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Time's Passage in the 'Longish' Narrative Poem

Amelia Earhart standing in front of her airplane

I mean over the course of this short essay to take a summary look at a particular length of poem, which for lack of a better word, we might call the "longish" poem.  The descriptor has been on my mind on account of a forthcoming anthology called The Plume Anthology of Long-ISH Poems.  In addition to introducing the term, it sets the limits on a longish poem at 100-300 lines.  For my purposes, I'd like to tighten and shift the window a bit, positioning the longish poem between 75-250 lines.  If read aloud, a longish poem will run between roughly 5 and 15 minutes.  Practically speaking, this means a poet can stand behind a lectern and deliver it in its entirety to an audience. 

What makes the longish poem intriguing is the excellence of the work that's been done at that scale.  At longish lengths, American poets of the last century have pulled up some large and startling fish.  Longish describes some of the most indispensible poems of our greatest poets: Elizabeth Bishop ("Crusoe in England," "The Moose," "The Fish"), Kenneth Koch ("The Boiling Water," "Fresh Air," "The Circus"), Robert Frost ("Home Burial," "Death of a Hired Man"), and Gwendolyn Brooks ("Lovers of the Poor," "The Life of Lincoln West").  T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is longish, as are Gregory Corso's "Marriage" and Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck."  Robert Hass has a handful of splendid poems at that range.  Recent achievements include Spencer Reece's "The Clerk's Tale," Jorie Graham's "The Mask Now," and Cate Marvin's "Muckraker."                       

When I consider poems of this length, specifically those of the narrative variety, I find there's a common element running through those that most move me.  Truthfully, I've hesitated as to whether I should point out what this is, as I consider it a craft secret poured out upon me by the poetry gods as restitution for a string of comically outsized poetic failures.  In my 20s and early-30s, I spent literally hundreds of hours trying my hand at "longish" narrative poems, but mostly I found my airships didn't fly; my arks, despite their capaciousness, sunk.  What was wrong?  To make a visual analogy, I looked too closely at my models.  I didn't step back and blur my eyes.  What I failed to comprehend, over and over, was the subtle, pervasive, shaping role played by narrative time

I've used the adjective narrative twice now.  Maybe it would be a good idea quickly to outline some tendencies and shared characteristics of narrative poems.  Narrative poems tend to contain an "I" or a "she" or a "you" that the reader conflates, if not with the author, with a living breathing human.  Over the course of the poem, as a result of an event expressed in the poem, a change occurs in this central human.  But change is probably the wrong word; it implies a volte-face, a reversal of world-view, the sort of 180-degree pivot that 23-year-old screen-writers position into their three-act outlines.  The change I'm talking about could be a slight adjustment in world-view, or an affirmation of a distressing truth, already known, but now better understood. 

In a narrative poem, often there is a situation that a reader can clearly identify as the precipitating element of the poem. It's the falling-down barn in the poem about the falling-down barn, which might really be a poem about a falling-down man, or the decay of a regional industry.  In a poem like William Matthews's "Men at my Father's Funeral," which isn't an elegy, the precipitating element is nonetheless the speaker's father's death.  This precipitating element may occupy the poem's front and center, or it may reveal itself as a detail, as it does in a poem like Marianne Moore's "The Steeplejack."  But I've wasted too many words on tendencies.

The acid test of a narrative poem is that it can be paraphrased.  You can shake a little story out of a narrative poem.  Events can be summarized into what was once called in TV-writing parlance a "TV guide version."  If you're able to deliver a summary of a poem, it's proof positive you're dealing with a narrative poem.  A dream or a philosophical meditation may be a poem's meat and potatoes, but the poem can be classified as "narrative" as long as it has actions that can be glossed.  For instance, of John Ashbery's "The Instruction Manual," one could write the following synopsis: "The speaker neglects his task of writing an instruction manual on the uses of a new metal, and instead has a lengthy daydream about Guadalajara."  It's a narrative poem. 

With narrative poems, one can use their one-sentence TV guide versions to play a surprisingly easy game of "name that poem."  Let's try a few:

  • A boy has his hand cut off with a power saw, and people hardly stop what they're doing.

  • The speaker, hustling through his New York day, sees the news that his favorite jazz singer is dead and has a sudden powerful memory.

  • The speaker hears a thrush singing on a gloomy winter eve, and participates, ever so briefly, in the small bird's notes of hope.

  • The speaker catches a tremendous fish, examines it closely, and lets it go.

These stories, shaken loose, synopsized, do more than prove the existence of narrative in a poem.  They demonstrate a power of language that we all employ, for different reasons and for different effects, every day of our lives.  With language, we can tell a long story short. This tremendous power, skillfully negotiated, is at the center of so many successful longish narrative poems.      

