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Broken Lines and Narrative

The two subjects come up fairly frequently on poetry boards, blogs, and mailing lists, but perhaps not usually in the same month, or at least not with a timeframe short enough that I can be simultaneously aware of both. This last month they came up in such a way that I begin to think of them as related.

First came “Why Narrative Poetry Is So Damn Hard to Write” at Allen Taylor’s World Class Poetry Blog, and then a message to a mailing list asking whether most contemporary English-language poetry is just “chopped-up prose” which was first answered with a defense of the use of prose techniques in poetry — at least that’s how I read it before nodding off after two post-midnight snifters of cheap brandy. But whether I read that response correctly or not, the next day I thought “Of course every prose technique is also available to the poet. That’s what Pound meant by ‘poetry should be written at least as well as prose.’ The real question is what poetry can bring to the table that prose can’t.”

Let’s pause a moment and consider that I just quoted Ezra Pound approvingly, and that in the same paragraph which contains that quote, Pound praised Swinburne.

OK. We can go on, after murmuring “praise Google book search.”


The most obvious resource available to poetry and not to prose is the line break — hence chopped-up prose — about which I have written at length on this blog in relation to free verse*, so I won’t blather on today. Then there’s rhyme and meter. and then …

Leaving out the various visual schools as productive of interesting, moving, and profound art but not poetry (forgive me, Bob Grumman), there’s just not much else.

And given that a good long narrative is hard enough on its own, given the additional difficulty of making effective use of rhyme and meter (or at least line breaks), and given the common reader’s reaction when he or she sees poetry (you know it’s not “Oh, Goody!”), why the hell does anyone want to write a verse novel?

Why do I want to?

I started one several years ago, and didn’t get far, but I’ve taken it up again. More tomorrow. (Is that a teaser or what?)

*A chronological miscellany for those with time on their hands: 5/15/2003, 2/22/2004, 12/5/2004, 12/6/2004, 12/7/2004, 12/11/2004, 12/13/2004, 6/14/2005, and 8/15/2008.

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3 comments

1 Allen Taylor { 02.27.09 at 7:32 pm }

Thanks for the shout out. Nice piece.

If you are truly interested in working on a long narrative then I applaud you. It’s not easy. But I’d surmise the satisfaction from finishing it would be reward enough. Good luck!

2 MAS { 02.28.09 at 9:53 am }

Even the satisfaction of getting parts of it right would be reward enough.

3 Rhyme & Meter Online: Sunday March 1, 2009 « PoemShape { 03.02.09 at 10:01 am }

[…] Broken Lines and Narrative February 28th …given that a good long narrative is hard enough on its own, given the additional difficulty of making effective use of rhyme and meter (or at least line breaks), and given the common reader’s reaction when he or she sees poetry (you know it’s not “Oh, Goody!”), why the hell does anyone want to write a verse novel?… Why do I want to? […]

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