Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment
Aesthetic shifts over time can be seen as a kind of crop rotation; the topsoil of one field is allowed to rest, while another field is plowed and cultivated. In the seventies the American poetry of image covered the Midwestern plains like wheat; in the eighties, perhaps, it was the narrative-discursive sentence which blossomed and bore anthological fruit. This shifting of the ground of convention is one aspect of cultural self-renewal. But the fruitful style and idiom becomes conventional, and then conventionally tired.
In the last ten years American poetry has seen a surge in associative and “experimental” poetries, in a wild variety of forms and orientations. Some of this work has been influenced by theories of literary criticism and epistemology, some by the old Dionysian imperative to jazz things up. The energetic cadres of MFA grads have certainly contributed to this milieu, founding magazines, presses, and aesthetic clusters which encourage and influence each other’s experiments. Generally speaking, this time could be characterized as one of great invention and playfulness. Simultaneously, it is also a moment of great aesthetic self-consciousness and emotional removal.
Systematic development is out; obliquity, fracture, and discontinuity are in. Especially among young poets, there is a widespread mistrust of narrative forms and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative. Under the label of “narrative,” all kinds of poetry currently get lumped misleadingly together: not just story but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the “Poetries of Continuity.”
Let me begin with two poetic examples which I think intriguingly register one aspect of the current temper. The first is from “Couples,” by Mark Halliday:
All the young people in their compact cars.
He’s funny and she’s sensible.
The car is going to need some transmission work
soon, but they’ll get by all right—
Aunt Louise slips them a hundred dollars
every chance she gets and besides,
both of them working—
Susan does day-care part-time
and Jim finally got full-time work
at Design Future Associates
after those tough nine months as an apprentice.
Or he’s in law school
doing amazingly well, he acts so casual
but really he’s always pounding the books,
and Susan works full-time
for a markets research firm, she’s
amazingly sharp about consumer trends
and what between her salary and Aunt Louise
Jim can afford to really concentrate on
his studies. Or he’s a journalist
and so is she, and they keep very up
on the news especially state politics.
Plus she does an amazing veal marsala
and he jogs two miles five mornings a week—
and in June they’ll be off to Italy again,
or Mexico; Susan’s photographs are
really tasteful, not touristy, she always
reads up on the culture before their trip.
Jim slips in a wacky shot every once in a while
and everybody laughs, that’s old Jim.
They’ll get by all right. They have
every one of Linda Ronstadt’s albums, and
they’re amazingly happy together.
And the next poem is called “First Person Fabulous,” by Matthea Harvey:
First Person fumed & fizzed under Third Person’s tongue while Third Person slumped at the diner counter, talking, as usual, to no one. Third Person thought First Person was the toilet paper trailing from Third Person’s shoe, the tiara Third Person once wore in a dream to a funeral. First Person thought Third Person was a layer of tar on a gorgeous pink nautilus, a foot on a fountain, a tin hiding the macaroons & First Person was that nautilus, that fountain, that pile of macaroons. Sometimes First Person broke free on first dates (with a Second Person) & then there was the delicious rush of “I this” and “I that” but then no phone calls & for weeks Third Person wouldn’t let First Person near anyone. Poor First Person. Currently she was exiled to the world of postcards (having a lovely time)—& even then that beast of a Third Person used the implied “I” just to drive First Person crazy. She felt like a television staring at the remote, begging to be turned on. She had so many things she wanted to say. If only she could survive on her own, she’d make Third Person choke on herself & when the detectives arrived & all eyes were on her she’d cry out, “I did it! I did it! Yes, dahlings, it was me!”
* * *
These two ingenious poems, written by poets of different generations* and styles, have something strikingly in common: their intention to hold narrative up for our inspection, at arm’s length, without being caught inside its sticky web. Rather than narratives themselves, both poems offer commentaries about narrative, story “samples,” safely told by a narrator who operates at an altitude above plot, narrating from a supervisory position. You could truly say that these poems serve to sharpen awareness of our narrative habits, but you could also say they contain a warning about how generic, how over-familiar, our storytelling is.
