Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 21, September 2012)

Kathleen Ossip
Bigger, Funnier, and Messier: What I Want from Narrative Poetry

1. A poet’s Facebook status recently made me think about narrative:

“A story! A story!” That’s how I feel all the time. A lot of the time, I want my stories from poems. Back in the olden days, when I was in an MFA program, I didn’t acknowledge this even to myself. You remember those bad old days, maybe: To call a poem “narrative” was a putdown, almost as bad as “confessional.” Both suggested a kind of technophobia—a narrative poet was clinging to an outmoded technology. In my grad-student naïveté, I once asked my teacher David Trinidad, tireless practitioner of very cool, very clear, very literal narrative poems, whether he was aware that what he was up to would be seen by some as passé. He gave the only possible answer: “Yes, but I don’t care.”

So it took me a while but I now say, Yes but I don’t care. I want stories in poems.

Without narratives, any existence we eke out would resemble psychosis. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has identified through his work with split-brain patients the area in the brain’s left hemisphere where our behaviors and emotions get interpreted or made sense of—narrated. This constantly working “interpreter” seems to be what gives us our sense of a unified self. Damage to this area of the brain can cause disruptions in the ability to create narrative. The “interpreter” evolved because it helped make us flexible and game at making educated guesses about causal patterns. The stories we told ourselves about the world helped us make decisions that kept us alive and safe. For maximum efficiency, the interpreter wants to use and re-use predictable narratives with good guys and bad guys and linear, coherent plots. That is, we have a natural bias in favor of old ways of making narrative sense. We are all conservatives.

Biologically, we’re not fully human unless these traditional story patterns give us pleasure. But like a lot of the components of our biological destiny, they have their perils: They’re efficient up to the point where they become boring or, worse, when they start to shape our actions rather than interpret them. Then they become not good enough. Everywhere we see frustration with the old narratives. This is the point at which narrative becomes political. And I think that’s the point at which we now find ourselves and the point at which poets (unacknowledged legislators) step in. I like to think that our brains can not only impose the old hardwired narratives but can change the wiring to create new narratives.

And the thing about new stories is that they might not seem so narrative at first. They might seem like a mess or a joke. The synapses have to get used to them. Consider the opening of “Hollywood” from Farid Matuk’s book This Isa Nice Neighborhood:

Why shouldn’t I take your pills

you’ve got the hospice Percocet all day

but it feels bad now to play fast and loose —

At a reading these lines would be sure to get a laugh. But that’s only because they disrupt our expectations: The story is messy. We don’t know where this opening is going, but we know that the narrative it promises isn’t one we’ve heard a hundred times before.

Robert Anton Wilson said: If the world seems to be getting bigger and funnier all the time, your intelligence is steadily increasing. If the world seems to be getting smaller and nastier all the time, your stupidity is steadily increasing.

Our poetic narratives have to get bigger — i.e., include more. I’m still not sure about funnier; I’m not that detached or that intelligent yet. It may be that the more perspectives you include, the funnier (because so limited) each individual one can become. Messier is good too. With messiness, class enters into the consideration of innovative narratives.

There’s a relationship between class and the well-wrought narrative, the neat traditional kind. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that that left-brain interpreter was more developed or more smoothly developed in children in correlation to how economically comfortable they are in the society they’re born into. None but the comfortable have the luxury of the delusion of everything working out as expected — in other words, believing in a traditional narrative. Those without power (social, economic, political) know that the neatly resolved narrative is bullshit.

At the same time, none but the (relatively) comfortable (i.e., all of us and none of us) have the luxury of taking their “selves” for granted. Because of this, it’s the comfortable who get to tell the smoothest, most accessible stores. You can’t throw away what you never really had/aren’t really sure you have. Those without power have to construct and bolster a self with narratives, and the result is likely to be a little ragged.

So, no surprise, those without power (all of us and none of us) are between a rock and a hard place: we need our inner interpreter to construct narratives to withstand the harshness of the world, but we can’t believe in the traditional narratives.

The solution? Here’s a metaphor that’s also a fact: A study of Milwaukee County in 1988 found government agencies spending more than $1 billion annually on fighting poverty there. If this money had been given in cash to the poor, it would have meant more than $33,000 for each low-income family — well above the poverty level.

Here’s the argument the metaphor suggests: Spend your poetic capital at the local level — the level of the individual uniqueness of the narrative. Give your attention generously to the authenticity (NOT factualness) of the characters, situations, contexts, complexities. And don’t pour your funds into the larger, more abstract outcome — the traditional narrative template. Let the story evolve in the telling, un-predestined.