Please excuse the odd formatting, which I seem powerless to amend.
...Nothing I say tonight has doctrinal value. I try never to make the
claim That’s not poetry, simply because there have likely always been almost as many different notions of what poetry is as there are poets.
I want to speak of narrative values in lyric poetry not merely because I employ them but simply because I think they can help us avoid the sort of density, even impenetrability, of many a contemporary poem read, say, in The New Yorker– the sort of writing, as I see it, that can give poetry a really bad name even among people who read a lot, who come to libraries and good bookstores like this one.....
My friend, the brilliant Garret Keizer, tells me that when the 1973 Arab-Israeli war broke out, Israeli conscripts rushed home to get their rifles, which they were obliged to own, and copies of poetry collections by the great Yehuda Amichai. That is an extreme example, of course, but perhaps illustrative: I find it impossible to imagine anyone’s running home for copies of the cleverness and self-indulgent word-play that marks so much of current fare.
Before I proceed further, I should tell you that many younger editors are all but militantly anti-narrative. At 72, then, I’m doubtless quaint, and becoming more so in ways that I don’t even recognize, but that those younger people will. So be it. I’m old enough not to care what the smart and hip people think.
As the title of my presentation suggests, I want poems that invite readers in, rather than ones that exclude them, and this is what in my opinion narrative values can help us with.
Narrative values, the values of conventional short fiction, ones that my generation learned about in grammar school: character, plot, and setting– I think they come in as a way of inviting the reader into your creation.
For me, in any case, there are a few basic questions I pose to any draft I produce, and they are much related to character, setting, and plot. Who’s talking? To whom is he or she talking? Where is the speaker on delivering the words we read? Answers to these questions in the trombone poem are impossible for me to find. The speaker, whatever strange beast he is, could be anywhere as he waits for a letter containing the word “trombone,” though why he should desire such a letter is mysterious in the first place; so I lack a sense of setting. Who the speaker is remains totally unclear; I have no sense of character. I want that sense, and if I write or read a poem in the first person, I want the character named I to show some characterological qualities too– I am not interested in the thoughts or feelings of a mere pronoun. In this case, if the poem were unattributed, just for trivial example, we could equally imagine its speaker to be female as male. If I can’t even know be sure of something so apparently trivial as that, how may I be expected to know what my students have always called “deeper meanings”?
Who, way, what, where? If my poem can’t answer at least some of these questions, I feel I need to work on it further.
As the saying goes, I want to know, in my poem or someone else’s, what’s the story here? Not knowing that, not knowing, as my generation used to say, where the speaker is coming from, I feel not invited in but– almost intentionally it seems– excluded. I feel a need to know some encoded language, or some other secret, in order to enter the poem. Lacking the knowledge of who-what-where-why, etc., I turn away– and that, for me, is about the last effect I want to have on my reader.
Again, as writer, and in fact as reader too, I ask those basic questions of the unit of language before me: who’s talking, to whom, where, and why? Who is the character or characters? Where do they find themselves? I don’t need a plotted story per se, but I want those seemingly factual issues to be as clear as possible.
Does this mean that as writers we need to “dumb down” our poems? Scarcely. Poetry by its nature is engaged with complex feelings and thoughts. But there is a vast difference between complexity and mere complication. ...That's the difference, to my taste, between Robert Frost, one of the most complex minds in our literary history, and Ezra Pound, one of the most complicated.
If as poets we present complex material, we are already challenging our readers to pay very close attention. There is no speed-reading of poetry, no scanning for story. Why would we want to expand that challenge to include what I have called simple facts: who, what, where why? Again, the presentation of such facts is what I call the invitation to the reader. To use a famous example, that reader may say, “This is tough stuff to sort out, but at least this much I can know”:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
We have a starting point for the famous instance I use here. A sort of door has been held open to us as we move into a poem that, though often reduced to a mere pep talk about self-reliance, is in fact profoundly ambiguous and finally even mysterious, perhaps like all good lyric.
And so on.....
Here is a recent poem dealing with an unusual physical (and, it seems, psychological) condition.
A student told me this story,
because the one she’d written
used the word, anosmia,
which I’d never heard and which
the one on the page did not
define or refer to again.
It just said the protagonist
had such a condition and then
went along without pause about race-cars,
machines that traveled much faster
than anything should. The girl
had fallen for one of the drivers
and ended up in a trap.
He was clearly a son of a bitch.
All that NASCAR lore, I confess,
was stuff I’d always dismissed
as pure yahoo, but it had its appeal.
The love plot didn’t– way
too familiar, the kind of thing
that any young person will say
in writing, or if so inclined,
face-to-face. I’m afraid that old tale
couldn’t hold me for long. I’m jaded,
I guess. But anosmia... well,
I’ve always been crazy for words,
and I wanted that one for me.
It kicked off the more gripping story:
her dad was an EMT,
and as a small girl she’d peeked
inside his vinyl bag
and found the smelling salts.
What are these for? she begged,
and although he didn’t want to,
she insisted, he gave in,
she took a sniff and –poof!–
she’d never smell again.
That as I say made a better
tale than what she wrote,
which was same-old-same-old-same old.
I waited her out while she spoke,
then asked her about her sense
of taste. She said all she cared for
was Mexican cooking or Thai,
and only the spiciest flavors.
She’d soon enough gotten used
to mouth-searing pepper and sauce.
They never bothered her now.
My mind strayed off, because
I was close to her father’s age,
and what I mostly conjured
was how that man must have tried
his hardest not to surrender
but did, and then– too late.
He’d likely meant to do good.
Don’t most of us strive for that?
Driving home, I looked out
on a late March moon, and directly
beside it, Aldebaran,
brightest star in Taurus.
And if you have any faith in
this sort of thing (I don’t),
the Bull always craves reward.
Born in that sign, you’re a sucker
for wet kisses, fine wine and food.
What can it possibly feel like,
if you have a decent heart,
to have made so small a mistake
and deprived your child of all that,
anosmia hanging on
in the life of a daughter you love?
Fo you go on replaying that moment?
I don’t know, but my guess is you must.
I remembered a woodsman named Don.
He and two wives had a slew
of kids. His manner was terse,
but he had a nose for truth.
(That moon looked sharp as an axe-blade.)
I got thinking of something he said,
and not about children only:
Some damned strange traps is set.