Saturday, March 3, 2012

Back To The Future Of Narrative Poetry

Yesterday I was privileged to be on a panel at AWP entitled "Storytelling in Poetry: Crafting the Narrative Poem." Many who attended have asked for a copy of my presentation. It is printed below. In the next few days there will be additional posts--some from me, some from other writers--about the Chicago AWP experience.

Back To The Future Of Narrative Poetry

It was Aristotle, of course, who first divided story into protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe: the beginning, the middle, and the ending. In modern times, Gustav Freytag expanded these three sections to five: commonly known as introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution or denouement. This narrative formula is so ingrained in most fiction writers that most or all of the five stages can be traced in their work with practically no effort. Narrative poets, however, do not always follow this dramatic arc. I believe that those who do have a better chance for their poems to work—in part, because the prosodic devices used are capable of modifying and contributing to the success of each stage of the story along the way, and when properly laid out, each step of the narrative arc can magnify the effect of the poetic devices, thus creating a synergistic effect among all of the elements, adding to the power of the poem.

One such poet is Philip Levine. Time and time again Levine’s narrative poems succeed because of the way their typographical, sonic, sensory and ideational elements support the dramatic arc, as well as mediate an interaction between these parts to orchestrate a pleasing whole. See below for “The Miracle,” and look for the five stages. Then I’ll examine some poetic devices that Levine uses to amplify and balance this narrative trajectory in the same way that a sound technician with an equalizer mixes lyrics, melody, harmony and rhythm, with a result that is virtuosic.

The Miracle

A man staring into the fire
sees his dead brother sleeping,

The falling flames go yellow and red
but it is him, unmistakable.

He goes to the phone and calls
his mother. Howard is asleep,

he tells her. Yes, she says,
Howard is asleep. She does not cry.

In her Los Angeles apartment
with its small color tv

humming now unobserved,
she sees Howard rocking

alone beneath the waves
of an ocean she cannot name.

Howard is asleep, she says
to the drapes drawn on the night.

That night she dreams
a house alive with flames, their

old house, and her son sleeping
peacefully in the kingdom of agony.

She wakens near morning,
the dream more real

than the clock luminous beside her
or the gray light rising slowly

above the huddled town, more real
than the groan of the first car.

She calls her son who has risen
for work and tells him,

Howard is warm and at peace.
He sees the crusted snows of March

draining the cold light of a day
already old, he sees himself

unlocking the front door of his shop,
letting the office help in, letting

Eugene and Andy, the grease men
step before him out of the snow.

When she hangs up he looks out
on the back yard, the garbage cans

collapsing like sacks of air, the fence
holding a few gray sparrows,

he looks out on the world he always sees
and thinks, it’s a miracle.

There is some room for interpretation, but I hope all of you divided the narrative something like this:

1) Introduction (lines 1-4): A man in an early stage of the grief process watches his dead brother being cremated until the flames die down.

2) Rising Action (lines 5-26): Advancing the grief process, the man calls his mother and tells her that Howard is asleep. She has a vision of Howard. Then she has a dream about Howard. The next morning the dream has become more real than anything else.

3) Climax (lines 27-29): The mother reconciles the death of Howard, calls her son and tells him that “Howard is warm and at peace.”

4) Falling Action (lines 30-42): Life returns to normal with the man seeing “the crusted snows of march,” “seeing himself unlock[ing] the front door of his shop, letting the office help in.” After hanging up, he watches “the garbage cans collapsing,” “the fence holding a few grey sparrows.”

5) Resolution (lines 43-44): “The man looks out on the world he always sees/and thinks, it’s a miracle.”

Without being dogmatic about this exact division, let’s look at how Levine supports the dramatic arc in the following categories: in the sonic level with his use of rhythm, in the sensory level with his use of description and image and with his choice of diction, and in the ideational level with his repetition of the theme and key words. All of this is delivered through a simple typography of couplets, echoing the dialogue between the man and his brother, the man and his mother, and the internal negotiation between the incomprehensibility and the acceptance of death.

1) Use of Meter (Rhythm)

Scanning “The Miracle,” one immediately discovers the ternary rhythms (both dactyl and anapest) present in many lines that work against their loose iambic pattern. This lends a classical, weighty feel to the entire poem. It is not too far of a stretch, e.g., from “into the fire,” “dead brother sleeping,” “yellow and red” and “it is him, unmistakable,” to “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks” or to meter used by Homer and Virgil. This is quite appropriate to the subject of death. Furthermore, by varying the frequency of these triple rhythms throughout the poem and the number of triple-beats per line, Levine modulates the weight and intensity of the story according to where he is in the dramatic arc. Thus, in the early part of the rising action the triplets are sparse: a “goes to the phone” here, a “color tv” there. But when the action cranks up with the mother dreaming, we get “peacefully,” “kingdom of agony,” and “she wakens near morning” (5 triplets in 2 lines). These triad rhythms come in waves and so after a trough with very few triplets, we are presented with a crest that culminates in the climax: “Howard is warm and at peace,”—another multiple triplet line.