Time, lest we forget, is the canvas beneath our every action.  We're all bound together in our relationship to it.  With surety, we can say that every living adult navigates his waking days with the knowledge, back-burnered though it might be, that he has a finite quantity of hours, minutes, years on earth as himself.  As a result of this knowledge, the scaling of human time in pieces of literature is capable of affecting us profoundly.  As a late-teen, I first read “The Death of Ivan Illych,” and what shook me, perhaps more than any particular detail in the story, was that the entirety of a man's years could be make to fit so well into thirty trade-paperback pages.  Oh shit!  This guy's whole life!   By a quick, grim syllogism, all that my own life might become lay down supine in a similar pine box of words.  What a different emotion at scale there was, a few years later, when we read Joyce's Ulysses.  In this book, the author deployed a significantly larger body of language in the service of communicating the events of a single Dublin summer day.  “What an enormous entity even the most mundane human being is.  Yes, ultimately, to the enormity of YOU!"  That’s what Joyce’s length seemed to exclaim.  “What a speck a human being is, what a mote in the world’s eye, so soon to be blinked out.”  That’s what Tolstoy, through Illych, hoarsely whispered.  So who was right?  Who is right?  Both are right, of course.  We all are larger in mind, somewhat smaller in deed, and this relative largeness and smallness can only relate to narrative poetry, where the physical experiences and mental activities of the colloquist (or central human) tend to be all bound up with one another.

So how does length match up with the content of poetry?  As poets, I believe we all sit down with some idea, formed or inchoate, semi-conscious or unconscious, of the length of our unwritten poem.  With a strict form like a sonnet, a cento, or a villanelle (or even, in A.R. Ammons's case, a roll of adding tape) one knows from the outset.  The gift is given unwrapped.  With a free verse poem, length remains an unknown, which makes for excitement, particularly in the editing process. In a fixed-length form, editing always involves replacement, whereas in a "free-length" poem, editing can involve eliminating or adding text; often we find our endings by cutting the last few lines, or even a caducous last section.  We can be flat wrong about the length of a poem and be happy for it, like a miner holding a nugget of gold next to a hill of waste-rock. 

But as far as length, I'm interested in our inklings, in our sizings-up.  Because when the private petard of an idea explodes behind our eyes, it typically has a size, doesn't it?  We have a flash of sense: "Oh this one here…it's probably going to be about a 2-pager."  Or maybe we understand that it will be a tight little poem, a 10-liner.  Or maybe it will be a long poem—a poem out past the longest length we've written our ways into.  These presentiments of length, which beget our beginnings, are an unavoidable product of the poems we've read and written. They're also a product of an intuitive sense for how the shapes of poetry can interact with the content of reality.

A broad survey of English language poetry over the last 400 years shows a proclivity to pair short with small, long with large, proof that a commonsense spatial intelligence and a "language-quantity-intelligence" that we utilize out in the world follows the poet to the writing desk. A poem about a cricket will have less to say about its subject than a poem about the aviation career of Amelia Earhart.  Moreover, the subjects themselves, by their respective natures, will suggest certain treatments.  Probably the poem about the cricket "opens up" the cricket, meditates it larger, unpacks its stridulating and leaping and being-in-the-world.  There's likely to be something of the ode's benevolent feeling for its material.  However, even padded with adjectives of affection, "The Cricket" likely ends up as a short poem, a "little" poem.  On the other hand, the poem about Amelia Earhart's career will require a different treatment altogether.  The poet must evaluate the lost pilot's narrative with a cold eye, decide which events and people are important, and apportion the language accordingly.  She must prioritize, subjugate, and cut; she must plan and frame.  The point is that, occasioned with a cricket, a poet will tend to use the techniques of poetry to dilate material into what might amount to a 30 second event of language.  Occasioned with the life of Amelia Earhart, the poet will tend to use the techniques of poetry to compress a narrative that took years to live into a poem that will take minutes to say.  These are significant differences. "Dang, this sure is a long poem!" we think, thumbing through the five or six printed pages "Amelia's Last Horizon" takes up in Poetry magazine.  What we often fail to observe is that its 150 lines represent a tremendous feat of exclusion.

The longish narrative poem can succeed by a sort of illusion then.  It hides its compression of time inside a vessel that we associate with a lack of compression—length itself.  For all poetry's reputation for concision, when I try to conjure a typical American free-verse narrative poem written in the last 50 years, I tend to conjure one made by the techniques of dilation.  It's a dilation that both happens in time and expresses an idea of time.  What happens when an acolyte of Mary Oliver stands over a dead badger for a few moments in a meadow after a rain?  How many lines could that last?  Thirty-six?  Think about a votary of Mark Doty looking at a May dogwood, inexplicably cut down?  Twenty-five?  In such poems, words are used to slow experience down, to prolong visual impressions, and to impart upon them a dramatic sequence.  On a deeper level, these methods preach-and-teach the practice of deep, slow, meditative observation. This is not a bad thing at all.  As an activity, it's soul-enlarging, life-giving, peace-sowing, and we're a better civilization if more people engage in it.  Poetic techniques like detailed dramatic description, metaphorical equivalents, triggered recollections, parenthetical inclusions, or even trotting out a Carl Phillips-like "as if," offer the potential for an amplified connection to a subject. They do so, however, at the risk of blowing what is small all out of formal proportion.  My point, though, is that these techniques for prolonging the poem, for generating language, are those that we most readily associate with poetry itself.  The effusive mannerisms of the colloquial, up-tempo speaker, with his glib assertions and necessarily reactive "but" and "although," also result in increased language production. 

