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Kurt Brown

Kurt Brown

Kurt Brown founded the Aspen Writers' Conference, and Writers' Conferences & Centers (a national association of directors). His poems have appeared in many literary periodicals, and he is the editor of several anthologies including Blues for Bill, for the late William Matthews, from University of Akron Press and his newest (with Harold Schechter), Killer Verse: Poems of Murder and Mayhem from Alfred A. knopf (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets Series). He is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of peoetry, inclding Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship and No Other Paradise. A Collecion of the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck entitled The Plural of Happiness, which he and his wife translated, was released in the Field Translation Series in 2006.

LONG STORY SHORT: Techniques Of Fiction In Poetry

In Jonathan Holden's wide-ranging and intelligent survey of American poetry published in 1991, The Fate of American Poetry, he argues that much of the problem of poetry's dwindling audience during the 20th century lies principally with Modernism's wholesale commitment to erudition, elitism, arcane allusion, and complicated theories about subject matter. At least part of his prescription for winning back an audience for contemporary verse lies in a return to narrative forms. "Moral wisdom," he claims, "is, like most of our accumulated human knowledge , inherently narrative." The supremacy of the Bible in western literature and thought is one proof of this, he explains, along with the development, in the eighteenth century, of the novel with all its subsequent ramifications and styles.

The point was made earlier, however, by James Dickey in the 1960s writing in favor of the return of narrative as a means of countering the overwhelming popularity of the crabbed, associative, complex Modernist lyric which seemed, at least by the opening of the second half of the century, to have won the day. Poets were writing lyrics, almost exclusively, and when they wrote longer poems it was usually some form of meditation or discursive verse that continued to confound many readers and critics who accused such work of being "obscure" and difficult to understand. Dickey made a plea for "reclaiming some of the narrative ground that had been ceded to the novel" whether he actually took his advice with regard to his own work or not. But the fact is that a growing number of poets have come to believe that abdication of narrative to prose fiction has not been altogether healthy for poetry, and it may be time to turn things around.

There have been a number of straightforward narrative poems produced in recent times, of course, but most of them do not extend further than a few pages and the story they unfold is of a single incident, not a continuous series of linked incidents with many characters, as in an expanded prose fiction. A poem like John Logan's "The Picnic," published in 1960, or the darkly humorous prospoems of James Tate's most recent books certainly tell a story, but are brief in comparison to traditional narrative poems, even those written as recently as the 19th Century, like Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha," "Evangeline," or "The Courtship of Miles Standish." Longfellow is a good example, in fact, of a poet writing during a time when narrative poetry still held a place in the popular imagination and could be read and appreciated by many thousands of people. Prior to Modernism and the institutionalization of the lyric, that is, extended narrative poetry was still thriving as a literary form before it "ceded its narrative ground to the novel." The novel and the long narrative poem existed side-by-side for a time, and flourished. This was still possible, perhaps, because other popular sources of narrative—radio, television, and movies—had yet to be invented or perfected.

Others, in the early 20th century, such as Stephen Vincent Benét and Edward Arlington Robinson, who for one reason or another failed or declined to Modernize themselves, struggled to continue the tradition of book-length narrative poetry, but their days were numbered. Mostly, they established their careers on shorter, more lyrical work. Some readers might remember Robinson's "Richard Corey" and "Eben Flood," but who remembers his book-length narratives Amaranth, Tristram, or Matthias at the Door? Perhaps Robinson Jeffers, too, is remembered (if he is remembered at all) more as the author of "To the Stonecutter's" and "Shine, Perishing Republic," than Cawdor or The Double-Headed Axe. As late as 1958, Winfield Townley Scott attempted to revive narrative poetry with his book-length poem, The Dark Sister, about which James Dickey offered these glowing words: "The Dark Sister is a very good narrative poem indeed...had this poem come down to us from the time it treats, it would have been reckoned a masterpiece, and dutifully enregistered as such in many a textbook and anthology." And yet, it went nowhere, as far as sales and the reading public are concerned. Today, it belongs to that oblivion where so many other once noteworthy American poems are entombed. This is not entirely due to its having been written in narrative form, of course, but that must surely have had a great deal to do with it. The reading public, however large or small it may have been in 1958, was simply not up to reading and appreciating a long narrative poem, one that was surely as good or better than many of the contemporary novels that were written at that time, and which that same reading public bought and read in the tens of thousands. Not narrative, but narrative poetry was decidedly out.

