lyric poetry

3 posts

The Possibilities in an “Endlessly Muddled Middle”

They say man is a storytelling animal, which therefor means he is a story-listening animal.

Children love story time, of course, but adults do as well. Teachers know that high school seniors will be as rapt to a great story read aloud as kindergarteners will. As for movies and the theater and television? One big, ear-and-eye-popping story.

In his book, Minds Made for Stories, Thomas Newkirk argues that all writing–expository, persuasive, descriptive–is essentially narrative at its root. Jonathan Gottschall, meanwhile, put out a bestselling book in 2012 called The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. His thesis? You must be some kind of monster if your dislike stories (never mind that monsters make for wonderful stories, as the dark space under your bed can testify).

It’s hard to argue with all this, right? We are surrounded every day by unfolding storylines. Our lives are storylines, in fact. Ones where Free Will steps into the ring to do battle with Fate on a daily basis. We either write our own lives or watch helplessly as our lives get written for us.

Into this end-of-story fray steps William H. Gass. In his essay, “Finding a Form,” he begs to differ with the story enthusiasts. With relish, even! Hark:

“If words find comfort in the sentence’s syntactical handclasp, and sentences find the proper place of pieces of furniture in the rhetorical space of the paragraph, what shall control each scene as it develops, form the fiction finally as a whole?

“Well, the old answer was always: plot. It’s a terrible word in English, unless one is thinking of some second-rate conspiracy, a meaning it serves very well. Otherwise, it stands for an error for which there’s no longer an excuse. There’s bird drop, horse plop, and novel plot. Story is what can be taken out of the fiction and made into a movie. Story is what you tell people when they embarrass you by asking what your novel is about. Story is what you do to clean up life and make God into a good burgher who manages the world like a business. History is often written as a story so that it can seem to have a purpose, to be on its way somewhere; because stories deny that life is no more than an endlessly muddled middle; they beg each length of it to have a beginning and end like a ballgame or a banquet. Stories are sneaky justifications. You can buy stories at the store, where they are a dime a dozen. Stories are interesting only when they are floors in a building. Stories are a bore. What one wants to do with stories is screw them up. Stories ought to be in pictures. They’re wonderful to see.

“Still, a little story gets into everything. Thank the Ghost of Fictions Past for that.”

An amusing foray, I found it–especially the word play: “There’s bird drop, horse plop, and  novel plot.” And what about this: “Stories are interesting only when they are floors in a building.”

God save us from the 13th story, eh?

For poets, Gass’s rant is inspirational in its way, for which genre “screws stories up” more than poetry? Yes, yes, we have narrative poems, and we have those who love them. But more often the Hansel-and-Gretel trail is lost in the dark wood of a poem. Dark and lovely wood, one hopes.

I once wrote a young adult novel that actually got a reading and a handwritten reply from an editor at a top publishing house. Her rejection apologies were all about the plot, but she ended on a positive. “Beautiful descriptions,” she wrote. “The imagery is inspiring. Have you considered poetry?”

Truth be told, I had not. But the seed was planted, and when a seed germinates and pierces the earthy ceiling of possibilities above it, a story begins and rushes and commences the search for its “endlessly muddled middle.”

Therein lies the art, I think. No need to be spellbound with neatly-ribboned endings are advance-screen cheers for happily ever afters. Life is a muddle. And reading poems that muse on that muddle in unique and beautiful ways is a story unto itself. Leave plots to the rabble and the cemetery’s diggers. The end may just be another beginning.

From Paradox, Poetry

Vignettes. In prose, they are short snapshots of a subject. They lack the plot you’d expect in a short story, but are rich in description and mood and are often strong enough to carry a theme, especially when matched with other vignettes.

The equivalent of a vignette in poetry? Another snapshot, again too passing to be deemed a narrative poem with beginning, middle, and end, but still worthy of comment.

When a reader takes in a short lyric poem about a person, a time, and a place, she is left with the keys to a door she must open herself. “Here is a character,” the poet seems to say. “You fill in the details of his past and the possibilities of his future. See, too, if you recognize yourself or someone like him from your own life.”

An example of this type of poem is Ted Kooser’s below. I’ll meet you ’round the other side of it.


“The Student”
Ted Kooser

The green shell of his backpack makes him lean
into wave after wave of responsibility,
and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands,

paddling ahead. He has extended his neck
to its full length, and his chin, hard as a beak,
breaks the surf. He’s got his baseball cap on

backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library.


An image is briefly sketched. We get color (“green shell of his backpack”), and we get physical description (“stiff arms and cupped hands,” “extended his neck,” “chin, hard as a beak,” “baseball cap on / backward”). We even have a location (“the library”).

As this young student is emerging from a hangover, we can even place his age in the college years.

