narrative poetry

6 posts

How Difficult Simple Can Be!

Raymond Carver is one of those open-the-door-and-come-on-in poets. Better known as a short story writer who reached his glory days in the 80s, Carver wrote poems that specialized in narratives, which should come at no surprise, given his start.

What do I mean by “open the door and come on in”? I mean his poems are welcoming and hospitable. He inspires would-be poets and poets alike by making it look easy. Look for rhyme and meter at your own risk.

As for line breaks and enjambment, each functions nicely without the use of punctuation. Many unpunctuated poems trip readers up. Carver’s? Not so much. It’s too easy, smooth, intuitive.

Topic-wise, Carver was easy listening, too. Everyday life was his topic, whether by fiction or by verse. In a 1988 interview (he died of lung cancer that year on Aug. 2nd), he said, “Most of my stories, if not all of them, have some basis in real life. That’s the kind of fiction I’m most interested in. I suppose that’s one reason I don’t have much respect for fiction that seems to be game playing.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Carver idolized Anton Chekhov. It should also come as no surprise that Carver fashioned a poem from the moment his doctor told him about his cancer.

It looks simple, reading it. Dialogue without the quotation marks. Doctor and patient, back and forth in a frank manner, ending with a finish where “habit” forces the patient to act in a manner that’s unexpectedly casual, given the gravity of the situation.

But unexpectedly casual is what makes the poem work. Bittersweet and poignant, it’s a gut punch moment made all the more realistic by the speaker’s final act in the final line.

Check and see for yourself. If you’re inspired by this relative ease of Carver’s poetry writing, try a dialogue crowned by action/thought/contrast poem yourself.

You’ll see just how difficult “simple” can be!


What the Doctor Said
Raymond Carver

He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

The Sweet Seduction of Narrative Poetry

Humans are hardwired for story, all right. Suckers for it. Can’t resist it.

Got a good tale to tell? Ready with just the right amount of detail, cutting all the rest? Then poetry is waiting, open arms, just like any other genre.

Don’t believe me? Check out Walter McDonald’s narrative poem below. You find yourself believing in these two men in a matter of five lines, identifying with what they’re both about and up to, giving yourself up to the inevitable turn at the end because you have to get there to see what happens.


What If I Didn’t Die Outside Saigon
Walter McDonald

So what do you want? he growled inside the chopper,
strapping me roughly to the stretcher
as if I were already dead. “Jesus,” I swore,
delirious with pain, touching the hot mush of my legs.
“To see my wife. Go home, play with my kids,

help them grow up. You know.” His camouflaged face
was granite, a colonel or sergeant who’d seen it all.
He wore a parka in the rain, a stubby stale cigar
bit tight between his teeth, a nicked machete
like a scythe strapped to his back. He raised a fist

and held the chopper. He wore a gold wrist watch
with a bold sweep-second hand. The pilot glanced back,
stared, and looked away. Bored, the old man asked,
Then what? his cigar bobbing. I swallowed morphine
and choked, “More time. To think, plant trees,

teach my kids to fish and catch a ball.”
Yeah? he said, sucking the cigar, thinner
than he seemed at first. Through a torrent of rain,
I saw the jungle closing over me like night.
“And travel,” I said, desperate, “to see the world.

That’s it, safe trips with loved ones. Long years
to do whatever. Make something of my life. Make love,
not war.” I couldn’t believe it, wisecracking clichés,
about to die. He didn’t smile, but nodded. So?
What then? “What then? Listen, that’s enough,

isn’t that enough?” His cigar puffed
into flame, he sucked and blew four perfect rings
which floated through the door and suddenly
dissolved. Without a word, he leaned and touched
my bloody stumps, unbuckled the stretcher straps

and tore the Killed-in-Action tag from my chest.
And I sat up today in bed, stiff-legged, out of breath,
an old man with a room of pictures of children
who’ve moved away, and a woman a little like my wife
but twice her age, still sleeping in my bed.


The abstract dreams of the injured man and the reality of descriptions and dialogue inside the chopper dance nicely together. And man, that final stanza, that “tore the Killed-in-Action tag from my chest.” Those final four lines of realization contrasting dream life from real life, “what if” life from “actually happened” life.

Makes you glad you’re hardwired for story, doesn’t it? Makes you realize you have stories to share, too, and this isn’t a bad model to emulate.

Not bad at all.

Going Off Track


Narrative poetry is more often anecdotal poetry than not. When a poet gets caught up in a sweeping or, God forbid, generational story, she may never see the end of it. But anecdotal? And, say, one featuring the generational attitudes? Much more manageable.

Here Lawrence Raab starts with words he surely heard one day: “Your train departed ahead of schedule.” From there, he lays out a brief story featuring unexpected reactions in his family, chiefly from his son, who apparently has a bit of the Tom Sawyer in him—enough to defuse any angst or anger, enough to turn a smile.


It’s Not Just Trains
Lawrence Raab

The ticket office was closing
when we arrived and were informed
our train had departed ahead of schedule.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Trains
leave on time, or late, but never early.”
“Such things happen,” the agent replied,

“more often than you would think.”
“Look around,” he added,
“and pay attention. It’s not just trains.”

