“THERE’S NO WAY TO JUST LIVE IN THE PRESENT”: THE VALUE OF NARRATIVE IN AN AGE OF FRAGMENTS
Narrative’s skeptics seem to want to stamp out storytelling in poetry or at the very least systematically demote it to all other things lapsed and retrograde because (1) they are attracted to and want to mimic the movement away from narrative in modern painting; (2) they’ve grown bored with autobiography—with the ho-hum, self-important speaker telling us how he was unkind to women 1975 but is sorry now because, thanks to his MFA and extensive psychotherapy, he’s had his epiphany; (3) they associate storytelling with the authority of the wealthy white men whose viewpoints have dominated Western culture, literary and not, for two thousand years and therefore with oppressive social schemes and right-wing ideologies; and (4) they have learned from hundreds of years of war and other atrocities and different kinds of mostly capitalist tyrannies never to trust theoretically rationalist arrangements and classifications of cause and effect.
But narrative is a form within which one might think, not a whole thought-system in and of itself. It certainly is an injustice that too few women, poor people, indigenous people and people of color and of differing sexual orientations and gender identifications have had the privilege—the space, time, and money—to construct and share their stories, and we’ve got a lot of catching up to do on this front. But it’s unfair to blame the narrative mode itself for this wrong. That would be like blaming the tree for becoming a battle ax or a platform for hangings. Narrative is, in other words, a structure, a box to put things in and to build them around, like a house or a barn or a church or a cave or a bowl or a cup or a thimble. It is inert. It is innocent. It’s a mode of thinking, an organic system the human brain has developed over hundreds and thousands of years for ordering experience around time and space so that it might be perceived.
Perhaps narrative’s opponents think that narratives somehow impose order on our experience of being alive—that the structure demands a linearity and rationality they find lacking in the universe. Again, this is more a criticism of certain kinds of poetry or even of certain kinds of representational poems than a justifiable assessment of an entire rhetorical mode, since narrative is more fluid than its opponents seem to think. Narrative, like a box, doesn’t have to be square or even rectangular. There are circular boxes—think of those handsome vintage shapes that used to hold hats. Or consider tubular boxes posters come in. There are also huge boxes—I’m saying something about scale here—as in the refrigerator box, and there are even boxes made for curvy things like guitars.
Here’s Robert Pinksy’s “Poem With Lines in any Order”:
Sonny said, Then he shouldn’t have given Molly the two more babies.
Dave’s sister and her husband adopted the baby, and that was Babe.
You can’t live in the past.
Sure he was a tough guy but he was no hero.
Sonny and Toots went to live for a while with the Braegers.
It was a time when it seemed like everybody had a nickname.
Nobody can live in the future.
When Rose died having Babe, Dave came after the doctor with a gun.
Toots said, What would you expect, he was a young man and there she was.
Sonny still a kid himself when Dave moved out on Molly.
The family gave him Rose’s cousin Molly to marry so she could raise the children.
There’s no way to just live in the present.
In their eighties Toots and Sonny still arguing about their father.
Dave living above the bar with Della and half the family.
This poem tells a story, of course, but the subversion of order explicitly announced in the title and then enacted in the poem updates our idea of what a narrative might be; in addition to telling the story of Dave’s tragic indiscretions (which is basically the story of how Sonny, Toots, and Babe became orphans, which is basically the story of why “there’s no way to live just in the present,”) this poem tells the story of how a story might be told. “Poem With Lines In Any Order” is also 14 lines long, evoking the text-length-feel, let’s call of it, of a sonnet, and in so doing it tells us something about how a story might be compressed and sung. Meanwhile, because the idiomatic or vernacular diction mimics how people really talk (and in fact the poem is made up of pieces of dialogue), “Poem With Lines In Any Order” tells the story of how a poem might be said or spoken.
Or consider this poem by Mary Ruefle:
Tom opened three packets of white sugar
and with the confidence of a conductor
dumped them on his cake.
Phoebe wrapped a towel around her head
and began singing Faulkner.
We didn’t know Joel mowed lawns for a living
so we guessed his paintings were mountains
not gigantic blades of grass.
Eugenia told again the story of being born Eugenia.
Clearly I was in the wrong place,
clearly I did not belong there,
my own complaint being my go was completely gone
plus a condition of the eye in which
water accumulates and tends to run over the margin.
True, I’d tried living among mosses
and their kin, liverwort and earthworms,
but in general I knew how to rotisserate chickens
and purse my thoughts.
I didn’t believe bridges could repair themselves,
I wasn’t born Jack Benny. Poor Eugenia!
There I was, a tiki in the place where products go
to become 75 percent more minty.
For it is lonely to walk through beauty
when you are young, and an earthly failure,
and the imperial sunshine has not yet crowned.
The night before graduation our party
took a short stroll in the moonlight
when Joel began to cry. The grass,
he said, it’s made of catgut.
Tom gave him a packet of sugar.
Pheobe remarked his tears looked like skiers
streaking down the mountainside.
Eugenia told the story of being born Eugenia.
And I, I would not go near the sea for nearly thirty years,
I would not drink tea for another twenty,
I would not undress, use pockets, read Walter Benjamin
or listen to a bumblebee even if he bent
the right wing of my scarlet runner,
modeling myself after a woman
who could only say one thing at a time,
and found herself one day in hell,
where she went casually and without
purpose, having read every poem
ever written, and finding not a single one
even remotely sad enough.
