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.


§ 8 Responses to Narrative

  • Chris Jones says:

    I think various editors find narrative poetry tricky because it is often embedded in a ‘long’ work, or is created through a sequence of poems. On a purely practical level, many magazines wouldn’t afford that much space (five or six pages) to a writer.

    Narrative itself is perceived as problematic by some in poetry because it could never be as sophisticated, flexible or as wide-ranging as prose narrative. So why bother? As you point out in your article, Rob, there are various approaches/strategies that allows poetry to tackle narrative in complex and rewarding ways.

    If you were to look at recent anthologies like Voice Recognition and Identity Parade a lot of the work centres on the lyric ‘I’ – the ‘I’ may be a fictional construct – but the narrator still hovers around the world of the isolated incident, the moment of epiphany, the stringing together of heightened moments of consciousness. It is the prevailing fashion. The narrative poem is mostly missing or cannot be fully accommodated because of the limiting parameters of the anthologies themselves.

    The narrative poem that is a sustained mediation on a particular subject matter, a ‘long view’ of some historical occurrence, a psychology probing of some character’s actions/state of mind is available to us as writers: there lies artistic challenges and freedoms. There are some fine examples of narrative in recent years – for example, Tim Liardet’s Priest Skear.


    • Rob Hindle says:


      This is interesting. My initial response to your ‘purely practical’ assertion – that the sequence form that much contemporary narrative poetry takes is simply too long for magazines to publish – was a rather grumpy one. Understanding that poetry ‘butters nae baps’, as Burns had it, the solace in that was that at least the poet’s relationship with his work has more integrity than those poor novelists in thrall to the market; but no: though the poetry editor (often a poet herself) recognises, applauds, fights for that integrity, the simple truths of printing costs and the editor having to put food on their own table (whereas those of us clamouring at her window are in many cases holding down day jobs) means that the sequence becomes a rare luxury.

      Thinking further, if readers’ poetic tastes are sustained / developed by what they read most, and if poets who are most frequently published (in magazines, then collections) produce more individual lyric poems (because that’s what got them published), then narrative, if it takes this longer form to fully develop its range, is obviously going to be disadvantaged.

      This is not to say that narrative poetry isn’t there: as you point out, there is lots of great narrative work around. I don’t know Priest Skear, but think of Walcott’s Omeros, Oswald’s Dart. Maybe magazines can celebrate more narrative work online. There is still clearly a taste for the journey.

  • Matt says:

    It makes sense to me that those with no talent for narrative might seek reasons to undermine its validity…

    Personally, I find narrative inescapable – and certainly, I can think of many stories that illustrate the fragmentary nature of my own experience / sense of self…

    Equally, the fragmentary nature of experience is often exaggerated. Clearly, the idea of the sequence of events; of cause and effect – however complex these things have become – still, our culture depends on narrative and the idea of narrative. Can you imagine our legal system denouncing the validity of narrative? It would be absurd.

    Since when have narratives promised totality anyway? As far back as Chaucer, and maybe even further, they’ve been revealing all that is biased, skewed, partial, provisional and conflicted in human perspective.

    The death of the novel was announced, I believe, after Ulysses. That proved to be rather premature…


  • Brian Lewis says:

    It’s hard to reconcile Schmidt’s stance with his decision to serialise Les Murray’s ‘Fredy Neptune’ in PN Review a few years back: a narrative poem of epic proportions that took up a few dozen pages of each issue (and which was subsequently published in book form – by Carcanet). Narrative is – undeniably – its shaping and driving force. Murray isn’t the only contemporary poet to adopt (and adapt) the strategies of the novel: Peter Reading’s most celebrated works (C, Perduta Gente, Ukulele Music) are broadly novelistic in their plotting, characterisation and the arrangement of their constituent materials into ‘chapters’. These are books, not ‘collections’ of discrete poems.

    Like Chris, I suspect that the editorial difficulty with the narrative poem or sequence has as much to do with format restrictions (especially those of print magazines) as a preference (or ‘fashion’) for the lyric poem. One can (and does) influence the other, of course: if editors appear unwilling to consider poems exceeding 30 lines, then few poets will find the encouragement to write or submit them. It helps to explain why so many UK poetry magazines and anthologies now tend towards a sameness of presentation and tone, their pages stuffed with variants on the magazine poem, the anthology poem, the prizewinning poem.

    These conventions frequently haunt the edges of public performance, too. December’s ‘Dark stuff’ post (below) itemises the anxieties that often prompt a poet to ‘lighten the programme’, the greatest of which is the fear of losing (or of failing to secure) an audience’s attention. Convention has it that a busy, 20-minute set of ‘tidy lyric poems’ (to use Matt’s phrase), in which the only ‘thread’ is the poet’s ‘working’ of the room through quips and chatty intros, is what audiences have come to want and expect (and which, needless to say, leaves little or no room for longer narrative works). I’m not convinced that this is what audiences want or expect (not all of them, anyway), on or off the page. Over the last few years, I’ve published several long poems and sequences which have taken narrative as their organising principle. The corresponding live events and performances were completely immersive (for the poet and the audience) and I didn’t detect any of the inattention or impatience that can often attend ‘bittier’ readings. The audience trusted that the narrative would take them somewhere. The experience was, I think, altogether more stimulating and rewarding than a ‘greatest hits’ set.

    Walcott’s ‘Omeros’ and Oswald’s ‘Dart’ are proof that narrative and lyric can operate in the same poem (and neither at the expense of the other); much of Kelvin Corcoran’s recent work (the longer poems in ‘Backward Turning Sea’ and ‘Hotel Shadow’) finds narrative structure shaping lyric impulse (and vice-versa). Behind them all, of course, stands Homer. ‘The Odyssey’ is one of the oldest poems in the western canon: an old story from which new works are still being spun.

  • Matt says:

    I think it would be short-sighted to confine discussion of the validity of narrative solely to the literary arts.

    Surely, what is fundamental and neccesary about it is asserted every day in most walks of life.

    It’s an insulated or decadent poetry that turns away from what is fundamental in a search for the more formally or aesthetically rerefied.

    Personally, I’ve no intention of collaborating with a trend that contributes to poetry being unread by those who are not aware of latest trends in poetic theory…


    • Rob Hindle says:

      Matt, Brian, Chris –

      It is clear that narrative continues to have a crucial role in allowing us to explore / make sense of human experience; equally clear that magazines’ willingness – or ability – to accommodate poetry which has narrative as its ‘shaping and driving force’ varies, whether for reasons of taste, or conviction, or simply practical considerations.

      My own experience of narrative poetry evidently squares with everyone else contributing to this discussion. I’ve had a look at some of Priest Skear, Chris, and what I’ve read is rich and expressive; and yes, the most complete and moving ‘readings’ I’ve been to in the past 5 years have been those in which narrative work enabled audiences to access poetry completely and affirmatively – revivifying the original function of poetry as collective truthtelling.

  • Dear Rob, Chris, Matt and Brian,

    Fascinating discussion. Thanks. I trust you all know Long Poem Magazine? It does what it says on the tin. Consistently includes things to be jealous of. And a place to send narrative poems to:

    Cheers from Berlin

  • Rob Hindle says:

    Thanks Alistair. I was introduced to LP Magazine by Robin Vaughan-Williams, but ashamed to say I haven’t checked it lately – until now via your link. Some really interesting work there.

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