Mark Halliday’s poem “Couples” seems to make the point that our most precious personal narratives, despite our tender feelings for them, are generic—that human beings (yuppie couples, at least) are reducible to socioeconomic-historic clichés—no matter that we cling to the idea of our uniqueness and individuality. These stories of the self, the poem makes clear, are an exhausted resource.
Matthea Harvey’s ingenious, funny poem trumps the problem by translating the plot into a drama between “signifiers,” transposing drama into grammar. The ironic title, “First Person Fabulous,” suggests the essential egotism of all first person narratives. Tender and witty though the poem is about its “characters,” a real involvement by the reader is prevented by the latex condom of self-consciousness. “First Person Fabulous” is a poem, we are never allowed to forget, about pronouns.
It seems important to point out that both of these poems, though intrinsically skeptical, are also markedly playful. In their inventiveness of detail, in their teasing, in-and-out, back-and-forth development, in their pleasure in idiom, they are not cold in their detachment but imaginatively frolicsome. In fact, the self-consciousness of the poems creates the verbal dimension in which they play. However, despite the affirmative, vital presence of imagination, that playground area is situated at a great distance from experience. It is distinctly externalized. Distance is as much the distinctive feature of the poems as play; distance, which might be seen as antithetical to that other enterprise of poetry—strong feeling.
What aspect of narrative is so to be guarded against? A number of familiar explanations present themselves. To start with, it seems likely that narrative poetry in America has been tainted by its over-use in thousands of confessional poems. Not confessionalism itself, but the inadvertent sentimentality and narcissism of many such poems have imparted the odor of indulgence to narrative. Our vision of narrative possibilities has been narrowed by so many first person autobiographical stories, then drowned in a flood of pathos poems. Psychology itself, probably the most widely-shared narrative of the last several generations of American culture, has lost its charisma as a system, if not its currency.
Secondly, many persons think that ours is simply not a narrative age; that contemporary experience is too multitracked, too visual, too manifold and simultaneous to be confined to the linearity of narrative, no matter how well done. As Carolyn Forché says:
Our age lacks the structure of a story. Or perhaps it would be closer to say that narrative implies progress and completion. The history of our time does not allow for any of the bromides of progress, nor for the promise of successful closure.
* * *
Forché herself is an aesthetic convert from narrative poetry to a poetry of lyric-associative fragment.
Not only is organized narration considered inadequate to contemporary experience, its use is felt by some to be oppressive, over-controlling, “suspiciously authoritarian.” Because narrative imposes a story upon experience, because—the argument goes—that story implicitly presents itself as the whole story, some readers object to the smugness and presumption of the narration. “Whose narrative is this?” they cry; “Not mine!”
Put more bluntly, the new resistance to conventions of order represents a boredom with, and generalized suspicion of, straightforwardness and orchestration. Systematic development and continuity are considered simplistic, claustrophobic, even unimaginative. In the contemporary arena of the moment, charisma belongs to the erratic and subversive.
There may be yet another more hidden and less conscious anxiety behind the contemporary mistrust of narrative: a claustrophobic fear of submersion or enclosure. Narrative, after all, and other poetries of sustained development, seduce and contain; its feature is the loss of self-consciousness; in the sequential “grip” of narrative, the reader is “swept away,” and loses not consciousness, perhaps, but self-consciousness. The speedy conceptuality which characterizes much contemporary poetry prefers the dance of multiple perspectives to sustained participation. It hesitates to enter a point of view that cannot easily be altered or quickly escaped from. It would prefer to remain skeptical, and in that sense, too, one might say that it prefers knowing to feeling.
Harvey’s and Halliday’s poems are examples of one kind of hip contemporary skittishness. But they are, actually, too reader-friendly, too lucid and inclusive to truly represent the poetic fashion of the moment. The predominant Poem of Our Moment is a more lyric and dissociative thing, like “Improvisation” by Rachel M. Simon:
One thing about human nature is that nobody
wants to know the exact dimensions of their small talk.
I can’t imagine good advice.
If every human being has skin
how come I can see all of your veins?
Clicks and drips target my skull.
Important voices miss their target.
Some cities are ill-suited for feet.
