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.

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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”

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”