A number of book-length narratives have been written and published as late as 1985 and 1988, by Frederick Turner. His first, The New World: An Epic Poem, followed by Genesis, are attempts to restore the book-length narrative—indeed the epic poem—to prominence and win back readers of the novel and even, perhaps, enthusiasts of movie and television drama. The idea of resuscitating the epic, with it's historical associations and forms, may or may not have been a good idea, however. A science fiction that occurs in the future, Genesis alludes heavily to Beowulf and begins with a rhetorically heightened sense of grandeur that must have made more than a few potential readers nervous (uh, oh, this is a poem not a novel):

      Listen! I must tell of the beginnings,
      Of corpses buried in the walls of worlds,
      Of how those men and women worth a story
      Burn and consume the powers they're kindled by;
      And how their acts, mortal and cast away,
      Are crystallized in the melt of history,
      But their live selves are lost and gone forever
      To leave a safer and a duller age...

It's possible to believe that readers of novels might accept (or not even notice) the formal aspects of a loose iambic pentameter, blank verse line, punctuated by the alliterative effects of Anglo-Saxon verse, but not perhaps the tone and manner of epic poetry which create a density and tension more demanding than that of most contemporary prose fiction. The oracular lines above are good poetry, but taxing as a medium for the kind of story to which readers are accustomed in the season's latest best sellers. Readers of novels, memoirs, biographies, and protracted volumes of nonfiction might be expected to pay attention to sound, rhythm, diction, form, metaphor, and other poetic elements for a short while (i.e. the lyric), but they might find the prospect of reading a book-length volume of such language a bit daunting.

More recently still, Derek Walcott has attempted to revive the epic with his sweeping and challenging book, Omeros, which not only borrows something of the epic tone and form but alludes to one of the greatest epic poets of all time in its very title: blind Homer chanting his thousands of lines near the sea in the ancient Hellenic world. But Walcott's poem, divided into seven longish "books" which are further divided into "chapters," each of which are again divided into three sections, is intimidating in its weight and density, and, as if that weren't enough, it is written in terza rima, a form that allies it with Dante and his The Divine Comedy as well. Homer and Dante both, in one poem! It's a breathtakingly ambitious work, and one with which most readers of novels would be cowed. Even readers of poetry might shiver a little, confronted with such a grandiose scheme—a 325-page poem whose lines scintillate with the compacted density of a lyric. Walcott's habitual, and brilliant sense of metaphor and other time-tested figures of speech combine to slow the reader down and, as with a lyric poem, force him to pay attention to every syllable, every word, while still keeping the overarching sense of the story in mind, and all the characters who are near namesake-stand-ins for characters in Homer's original Iliad and Odyssey. Only a reader with the requisite knowledge and experience would be able to make his way through the thicket of words, images and allusions comprised by the narrative of Omeros. A much easier and more accessible—though by no means less interesting or powerful poem—is Walcott's "The Schooner Flight" from The Star-Apple Kingdom, an eighteen-page narrative poem in eleven sections that displays all of Walcott's considerable gifts while remaining assimilable to anyone who will take the time to read it with interest and attention.

Another noteworthy attempt at a contemporary epic was made by John Barr, in his book-length poem Grace, published in 1999, in which a Caribbean poet, Ibn Opcit—condemned to die—disburdens himself from jail, like a latter-day Chidiock Tichborne singing the soul's wisdom at the brink of death. Opcit's grandiloquent monologue covers a wide range of subjects from politics, marriage, ontology, sex (always sex), death, and religion, to economics, creationism and diet all delivered in a tongue-in-cheek style that compounds high rhetoric with Caribbean patois to produce something that might better be described as an expository epic, with mock overtones. Each of Opcit's "Eclogues" is a foray into la condition humane, with droll good humor and pungent wit.