Active verbs help us to envision a bit of action in this nine-lined snapshot, too. He leans into the wind, swings his arms, and extends his neck and chin as he enters the library.

Most important, poetically, is the employment of nouns in metaphorical ways. This kid must not only lean into the wind, he must “lean / into wave after wave of responsibility” and use neck and chin to “break the surf.”

The oceanic image is completed in the final stanza “as up he crawls, out of the froth / of a hangover and onto the sand of the future.” The snapshot is a D-Day in miniature as the young man, who can do it because he is in the prime of life, fights off the vapor of alcohol and establishes a beachhead at the library. Back to business, in other words. There’s a war to fight called education.

And just how heavy is that green-shelled backpack? Heavier than you think. Laden not just with textbooks, it comes “heavy with hope,” as well. As the reader, you can infer what these hopes are, but the simplest is that he can have his keg and get good grades, too, the hope (or delusion, if you prefer) of any partying student.

Worthy of a poem? If the image strikes you as a writer, yes. A mere stroke of the brush, but one that requires just enough paint to say its piece and go home. A vignette with little story except what the reader cares to add. In this case, the student in question is both unique and Everyman (or Everystudent) at once.

Unique universality, I call it. From paradox, poetry.

The Mysterious Equations of Narrative Poetry, Where “Less Is More”

Story. Cavemen loved them, apparently, as do the so-called civilized types we call ourselves today. Tell me a good story, and I’m your captive till the happily ever after. Words to live by. Especially if your name is Sheherazade and your pretty life depends on it.

The last entry from my reading of Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival has to do with story. He quotes Aristotle, who famously said, “Men reveal themselves in deeds and acts.” (I love it when Ari gives lessons on show vs. tell.)

And if you sample poems in the various journals you submit poetry to, you will find that certain editors lean heavily toward narrative poetry. Narrative threads weave their way through lyric poetry, too. They are not mutually exclusive. I’ll yield the floor to Orr:

“Story is not simply a narrative of chronological events. Story selects and arranges (or rearranges) details and events and gestures for their symbolic significance. In prose narrative, ‘more is more’ because the goal is often to establish the complex richness and variety of the world of experience. In lyric story, ‘less is more.’ Everything that does not add to the intended dramatization is stripped away, and meaning is compressed into action and detail that reveal significance. Only that part of the world that heightens the dramatic focus is kept. Thus Aristotle in his Poetics says that if some part of a poem is removed and someone reading the poem doesn’t notice a gap or absence, then that part was never a genuine part of the poem after all.”

I love that last bit about a reader not noticing missing lines in a poem. Trouble is, the reader has to be someone other than yourself. As the poet, you often cannot see the extraneous from the essential. Every word is your baby, after all. Your mother hen instincts secretly kick in.

Aristotle’s observation also reveals the irony in assuming the job of the novelist is more arduous than the job of the poet. Yes, the novelist has his English Channel of words to swim across, but the currents and the vastness of the body itself allow for error, for digression, for the ego to occasionally break loose and pontificate. The poet, on the other hand, must work from the recent storm’s puddle on the sidewalk. That’s it. Check out the reflection while it’s there, then make do and make it work.

So I ask you, which is more difficult: “more is more” or “less is more”? If you chose the former, you’re likely the person who would select the biggest wrapped box in a line-up of various-sized gifts, too, thinking surely that size is everything. In America, we would say, “How American.” I’m not sure what they would say in other countries, but they’d say something (while shaking their cosmopolitan heads).

Back to Orr:

“Aristotle also locates the heart of story in conflict. In lyric poetry, such conflict needn’t be anything melodramatic. Merely introducing two pronouns into the opening line of a poem creates tension essential to story: ‘I saw you in the diner…’ There is a subtle, unresolved tension between the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ that seeks to be developed and resolved. You can see how subtle but real that tension is if you substitute a unitary pronoun: ‘We went to the diner.’ The reader may still be curious about what will happen next, may even curious about who the ‘we’ is, but the story tension created by the I/you has disappeared. It is this tension or conflict that is at the heart of a story, providing story with dramatic focus.

“Unlike narrative, which can have numerous characters, story in the personal lyric will have only two or three characters in order to establish and maintain dramatic focus and thereby communicate the story of the self. Here’s a personal lyric by Theodore Roethke that structures itself around story:


My Papa’s Waltz
by Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.


Interesting, isn’t it, how a poem like Roethke’s — one that we’ve read a million times — can be used as an example of narrative poetry. It’s so short, I never thought of it that way.

But the truth is, narrative poetry can out-flash the flashiest of fiction. And if it looks easy, look again. Then get to work, as that’s the only way your story will reach the Promised Land (which looks a lot like the word “published” to me).