Mary Ruefle is a master of tone, often breaking the fourth wall in a mode of direct address to lessen the distance between her speakers and the reader so she might make primary a series of often conflicting statements that both prove and complicate W.H. Auden’s idea that poetry should be “the clear expression of mixed feelings.” Mixed feelings not so much expressed as hinted toward by a speaker in both feigned and not-feigned complete control are of primary importance in a poem by Mary Ruefle, as are certain contrary-to-fact or surrealist moves in which one might say that one is, for example, “a tiki in the place where products go / to become 75 percent more minty.” Seen against this rhetorical strategy and somewhat indeterminate and always contradictory logic, the narrative structure of “College,” which is so chronological as to seem elementary, can be understood as a kind of stabilizing force—a predictable given—against which the poem’s joking and mocking, yet nostalgic and mourning speaker can move fluidly from the declarative and even overtly understated sentence about Tom to the far more elaborate closing sentence in which she says that as a consequence of her experience in college she doesn’t “go near the sea for nearly thirty years, / [or] drink tea for another twenty.” Ruefle’s ability to cover so much time—a whole half-century!—in just two lines is the consequence of the expectations for hyperbole she’s already established and the result of her narrative frame, which greases up the time wheels, so to speak, so they might move swiftly along to the poem’s mournful close. A lesser poet may have ended “College” at the moment of epiphany, when the speaker tells us, quite sagely, that “it is lonely to walk through beauty / when you are young, and an earthly failure, / and the imperial sunshine has not yet crowned,” but Ruefle knows better than to make such a clear and obvious move, and uses narrative’s natural configuration of effect following cause(s) to close the poem in a far more surprisingly way. It is of course not possible for anyone to read “every poem ever written,” but this overstatement, like the assessment of “finding not a single one / even remotely sad enough,” coming as it does after the narration of Tom’s pre-graduation night tears (which remind us of the speaker’s “condition of the eye”) seems both plausible and apt, resulting in a poem that seems, in the end, to joke its way to something like genuine feeling.
One of the important contributions of modernism has been the insight that both language and personality or self are too multiple—too multi-layered and complex—to comprise just one voice. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Whitman famously announces. The Portuguese poet Pessoa even writes under heteronyms or alter egos during the first decades of the twentieth century because he thought we “must be plural like the universe;” and Czeslaw Milosz says in “Ars Poetica” (in 1968) that “the purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.” Bless Whitman and Milosz and Pessoa for these important realizations—of course and absolutely—but you can’t be from Appalachia or any part of the rural south and not be almost born knowing that language is angled and dialectical and crookedly fluid from the start—a crapshoot and heartbreaking fuck-wad, to be honest, for the teachers don’t talk like the kids who don’t talk like the preachers who don’t talk like the whores (who don’t even talk like themselves in church). Here’s the first paragraph of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”:
I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking “Pose Yourself” photos, and Stella- Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I’m the same. Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am and for that reason she’s spoiled.
I probably read this story when I was twelve or thirteen years old and have loved it and Stella-Rondo ever since. Of course, I hate Stella-Rondo too—she’s so self- important and self-righteous—but still I love how indignant she is—I recognize that feeling—and I love how powerful it feels not to be the only person who thinks the world is one hundred and ten percent unacceptably unjust. I love Stella-Rondo’s outsider status and her recognizable humanity; even her ridiculous escape to the post office makes perfect sense to me. Notice the shift in tone from the idiomatic “broke us up” to the far more elevated “deliberate, calculated falsehood.” I love that.
Charles Baxter, in The Art of Subtext, has this to say about inflection (which he defines as “the tone in which something is said”):
All the varieties of inflection are particularly necessary to those who don’t have access to official language and official eloquence—to teenagers, the dispossessed, minority groups, and the baffled and broken, the hopeless and downcast, the obsessed and the fantasists, the inarticulate, outsiders of every kind and stripe, and those who are feeling two contradictory emotions at the same time, particularly if one emotion is unofficial. The official emotion goes into the statement; the unofficial one (which exists at the subtextual level) goes into the inflection. Incidental stress is the tonal outpost of fugitive feelings and of layered compounded emotion. As the eloquent music of idiomatic language, it is the homing device of effective liars, magicians, outcasts, losers, and poets.
Most of my teachers and professors from kindergarten through at least undergrad told me that I would become the writer I wanted to be once I knew “the rules.” When the errant “fuck-wad” or “whore” would creep into whatever I was writing—and this happened more than you might think—I’d be embarrassed because the “fuck-wad” and the “whore” made me seem inarticulate, inelegant, country, mediocre, and even tawdry. Eventually I learned that the “fuck-wad” and the “whore” were teaching me how to manage my tone—that I would actually be the writer I wanted to be once I could complicate the official language that was required of me by school and the universe in general with what I now realize were my “fugitive feelings…and layered compounded emotion,” to return to Baxter.
Of course, all these mixed-up sounds made an unruly mess of my poetry. Structurally speaking, everything I wrote was bedlam and anarchy from A to Z. But once I found or remembered the story shape—as well as the catalogue, though that is a tale for another day—I had a mold or a form to put all that dissonant and jarring lawlessness in. Someone said that the purpose of form is “to keep the poem from leaking out,” and this is exactly how narrative worked for me. It did not turn me into a rich white man from or 1895 or 1950 either. It did not force me to sever my blood allegiance to women or make me blind to the infuriating wickedness committed every day against homosexuals, African and Asian Americans, immigrants, and the downtrodden hill-talking folk of my beloved Blue Ridge Mountains. Instead—and this is the coolest irony of ever!—by giving me a space to tell a little story in, it taught me how to sing.
Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. Minneapolis: Greywolf Press, 2007.
Ruefle, Mary. Trances of the Blast. Seattle & New York: Wave Books, 2013.
Pinsky, Robert. Gulf Music. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
Welty, Eudora. A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. Orlando: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1941.