Saturday, February 10, 2007

Thoughts On "Narrative Arc" and the Assembled Manuscript

A recent exchange about "narrative arc" and poetry manuscripts has me thinking about the organization of full-length collections.

The question of whether a "narrative arc" exists within a collection is a function of the intention of the author, the subject matter and mode of the poems within the manuscript, and the reader. A poet writing in a clear style in a primarily narrative mode (or in a contemporary "mainstream" fashion which blends narrative and lyric elements with relatively straightforward diction) is more likely to be charged with assembling a collection into a discernible narrative arc. The more shared characters, events, figures, and metaphors, the more the poems are arranged in a linear (or other familiar "story-telling") time-sequence, the more obvious it will seem that the poet intends to be read as writing in a "narrative arc." Depending upon the relative clarity of the other elements of the manuscript, this may be true even if the passage of time within the narrative is radically dismantled by the ordering of the poems. To the extent the reader and the poet share (or can readily access) the same language, history, metaphors and culture, the presence of a discernible narrative and of the elements of that story will be more or less obvious to the reader.

When a poet writes in a primarily lyric mode, the narrative intention of the poet, if any, may be obscured. But a collection of lyric poems can be deliberately arranged into a "lyric arc" or into a trellis-like structure that suggests more narrative than is disclosed by a random ordering. A collection of intensely lyric poems might even arrange itself into a lyric or narrative arc in the eyes of a discerning (or particularly sensitive) reader, quite apart from any conscious intention of the author.

Assembling a manuscript in a manner that explores whatever organic structure may exist within the text seems to me a good thing. A collection of poems can (should?) have a presence, an identity, a whole, that is more than the sum of its parts. If the possibility of organizing the manuscript in service to a larger narrative statement exists, why not explore it? Please note: I am not saying that a manuscript must have an arc of any sort. I am not immune to a manuscript that features "stunning poem after stunning poem, with no connection one to the other." And please note: I am not advocating on behalf of "filler poems." I suspect that the average poet working at an average intensity writes enough poems to fill three full-length collections for every one that gets assembled and published. That has been my experience--writing at a journeyman's pace, I've been seven years between books.

The problem may lie in determining what a "filler poem" is. One poet's packing material is another's heirloom teapot. For every one hundred readers who cannot live without Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish," there are at least two or three of us who love "Jeronimo's House" or "View of the Capitol From the Library of Congress." I like them all, though I do not like them all equally. Still, we are lucky to have them. The fact that Bishop, in her lifetime, chose to publish relatively few poems is not lost on me.


My thanks to Rebecca Loudon, Brent Goodman and all the good commentators for this topic. Sorry to be several days behind the curve!


Blogger Andrew Shields said...

Two comments: 1) I like the idea of alphabetizing poems (Dorothea Tanning, Geoff Brock). :-)

2) A few years ago, when the prolific German poet Durs Grünbein published his collection "Nach den Satiren," the German reviewers were unanimous in thinking that the book was too long. All of them made a list of the indispensable poems in the book—and all of them disagreed radically. My conclusion: DG made the right decision to publish them all and give the readers something to choose from.

Bishop's approach was to make the choice herself. Which is another choice.

6:23 PM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...

1. Regarding alphabetizing titles in the manuscript, couldn't the mock OULIPO experimentation of this be"rigged" by simply manipulating titles?

2. W.S. Merwin was also criticized for including too many poem in "Migration: New and Selected Poems" (2005). I should think there must be better criticism of a book than "Gee, I bought this book and received too many darn poems for my $35.95."

7:36 AM  

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