When I told my family of this unexpected
predicament, I was taken aback
by their lack of surprise. “Let’s wander

a while through this pretty little town,”
my wife proposed, “and see what happens.”
“Or else,” said my son, “let’s head off

into that dark woods beyond the tracks,
each alone and without our baggage,
and try to find our way out

before nightfall.” He smiled, I thought,
at me in particular, as if he’d known
all along that would be the plan.


Not much in the way of poetic tricks and flowery language here. Just the facts, Jack. An anecdote straight up.

Sometimes story alone can carry the day. Even in poetry.

“Navel-Gazing” and Other Writing Hazards: Interview with a Poetry Editor

Today, in our last entry before Christmas, we share the partial transcript of an interview conducted with the editor of a small poetry journal. This excerpt focuses on the controversial concept of “navel-gazing.” 

KC stands for this website, as in some writer looking suspiciously like me conducting an interview. PE stands for physical education. (No, wait! Poetry Editor, I mean!)


KC: So how much reading do poetry editors and readers get done this time of year?

PE: That depends, but for the most part, very little. Poetry editors are people, too. We’re not Bob Cratchit at a desk wearing fingerless gloves as we pore over bad poetry, feeding it to some cold fire turned roaring. We have families, too. And the Ghost of Shopping Future to attend to.

KC: Good one. Why, then, does it “depend”?

PE: Because some journals are in such deep holes with their to-be-read piles that they use so-called “free time” to catch up. Thus is a misnomer born.

KC: I’m not sure I’d want my work to be read during “free time” like that. I suspect Mr. Poetry Cratchit might be a tad grouchy like his boss.

PE: (Laughs) Well, maybe so, maybe so. Kind of like the way we used to insist certain teachers didn’t “like us” and therefore looked at all our work through some red ink darkly.

KC: Nice allusion. But I’ve been meaning to ask you about something of great interest to poets. Navel-gazing.

PE: Oh, no. Anything but that!

KC: Yes. Lint and all. Poets are constantly warned off self-obsession and treating on topics of little interest to the masses and much interest to themselves. But I’m unclear about the border between such outlying provinces. Is not the human condition universal?

PE: Of course it is and of course that’s true, but you have to go with your gut. Belly-button poetry, as I call it, announces itself quite well. Have you ever been at a party with people who never ask questions, never stop talking to listen, and just go on and on about themselves and their jobs and their health concerns and their children and — God save us — their pets? It’s a torture most exquisite. It should be banned by the Geneva Convention, but isn’t deemed worthy.

KC: Wait a minute. Are you describing Facebook or poetry writing?

PE: (Wagging his finger) Such a wise one. Is your name Melchior, then?

KC: So why can’t a poem about Fido appeal to that huge market out there known as poetry readers who own dogs?

PE: It’s not so much the what as the how. How do you go about it? Belly-button poetry can be killed one if by specifics and two if by abstractions. Too much of your particular pooch and his particular idiosyncrasies and readers will be “hash-tag who cares?” And, on the other hand, too much canine cliché and the reader will be bored by line three. Overly warmed by dryer lint and sleepy with ennui.

KC: Ah, I think I get it. The advantage seems to go, in this day and age, to political poetry and to societal poetry. Can one navel-gaze on that front, too?

PE: Yes. Navel-gazing is an equal-opportunity art killer. The poem must speak to the universal human experience in a most particular way. The particular way, however, cannot be a boring way. True, it may be informed by experience and usually is, but it’s all about the vehicle.

KC: “To a Buick Skylark,” you’re telling us?

PE: Ha! You’re showing your age there! Buick Skylarks went out of production just before the century flipped. I’m sure Percy Bysshe Shelley appreciates the allusion, though.

KC: So what might be your advice on the navel-gazing front? Something useful for our readers on this site….

PE: Stop thinking about yourself so much. Turn the ego loose for a few hours, like a kid going outside to play in the 60s. Out of sight but not out of mind. Observe the world around you and write about it.  See the ordinary in extraordinary ways. Keep your sense of humor and creative play nearby. Experiment. Read other poets’ work religiously. Read a wide swath of poetry journals religiously. Write the equivalent of questions. Write the equivalent of listening and report it objectively and faithfully. And if you’re going to navel-gaze, for God’s sake do it without being obvious. Perhaps it’s helpful to consider the world and the people around you as belly buttons. Gaze there and reflect on that in your own signature way through your own voice. Does that help?

KC: It’s a frightening image, actually.

PE: Narrative poetry, too. Humans are hardwired for stories, even yours if they are attached to meaning and universal truths that will have readers nodding their heads and connecting in their own ways. When the “I” in your first-person poems becomes the “I” for readers, you’ve pulled it off. Your “I” is their “I,” and no one’s the wiser—all while your poem “teaches” in its subtle ways. I know this is not exactly helpful, but it’s salutary to just consider the whole idea of self-obsession before writing. Some writers won’t even go that far. They are just writing for the self, for their own ego’s self-massaging. And finally, I would advise that you share drafts with people you trust. Not boiler-plate rejecting editors like me, but people who don’t pull punches, who traffic in “tough love,” which is something every new poem needs.

KC: Tough love and gut punches. Right in the button de belly?

PE: You got it. Punches to the poem’s solar plexus. Punches that feel painfully good, once the soreness wears off.

KC: Thanks for sharing your wisdom, sir. A merry and a happy to you and yours!

PE: Thank you!


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).


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.