Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The territory

In terms of narrative possibilities, there are two bench mark texts for an Australian reader: The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter, and Freddy Neptune by Les Murray. They also represent two poles on a line representing the obvious approaches to using ‘poetry’ to tell a story.

Freddy Neptune is a novel in any sense of the word, the central character is uniquely memorable and Murray gives him a definite voice. Except this novel is written in eight line stanzas. As a performance, it’s spectacular. (And daunting). But the question that haunts it is does writing it in eight line stanzas, no matter how beautifully controlled they are, add anything to the narrative? Would the story lose much if it were told in prose?

The Monkey’s Mask, which has been filmed, consists of separate, short poems each with its own title. A first person narrator, PI familiar from Chandler, jaded, on the margins, hired to find a missing person. It’s got sex (lots of it), some pointed comments about poetry in Australia, and manages to keep within the recognizable limits of the genre of the detective story while nudging at its edges. You can give it to someone who doesn’t read poetry and they’ll enjoy it, though perhaps not the elderly maiden aunt or “Disgusted of Milton Keynes.” It’s difficult to remember how stunning it was the first time I read it, soon after publication, and not have that reaction coloured by the books she’s written subsequently, which tend to fossilize all that was good about the Monkey.

But the same question: does the narrative gain much by written in what is a sequence of poems? Porter is an expert in walking the dog, in taking the line as close to clipped prose as it can be without letting it fall into prose. (Actually the first book of hers I read, Akhenaton, is in some ways my favorite)

These two provide the bench marks. So you can put Quiver against the Monkey.

There is I think a third possibility, that you use poetry to tell a story in a way that only poetry could. Which brings in For all we know. Next time.

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