WEDDING THE POEM AND ITS READER: THE FUNCTION

WEDDING THE POEM AND ITS READER: THE FUNCTION
WEDDING THE POEM AND ITS
READER:
THE FUNCTION OF NARRATIVE
IN CONTEMPORARY LYRIC POETRY
Steve Evans
Bachelor of Economics (University of Adelaide)
Master of Arts (Creative Writing) (University of Adelaide)
The Flinders University of South Australia
FACULTY OF EDUCATION, HUMANITIES, LAW AND THEOLOGY
Date of submission: November 2009
A thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
Declaration
I certify that this thesis does not incorporate without acknowledgement any
material previously submitted for a degree or diploma in any university, and
that to the best of my knowledge and belief it does not contain any material
previously published or written by another person except where due reference
is made in the text.
Steve Evans
November 2009
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Acknowledgements
In writing this thesis I have benefited from the assistance and cooperation of
several people. I would like to thank Professor Jeri Kroll and Senior Lecturer
Karen Vered for their feedback and insightful comments. I would particularly
like to thank my wife, Kate Deller-Evans, for her support and encouragement,
and for her perceptive advice.
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Published Poems and Prizes
Published poems in this thesis:
•
‘Crow on the Cross’ was published in Unruly Sun (2007)
•
‘Dachau’ appeared in The New England Review, No. 18 (2003)
•
‘Wedding Present’ was in Fluorescent Voices (1997)
Prizes:
•
‘Dachau’ won the 2003 New England Poetry Prize
•
Draft poems from The Floating Bride were the basis for being
awarded the 2008 Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship ($15,000) in the
2008 Adelaide Festival of Arts
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CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION — EVERYBODY LOVES A WEDDING ..................10 INTRODUCTION ...............................................................................................................11 THE HISTORICAL NEGLECT OF NARRATIVE IN LYRIC POETRY..........................12 A FOCUS ON WEDDINGS ................................................................................................13 METHODOLOGICAL ISSUES..........................................................................................15 SUMMARY.........................................................................................................................30 CHAPTER 2: SETTING COORDINATES.........................................................................32 INTRODUCTION ...............................................................................................................33 WHY POETRY? WHY WEDDINGS? ...............................................................................34 WHAT IS WEDDING POETRY?.......................................................................................41 DEFINING NARRATIVE AND STORY ...........................................................................46 THE ROLE OF THE READER ...........................................................................................56 WHAT IS LYRIC POETRY? ..............................................................................................66 THE NARRATIVE IN THE LYRIC ...................................................................................88 A NARRATIVE INSTANT IN THE LYRIC THEATRE ...................................................93 SUMMARY.........................................................................................................................99 CHAPTER 3: A FISTFIGHT, A HANGMAN, A LION’S BRIDE.................................101 INTRODUCTION .............................................................................................................102 INVITING THE READER TO A WEDDING: ‘THE WEDDING’..................................109 BEST LAID PLANS: ‘THE WEDDING PLAN’ ..............................................................119 THE ANTI-EPITHALAMIUM: ‘POEM NOT TO BE READ AT YOUR WEDDING’ ..126 AFTER HAPPILY EVER AFTER: ‘THE BRIDAL SUITE’ ............................................128 A LONGER NARRATIVE: ‘MARRYING THE HANGMAN’.......................................136 EATING THE BRIDE: ‘THE LION’S BRIDE’ ................................................................143 SUMMARY.......................................................................................................................151 CHAPTER 4: A PALIMPSEST OF BRIDES ...................................................................154 INTRODUCTION .............................................................................................................155 EPITHALAMIA & ANTI-EPITHALAMIA .....................................................................156 QUESTIONS OF LENGTH ..............................................................................................161 THE RESEARCH AND PRACTICE CYCLE: GAPS, RESISTANCE AND INSIGHTS 176 SUMMARY.......................................................................................................................184 CHAPTER 5: CONCLUSION ............................................................................................187 INTRODUCTION .............................................................................................................188 THE IMPORTANCE OF NARRATIVE...........................................................................191 THE ROLE OF THE READER .........................................................................................192 ANALYSING THE LYRIC POEM...................................................................................195 SUMMARY.......................................................................................................................198 CHAPTER 6: CREATIVE COMPONENT THE FLOATING BRIDE ..........................202 LIST OF POEMS...............................................................................................................204 CROW ON THE CROSS ...............................................................................................206 THE BURNING RIVER ................................................................................................242 LITTLE MURDERS ......................................................................................................285 APPENDIX 1: THE WEDDING PLAN — AIDAN COLEMAN....................................313 APPENDIX 2: POEM NOT TO BE READ AT YOUR WEDDING — BETH ANN
FENNELLY ..........................................................................................................................315 APPENDIX 3: THE BRIDAL SUITE — MATTHEW SWEENEY ...............................316 APPENDIX 4: THE LION’S BRIDE — GWEN HARWOOD........................................317 APPENDIX 5: MARRYING THE HANGMAN — MARGARET ATWOOD..............318 5
APPENDIX 6: WEDDING POEMS...................................................................................322 REFERENCES .....................................................................................................................347 6
ABSTRACT
The use of language involves patterning within a network of word meanings.
