Thursday, May 14, 2009

Narrative Poetry Saves the Day; it's not vizpo, langpo, orpo, forpo, and freepo -- it's narpo.

or, Why Poets Should Tell Stories

So I've been wandering in the wilderness for a bit.  Like any good sojourn, it's refreshed and refocused me.  Not a bad thing 'tall.

We've also had some great visitors here.  Check the comments section for a handful of generally genial folks taking me to task for clarity and specifics.  Good stuff all around.

And I've been reading poetry -- first the folks I met at AWP, then the free books I got at AWP, and lately a few books that have been mailed for review (though I didn't review them -- nothing good to say and whatnot) and of course narrative prose as well. 

No narrative poetry, though.  I've read through a dozen or so books of poetry and the only one that even attempted a sort of narrative was half a collection of episodic/thematic sonnets; nice, but. . . (there's a review forthcoming, but in Florida English).  

So, folks, we know the point of this blog is to work towards a revival of poetry.  Namely to save poetry from its poets -- to turn our focus as makers of poetry, as artists, from our shoes to our spectators.

I believe that one of our greatest audience-reaching problems (book distribution, discussed here and here, for starters) is in the business of being solved.  Espresso Book Machines, by the way, are located here.  Check one out and check back in with us!

So the technology is keeping up with us.  The writing, however, is not.

I've talked before, at length, about narrative poetry.  

I've also had, since starting this blog, the opportunity to come into contact with a great many good poets.  Follow the links or just look to the right for even more.

Problem is, not many folks actually know them.  I was talking to an old prof over drinks at AWP and we surmised that the only people who read poetry anymore are those who write it and that there are approximately 4 writers of poetry for every 1 reader (I forget where he got the writers number from but it was about 10 or 12 million Americans).  I, of course, know why the readers number is so low.

Of the four above writers and the four poets to my right, only two of them are writers of longform narrative poetry (that I know of -- Kim Addonizio also wrote a novel) and, not surprisingly, they have the greatest amount of google hits (by a factor of 5 & 50 over the next two most popular).  Except for Mr. Philp, all the poets have far fewer hits than even regional and genre prose fiction authors.  I'm sure that their sales numbers are all smaller (by definition of poetry sales being utter shite), though I haven't been so gauche as to ask them specific sales numbers (yet -- we may get friendly enough at West Chester Poetry Conference, where at least 3 of the 8 will be).

Hits, of course, don't mean everything -- but they do mean how distributed the poet's "name" is (which still means less than a lot as even Mr. Philp is dwarfed by a Stephen King or JK Rowling -- both of whom are dwarfed by Harry Potter, Lost the TV show, American Idol, and porn -- priorities, priorities. . .) and how familiar the public is likely to be with said name.

Speaking of, I got berated at an old blog for being concerned with poets and not their poems.  Well first, I like poets for their poems; but more than that, we have to realize we live in a world of brands -- and we always have.  Brands are nothing more than commericalized authority (and, really, hasn't authority always been commercial?) and as such, we should respect the impact that a name makes.

Back on topic,

Why is narrative poetry so important?

The answer is simple -- memory.  I read Yezzi and Addonizio and Spera's and Barenblat's work and really liked it.  The only poems I "remember" are one by Yezzi and one by Spera that were very short (40 lines?) stories.  Yet I can quote at length from what happened in Mason's Ludlow, and can get people interested enough in the story to want to read the poem.

And there it is.  How can I get people interested in Kim Addonizio?  "Hey man, there's this poet and she writes some really fun verse -- a lot of it is catchy and risque" or Rachel Barenblat "so there's this poet and she rewrites a lot of the Torah -- really great updated religious poetry."

Note -- I'm not trying to write bad copy here, I'm just saying that the best thing I can say about them without having their poetry in front of me is a generalization of what their poetry is "about" -- or not even about, since lyric so often is about ephemera -- or what their poetry does.

Not very exciting -- except to a poet. . .

A story, on the other hand, gets everyone excited.  Readers are hooked in by stories, not writing ability, or more important, writing style.  If they find a good story, they'll read it.  Not to beat a dead horse, but look at Dan Brown.  Interesting stories propped up by bland and formulaic writing -- but not only does he "sell," but the VATICAN talks about his work.  

When was the last time the Vatican concerned itself with a book of poetry? 
We are missing out on something big, folks.

To pick up on that something big, we need to start writing stories in verse.  They need to be stories people will buy into written in verse they can read and understand.  It would be best if people loved the stories and the verse was memorable and moving.

Obviously the second part is most widely accomplished through rhythmic verse (whether metrical or accentual doesn't really concern me at the moment -- but we need regular beats).  Rhyme (at least in English) is an arguable factor.  But we need that backbeat rhythm to really really kick em in the heart of rock and roll and get them reading poetry again.

I've said before, we don't need to generate original stories.  In fact, it may be best that we don't while there are so many stories to mine.  Mason's Ludlow is a prime example of that -- as are the Iliad and Odyssey and even Paradise Lost.  Indeed, historical non-fiction (of a sort) is the home territory of narrative poetry and it's a shame we gave it up.

So, write narrative poetry for the connections;
write narrative poetry for the memories;
write narrative poetry!


Allandaros said...

I'd love to see more narrative poetry, especially about factual events! It would probably get me to start unpacking meaning and paying attention to layers of language again.

As it stands I just go for simple, mostly unadorned prose with one or two flourishes here and there. :)

(Also: hi! This is Allandaros from Erfworld forums)

G. M. Palmer said...


A prose reader who can get excited about poetry again!

Woo! said...

Miami poet, Campbell McGrath, has just published Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and I can't wait to read it because it may have the kind of narrative poetry that you and I like to read.

G. M. Palmer said...

Geoffrey -- sounds great (and sounds like I've got a review to do)! Do you have a link to the publisher or his website or should we just go the Amazon route? said...

The publisher is HarperCollins:

Honorius Monkeymember said...

What would be your definition of poetry in opposition to something like - rhymed prose, or metric prose. Or do you think them the same?

Honorius Monkeymember said...

I think everyday life lacks a certain dramatic element. Perhaps because we're so closely knit together, and yet we all play on the fact that we're individuals. I don't know.

I also don't think that poems story
can be different from the treatment, Goethe said something that we no longer take our poetic "stuff" from nature but from art, (and history IS art, - mostly bad art.) So poets are in an incestuous position today. (I think that's the source of gnomic poetry, of hermetic verse - you have to dig ever deeper in yourself to get the material which shines)

Jessie Carty said...

Terrific post :)

I'm with you in that I'm drawn to narrative poems. I find myself, at times, trying to fight against the urge to write them. But, why? Because I think it is some kind of lesser art?

I feel reinvigorated to get back to my book length project in which I have two different characters "narrating" the events around them.