Sunday, June 12, 2016

Reinventing the Long Narrative Poem 2/3: the experiment

Writing Anhaga 

This is the second of three posts about the writing of Anhaga. The full report will appear on the website when all three have been posted.  

Reinventing the Long Narrative Poem.

Part two: 
Initial observations.

How does a poem differ from prose?  Forget metaphor, simile, and all the things English Teachers inadvertently imply are specific to poetry.  You’ll find them in prose.  Poetry and prose are not a binary pair, more like two points on a line with an almost infinite number of stages between the extremes and if you keep going far enough in either direction you'll find yourself back where you started. 

The short list of technical differences, leaving aside set rhythm, which a lot of my examples didn’t use, might be; rhyme, enjambment, caesura, and the stanza break.

Rhyme will make your poem memorable. I can still recite The Shooting of Dan McGrew…but you’re going to have to be very good to write a long story using rhyme and not bore your reader or sound like you’ve stepped out of the 19th century.  Several of the examples in my list are written in set rhyme schemes and they are not the ones I’d choose to copy. Besides, on its own it won’t really alter the story as story.

Stanza breaks however are intriguing.  Admittedly prose has chapters and paragraphs and sections with their own breaks. But as Kinney pointed out in her study of narrative poetry, stanzas create a tension between pause and forward movement. The stanza comes to an end, suggesting the reader should pause and consider the content, but the narrative moves on. Endstop your stanzas too heavily and movement between them becomes difficult for the reader.  Make them too fluid and the whole thing starts to blur. The problem is compounded in a sequence where the poems are of uneven length.

Then there’s what the comic books call the Gutter; the white space between the stanzas or poems the reader must move across. Hold on to that thought.

Finally, what we used to call ‘coreference’ could be exploited. Corefernce refers to aspects of a text which tie it together. In prose, we might think of pronoun usage and tenses, but there are different possibilities with poetry.  You could exploit sound and rhythm to suggest links between pieces of narrative information. Characters can be developed using syntax and frame of reference, which is something Joyce did so brilliantly, but also the poetic forms they use or are associated with.

The Experiment.

I’ve been wanting to do something with the Old English ‘The Wanderer’ for decades. A speaker seems to be in an open boat, alone, in winter.

I’ve always thought no one would be daft enough to venture out on the North Sea or the Atlantic in winter and therefore read the words as metaphor. This is what life is like…

But who ever produced the poem we have did a fine job of particularizing the image, so it reads like a first person account of a lived experience.

Metaphor or literal truth, or both?

It’s a familiar question when reading a single poem.  

Take that idea a step further.

In Anhaga Mr. Plod the Detective, is worn out by the case he can’t solve. One of his suspects, Carmilla, has begun visiting him every night and she is sucking him dry.

If this is a ‘realistic story’ this is a simple metaphor: he’s experiencing a sleepless night because of the case and thinking about it is draining his energy. He’s also noticed how attractive she is so the sexual overtones are deliberate.

But if this is a vampire story, then Carmilla is doing exactly what the words say she’s doing.

With an individual poem, this ambiguity would be quite normal and it would be something I'd want to try to control and limit. But what would happen if I started lining up poems where this is happening. Instead of readers stepping across the Gutter from one poem to another to have their initial decision about what is literal and what is a metaphor confirmed, what happens if you step across the Gutter and find another set of questions.

This would create a constant unresolved ‘undecidability’ between metaphor/symbol and narrative fact.  If it happens often enough would you get the illusion that there are several possible stories all working simultaneously?

In a story the generic markers tend to reassure us as to which reading is literal within the storyworld and which is metaphor.

As a simple example, if you’re watching a detective story, set in a version of the ‘real world’ that most of us live in; there are no vampires. In that context when someone says; ‘nobody believes in Vampires’, it’s a scornful dismissal of a silly idea. Anyone who disagrees is obviously delusional.
But if the detective is a character in a vampire film, then we all know the speaker is about to die.  Plot twists and genre benders aside, it’s usually clear how the line should be read at least on the second watching.

But if I multiply the generic possibilities, then something much more interesting seems to happen.
What constitutes ‘narrative information’ becomes ambiguous.

In fictional narratives we assume that the information we’re given usually has a purpose. We may not understand it until we get to the end of the story, but in a conventional prose narrative if the reader is told something, that information has some purpose in advancing the plot or establishing a character or setting a scene etc.

In life it’s not so clear. Significance is almost always retrospective. To look back you need a vantage point and the value of any event lies in the retrospective narrative thread we’re following.  Events of shattering significance in your personal life may have no importance to the narrative of your career. This doesn’t mean the narrative threads can’t get twisted together.

I was writing stories about a man who’d lost his memory, and was searching for his own coherent sense of self. After all, as Brooks pointed out, referring to Freud, we narrate ourselves into coherence, and when we can’t we’re in trouble.

If you’re ever met anyone who has lost his or her memory, or is suffering from dementia, you’ll know how tragic this is.

Rather than allow the reader to sit back and watch the narrator flounder, I wanted to put the reader in the same position. 
I wanted to destabilize the reader’s ability to define what is symbol and what is meant as fact. This is inherent in the detective story, where what constitutes evidence, where the significance of an utterance, is only revealed by the detective’s final summary.
But by multiplying the generic markers, the movement towards instability becomes exaggerated and removing the final summary beloved of all crime writers but epitomized by Agatha Christie’s Poirot takes out the final confirmation or revelation of significance.  
I wrote a back story for each of the different versions: A detective story, a vampire story, a strange fantasy of reincarnation and a psychological thriller about a man who has lost his memory.  I planned the sequence using an app I’d downloaded which allowed me to create nodes and trace different coloured lines between them.

It was very pretty. Part three to follow.

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