Thank you, Robert Kroetsch.
Last month I talked about narrative. How listening to stories as a child instills in us not merely an interest but a longing for story, not only for the story itself but for the process of story and for the atmosphere around it. A desire to relive that atmosphere becomes a passion to retell the story and make it ours.
It’s only fair to give the poets equal time.
While other senses and elements play a part, narrative depends on sight and drama – dramatic arc, rising action, tension, outcome. Poetry’s underpinning, on the other hand, is sound and ambiance. The pulse of poetry is voice, its tone and rhythm.
I most clearly associate the narrative voice with the dinner table and my mother’s family. With the poetic voice, it’s the floor vent and my father’s family – uncles and grandparents, in particular.
In my day, children were sent to bed early, at least we were. We resented it then but it was a great opportunity to make up stories for each other. My sister, though, would fall asleep and leave me in the dark staring wide-eyed at the blank ceiling. Until I heard sighs and whispers coming up with the yellow light through the floor vent, one of those open vents which no longer exist, a hole in the floor (or ceiling, depending on your angle) fitted with an iron grille. Then I knew that my uncle was home from his evening shift at the post office (downtown Edmonton) and my grandmother was getting up the tea and biscuit, a nightly requirement after the ten o’clock radio news.
I would creep out of bed and across the floor, trying to avoid the creakier floor boards, and kneel as if in prayer over the vent and listen to the talk of the grown-ups. I couldn’t see much, tops of heads, partial faces, a teacup, the corner of the stove, and I could hear only fragments – words, parts of words, spaces between words, snatches of sentences, phrases that didn’t make sense, but it wasn’t the sense of what they were saying that mesmerized me. It was the sound of voices – the cadence, the lilt and tone of those soft murmuring voices rose like wisp spirits to settle in my ears.
Through the air vent I heard poetry.
If you are a poet you don’t require plot, you don’t require action or resolution. You don’t even require coherency or transition. All you desire, all you long for, are the voices. They are like a tune you can’t forget, that goes around and around in your head, driving you crazy.
If you have a passion for narrative it will find you, even if you’re a poet. I could choose just about any Andrew Suknaski poem for an example, but here’s one:
for the third spring in a row now i return to visit father in his yorkton shack the first time i returned to see him he was a bit spooked seeing me after eleven years – a bindertwine held up his pants then that year he was still a fairly tough little beggar and we shouted to the storm fighting to see who would carry my flightbag across the cn tracks me crying: for chrissake father lemme carry the damn thing the train’s already too close! (Homestead, 1914 [Sec. 32, TP4, RG2, W3RD, Sask.])
Just as surely, if you were hooked by fragments of disembodied voices, you will have an obsession for words and rhythm and tone and even your novels will be poetry.
Poetry was in everything James Joyce wrote, including his 700-page novel. Here are the final words of his classic short story, The Dead.
…snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.