding

beside a cup of ginger tea.
I pray for sleep, and when it descends,
my two husbands trade places in my dreams,

as if they’re only stand-ins
for limitation, when I know they were more.
Tell me how my body changes without me,

and I’ll tell you how I learned
to speak a loving thought out loud.
If only I’d stopped right there.

Poetry: Personal Mythologies

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If you’re like me, you’ve created a personal mythology, starring YOU, the protagonist.

It sounds so boorish, so self-aggrandizing, but some psychologists (and novelists) say we all do it. Carl Jung, who wrote exhaustively about the function of myth in the human psyche, generated a host of followers who expanded this idea.

The arts can be one way to access or untangle our personal mythologies — the tales we tell ourselves, the stories that help us make sense of chaos and then survive through difficult times, the ones that also, sadly, encourage us to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Writers including Diane Wakowski have written treatises on using the personal mythology in creative endeavors, and poets including Albert Goldbarth have written poems titled “Personal Mythologies.

A little introspection can help us see at least an outline of our personal myths. The story patterns will sound familiar: the rags-to-riches waif, the loyal but jilted lover, the abandoned child, the powerful but tender man.

Our lives can resonate with more than one myth. I see myself as the abandoned child, but I also see myself as the survivor.

Some poets use astrology or tarot to locate their personal myths. Others use literature or film, or meditation, or hypnosis.

Here’s a poem where I critique some of my personal mythologies — in the context of a fungal disease. Occasionally, I get quite tired of those old myths of mine. The poem was originally published in Mezzo Cammin.

Heart Rot

Effective measures don’t exist to treat
this malady attacking hardwood trees.
Prevention by avoiding injuries
can minimize the harm, but not defeat
the possibility. Twice this week

a fallen tree has blocked my way. The first
one shocked a city street, the second burst
in view more secretly beside a creek,

and cut across my path’s trajectory.
My mind suggests these trees are messages

for me; here come the hackneyed images
that feed my personal mythology:

abusers, festering with wrongs they did
to me, and still my memories forbid
free passage. Such is metaphor’s temptation.

I learn that healthy trees wall off decay
in tissues injured on the wounding day,
and grow around the rot, and rarely will
uninjured wood fall prey to fungi. Still,
it’s hard to see which limbs were scraped or mauled,

and harder still to tell which heart holds walled-
off rot behind some calloused acclimation.

Poetry in Form: Villanelle

“Two pigeons nuzzle on a wall in the Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower visible in the background” by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash
The word “villanelle” is from the French, although the form itself probably originated in Renaissance Italy. Originally, it was not a very structured form, but the villanelle we know today plays by a long list of rules.

It’s ironic that poets, who are so often iconoclasts, have been and continue to be drawn to the limits imposed by form.

Some poets say those limits free them from their mind’s repetitive patterns. I’m in that camp. For example, writing in form forces my brain away from the patterns it wants to follow. It forces me to find and choose words I might not otherwise use. Those two things alone will force me to come up with new ideas.

So instead of form and order being the enemy of the fresh and the new, the order imposed by form can actually push the brain out of its ruts into something entirely new.

The Academy of American Poets gives this complicated but thorough definition of the villanelle:

The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.

Oy vey. And yet, the interlocking nature of the villanelle is so like the obsessions we return to over and over again in our lives. Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” is perhaps the best example of how the form can illuminate — and acknowledge — obsession.

The villanelle below is an attempt to illuminate one or two of my obsessions. When performing it at a reading, I always introduce it as a gardening poem. But of course there’s another level. “Datura” was originally published in The Hypertexts, and also appears in my book, Back East.

Datura

I choose datura from the racks of seed
And nurture them with care, although they’ll grow
Up poisonous and beautiful. I need

Their syrup-scented trumpet-blooms. Their weed-
Like vigor cures me of the winter, so
I choose datura. From the racks of seed

I choose some others, too — the hearts that bleed
In spring, the columbine, and these will grow
Not poisonous, just beautiful. These need

A simpler kind of care; such flowers breed
With ease. I need the razor’s edge, and so
I choose datura from the racks of seed.

Surprise — their family, Nightshade, Jimsonweed
And Belladonna visit me. I grow
Accustomed to poisonous beauty, need

Hypnotics causing death or merely greed
For sleep, for nature’s death-defying show.
I chose datura from the racks of seed,
As poisonous and beautiful as need.

Poetry from Wordplay

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Maybe all poetry is all about word play — we bounce meter and rhyme, catch line breaks and stanza breaks, model concrete poems, imagine long abecedarian poems, play dress-up with erasure poems . . .

The most famous word-playing poet may be Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame. His real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodson, and he was also a mathematician. Here are some lines from his poem “Jabberwocky”:

 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Play is creative; wordplay is no exception. In “Jabberwocky,” the nonsensical words somehow make a certain sense to our brains, perhaps because they are inserted into traditional syntax. We, the readers, create meaning out of nonsense. For example, we may make “slithy” into an adjective that describes the noun “toves.”

Erasure poems happen when poets play with a given text, erasing parts of the text to reveal and create a poem. One contemporary practitioner of erasure and other types of found poetry is E Kristin Anderson, who’s done some remarkable work with novels written by Stephen King.

The poem below, originally published in Hermeneutic Chaos (sadly, this beautiful journal is on hiatus), started out as a way of playing around with two different meanings of a Latin word.

Os

In ancient Latin, the word for bone — os —
was spelled the same as os, the word for mouth.

Once there was a mouth that shrank with age
to a pocket the size of a pea, with no more room

for food, or drink, or teeth, or even a tongue.
It grew smaller and smaller until it became

completely untethered: a small hole
floating in the night sky,

through which only bones spoke,
but only the bones of stars.

Poetry on Marriage

“Elderly man and woman touch foreheads in black and white photo” by Lotte Meijer on Unsplash
The rush and blush of a new love often kickstarts the poetic impulse, but it’s so easy to fall into cliché (at least for me) in one of those I-just-fell-in-love poems.

On the other hand, long-term relationships of any type develop complexity as time passes. That complexity creates a depth and richness that can defy cliché, even when writing of a romantic love relationship.

The Academy of American Poets website has an entire section devoted to poems about marriage and partnership, containing dozens of fine poems. Not all of them are happily-ever-after, but as I’ve heard, marriage is not for the faint of heart.

My second husband and I celebrated our tenth anniversary of marriage this year. I am his fourth wife, so between the two of us, we have a good bit of experience! One of the things I love best about him is that he never tries to censor me — a good habit for someone in a marriage or partnership with a writer.

The poem below was originally published in 2017 in Passager, a journal founded in 1990 in Baltimore, Maryland. Passager only publishes work by writers who are at least 50 years old. They put out beautiful issues, and one of the best things for me about turning fifty was that I could finally submit poems to them.

Marriage Bed

Where sleep renders us equally
introspective and inert, equally

irrational and helpless, unaware
of resentments, or mice rustling,

or branches scraping,
or even of the other’s sleeplessness —

each, in wakeful turn, alone with wakefulness
and envy, astonished at the other’s insensibility.

What luck settles the sleepless partner at last?

The knees unbend as if the body has been lifted up
from face-down prayer. The ligaments extend,

the spine lengthens and the body surrenders
to the heft of the quilts,

to the warmth of the other,
to the mesh of breath,

heft and warmth and mesh tied together
in a poultice, drawing restlessness

from that knot between the shoulder blades.
May we meet in sleep again. Helpless. Disburdened.