Besides the seamless, ongoing narrative of epic length, there is a second type of poem that takes a different tack, breaking the narrative up into more manageable, or digestible bits. The reader of this essay will no doubt be able to supply any number of book-length poems—or "novels-in-verse"—produced within the second half of the 20th century (David Mason's fine Ludlow recently published by Red Hen Press is noteworthy). I list only a few of the most prominent here, works that attempt to effect the kind of return to narrative poetry envisioned by Dickey and Holden, but by a different route. This second category, to which Walcott's "The Schooner 'Flight'" properly belongs, has been somewhat more successful in finding readers both within and beyond the community of poets—poems that might be described as episodic or serial, a sequence of vignettes that suggest a longer, more complete narrative, but present that back-story in fragments, rather than reveal it in its entirety. These include Rosellen Brown's Cora Fry, Ellen Bryant Voigt's Kyrie, Philip Dacey's The Mystery of Max Schmitt, Kim Adonizzio's Jimmy and Rita, Dan Tobin's The Narrows, Martha Collins' Blue Front, and many others too numerous to mention. All of these poems share a similar strategy: to suggest a novel's sweep in snapshots, a long episodic work that fills a book and tells a single but discontinuous story.

But there is another way, a third way, that preserves and combines both aspects of narrative and lyric. A hybrid form that might be called lyrical-narrative, or more accurately—narrative-lyric—exemplified by Stanley Kunitz's visionary poem, "The Wellfleet Whale." The poem uses some narrative devices customarily employed by fiction writers: the narrative begins quietly with an exposition of the setting; each section is a "chapter," and ends at a moment of drama—creating suspense and leading the reader on to the next section; there is an upward trend in the first sections, then a catastrophe that leads to a darker, downward trend in the later sections; events occur in sequences (sections 2,3,4), depicting a day and a night, followed by another day and night—the first day and night are given over to a rising action (hopeful, exciting, positive), while the second day and night describe a vigil and are given over to a falling action (despair, sorrow, and death). Finally, the "story" is framed by a "prologue" (section one) and an "epilogue" (section five). This scheme of things is only approximate, of course, not absolute and requires reading the poem with the elements of fiction in mind. But if it is read as a story, these elements will begin to emerge more clearly. Some of the sections even have a cinematic aspect to them, and might be imagined as scenes in a film.

Section one, which I am calling a "prologue," opens the poem with a consideration of the sounds whales make, a description of their calls to each other as they migrate from place to place in the ocean:


      You have your language too,
            an eerie medley of clicks
                  and hoots and trills,
      location-notes and love calls,
            whistles and grunts. Occasionally,
                  it's like furniture being smashed,
      or the creaking of a mossy door,
            sounds that all melt into a liquid
                  song with endless variations,
      as if to compensate
            for the vast loneliness of the sea.
                  Sometimes a disembodied voice
      breaks in, as if from distant reefs,
            and it's as much as one can bear
                  to listen to its long mournful cry,
      a sorrow without a name, both more
            and less than human. It drags
                  across the ear like a record
      running down.

The purpose of this "prologue" is to begin to establish an identity for the whale which will soon appear; to establish, that is, a sympathy between the whale and us (human beings) which will be exploited so powerfully in the final section. We are told that whales have language—a particularly human thing—and that they call to one another in the depths of the sea. Though we cannot know what these calls actually mean, we might imagine this "language" to be much like our own—expressing danger, sorrow, love, joy, etc. Kunitz heightens this identification with whales by referring to "love calls" and "grunts," of which human beings are capable as well, and to things associated with the human world: smashed furniture, and a "mossy door." Kunitz also immediately establishes the form the poem will take, section by section: two or three stress lines, with a variable iambic rhythm, and shifting tercets that shuttle back and forth, like waves, or swimming fish. The poet also makes use of some conventional metrical effects—in line fifteen, for instance, he refers to the whale's "long mournful cry," which presents us with three stressed syllables in close proximity, thereby elongating the phrase so that it mimics the thing that it is describing. Throughout the poem, Kunitz will be mindful of exploiting such musical and expressive effects even though the poem is not written in strict meter. It is interesting to note, too, that the final line of this section is a half line. Only two words appear—"running down"—even as the line itself runs down. This contraction is followed by a sense of finality, a stoppage followed by a silence. It prepares us for something else to begin, a commencement that will shortly follow.

