Against “Narrative”

20 07 2009

Not equipped with other helpful paradigms for what it is that poetry does, many readers come to poetry thinking that it, like the other literature with which they’re acquainted, tells stories.  Such thinking, of course, is misleading—it’s not clear such thinking would help anyone really encounter and engage many poems.  Certainly, lots of poems make use of narrative elements, but lots of poems, even poems thought to be generally “accessible,” don’t.  Readers need to be presented with a different paradigm for how poems “work,” for what it is that poems “do.”

I think that the “turn” can be that paradigm.  As I discuss more fully in “The Structure-Form Distinction”: lots of poems turn; turns aren’t always primarily associated with narrative (they also are associated with argumentation, the recording of emotional shifts, etc); and turns are, or easily can be made to seem, familiar, as familiar as storytelling.

In fact, I think the paradigm of the turn is superior to the paradigm of narrative.  Turning is itself central to narrative.  One could be said to know very little about the nature of narrative if one did not know about the nature of narrative turns—from beginnings to conflicts to climaxes to resolutions.  And, again, turning is at work in poems that aren’t primarily narrative.

However, though turning is more vital to poetry than narrative, many conversations about poetry still use the language of narrative—“narrative,” “plot”—to discuss what really are (or could more accurately be described as) turns.  Such misnaming makes it seem that, no matter what is said about narrative and the turn, narrative takes prominence over the turn.  In order to keep at trying to give the turn its proper due, this situation needs to be recognized and addressed.

To be clear: my critique here is meant to be very specific and detailed—in fact, I greatly admire the substance of the three essays to be discussed in this essay—but, hopefully, not minor: I think it would be smart to do away with the discussion of non-narrative “plots” in poetry.  Mention of “plot” will always make readers think of narrative, and thus reinforce the seeming prominence of narrative.  We need to use different terms in order to shift the conversation—and, with “structure” and the “turn,” such different terms are available to us.  Instead of “narrative” and “plot,” I think we should use the term “structure,” and mean by “structure” something very specific: the pattern of a poem’s turning.  (For more on this, again, see “The Structure-Form Distinction.”)  In this way, we can discuss a poem’s rhetorical maneuvers without (potentially) confusing those maneuvers with narrative.

hoagland

In “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland corroborates my sense that there’s a tendency to lump together a number of kinds of poetry (many of which are clearly related to poetic traditions that prominently involve turning) under “narrative”; he states, “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped together: not just story, but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics.  They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”  Interestingly, though Hoagland himself suggests a better name for narrative, he also reveals the power of the “narrative” in discussions of poetry: his essay’s title employs the phrase “Fear of Narrative,” not “Fear of Continuity.”

(A bit off topic, but, I must add: it’s too bad that Hoagland links the poetry he does only to continuity—lots of poems that are not at all “skittery” work by means of an organized discontinuity.  As Randall Jarrell says in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry”: “A successful poem starts in one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  And Hoagland himself seems to recognize this; later in his essay, he states, “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.”)

dennis

The focus on narrative in poetry is more directly and fully addressed in Carl Dennis’s “The Temporal Lyric.”  Dennis notes, “Although lyrics are more likely to be organized rhetorically, especially those that present arguments, are much more common than those that present psychological narratives, discussion of the lyric has suffered from the fact that the oldest and most influential piece of criticism of poetry in the West, Aristotle’s Poetics, is formulated with specific reference not to lyric poetry but to drama and to epic and so presents temporal plotting as the central element of the poem.”  Dennis then notes a different way to approach lyric poems, one that comes out of speech-act theory:

“Here the poem is regarded as a dramatic event in which a fictive speaker performs a speech act that gives specific embodiment, in a particular context, to one or more of the basic tasks that we ask ordinary language to perform—explaining, questioning, demanding, promising, apologizing, praising, castigating, pleading, and the like.  Each of these acts has its particular plot if we use the term to refer not to a sequence of temporal events but to a sequence of rhetorical moves that carry out the task that the specific function requires.  Such a completed action possesses the wholeness that Aristotle demands of a poem: it possesses a proper beginning, middle, and an end, the order of incidents being such that transposing or removing any one of them will disorder the whole.”

Dennis is trying to replace a narrative orientation to poetry with a rhetorical one, and that rhetorical orientation clearly has much to do with turning: I assume that the “rhetorical moves” that comprise the “plot” of the speech act either are turns, or else clearly imply turns (turns allow the transition from one “plot” point to another).  And, indeed, the poems Dennis investigates in his essay (Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Donne’s sonnet “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow,” Dickinson’s “These are the days when Birds come back—,” Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s sonnet “An upper chamber in a darkened house,” and Bishop’s “The Fish”) all feature very clear and distinct turns, and Dennis in fact refers to the turn at least twice in his examination of these poems.