If I were writing this poem, I would probably then gradually back off of the use of triplets with the falling action and be rid of them by the denouement. But Levine is a genius and subverts our expectations by keeping the rhythmic intensity high with “draining the cold light of day,” the “door of his shop,” the “office help in,” “Any, the grease men,” “out of the snow,” and “garbage cans” until he gets to the two most powerful triple rhythms yet: the final rhythm in the penultimate couplet: “few, gray sparrows” (a molossus), and the final rhythm in the ultimate couplet: “miracle.” The effect of adding the greatest amount of rhythmic weight in the falling action and resolution enacts the message that the miracle is not found in some otherworldly reality for his brother, but in the pedestrian acts of unlocking his shop, letting his office help in, looking at the same view he sees every day—the garbage cans and a few sparrows sitting on the fence.

2) Repetition of Diction and Theme (Melody)

Repetition of language is to poetry what melody is to music. The theme of death (main melody) is repeated throughout the poem: first in the man’s voice with “dead brother sleeping,” in line 2. He repeats it with “Howard is asleep,/he tells her” (line 6) and then the mother voices it in line 7 with “Yes, she says,/Howard is asleep.” The melody is altered in line 12 (“she sees Howard rocking”), and culminates in line 29 (the climax) with “Howard is warm and at peace.”). This movement of the melody back and forth from son to mother, as well as its modifications of diction and rhythm, contributes to the rising action in the same way that the melody of a song becomes more powerful as it moves from one singer to the other, as it modulates into other keys and expresses itself in other time signatures.

3) Amplified Description and Imagery (Harmony)

In the first two couplets, Levine introduces a man, his dead brother, and the fire in which he is “sleeping.” He introduces a fourth image (his mother) in a separate setting (her Los Angeles apartment), in the next couplet, and then spends the rest of the poem amplifying these images to lend support to the rising and falling action, the climax and the denouement, through his choice of descriptive words and phrases, changing their colors, their shapes, their temperatures, (etc.), to match these various stages of the narrative. Although we could trace the evolution of several of these images, due to time constraints, let’s examine how Levine parallels the rising and falling action to his image of “fire.”

“The fire” in line 1 becomes falling flames that are yellow and red in line 3. In line 10, the mother’s small color tv is an echo of the colored flames. In lines 13-14, we see “waves of an ocean” which are the same shape as the flames, and beneath which Howard is rocking alone, just as he was in the red and yellow flames. In lines 17-18, the mother dreams the entire house alive with flames, thus expanding not only the fire, but the concept of “alive” to include where her family members lived. The reality of this fire burns more real than the clock beside her with its luminosity (caused by its ability to reflect light or fire), the source of the “gray light rising slowly” (the fire of the sun), and more real than the groan of the first car (a car attempting to start by igniting gasoline with a spark of fire). Like a magnifying glass focusing scattered beams of sunshine into a smaller and hotter point, Levine burns his way toward the climax of the mother calling the son back and declaring: “Howard is warm and at peace.” Immediately the temperature changes. Instead of flames we see “crusted snow” and “cold light” (lines 30-31), “the snow” out of which the grease men step (lines 35-36), the garbage cans that collapse like sacks of air (lines 38-39), and instead of a house alive with flames, a fence comfortable enough for the perching of a few gray sparrows (line 40). All of this falling action is a natural consequence of the image of fire turning to ice without one single cliché.

Levine’s poem begins with a man looking into a fire and seeing death and ends with the man looking out on the world and seeing a miracle. In between is a progressive structure of classic storytelling, supported by and revealed through poetic devices—some time-honored, some out of vogue, some unique to this work—all brilliantly adding to the power of the story and to the power of the language that tells it. This power is enhanced by the poem’s sensitivity to where these poetic devices are located on the narrative/dramatic arc. Our own narrative poems would benefit from a negotiation between their underlying structures and Freytag’s five stages, not simply in using them as a template (although that might be appropriate at times), but more often by riffing on them in ways that are uniquely ours and in amplifying them with poetic devices in ways that enhance each individual narrative arc according to what it wants to do. Thus, we will have a hand in the evolution of the narrative poem, rather than watch it become extinct—or worse yet, contribute to its ossification into a dead form walking. And like the man in Levine’s poem, we can find new meaning in the world we see every day and the stories that spring from it—perhaps not miracles, but very close!


Ethan Grant said...

Thank you for posting this! I attended this session at AWP, but I was late and didn't receive the handout. This was a great reminder of what I heard.

Terry Lucas said...

Thanks, Ethan! Sorry I missed your comment until now. I was overwhelmed by the fact that there was SRO for our panel--I didn't prepare enough handouts--glad you stopped by, and thanks for attending our panel!