Section two, then, begins the narrative of a specific whale, the Wellfleet whale, and introduces a new tone, one that is more factual and objective—at least at first—in the sense that it is slightly less lyrical:


      No wind. No waves. No clouds.
            Only the whisper of the tide,
                  as it withdrew, stroking the shore,
      lazy drift of gulls overhead,
            and tiny points of light
                  bubbling in the channel.
      It was the tag-end of summer.
            From the harbor's mouth
                  you coasted into sight,
      flashing news of your advent,
            the crescent of your dorsal fin
                  clipping the diamonded surface.
      We cheered at the sign of your greatness
            when the black barrel of your head
                  erupted, ramming the water,
      and you flowered for us
            in the jet of your spouting.

Those short, punchy sentences at the beginning of the section set the tone, and immediately distinguish the feeling of this section from the one preceding it. The purpose of this section is to set the scene—an exposition of sorts—in three iambic fragments: "No wind. No waves. No clouds." Those three iambic negatives, "No," set up an atmosphere of expectation. There is only "the whisper of the tide, "stroking the shore." As with most fictions—films and plays as well—a state of equilibrium exists before the first events of the story take place. In this state of equilibrium, the scene might be set, but it will only be broken when the first players appear on the page (or stage) to initiate the action. Kunitz also tells us that gulls drift overhead, describes the light on the water, and lets us know the time—the very end of summer. The languor of the scene is disrupted suddenly by an extraordinary occurrence—a gigantic creature, a whale, appears in the harbor "flashing news of [its] advent" as its huge dorsal fin cuts the surface of the bay and the "black barrel" of its head "rams" the water. As it spouts a jet of water, the people on the beach are galvanized, awakened from their late summer torpor, and cheer at the whale's "greatness." This description of the whale's arrival, and the expected hymn of praise to is awesome power and "eerie" beauty (to borrow a word from section one) might remind us of heroic scenes from other stories when something or someone magnificent appears to create a sense of hope and to rally people to action. The word "advent" is of special interest here. Capitalized, Advent is a biblical term and refers specifically to the coming of Christ at the Incarnation. Uncapitalized, it generally means "a coming into being" or use. The whale itself, its appearance in the humdrum hours of a late summer day is a kind of annunciation, a coming into being of something almost otherworldly, or at least from a very different world than the one in which the spectators on the beach are living.

Section three continues, or extends the praise, the celebratory tone of being visited by something beyond the ordinary, something almost talismanic or totemic in its symbolic presence:


      All afternoon you swam
            tirelessly round the bay,
                  with such an easy motion,
      the slightest downbeat of your tail,
            an almost imperceptible
                  undulation of your flippers,
      you seemed like something poured,
            not driven; you seemed
                  to marry grace with power.
      And when you bounded into air,
            slapping your flukes,
                  we thrilled to look upon
      pure energy incarnate
            as nobility of form.
                  You seemed to ask of us
      not sympathy, or love,
            or understanding,
                  but awe and wonder.

      That night we watched you
            swimming in the moon.
                  Your back was molten silver.
      We guessed your silent passage
            by the phosphorescence in your wake.
                  At dawn we found you stranded on the rocks.

The language in this section changes again, back to something like the opening section—a higher level of rhetoric, and a greater amount of abstraction, of interpretation and thought. With the exception, perhaps, of "diamonded," the diction in section two is spare, ordinary, even common. In section three, words of Latinate origin appear more regularly: "imperceptible," "undulation," "incarnate," "nobility." The observations are more subjective, more complex: "you seemed to marry grace with power..." "we thrilled to look upon pure energy incarnate as nobility of form..." The break after line eighteen ("but awe and wonder") signifies a passage of time. It is a typographical way of saying "Later,..."). In the last six lines of the section, the physical whale becomes almost ghostly, or spiritual, as it swims by moonlight leaving a trail of phosphorescence in its wake. Now it becomes truly mysterious, a visitor from the unknown who exists half in shadow, half in light. The scene now is dreamlike, visionary. We have reached the apex of the rising action—the exciting, hopeful, positive part of the poem. That is why the final line in the section is such a shock. It is as though Kunitz is pulling the rug out from under us, ending the section on a note of such high drama.

