Historically, narrative poetry meant epics like the Odyssey or Beowulf – or, in later centuries, poems such as Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The narrative mode stood in contrast to the lyric mode: short, musical poems evoking an internal emotional state. But at some point in the 20th century, the scope of narrative poetry began to narrow from the public to the private sphere.[i] As Dante Di Stefano puts it, “In much high Modernist, and in most romantic poetry, the sources of inspiration for a poem (the psychic wound, the secret trauma, whatever guilt or shame or bliss drove a poet to write) remained at least partially hidden: [with confessionalism], the source became the poem.” The line between poet and speaker blurred. And with it, the line between external narrative and internal lyric blurred as well.
In a 2006 essay for Poetry Magazine called “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland considers the current disdain for what Di Stefano calls lyric narrative poetry. “It seems likely,” he writes, “that narrative poetry in America has been tainted by … the inadvertent sentimentality and narcissism of many [badly executed confessional] poems. Our vision of narrative possibilities has been narrowed by so many first person autobiographical stories, then drowned in a flood of pathos poems.” He also posits a second explanation: “many persons think that ours is simply not a narrative age; that contemporary experience is too multitracked, too visual, too manifold and simultaneous to be confined to the linearity of narrative, no matter how well done.”
Aaron Smith also challenges the current aesthetic, asking, “[Why] do I feel pressure from peers to remove the narrative ‘I’ from poems?” he asks. “Why can’t ‘I’ be imagined on the page? Is the reader afraid to be gay for a little while (to be black for a little while, to be a woman)?”
With The Big Smoke, his third and strongest book, Adrian Matejka neatly sidesteps the question of the autobiographical “I”. The subject of his book is not Matejka himself, but Jack Johnson, a black man and heavyweight boxing champion who defied the laws and customs of the Jim Crow era. Matejka builds the narrative of Jack Johnson’s life with a series of poems that have both lyric and narrative qualities. In the fragmented, multitracked spirit of the age, the poems speak not only with the voice of Jack Johnson, but also his shadow-boxing self, the white women who love him, and the racist newspapers who cover him. These voices work together so skillfully that I zipped through the entire book in little more than an hour. Johnson speaks easily and plainly of the brutality of the time. In the opening “Battle Royale,” he considers the roots of prize-fighting in America:
sometimes put the bear’s eyes out
or took his teeth to make the fight
was against the law, some smart
somebody figured coloreds fight
just as hard if hungry enough.
Matejka uses enjambment across both lines and stanzas to impart consistent forward motion throughout the book. He creates a conversational tone with language that is simultaneously unobtrusive and powerful. The poems chronicle Jack’s rise in the boxing world: (“Our meeting was the shortest fight / of my career. The man pursued me / like it was personal & I went down / in the third thanks to a hard left to my eye.”)[ii] (“The bell rang & Jeffries / came out determined / to go down fighting. As if // he had a choice”)[iii]
They chronicle his experience of racism (“The officer said, Nigger, where’s / the chicken?”)[iv], the inner voice of his own self-doubt (“You’re not fooling me / by quoting Shakespeare, / Mr. Champion of the Negro / World. No matter how / carefully you enunciate, / Tiny was a slave / & the condition of the son / follows the condition / of the mother”)[v], and his complicated relationships with women.
I found the poems dealing with Hattie, Belle, and Etta particularly interesting. With “Letter to Belle (May 27, 1909),” the poems move into the voices of the women with whom he was involved. Lines and stanzas become longer and more solid – almost prose at points – and the tone of the poems change. And we know immediately that his relationship with these women is complicated. “I do not mind sharing his attentions with you,” says Hattie. And later, “Being with Papa makes me feeling important. He does not beat me much either.” Other poems such as “Cooking Lessons” deal more explicitly with the violent nature of these relationships. And poems formatted as police interviews with Belle document further not only Johnson’s failings as a boyfriend but also attempts by law enforcement to punish him for his involvement with white women.
Matejka uses Johnson’s story to challenge the reader – as Aaron Smith would wish – to be black for a little while, to be a woman. By choosing a voice not his own, he gives himself and his reader the distance to speak and to read clearly what might be obscured in a more familiar source. I’ve dabbled with persona poems myself and find them helpful in this way. Matejka’s
[i] Epic, narrative poetry hasn’t completely disappeared from the contemporary scene. See Derek Walcott’s Omeros, or David Rakoff’s Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.
[ii] Matejka. The Big Smoke. “The Manly Art of Self-Defense,” p. 9.
[iii] Ibid. “The Battle of the Century, Round Ten.” p. 83.
[iv] Ibid. “Chicken & Other Stereotypes,” p. 28.
[v] Ibid. “The Shadow Knows,” p. 52. See other Shadow poems as well.
Di Stefano, Dante. “A Defense of Train Wrecks: Lyric Narrative Poetry and the Legacy of Confessionalism.” Shenandoah. Posted Jul. 28, 2015. Web. Accessed Feb. 20, 2017. http://shenandoahliterary.org/651/2015/07/28/a-defense-of-train-wrecks-lyric-narrative-poetry-and-the-legacy-of-confessionalism/
Hoagland, Tony. “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Poetry Magazine. Web. Published Mar 21, 2006. Accessed Feb. 20, 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/detail/68489
Matejka, Adrian. The Big Smoke. Penguin Poets, 2013. Print.
Smith, Aaron. “The Very Act of Telling: Sharon Olds and Writing Narrative Poetry.” Academy of American Poets. Web. Posted Jan. 4, 2005. Accessed Feb. 20, 2017. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/very-act-telling-sharon-olds-and-writing-narrative-poetry