Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Narrative

Day 2: Direct & Indirect Narrative


Today we will look at two narrative strategies for the lyrical-narrative poem. Direct narrative utilizes the traditional narrative arc of introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement or resolution. Indirect narrative also tells a story, but is not bound to those categories or that progression.


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.

By Philip Levine. From Selected Poems (Atheneum, 1984)


Old people spit with absolutely no finesse
and bicycles bully traffic on the sidewalk.
The unknown poet waits for criticism
and reads his verses three times a day
like a monk with his book of hours.
The brush got old and no longer brushes.
Right now what's important
is to untangle the hair.
We give birth to life between our legs
and go on talking about it till the end,
few of us understanding:
it's the soul that's erotic.
If I want, I put on a Bach suite
so I can feel forgiving and calm.
What I understand of God is His wrath;
there's no other way to say it.
The ball thumping against the wall annoys me,
but the kids laugh, contented.
I've seen hundreds of afternoons like today.
No agony, just an anxious impatience:
something is going to happen.
Destiny doesn't exist.
It's God we need, and fast.

By Adelia Prado (translated by Ellen Watson). From The Alphabet in the Park (Wesleyan University Press, 1990).


The two poems above are emblematic of two ways of maintaining and building the energy in the body of a poem after the first lines. Both engage the senses and the emotions of the reader. However, Levine builds the energy to a climax through sequential actions and then allows the energy to fall away to a resolution. Prado uses a more meandering, almost anti-narrative strategy with a series of what seem to be non-sequiturs. And yet, a story is told. Both techniques attempt to turn up the energy introduced in the first lines through increased engagement with the reader's senses and emotions.

Levine is a great story teller. In "The Miracle," the classic five-step outline of 1) Introduction of a problem or conflict; 2) Rising Action; 3) Climax; 4) Falling Action; and 5) Resolution can be traced. After the opening four lines that get our attention with the image of a dead brother sleeping in a fire of red and yellow flames, the poet maintains and even turns up the heat in the ensuing rising action, and then lets it cool down after the climax. An examination of each sense would see this increase in energy. But observe, for example, what Levine does with color. The rising action spreads those yellow and red flames of the opening lines to the mother's apartment with its "color TV" that spill into her dream of a house "alive with flames." She awakens the next morning with the "clock luminous" carrying that energy through the night into the "gray light" of morning "rising slowly above the huddled town." And as those images of hot and cool colors rise, peak, and fall throughout the poem, the intensity of the story rises and falls as well.

The climax (re-read the poem to see if you agree) occurs when the mother "calls her son who has risen / for work and tells him, // Howard is warm and at peace." After those lines the action seems to fall and the imagery cools off appropriately: "He [her son] sees the cold light of a day / already old..." And in the next eight lines we have the cooler, colder images of "the grease men / step[ping] before him out of the snow," "the garbage cans //collapsing..." and "...the fence / holding a few gray sparrows." The final couplet provides the resolution of "look[ing] out on the world he always sees / and thinks, it's a miracle."

Notice how Prado in her opening lines engages our senses with images of "old people spit[ting]" and "bicycle...traffic on the sidewalk" and appeals to our emotions by showing us how the old people spit ("with no finesse") and how the bicycles navigate the sidewalks (they "bully" there way along). Many poets would continue writing about the old people or the bicyclists, describing them more or talking about old people in general, what it means to be old and why they spit. Or some would select a particular bicyclist and tells us what he had for breakfast, where he was going, and what he was going to do when he got there--.or attempt to stay on the subject in other ways. But Prado doesn't do that. Instead of the standard step-by-step way of building a story, she writes "off subject."

"The unknown poet waits for criticism / and reads his verses three times a day / like a monk with his book of hours." What? I asked myself the first time I read this poem over a decade ago. And then I discovered that the remainder of the poem contained similar seismic shifts in subject matter every two or three lines. Richard Wilbur speaks to this kind of writing in the first chapter ("Writing Off the Subject") of his classic The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (W.W. Norton, 1979):

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: "Autumn Rain." He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn't the subject. You don't know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it's a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain....It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.

I believe that Prado didn't change the subject from old people and bicycles on the sidewalk to a poet waiting for criticism because she ran out of things to say, but rather because she believed what Hugo said, that it was important to keep the energy going in the poem by changing topics before things got boring and because the remaining lines all did have something to do with one another, just not in a linear way.