The shock of the last line of section three sets up a change in the narrative, from praise to dirge. The catastrophe has occurred, and from now on the action will fall off from the rising excitement of the first three sections. This downturn, from positive to negative, is introduced linguistically by an ominous, or more objective tone. Once more the language becomes ordinary, and the observations more concrete:


      There came a boy and a man
            and yet other men running, and two
                  schoolgirls in yellow halters
      and a housewife bedecked
            with curlers, and whole families in beach
                  buggies with assorted yelping dogs.
      The tide was almost out.
            We could walk around you,
                  as you heaved deeper into the shoal,
      crushed by your own weight,
            collapsing into yourself,
                  your flippers and your flukes
      quivering, your blowhole
            spasmodically bubbling, roaring.
                  In the pit of your gaping mouth
      you bared your fringework of baleen,
            thicket of horned bristles.
                  When the Curator of Mammals
      arrived from Boston
            to take samples of your blood
                  you were already oozing from below.
      Somebody had carved his initials
            in your flank. Hunters of souvenirs
                  had peeled off strips of your skin,
      a membrane thin as paper.
            You were blistered and cracked by the sun.
                  The gulls had been pecking at you.
      The sound you made was a hoarse and fitful bleating.

      What drew us to the magnet of your dying?
            You made a bond between us,
                  the keepers of the nightfall watch,
      who gathered in a ring around you,
            boozing in the bonfire light.
                  Toward dawn we shared with you
      your hour of desolation,
            the huge lingering passion
                  of your unearthly outcry,
      as you swung your blind head
            toward us and laboriously opened
                  a bloodshot, glistening eye,
      in which we swam with terror and recognition.

The focus in this section, at least in the opening lines, expands considerably so that it resembles a wide-angle shot taken from a position somewhat above the beach, several hundred feet in fact: we see the whale stranded on the sand, then people arriving from various spots outside the frame of the shot, gathering around the body of the huge mammal like filings drawn to a magnet. Quickly, the focus narrows again and we return to the whale's side so that we can see and hear details of the creature's death agony—the hulking size, flippers and flukes, its "roaring" blowhole. When Kunitz describes the various cruelties perpetrated on the whale by thoughtless onlookers—initials carved in the belly, strips of skin peeled off for souvenirs—he wisely resists moral outrage. Like any good writer, he lets the facts speak for themselves. A stanza break occurs, as in the previous section, to mark not only a passage of time (from day to night), but a change in perspective too, from objective to subjective, from description to meditation. On this second evening, the poet-narrator responds more personally to what he has witnessed. "What drew us to the magnet of your dying?" Even the diction and imagery of these lines are more emotionally charged. The "unearthly cry" here parallels but transforms the "long mournful cry" of section one. It is a death cry, a cry of despair, and not the lonely, life-asserting cry of a whale far at sea searching for its comrades. And, too, the identification we experience here is a tragic reversal of what we felt in section one. In the first section, our sympathy was based on shared positive traits: language, loneliness, sorrow. In section four, our identification with the whale is with its dying. We observe its "bloodshot, glistening eye," and feel the "terror" of "recognition." We too will suffer and die. Perhaps we will even be tormented, if not physically, then psychically, at our deaths.

This section, section four, effectively ends the story of the whale that swam into Wellfleet harbor and beached itself to die. Section five begins what I have called the prologue, in which the poet will reflect upon the events of the narrative he has just related:


      Voyager, chief of the pelagic world,
            you brought with you the myth
                  of another country, dimly remembered,
      where flying reptiles
            lumbered over the steaming marshes
                  and trumpeting thunder lizards
      wallowed in the reeds.
            While empires rose and fell on land,
                  your nation breasted the open main,
      rocked in the consoling rhythm
            of the tides. Which ancestor first plunged
                  head-down through zones of colored twilight
      to scour the bottom of the dark?
            You ranged the North Atlantic track
                  from Port-of-Spain to Baffin Bay,
      edging between the ice-floes
            through the fat of summer,
                  lob-tailing, breaching, sounding,
      grazing in the pastures of the sea
            on krill-rich orange plankton
                  crackling with life.
      You prowled down the continental shelf
            guided by the sun and stars
                  and the taste of alluvial silt

      on your way southbound
            to the warm lagoons,
                  the tropic of desire,
      where the lovers lie belly to belly
            in the rub and nuzzle of their sporting;
                  and you turned, like a god in exile,
      out of your wide primeval element,
            delivered to the mercy of time.
                  Master of the whale-roads,
      let the white wings of the gulls
            spread out their cover.
                  You have become like us,
      disgraced and mortal.