The best longish narrative poems play off of these associations—hiding compression almost paradoxically, like fitness under a layer of fat. The fictional character Robinson Crusoe spends 28 years, 2 months and 19 days on his island.  The speaker in Bishop's "Crusoe in England," who presumably had the identical stay, reflects upon that experience in 183 lines.  Tennyson's "Ulysses," also a retrospective dramatic monologue, calls to mind a decade-long voyage at sea and meditates for 70 lines.  We ought to note the shared situation of the speakers in each of these poems.  Their spatial and temporal location—home, on the other side of their lives' most shaping narratives—is an occasion for a compressed retelling or a conclusive meditation.  A vast swath of years is in the speaker, prompting the saying of all that's said. 

Throughout "Crusoe in England," Bishop utilizes the quiet power of the auxiliary verbs "could" and "would" to communicate repetitive events in the speaker's past on the island.  These verbs, which can be as slight as an apostrophe and a letter d, give the poet the capacity to reference, in a single act of description, hundreds of occasions of the same event.  A poet can build a rut with one stroke, creating in the process tone, the relationship of the speaking voice to a particular piece of content.  Crusoe had a volcano he "could" climb for amusement.  He "would" dream of polliwogs of islands.  In my favorite section of the poem:                     

One billy-goat would stand on the volcano
I’d christened Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair
(I’d time enough to play with names),   
and bleat and bleat, and sniff the air. 

The repetitive nature of the island's goats explains why Bishop's Crusoe would, lines later, dye a baby goat bright red.  The dramatic action is explainable; the character has motivation.         

My hunch is that the expression of a length of time happens intuitively; if a narrative measurable in years is in the mind of the poet, it will find its way into the poem.  The reader takes the sense from a build-up of small, subtle cues.  I'm not sure how long the speaker in Spencer Reece's unforgettable poem "The Clerk's Tale" has worked at an expensive clothier, selling suits to men he calls "sir," but it feels like years.  He employs a composite present tense throughout the 94-line poem, as well as a mannered, but weary tone, and what the poem expresses, finally, is time's passage.  Labor, even refined labor, produces days which so nearly resemble one another that they can be expressed as a single, stereotypical, present-tense shift.  Here are lines 8-14 of the poem:

Mostly I talk of rep ties and bow ties,
of full-Windsor knots and half-Windsor knots,
of tattersall, French cuff, and English spread collars,
of foulards, neats, and internationals,
of pincord, houndstooth, nailhead, and sharkskin.
I often wear a blue pin-striped suit.
My hair recedes and is going gray at the temples.

In this example, so much is subtly communicated about narrative time.  Look at the adverbs.  A prescriptive writing teacher might suggest cutting them, but the "mostly" and "often" create off-stage events contrary to those that are described; they imply conversation about matters other than tie-knots and fabrics, and they dress the speaker in suits that aren't blue pin-striped.  They add bulk to the submerged portion of the iceberg. The details about the speaker's graying hair and receding hairline also directly inject a sense of time's passing in the shop.  What I love, though, and what demonstrates the splendid paradoxical capabilities of a longish poem, is the effect of the naming of the details of men's formal attire.  Sung over four lines, these sartorial details add lines to the poem; they represent poetic indulgence, over-much in the name of verbal music, and perhaps they're left out if the poet's conception is that he's writing a shorter poem.  These lines, however, display that our man is an expert in men's formal attire.  Expertise doesn't happen overnight.      

Throughout "A Clerk's Tale," the sense that years of similar days have transpired is one that Reece, as a poet, will use an extra tap of the mallet to ensure he's hammered home.  Lines like: "the gesture is fraternal and occurs between us many times" and "This is how our day always ends," don't need to be there.  But the extra seconds in poem-time, the extra lines, result in a surer sense that years of a man's only life have been folded and fitted into this poem.

As I've already exceeded my word count, perhaps fittingly, I'd encourage you to be on the lookout for the sorts of time-compression that I've described in the longish poem.  Read Frost's "Home Burial."  Read Cate Marvin's "Muckraker."  And if you yourself are looking to write a narrative poem of the longish variety, do yourself a favor—choose a narrative that involves years.  (Perhaps at some later point, I'll talk about a subject near and dear to the longish poem—marriage.)    

Originally Published: April 13th, 2018

Poet Matthew Yeager was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of the poetry collection Like That (2016). In his long poems, he treats seemingly innocuous objects—a ball of foil, a glass of water—accruing rich, complex metaphorical associations as they proceed. Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, called the...