Today, most of us automatically equate narrative with prose: stories, novels, memoirs, plays, and biographies that depend on skillful narrative control. This is understandable because many successful poems ride on the strength of their word choice, imagery, or cadence rather than their superior character development or plot construction. Nonetheless, as a narrative form, poetry predates prose by thousands of years. Poetry and storytelling are synonymous in the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, and many, many others. Even by the nineteenth century, when the novel began to dominate European and American literature, narrative poets such as Coleridge, Tennyson, Longfellow, and Browning remained enormously popular with a reading public hungry for stories.
A few contemporary narrative poets, such as Anne Carson and Rick Mullin, carry on this ancient storytelling tradition. But more often poets seem to turn to anecdotes, or brief narrative vignettes, rather than long, complex, plot-driven tales. Character development—particularly the first-person I character—is the linchpin of many of these anecdotal poems, which, in the guise of memoir scraps, informal conversations, or journal entries, lure a reader’s attention toward the I.
Sometimes everything in an anecdotal poem seems to circle that central focus. In “The Quest,” for instance, Sharon Olds recounts the horror of briefly losing track of a child in the city. Yet even though the poem is filled with references to the daughter, the I character is its emotional core. The poem is constructed around how I feels, not how the daughter feels.
This is my quest, to know where it is,
the evil in the human heart. As I walk home I
look in face after face for it, I
see the dark beauty, the rage, the
grown-up children of the city she walks as a
child, a raw target.
“The Quest” blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. Is the I really Olds herself? Or has Olds invented an I who is disguised as herself? In “Self-Portrait as Van Gogh,” Peter Cooley plays more explicitly with these questions of character identity:
Before a mirror at midnight I compose myself,
donning the gold straw hat I tilt at just his angle
to assure the vision will stay caged.
I squint, ruffle my beard, henna the tips.
Cooley’s poem serves as a good reminder: although poems have the unique ability to make us believe in them as truth, we should never assume that the I in a poem is anything other than the poet’s invention. Even the intimate, eloquent, heartbreaking I in Keats’s “Bright Star” is a character framed within a work of art. He’s not the poet but the poet’s creation.
Thus, characters, like so many other elements of poetry, can seem solid and simple even as they lead a poet to explore strange territory and make unanticipated disclosures. Like her relationships with real people, a poet’s relationship with her characters can be confusing, resentful, admiring, even dangerous. Yet she is also their creator and manipulator and thus remains separate and, to a certain degree, ambivalent about their behaviors and motivations.
In an essay about Shakespeare, Auden wrote about this necessary detachment: “A dramatist’s characters are, normally, men-of-action, but he himself is a maker, not a doer, concerned not with disclosing himself to others in the moment, but with making a work which, unlike himself, will endure, if possible forever. . . . What a man does is irrevocable for good or ill; what he makes, he can always modify or destroy.”
In other words, as my sons used to say with exasperation when they discovered that once again I’d borrowed bits and pieces from our shared lives to create characters and a situation, “Mom! You exaggerate everything!” For when she’s creating characters, a poet ruthlessly borrows from all the material she has at hand: her own internal motivations, her family’s actions, her neighbor’s peccadilloes. Sometimes the characters that emerge closely resemble the borrowed material. Sometimes the borrowed material becomes imaginative fodder for an invented persona.
Yet in poetry, it’s not the character per se who charms, amuses, or repels the reader. It’s the way in which the poet uses words to construct that character. As D. H. Lawrence noted, without his “language so lovely,” even Shakespeare’s most famous creations would be intolerable company:
And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folk’s whoring!
[From another chapter-under-construction for my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]