I’d never buy a door smaller than a tuba, you never know
what sort of friends you’ll make.
In the future there will be less to remember.
In the past I have only my body and shoes.
The gut and the throat are two entirely different animals.
My hands don’t make good shoelaces, but I’m going to stay
in this lane, even if its slower.
The trick was done with saltwater and smoke
and an ingredient you can only find in an
out of business ethnic food store.
It all comes down to hand-eye coordination.
Once it took all of my energy to get you out of the tub
we had converted from an indoor pool to a house.
I ended up on snorkeling spam lists inadvertently.
It is all inadvertent.
If you don’t believe me ask your mom.
“Improvisation” is a quintessential Poem of Our Moment: fast-moving and declarative, wobbling on the balance beam between associative and dissociative, somewhat absurdist, and, indeed, cerebral. Much talent and skill are evident in its making, in its pacing and management of gaps, the hints and sound bites which keep the reader reaching forward for the lynchpin of coherence. One admirable aspect of the poem is the way it seems capable of incorporating anything; yet the correlative theme of the poem is that all this motley data—i.e. experience—doesn’t add up to a story. Even as the poem implies a world without sequence, the poem itself has no consequence, no center of gravity, no body, no assertion of emotional value.
If we ask, what is the subject of “Improvisation,” the answer would be, the dissociated self; and the aspect of self such poems most forcefully represent is its uncatchability, its flittering, quicksilver transience. Poems like “Improvisation” showcase personality in the persona of their chatty, free-associating, nutty-smart narrators. It is a self that does not stand still, that implies a kind of spectral, anxious insubstantiality. The voice is plenty sharp in tone and sometimes observant in its detail, but it is skittery. Elusiveness is the speaker’s central characteristic. Speed, wit, and absurdity are its attractive qualities. The last thing such poems are going to do is risk their detachment, their distance, their freedom from accountability. The one thing they are not going to do is commit themselves to the sweaty enclosures of subject matter and the potential embarrassment of sincerity.
I don’t wish to base a case on one example, so I will offer a few others. Here are the opening stanzas of two other recent poems:
My harvest has engineered a sanctioned nectary.
The transmission of each apple squeals when I apply the compress.
All my obsequities have finished their summer reading,
they are diligent students,
they understand the difference between precision and Kansas.
This was before I had pried up the floorboard to see what was ticking underneath.
I keep busy, every plane that flies through my sky
requires help, sign language for the commercial vector.
My octave’s intact so this may be working.—From Watercooler Tarmac, by G.C. Waldrep
Oily fellows, earthmen. Spell
freeway, spell monolith, sell
me a fossil. Wholly repellent.
Malls, only relief. Post. Wheel
wells, the atmosphere (lolly-
lolly) honest, simple welfare,
topsoil anywhere—fell smell,
fell smell. Weaponry, hostile
fish, watermelon peels (lolly-
lolly) parentheses, mile, wolf,
fearsome whelp. Listen (lolly-
lolly) stolen female whisper.
Hollow salesman trifle, yelp
then loll. Mayflower slip. See
ELSE. My free hilltop, all snow.
Frost. Meanwhile sleep (lolly-
lolly) meanwhile self. Presto!
Trill myself open wholesale!—Variations as the Fell of the Fall, Kevin McFadden
* * *
Sure, these styles have discernible origins and different, respectable precedents. In “Watermelon Tarmac” and “Improvisation” we might see the cartoony goofiness of James Tate or the unmoored rhetoric of John Ashbery. In the more radical “Variations of the Fell of the Fall,” one senses an aleatory nonsense-language system at work*. Though the modes are different, they are all modes of verbal-psychic dislocation. They all move with a manic swiftness. What is also striking to me, and representative of the aesthetic moment, is how these poems are committed to a sort of pushy exteriority.
Of course, dissociative doesn’t necessarily mean detached, or empty, or even hyperintellectual. “Prufrock” is one example of a dissociated yet passionate poem. In various poetic hands, the dissociated-improvisatory mode can represent vivaciousness of self, or uncontainable passion, or the fractured wash of modernity, or an aesthetic allegiance to randomness. The intention of the maker—if we can recognize what it is—makes all the difference.
