I write this post in an attempt to better understand my draw to narrative poetry–as well as the drawbacks of the form. I like poems that engage, that offer access, that give me experiences I can feel. This blog is filled with such poems (e.g., Lucia Perillo’s “Limits“). These are also the kinds of poems I write–poems which are so readily rejected by poetry editors.
I recall my first creative writing teacher, William Slaughter, editor of Mudlark (one of the first online poetry journals), telling me that he liked poems that arced, where meaning was not connected but rather leaped out in unexpected ways–I think of sparks scattering in dry pine straw. He said–or implied–that I was more literal minded. That I wanted the connections. This is true in my fiction, too. I can draw a concrete scene. Maybe a little too concretely. (I am just remembering William Logan telling me in a short story to “stop connecting everything.”) It’s a puzzling weakness I suffer with, in that, for many things, I tend to identify with the strange and trippy, a byproduct of being a teenager in the seventies perhaps (e.g., James Wright’s “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store“).
So in an attempt to understand what’s going on with me and my narrative poetry and narrative poetry and poetry editors, I came across a 2006 Poetry Magazine essay by Tony Hoagland that I hoped would give me answers: “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Hoagland writes, “Systematic development is out; obliquity, fracture, and discontinuity are in.” He calls narrative a poetry of continuities. The danger of narrative is it has been “tainted by its over-use in thousands of confessional poems. Not confessionalism itself, but the inadvertent sentimentality and narcissism of many such poems have imparted the odor of indulgence to narrative.” Others, Hoagland points out, say that we do not live in “a narrative age”; they see contemporary life as “too multitracked, too visual, too manifold and simultaneous to be confined to the linearity of narrative, no matter how well done.”
Instead of narrative poetry, poets aim for association and even disassociation. Hoagland observes:
Narrated and associative poems are not each other’s aesthetic opposites or sworn enemies. Obviously these modes don’t necessarily exclude each other. They overlap, coexist, and often cross-pollinate. Nevertheless, one might truly say that the two modes call upon fundamentally different resources in reader and writer. Narration (and its systematic relatives) implicitly honors Memory; the dissociative mode primarily values Invention. “Poetries of Continuity” in some way aim to frame and capture experience; dissociative poetry verifies itself by eluding structures. Their distinct priorities result in different poetries. A poetry which values clarity and continuity is obligated to develop and deliver information in ways that are hierarchical and sequential, ways which accommodate and orchestrate the capacities of human memory. In contrast, a dissociative poetry is always shuffling the deck in order to evade knowability.
For me and my own poetry, I’m not sure what the answer is. Read, take classes, continue to write, do drugs (kidding…though many artists do exactly this). I do know I wish I could crack open my mind and find the arc of ideas Bill Slaughter was talking about all those years ago. Hoagland’s article is worth the read. And by the way, he’s not saying he likes the trend against narrative, which anyone can tell by his wonderful poem “Beauty.”