Thus, at least a basic form of narrative function is intrinsic to our speaking,
our writing, and our reading whenever we wish to move utterance beyond
mere noise. Yet theorists and creative writers, including poets, disagree when
it comes to lyric poetry, often regarding the narrative function there as alien,
trivial, inactive, or simply too difficult to deal with. This is most unusual,
especially given that the lyric poem, too, is inextricably bound up with the
reader’s sense-making that depends to a large extent on their normal use of
language. Why this odd denial of narrative agency in such poetry? Is it really
so foreign to the lyric poem?
To demonstrate that there actually is a narrative element at work in
lyric poetry, I have focussed on the way that such poetry refers to the
constituent events and characters of weddings. This engages the reader with a
set of well-known social and cultural practices comprising the trace of the
archetypal wedding story, from courtship through to honeymoon, and various
stops between. A stock of wedding motifs (such as bride, groom, ring,
proposal, exchange of vows, etc.) readily links to other parts of that story,
enabling short forms of writing to convey a great deal of information with
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only brief and sometimes indirect references. This is possible since the reader
makes the expected connection to the larger narrative template.
My thesis demonstrates, with particular reference to contemporary
lyric poems (those published since 1950), that a narrative process does
underpin lyric poetry. I begin by discussing my motivation for undertaking
this project, next considering the development of the epithalamium (the
traditional wedding poem), and then focussing on the nature of the lyric poem
and of narrative. In subsequent chapters, I apply my findings to a variety of
contemporary lyric poems that employ wedding references, initially ones
written by other authors and then a selection of my own poems written for this
study. I also relate the research process to my own creative work, addressing
the connection between the two in relation to the contemporary debate about
practice-led research and research-led practice, concluding that the research
and practice elements are necessarily interwoven.
My thesis shows that it is a great oversimplification to define
contemporary lyric poetry in a way that denies it a narrative function, as has
been routine. Storytelling is manifest in our daily lives, and is arguably an
essential characteristic of language use. It is a key human tendency that equips
us better to communicate with one another and it is just as indigenous to lyric
poetry as to other forms of textual communication, even though its traces may
sometimes be fainter. A poem might be said to show narrative qualities even
when it is very brief and personal, often through quite deliberate reliance on
the reader completing the text by invoking personal knowledge of human
behaviour, rites of passage and social practices.
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In summary, the lyric poem can be said to operate in a narrative mode
as part of the poet’s and the reader’s process of making meaning through
language. This is exemplified by the lyric wedding poem.
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CHAPTER 1:
INTRODUCTION — EVERYBODY LOVES A
WEDDING
The world is a wedding
~Sayings of the Rabbis~
Polano 2003, p. 287
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INTRODUCTION
Lyric and narrative seem odd bedfellows. Lyric is often seen as the brief
poetic expression of an individual’s emotional state whereas narrative is
typically regarded as the telling of a story. As long as the emphasis in defining
lyric poetry rests so greatly on its subjective and sometimes intense
representation of personal feeling, it is not surprising that it is rarely credited
with performing a narrative function. That longstanding differentiation is,
however, outmoded and unsustainable.
