January 19, 2012 § 8 Comments
In a workshop I went to a couple of years ago, Michael Schmidt was asked about the role of narrative in contemporary poetry. He made it pretty clear that, in his view, it didn’t have one – at least, as an organising principle. Form and image were at the centre of poetry.
As someone who considers narrative as an important, vitalising element of poetry, this was unsettling. A lot of my work was – and is – organised around ‘stories’: the Sheffield Flood, the second Iraq War, the death of Lorca.
The problem with narrative, I think, derives from the belief that its role in poetry represents a response to the world which has long been recognised as inadequate – that is, unable to express or engage with our modern, fractured experience. Making sense of the world, in other words, imposes meaning and definition and is therefore necessarily reductive.
This indicates certain assumptions. Firstly, that narrative defines a certain, irrevocable trajectory: two roads diverging in a wood and all that; and secondly, that this assemblage of experience into meaning is simplistic.
Which brings me back to what I think, in retrospect, is a strange dichotomy: that of form and image against narrative: the moment or the motive. Perhaps Frost’s subject in ‘The Road Not Taken’ can be seen as the limitation of narrative in poetry (as much as an exploration of his own predicaments); but it might equally affirm that narrative can work centrifugally, opening up and out: the speaker encourages us to consider alternative paths, even as they are put out of reach.
Just as there might be alternative paths away from a moment, so narrative structures might offer a plurality of ways into a subject. I am thinking here of the sequence or series – each of which provides opportunities to come at a theme or subject from several angles through an approach in which linearity is subsumed by composition. Heaney’s ‘Singing School’, for example, travels in all directions. There is a linear structure; but moving out and back, with the sequence form both allowing for and emphasising difference (in form and subject), it creates a composition, multilayered but allusive, as the speaker tracks his development as a poet within the social, cultural and political contexts of Ulster. What emerges is a telling which is as rich and resonant as it is full of mutter and ‘act[s] of stealth’. Significantly, he refers to Joyce, whose work surely compels us to recognise narrative as a relevant device – not only for prose, but also for poetry. Ulysses, in my view, remains the pre-eminent poem in contemporary literature.