Saturday, September 17, 2011

Poetry That Tells a Story

(This article was first published as a guest-post on Australian writer Rosanne Dingli's blog. Thanks to Rosanne for asking me to write an article. It gave me the opportunity to consider how I approach the process of writing.) 

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We'll start not with "poetry" but with "poetic" to lessen the clicking sound of readers mousing to another website.

"How poetic of you!" and "How poetic!" are common enough sayings, and what those expressions mean is pretty clear to everyone: poetry extending into prose, words used with greater intensity, more meaning packed into fewer words.

So what about when the storytelling of prose wriggles its way into a poem? We have three possibilities:
  • epic poetry (Hello, John Milton and the Beowulf poet)
  • prose poetry (Hello, Walt Whitman, father of the long line)
  • poems as a series (Hello, Shakespeare's sonnets to the Dark Lady)
Writing poems in a series is a fascinating opportunity for a writer. A poet can create windows of perception--poems one by one--and then link them.

Modern technology gives us the "slideshow" effect as an example. Each photo is its own reality, yet together the images conjure a greater effect. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The same is true with a series of poems. They can be crafted, each with its own beauty, yet can also be compiled and organized to tell a story. Like flash fiction, poems can be short, impressionistic vignettes that "hint" at a larger story.

If novels are like the cinema, a series of moving pictures, then modern lyric poetry is the individual photograph, each viewed one by one. What is the functional difference of experiencing these two modes of storytelling?

In a movie, the audience is stationary and experiences images as they move. This is true also in a novel; the action occurs on the page to the characters. When a sequence of poems tells a story, the poems are like still images mounted on a wall. It is the viewer or reader that moves from reality to reality--transformed by words that are "possessed of more than usual organic sensibility," to quote William Wordsworth.

My book of poetry, Bare Ruined Choirs, consists of twenty-eight poems that document the life of a relationship. Six years after the last, fading years of my first wife's life, I realized I had the makings of a story, a chronicle with a beginning, middle, and end.

The organization of the poems, though, is conceptual, rather than chronological to the order of their writing. The artistic, universal story supercedes the biographical--or perhaps the two blend together to the universal story of "love, life, and death."

If passages in novels can be poetic prose, then certainly a series of poems can be designed to tell a story. That's what I tried to do with Bare Ruined Choirs, anyway--to tell a universal story and to structure a tribute to a brave and tragic lady.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


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