It is curious that critical writing on the narrative function in lyric
poetry has been relatively rare; until recently it has mostly comprised brief
assertions about lyric’s characteristics in which the narrative aspect might
receive cursory attention. In contrast, this thesis argues that because narrative
is intrinsic to all written communication, it must also function in the lyric
poem. Furthermore, it is important to note the narrative function of
contemporary lyric because it tells us something about the way that we read,
and how we construct meaning in all poetry—indeed, potentially in all texts.
The thesis argues that the key factor in the construction of such narrative is the
lyric poet’s reliance on the contribution made by the reader.
Recognising the narrative function in poetry is also significant because
it informs an understanding of the way that poets construct their work,
especially in regard to the spaces left in the text and the economies possible in
abbreviated pieces of writing that can rely on shared cultural and particularly
literary knowledge to fill them. In a genre where everything counts, where
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everything is significant, that ability to omit certain detail and to imply rather
than to explicitly state allows greater emphasis to rest on other poetic devices
such as heightened language. It also allows more experimentation than
obedience to full narration would permit.
The different elements of the thesis are outlined in the remainder of
this introductory chapter. The study itself is based around a survey of lyric
poems, each of which includes a reference to a wedding, and a newly written
collection of my own poems that refer to weddings. The wedding reference
was chosen to illustrate the reader’s power to construct narrative when linking
the rather spare material of a lyric poem to a large and complex, but widely
understood type of story. This act by a reader exemplifies the inherent
narrative function of these brief texts. The lyric poem, in other words, is
greater than the sum of its parts.
THE HISTORICAL NEGLECT OF NARRATIVE IN LYRIC
POETRY
Fashions do alter in poetry but some change very slowly. The very beginning
of Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 350BC) makes clear the most desirable quality of
poetry when he specifies ‘plot as requisite to a good poem’ (1987, p. 39). It is
an influential view, one largely adhered to for more than two thousand years.
While storytelling and the use of plot devices have been preferred in poetry
that clearly embraces narrative, the lyric has been relegated to a lesser
ranking. That state persisted until lyric’s relatively recent ascendance as the
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most prominent form of poetry, though there has still been disagreement about
the existence of narrative qualities in the lyric.
In the late sixteenth century prominent philosophers Francis Bacon
and Thomas Hobbes rejected the lyric as poetry altogether on the grounds that
it fails to tell a story. They consigned it to philosophy and oratory as part of
rhetoric, on the basis that poetry should reflect the Aristotelian requirement
for enacting human affairs through dramatic events (Dowlin 1941, p. 167).
Holding plot out as ‘the mark of poetry’ (Dowlin 1941, p. 170) suboridnates
the lyric, treating it and narrative as mutually exclusive. Later discussion in
this thesis of what constitutes narrative and lyric poetry reveals that such a
strict definition of poetry haunts literary criticism. At best, narrative qualities
in lyric poetry still seem to be severely neglected.
A FOCUS ON WEDDINGS
Numerous writers and theoreticians claim that narrative is fundamental to the
way in which we understand and relate our own lives, that ‘we are, in essence,
narrative creatures’ and ‘narrative is a powerful and in many ways desirable
way [sic] in which to construe or construct the human self’ (Ruf 1994, pp.
799-800). In order to examine the narrative impulse at work in lyric poems, I
have chosen to focus on the way that they refer to the constituent events and
characters of weddings, such as bride, groom, ring, proposal, exchange of
vows, etc. Each of these represents a specific aspect of the larger wedding
story that most readers will recognise. Knowing how these parts fit together
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means that there is potentially a bigger, if implied, narrative attached to each
small segment.
The wedding narrative proliferates. We are frequently exposed to
weddings and their associated images and plot variations in newspaper and
magazine articles, stage productions, television shows (documentaries,
‘reality’ programs, and fictional ones), motion pictures, songs, pictorial art,
novels, and various other texts. The use of wedding references in poems thus
engages the reader with an existing set of widespread and well-known social
and cultural practices that constitute the trace of the archetypal wedding story,
from courtship through to honeymoon, with various stops between.