Notice the leap from one subject to another:

1. Old people, bicycles, and bullying on the sidewalk. (Lines 1-2)
2. Poet and his poems. (Lines 3-5)
3. Brush and hair.  (Lines 6-8)
4. Giving birth. (Lines 9-12)
5. Music. (Lines 13-14)
6. God's wrath. (Lines 15-16)
7. Kids playing. (Lines 17-18)
8. Today. (Lines 19-21)
9. Destiny and God. (Lines 22-23)

Who would have thought the poem could traverse these subjects on its way from "Old people" to "God." But did Prado really change the topic with each shift? After reading the poem a few times, a logic emerges from the sound of the language itself--its music, its rhythms, its tones. I know it's a translation, but the translator chose words intentionally, so its sound work is not by chance. Notice the tonal connections down the page ("finesse / verses" and "erotic / Bach / wrath / caught / agony / anxious / happen / fast"). And notice how elements of each new subject can apply to the previous or other subjects. The criticism that the poet is waiting for could be directed toward the bullying in the previous lines. The mysteries of giving birth, the soul, God's wrath, and destiny vs. God's interaction with people need to be untangled the way the hair needs to be in the previous lines, but the tools (belief in "Destiny" and a "God" that acts in history) are old and no longer work the way they once did.

This is a narrative that has faith in the reader by demanding collaboration, in the same way the poet has faith that "something is going to happen" and demands more from language about ultimate reality than than her religious tradition has provided. To confirm that statement, I invite you to read the entire collection, with poems containing lines such as: "Poetry will save me. / I feel uneasy saying this, since only Jesus / is Savior..." ("Guide"), and "God looks at me and I am terrified. / ... / Before He knows it, there I am in His lap. / I pull on His white beard. / He throws me the ball of the world, / I throw it back" ("Two Ways").

On a personal note, when I first read this poem in 2006, it gave me, for the first time, permission to write any line beneath any other line without worrying whether it "followed it" in some way that I intended or already perceived. It opened up an entirely new way of creating poetry drafts for me.

And on a final note, if you go back to yesterday's poem, "If There Is Another World," you will notice that Morling periodically changes what seems to be the subject quite abruptly throughout her poem. Each time it re-charges the energy present in the poem in a way that is a blending of Levine's and Prado's strategies. Tomorrow we will examine another way of interrupting the narrative flow in a poem--with lyricism.


Straight Narrative Poem

Write a poem that tells a story. Pick one sense (sight, sound, touch, etc,) and one attribute of that sense (size, color, shape, etc. for sight; volume, pitch, etc. for sound; texture, temperature, etc. for touch) and increase or decrease that attribute throughout the poem to correspond to rising or falling action in your narrative. There's no right or wrong--have fun with it!

Writing off the subject.

Select a draft of a poem you have already written or the first lines you wrote for yesterday's prompt. After the first two or three lines (maximum) and before the subject or idea seems finished or complete, begin writing about another subject that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the first subject. After two or three more lines, do it again. Again. Again. For extra credit, when you think the poem might be finished, go back and see if there is any connection between the subjects. Rearrange the lines or manipulate the language to tease out those connections with sound or some other way, like every other line being the next step in the story.


For those of you without a published collection, Best New Poets is open for submissions until May 15th. Link is HERE.

For all of you, consider submitting to the Montreal International Poetry Contest. The prize is an astonishing $20K for one poem, 40 lines or less. And lest you think it impossible, Marin Poetry Center's own Erin Rodoni won the award in 2017. Why not give it a try. Even you you don't win, you might end up in the anthology. Early entry (save money) deadline is May 1. Final judge is Yusef Komunyakaa. Link is HERE.


For improved mood and quick energy to write a poem, try this carb-laden quick pasta carbonara recipe HERE. In case you have trouble with the link, I've copied and pasted the recipe below:

Recipe courtesy of Tyler Florence (Food 911; Episode "Mangia! Mangia")

Level: Intermediate

Total: 25 min
Prep: 15 min
Cook: 10 min
Yield: 4-6 servings


1 pound dry spaghetti
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta or slab bacon, cubed or sliced into small strips
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
1 handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped


1. Prepare the sauce while the pasta is cooking to ensure that the spaghetti will be hot and ready when the sauce is finished; it is very important that the pasta is hot when adding the egg mixture, so that the heat of the pasta cooks the raw eggs in the sauce.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender yet firm (as they say in Italian "al dente"). Drain the pasta well, reserving 1/2 cup of the starchy cooking water to use in the sauce if you wish.

3. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium flame. Ad the pancetta and sauce for about 3 minutes, until the bacon is crisp and the fat is rendered. Toss the garlic into the fat and sauce for less than 1 minute to soften.

4. Add the hot, drained spaghetti to the pan and toss for 2 minutes to coat the strands in the bacon fat. Beat the eggs and Parmesan together in a mixing bowl, stirring well to prevent lumps. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the egg/cheese mixture into the pasta, whisking quickly until the eggs thicken, but do not scramble (this is done off the heat to ensure this does not happen). Thin out the sauce with a bit of the reserved pasta water, until it reaches desired consistency. Season the carbonara with several turns of freshly ground black pepper and taste for salt. Mound the spaghetti carbonara into warm serving bowls and garnish with chopped parsley. Pass more cheese around the table.

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