I turned to Tony Hoagland’s essay “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment” [March 2006] hoping to see some discussion of the lively debate among contemporary poets over verse narrative. What I found in Hoagland’s piece, however, struck me as at most only half an essay. He doesn’t really address narrative at all, but writes instead about a few younger poets, from whom he generalizes a larger contemporary avoidance of or outright hostility to narrative, quoting and discussing some rather weak poems along the way. From Hoagland’s essay one would never know that there are many poets, of all generations, writing all sorts of narrative poems, from the coherent anecdote up to the book-length poem with epic aspirations.
To press the point, I’d suggest that there are far more poets publishing narratives now than there were twenty years ago. Even a short list of prominent book-length narratives to appear since then would have to include a number of Walcott’s books (especially Omeros), Heaney’s recent creative translation of Beowulf, and Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs. In the following generation, poets like David Mason, Mark Jarman, Robert McDowell, Andrew Hudgins, and many, many others have all published compelling book-length poems within the past decade. Among those who write powerful shorter narratives it seems there are so many, of so many schools, it’s hard to know where to start—but how about, say, Dana Gioia, Rita Dove, Wendy Cope, Billy Collins, and B.H. Fairchild, if one is simply looking for the successful and well-known. This is not even to mention the scores of younger poets and folk/rock/pop/hip-hop lyricists who simply don’t share the assumptions which Hoagland sees as legion.
As Oscar Wilde supposedly once quipped, “Everything changes . . . except the avant-garde.” One can find any number of reasons to proclaim that narrative poetry may be dead or impossible or even just unpopular, and one can find any number of weak poems to flesh out such a position. But why not cast the debate in a more positive light on both sides and bring some of the many ambitious contemporary narrative poets of all ages, backgrounds, and schools into the discussion? Some readers may not like their work, but it doesn’t make for a very convincing essay if one neglects even to mention that they exist.
Crested Butte, Colorado