Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry.

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I’ve been approaching this semester with an alternating focus on the lyrical and narrative modes of poetry. But how exactly does one differentiate between the two? And is it even a valid dichotomy? As with the prose-poetry divide, the more one tries to define it, the more slippery it becomes. In an essay published in 2006, Tony Hoagland writes about “a widespread mistrust of narrative forms and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative.” He also acknowledges the difficulty of defining the term: “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped misleadingly together: not just story but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”

Published in 2004, Rachel Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative certainly demonstrates the zeitgeist Hoagland describes. At first pass, the title seems like a joke on the reader. Zucker’s language is disruptive, fragmented. It uses not only syntax but white space and idiosyncratic punctuation – all to skillful effect, but hardly the definition of what most people would call a clear narrative.

Continue reading “Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative”

Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke: A Meta-Narrative

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: Continue reading “Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke: A Meta-Narrative”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Second Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry. This is the cover letter to the second packet.

Dear Kevin:

For some reason, finishing this packet was very difficult. I’ve been suffering under the specter of self-doubt – both with the craft annotations and with the original work. I hope you don’t mind that the Zucker annotation runs a bit over. She uses a lot of white space, and word placement and white space are integral to the meaning of her poems. So quoting her meant that I had less space than usual for the actual annotation. I feel like I was able to delve into the text of Zucker’s work, but am less sure about the annotation on Matejka’s book. I found myself fascinated with the conversation about “lyric narrative” poetry in the essays I cite in the Matejka annotation, and I’m afraid it took over the paper a bit. But these meta-issues were important for me to consider: the legacy of Confessionalism, the narrative “I,” and the current literary trends toward language-focused work and away from narrative. One of the thing that I liked best about Dante Di Stefano’s piece was the way that he put into context the arc of poetry in the 20th century, from Imagism to High Modernism to Confessionalism, and beyond.[1] When I studied poetry as an undergrad, the latter half of those shifts were still underway. I didn’t have the perspective to consider them from Di Stefano’s point of view. Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Second Packet”

Song and Compression in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Photograph of poet Emily Dickinson

Last semester I wrote a craft annotation on the subject of poetic structure and nonlinear time. Now I can see that this is very much an element of lyric poetry. Where narrative poetry moves like a road, lyric poetry unfolds like a flower, spiraling out from a single image or moment into a flurry of associations and other moments.

In The Flexible Lyric, Ellen Bryant Voigt calls out compression and song as two characteristics of lyric poetry. Emily Dickinson’s poems feature both of these qualities prominently. Her poems have a basic pattern: quatrains with alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines. But the thing that set her apart from the dominant aesthetic of her time was the way she broke from the pattern. What her contemporaries might have called spasmodic, imperfectly rhymed, and lacking in form, we today consider a masterful interplay of meaning and music. Some of her poems adhered more closely to convention than others. Consider “Because I could not stop for Death” (poem 712):
Continue reading “Song and Compression in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry”

A Close Reading of “Elegy for My Father,” by Annie Finch

Detail of the cover of Spells: New and Selected Poems, by Annie Finch

Annie Finch titled her 2013 volume of selected poems Spells for good reason. A Wiccan as well as a poet, she recognizes the power of incantation in creating an altered consciousness, a state in which a strongly held vision can move from the realm of possibility into reality. Not all of Finch’s poems are visionary or transformative in intention, but they do share a powerfully persuasive incantatory quality.

Finch relies on a number of poetic techniques to create these incantations, most notably repetition of words and phrases and the use of iambs—the thump-THUMP of a heartbeat that calls up instinctive memories of the womb. But her repertory far exceeds the basic iamb, as we see in “Elegy for My Father.” While the poem definitely meets the criteria of an elegy – it recounts the vigil at her father’s deathbed – its complex dactylic meter runs counterpoint to the somber subject matter. Lines alternate between pure dactylic tetrameter and dactylic trimeter with a final, stressed syllable at the end, as in this example:

Continue reading “A Close Reading of “Elegy for My Father,” by Annie Finch”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, First Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry. This is the cover letter to the first packet.

Dear Kevin:

Thanks for being so generous with your time, both during the residency and via email this month. I’ve been particularly crazed during this first packet. I constantly had the feeling of playing catch-up. Somewhere in there I forgot that I’m doing all of this because I enjoy studying and writing poetry. Last semester, I had a moment sitting under a tree in our back yard reading Sylvia Plath, and I thought, how is this grad school? I’ve had a moment or two like that in the past month, but they’ve mostly been overshadowed by OMGIHAVETODOALLTHETHINGS RIGHTNAOWWWW. Perhaps this is just how it feels to be in one’s second semester. The winter blues don’t help.

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, First Packet”

Craft Annotation: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure

Image of spiral clock credit: Chris Limb via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

An issue I’ve struggled with time and again is how to incorporate multiple scenes in a single poem while still maintaining unity and clarity. Dividing a poem into separate sections with roman numerals or asterisks may work, but not all poems are long enough to justify multiple parts, nor does this method evoke the seamless way a particular sense perception or situation can trigger associations with another time and place. Proust and his madeleine are a famous example: the taste of a cookie kicks off the epic, multi-volume novel Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Few modern poets have the luxury of such sprawl. But regardless of the length of the poem, one must still learn how to deal with nonlinear time in a way that mitigates the possibility of a confused reader. We experience time in a single dimension (past to present), but the way we think about time is multi-dimensional. It includes past, present, future, and possible divergences from a single outcome.

I set out in search of poems that dealt with the issue of multiple moments (past, present, future, and possible). Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure”

Craft Annotation: Szymborska, Imagery, and Abstraction

As I discussed in my craft annotation on Rilke, modern poetry favors a particular aesthetic quite the opposite of the era preceding it. The rise of the Imagist movement in the early 20th century heralds this shift. As the name implies, the movement was toward concrete, visceral imagery and away from sentimentality and meditations on abstract concepts such as love or death – or if the poem is a meditation on love or death, it’s never explicitly named as such. In the preface to the 1915 anthology Some Imagists Poets, the school listed some of its common principles. These two in particular stood out for me:

  • To present an image (hence the name: “Imagist”). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
  • To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite. [i]

William Carlos Williams explores this principle in his long poem “Paterson,” Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Szymborska, Imagery, and Abstraction”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Final Packet

Read on for the cover letter to the final packet of my first semester at the Lesley MFA program, written to my teacher Sharon Bryan. The cover letter of a packet is meant to be a meditation on your writing and study process over the course of the previous month — a sort of “making of” the finished work that accompanies it:

Dear Sharon:

How strange to think that this is the last packet I will be sending you. The semester has gone by so quickly. I was really worried about being able to finish all the work on time, but it turned out to be possible after all. About halfway through each packet I would get incredibly anxious. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish the work on time, and that what I sent wouldn’t be good enough. It’s natural to want to get the most out of a degree program as possible, but it’s also important not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. The fact that the course work is pass/fail helps, but ultimately it’s a question of whether I think I am doing the best that I can. Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Final Packet”

Heather McHugh’s Poetic Music

When I first picked up Heather McHugh’s work[i], I delighted in her witty use of language – the way she was able to pick out a word’s multiple meanings in the course of tightly musical and lyrical verse. Some examples:

From “Spectacles:”[ii]

I don’t move
but the grass in the window
does an utter
smear campaign…

From “Politics:”[iii]

The dog pauses before the fire,
watches, gains
weight, can’t make
light of it, lies
heavy down…

By themselves, these puns and surprising twists of language might suffice, but McHugh combines this wordplay with an unerring attention to the sound and rhythm of her lines as well. Continue reading “Heather McHugh’s Poetic Music”