Again, substantively, I greatly agree with Dennis; however, I think that the use of the word “plot” (which Dennis uses off and on throughout his essay), no matter how it is defined, tends to suggest narrative—precisely what Dennis does not want to suggest.  A more neutral and apt term, I think, for Dennis’s plot of rhetorical moves (and a term Dennis himself occasionally employs), is “structure.”

romantic

The same holds true, for the most part, in regard to Jack Stillinger’s “Reading Keats’s Plots.”

Stillinger’s essay does two things: 1) it argues that we need to spend more time examining the plots of poems in general, and of Keats’s poems, in particular, and 2) it examines the plots of some key poems by Keats (The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” The Eve of St. Mark, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), helping to reveal how important attention to plot can be.

According to Stillinger, contemporary readers tend to skip over plot: “Readers and critics of poetry, even at this late date in the history of practical criticism, are still primarily concerned with idea, theme, and ‘philosophy,’ seeking in effect to replace the literary work in process (what it is, what it does) with interpretive conversion, paraphrase, or translation (what it means).”  Stillinger intends his essay to counter this trend by re-instilling in readers a sense of plot’s vital nature.

Stillinger’s essay differs from Dennis’s in that Stillinger’s, at times, in fact really discusses and examines specifically narrative plots, and so his use of the term very often is apt.  However, Stillinger also uses “narrative” and “plot” to refer to structural maneuvers it seems a bit of a stretch to label such.  This occurs most clearly in Stillinger’s discussion of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the least overtly narrative of the poems discussed.  According to Stillinger, the “narrative” of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is similar to the narratives found in the “greater Romantic lyric,” or poems, such as Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” that employ the descriptive-meditative structure (discussed in detail in an essay by Corey Marks in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns).  While there are some plot elements in such poems, and while all aspects of a poem are worthy of consideration, the plot elements in such poems often are minimal (for example, journeys often occur in these poems, but they often are imagined or remembered journeys), and such poems are perhaps more fruitfully considered, as Dennis might argue, as speech acts involving “rhetorical moves.”

This certainly is the case with a form of poem central to Keats’s oeuvre, and which Stillinger does not discuss in his essay: the sonnet.  There isn’t any plot to speak of in, say, Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and yet it does turn (stunningly).  Such primarily rhetorical maneuvering tends to be excluded from Stillinger’s analysis in “Reading Keats’s Plots.”  This exclusion helps Stillinger set up a somewhat overly-simplified dichotomy between a poetry of narrative and a poetry of statement.  Stillinger writes,

“The fact that narrative analysis works more successfully with some poems rather than others is itself a valuable piece of critical information.  It is one way of illustrating the difference between lyrics that are essentially static in character and those that are essentially dynamic.  Poems such as To Autumn and Ode on Melancholy have their minds made up before they begin.  They are statements rather than processes, statements of thoughts already arrived at before the speakers begin speaking.  Poems such as Frost at Midnight, Tintern Abbey, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and Ode to a Nightingale are more complicated.  They represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind, going now in one direction, now in another.  Lyrics in this latter class are at least implied narratives, and often they are, like Yeats’s or Keats’s excursions, explicit narratives.”

While, generally, I like this way of distinguishing among different kinds of poems (for example, I can see how such a distinction could help me discuss with my students the different kinds of tasks poems undertake), I want to complicate this dichotomy using Keats’s sonnets as a test case.  It’s simply not clear where many of Keats’s sonnets would fall in this dichotomy.  They’re not narrative, and yet many of them clearly attempt to “represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind.”  Perhaps this is “implied narrative,” but it’s not clear why it has to be referred to as such.  I suggest that instead of creating a dichotomy between narrative and statement, we instead create a dichotomy between the poetry of dramatic, dynamic structure (involving significant turns) and the poetry of statement.  This description of the dichotomy incorporates non-narrative turns, the “at least implied narratives” Stillinger mentions, the significant rhetorical maneuvers Dennis’s essay focuses on, and the tactics so many Keats’s poems actually deploy.

*

All of the above may seem a bit like picking nits: it’s all, I again acknowledge, largely an investigation into terminology rather than substance.  And yet terms matter.  The turn has long been a vital part of poetry (T. S. Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”), but it has not been generally recognized as such.  This is a strange situation, one which has many causes—one cause, however, certainly is the fact that we do not have set terms for what we are discussing when we discuss structures and turns.  Thus, often, structure and the turn get subsumed in other terminology.  And because of the use of such varied terminology the many conversations that involve and even focus on poetic structure and the turn often are never seen to be related.  And this, in turn, contributes to the continuing general lack of recognition of the great importance of the turn.

It is my sense that Hoagland, Dennis, and Stillinger would all be for a greater recognition of the turn in poetry—indeed, I think the three essays discussed here in fact are a part of the growing body of literature attempting to draw attention to the significance of the turn in poetry.  My effort here has been to show this link among these essays, even as I try to point out that even in such essays the turn, in some subtle yet significant ways, remains hidden, embedded in a terminology of “narrative” and “plot” that tends to downplay or even deny the larger significance of the poetic turn.

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