What are the intentions of the current version of “difficult” poetry? Some of the stated, advertised intentions of “elusive” poetics are to playfully distort or dismantle established systems of meaning, to recover mystery in poetry, to offer multiple, simultaneous interpretive possibilities for the energetic and willing reader to “participate” in. The critic Stephen Burt describes some of the traits of this poetic style, for which he offers the term “Elliptical Poetry”:
Elliptical poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. They believe provisionally in identities... but they suspect the Is they invoke; they admire disjunction and confrontation, but they know how little can go a long way. Ellipticists seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals.
Burt’s definition is quite general in order to encompass the diversity of the poetry he champions, but he gets the mania and the declarativeness right. Also the relentless dodging or obstruction of expectation.
Avant-gardes of the past have surely rejected linearity and conventions of coherence, but some of them did so with the motive of asserting worlds of feeling—amazement or distress—which could not be expressed within conventions of order. Consider the surrealism of Lorca or Vallejo, which embraced both arbitrariness and passion with radical subjectivity. Yet surrealism operates out of a faith in psychic veracity, and Surrealism has a heroic aspect to it. As Louis Aragon says, “the marvelous is born of the refusal of one reality, yet also the development of a new relationship, of a brand-new reality this refusal has liberated.” Here is Aragon’s “Pop Song,” performed in a style quite congruent to “Improvisation,” but with a larger, quite different motive:
A white horse stands up
and that’s the small hotel at dawn where he who is always first-come-first-served awakes in palatial comfort
Are you going to spend your entire life in this same world
Haven’t you had enough of commonplaces yet
People actually look at you without laughter
They have glass eyes
You pass them by you waste your time you pass away and go away
You count up to a hundred during which you cheat to kill an extra ten seconds
You hold up your hand suddenly to volunteer for death
There will be just one day left and then one day more after that
That will be that
No more need to look at men nor their companion animals their Good Lord provides
And that they make love to now and then
No more need to go on speaking to yourself out loud at night in order to drown out
The heating-units lament
No need to lift my own eyelids
Nor to fling my blood around like some discus
Nor to breathe despite my disinclination to
Yet despite this I don’t want to die
In low tones the bell of my heart sings out its ancient hope
That music I know it so well but the words
Just what were those words saying
Aragon’s bold, clownish poem, typical of this strain of French Surrealism, is an exhortation to wonder. Its leaping, erratic movements are meant to assert the urgency of the speaker, the range of human nature, and the volatile resourcefulness of imagination. The mention of death, the progressive intimacy of the voice, the arrival at self-examination and tonal sincerity, all mark this as a poem which combines rhetorical performance with interiority. “Life is hard,” the poem suggests, “time is unendurable and absurd, the sleep of consciousness is oppressive, but it is still important to try to live.” Aragon’s poem, for all its whimsy and dishevelment, is finally humanist, asserting values.
Narrated and associative poems are not each other’s aesthetic opposites or sworn enemies. Obviously these modes don’t necessarily exclude each other. They overlap, coexist, and often cross-pollinate. Nevertheless, one might truly say that the two modes call upon fundamentally different resources in reader and writer. Narration (and its systematic relatives) implicitly honors Memory; the dissociative mode primarily values Invention. “Poetries of Continuity” in some way aim to frame and capture experience; dissociative poetry verifies itself by eluding structures. Their distinct priorities result in different poetries. A poetry which values clarity and continuity is obligated to develop and deliver information in ways that are hierarchical and sequential, ways which accommodate and orchestrate the capacities of human memory. In contrast, a dissociative poetry is always shuffling the deck in order to evade knowability.
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose well-known phrase, “the pursuit of the real,” declares his allegiance in this matter, has something to say about organization in poems:
a poet discovers a secret, namely that he can be faithful to real things only by arranging them hierarchically. Otherwise, as often occurs in contemporary prose-poetry, one finds a “heap of broken images, where the sun beats,” fragments enjoying perfect equality and hinting at the reluctance of the poet to make a choice.