Kunitz addresses the whale directly, but in a more general way—apart from the events that took place in Wellfleet harbor. Whaleness itself, is the subject here again, not only this particular whale and its circumstances. The section begins with another change of tone—back to a higher rhetoric, and richer diction, and a change of address, an apostrophe that is more like a public speech than the descriptive language of the previous sections. In fact, it is a funeral oration in which—like all funeral orations—the whale will be praised and admired for its character and the exemplary life it has lived. The scope will widen again to become planetary, even cosmic, as great sweeps of time—eons and epochs—will come into play, restoring some of the creature's grandeur from the opening section (or prologue). The whale here will become a mythic, a symbolic creature.

By addressing the whale at first as "Voyager," Kunitz distances himself (and us) from the whale and adds an element of respect that did not exist in the earlier—and more personal—pronoun, "you." For the remainder of this section, the pronoun "you" will take on a greater weight of esteem, of reverence even, each time it is used. Later in the section, Kunitz will refer to the whale as "Master," another distancing sobriquet or title, as it introduces the idea of hierarchy, placing the speaker (and all human beings, in fact) in a subordinate position to this now mythic being. The whale becomes an emissary from the primeval world, an incarnation of Nature itself, and its mysterious sources. It is "both more and less than human," a "god in exile," like Christ who became mortal to suffer and die like us. The identification of the whale with Christ—or any god who takes on human characteristics and becomes mortal—is not far fetched. Like Christ, this "god in exile" chooses to enter the human world where he becomes vulnerable, is discovered, then crucified and reviled (instead of a crown of thorns, whips, and spears, initials are carved into his belly, and strips of his skin peeled off as souvenirs). Like Christ, the whale is not recognized for what he is, and must suffer death to "becomes like us," a sacrifice only the poet seems to notice and acknowledged. Like Christ, the whale comes to us out of its "primeval element," to be "delivered to the mercy of time." The poem ends with a prayer, wherein the gulls are transformed finally into angels spreading their wings like a pall to cover the dead deity. An interesting motif involving the gulls is woven throughout the poem: they appear first as merely part of the scenery in section two, a "lazy drift" of birds, unthreatening, detached; then reappear in section four to peck at the body of the whale, violent and dispassionate as some of the onlookers; and finally in section five where they come to represent angels, mournful and protective, escorting the spirit of the dead whale back into its "primeval element."

In a final stroke of brilliance, Kunitz resurrects the word "disgraced" for us, which in this context takes on it most primary meaning. In most instances, the word "disgrace" has a specific, secular meaning: "loss of reputation as the result of dishonorable action" (Compact Oxford English Dictionary) or "embarrassment and the loss of other people's respect" (Cambridge Online Dictionary). But here, Kunitz restores the word to its original meaning: "dis-" again becomes a prefix expressing negation of what will follow—as in "dis-inclined, dis-enchanted"—and "grace" takes on its theological significance of being held highly in God's esteem. The whale, in this poem, is dis-graced. That is: stripped of grace, violated, profaned.

The narrative sections of this poem might be re-imagined, and rewritten, as a short story entitled "The Wellfleet Whale" without too much difficulty. The perspective might change—either that of one of the characters on the beach, or several of them—but the events themselves could supply material for a summer idyll in which the beaching of a whale effects the lives of people in a seaside resort, and perhaps the whale and occurrences surrounding its appearance and fate take on symbolic proportions. It would be a far different reading experience, however, in comparison to Kunitz's poem. "The Wellfleet Whale," as a poem, is a hybrid form that combines aspects of narrative fiction and lyrical poetry. It is a story poem, or a poem that tells a story. But it is more than that as well. The "more" that it is results from the compression of that story into highly charged, evocative lines of poetry, and a visionary imagination that has more than plot or character development in mind. Kunitz made use of some techniques of fiction in the writing of "The Wellfleet Whale." This way is open to anyone who would like to gain back some of the ground ceded to fiction in order to write a more engaging poem.