Thoughts on narrative poetry

I taught a class on narrative versus non-narrative, associative or dissociative poetry today, and had the joyous realization that most of the class prefers narrative poems. That’s great. I love narrative as well, and often find myself writing poems that tell stories in one way or another. I’ve taught other essays that argue any poem with a sentence structure is inherently narrative because language is. The non-narrative poems try not to make sense with language, to challenge our belief in the sense language can make.

The reason I’m happy my class privileges narrative isn’t because I prefer it, too, though. I’ve had classes that preferred nonsense poems because they felt they could write anything in that mode and it would have to be ‘good.’ It’s hard to argue for narrative in that situation. Famous poets write nonsense poems, why can’t students? (Sometimes I’ve had to resort to the lame excuse: if you can explain it using literary theory, then you can write it.)

It’s much more fun to work with a group of students who essentially believe in narrative and to get them to loosen up a bit. There are narratives, and then there are narratives, after all. And in poetry we can get too hung up on telling the story. There’s something to be said for a lyrical, non-(or minimalist)-narrative mode. There’s something to be said for associative, irrational, intuitive thinking. In fact, a lot of what underlies my favorite poems relies on this kind of thinking, even if the surface has something to do with a minimal story.

Where do I come down on this, then? Is there meaning? Yes, though there are multiple ways of interpreting it. Does language and narrative involve power relationships? Yes, but that’s not always a bad thing. Is communication possible? I hope so. Can communication happen using associative thinking? I hope so. Should poets try every trick in the book (and then some) before deciding whether they want to write narrative poetry (or what kind)? You bet. Will I have fun with our exercises this week? Will they? I hope so.

Today’s essay, for those who are curious and aren’t in my class, was Tony Hoagland’s “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poems of Our Moment.” We read it after several essays on the more formal aspects of poetry, so it may have come as a relief to some in the class.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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