* * *
Would it be so very inaccurate or unfair to say that a poem like “Improvisation” or “Watercooler Tarmac,” in the charming “democracy” of their dissociation, have a passive-aggressive relation to meaning? To say that, despite a certain charm, the coy ellipticism of these poems signifies a skepticism about the possibilities for poetic depth, earnestness, even about feeling itself?
These may seem like disproportionately heavy judgments to apply to a few playful butterfly poems fluttering by in the aesthetic breeze, but isn’t their self-conscious lack of consequence part of the problem? Perhaps, in their deliberate intention to escape the confinement of one system, they have also accidentally escaped another. Perhaps, in their effort to circumvent linearity, or logic, or obviousness, they have eluded representing anything but Attitude—one of the familiar problems of modern American culture.
I keep wondering if we can find a broader cultural explanation for the contemporary attraction to dissociation. Perhaps one reason is in our current, deeply ambivalent relation to knowledge itself.
We have yielded so much authority to so many agencies, in so many directions, that we are nauseous. When we go to a doctor we entrust ourselves to his or her care blindly. When we see bombs falling on television, we assume someone else is supervising. We allow “experts” and “leaders” to make decisions for us because we already possess more data than we can manage and, at the same time, we are aware that we don’t know enough to make smart choices. Forced by circumstances into this yielding of control, we are deeply anxious about our ignorance and vulnerability. It is no wonder that we have a passive-aggressive, somewhat resentful relation to meaning itself. In this light, the refusal to cooperate with conventions of sense-making seems like—and is—an authentic act of political, even metaphysical protest; the refusal to conform to a grammar of experience which is being debased by all-powerful public systems. This refusal was, we recall, one of the original premises of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.
But when we push order away, when we celebrate its unattainability, when our only subject matter becomes instability itself, when we consider artful dyslexia and disarrangement as a self-gratifying end in itself, we give away one of poetry’s most fundamental reasons for existing: the individual power to locate and assert value.
In one of the Lannan Foundation interviews, poet Robert Hass says, “It is wrong to have an elegiac attitude towards reality.” Hass, in the context of that conversation, suggests that it is unethical to consider reality decisively outside the reach of language. To exclusively practice an art of which this is a premise and implication—that language is inadequate, that the word cannot reach the world—is a bad idea, one with a price tag attached.
This is a truly pluralistic moment in American poetry, one full of vitality as well as withdrawal. The palpable excitement in new poetry right now obviously answers a felt need, and provides its own brand of nourishment. The sheer inventiveness abounding is extraordinary. But this might not be the wrong occasion to pronounce the word “fashion.” Fashion is not in itself a negative force, but rather a perennial part of the vitality of culture. Fashion is the way that taste changes and then spreads, in a kind of swell or wave of admiration. The Waste Land was fashionable, and sideburns and Hemingway and war bonds and Sylvia Plath, and existentialism, and bell-bottoms. The danger in fashion is its lack of perspective, that it doesn’t always recognize the deep structure of whatever manners it is adopting. Almost by definition fashion also can gather thoughtless followers. Paul Hoover perceives the potential for this trouble in the preface to his anthology, Postmodern American Poetry: “The risk is that the avant-garde will become an institution with its own self protective rituals, powerless to trace or affect the curve of history.”
One can understand how dissociative poetry has become fashionable, celebrated, taught, and learned—it is a poetry equal to the speed and disruptions of culture. It responds to the postmodern situation with a joyful crookedness. And one can also see why poetics that assert sensible order (which, admittedly, can be predictable and reductive) have fallen a bit from fashion: after all, the pretense of order is, in some way, laughable. Art has to play, it has to break rules, to turn against its obligations, to be irresponsible, to recast convention. Some wildness is essential to its freedom. Yet every style has its shadowy limitation, its blind eye, its narcissistic cul-de-sac. There is a moment when a charming enactment of disorientation becomes an homage to dissociation. And there is a moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness commits itself, inadvertently, to triviality.
Tony Hoagland was born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He earned a BA from the University of Iowa and an MFA from the University of Arizona. Hoagland was the author of the poetry collections Sweet Ruin (1992), which was chosen for the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and won the Zacharis...