A stock of wedding motifs links to parts of that larger story, enabling
short forms of writing such as the lyric poem to convey a great deal of
information with only brief and sometimes indirect references to it, especially
since the reader is likely to make the connection to the larger narrative
template to which they belong. A poem that mentions a wedding proposal
immediately (if temporarily) conjures the possibility of that proposal being
rejected, for instance, introducing the dramatic suspense of that particular
decision as a plot point in the wedding story.
The narrative function of contemporary lyric poems is actually a vital
aspect of their operation, because readers normally use (and expect to use)
language as a sense-making device. Language is a tool for pattern-making
within a network of word meanings, and the lyric poem is inextricably bound
up with that practice. The lyric wedding poem illustrates that function at
work.
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METHODOLOGICAL ISSUES
One issue in this study has been to decide on the extent of poetry to survey.
The robustness and applicability of findings might be questioned, for instance,
were they derived from only a few poems rather than from a large group. My
approach, therefore, needs to be explained.
Vladimir Propp’s work on the narrative structure in Russian wonder
tales (Morphology of the Folktale, 1968) operates inductively, examining an
extensive collection of stories in order to draw conclusions. Arguably, his task
is feasible due to the relatively manageable size of his subject population, one
already largely identified and classified (Bordwell 1988, p. 6). Roland Barthes
prefers a deductive approach, arguing that one might determine a great deal
from a very small sample. In examining structures of narrative generally, he
dismisses Propp’s method simply because of the magnitude of the latter’s
task. There are thousands of languages and an infinite number of narratives,
he argues, and still a vast number of stories evident within even a single
genre, making the strategy of studying all cases within any such class
effectively impossible (Barthes 1977, p. 81). Consequently, Barthes uses a
hypothetical model to study a small sample of cases in order to identify
variances, and to then allow refinement of the model (Barthes 1977, p. 81).
The decision then was whether I should study a handful of poems or cast my
net much more widely.
The population of contemporary wedding poems has not, to my
knowledge, been surveyed before. An argument might be mounted based on a
moderately sized sample but an important difficulty is that poetic references to
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weddings are often hard to locate without reading the whole of a given poem.
The titles of poems do not reliably indicate such content, suggesting that one
would need to read a lot of poetry in order to obtain a worthwhile sample,
which proved to be the case. As it happened, about half of the surveyed books
of poems contained at least one poem with a wedding reference, and some
included several; a high frequency when one considers a normal tendency to
vary subject matter within a single volume of poems. Purposeful collection of
contemporary poems with wedding references ceased when I had identified
about 300 of them. By that point, the further wedding references being
discovered were no longer significantly different in their treatment from those
already encountered.
In Chapter 2, I discuss my motivation for undertaking this project
before looking at the development of the traditional wedding poem, the
epithalamium. The chapter then focuses on the nature of the lyric poem and of
narrative, an essential preliminary to any argument about wedding poetry.
Intrinsic to this is a consideration of the contemporary place of poetry,
acknowledging that there are opposing views about its relevance and the way
in which it is read. For example, there is some reluctance to theorise about
poetry and to analyse its techniques, on the basis that this relinquishes regard
for it as a mystical art directly tapping into a primal aspect of human
existence. We see this tension even in the comments of established poets who
write extensively on the nature and technical aspects of poetry, such as
Howard Nemerov, Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky and Charles Simic. But
what does happen when we are faced with a poem?
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The Role of the Reader
The relationship between the poem and the reader is a vital one. How does a
reader attempt to make sense of a poem, and how does our understanding of
this process inform the art of writing contemporary poetry? The perfect reader
does not exist, and while we may imagine a common one, that person is
necessarily an assemblage of the many (DeMaria 1978, p. 464—see also Eco
1979, pp. 7-10; Fish 1980a, pp. 322-337; and, Kertzer 2004, p. 2).
Writing is a speculative undertaking, and there is always the likelihood
of slippage between poet and reader. One way of reducing this is to use
anchoring devices such as references to widely understood and experienced
social events, like weddings. But having some gaps is desirable—and, in fact,
unavoidable. An author may choose to write plainly but also, as Aidan
Chambers says in relation to writing for children, to ‘leave gaps that the reader
must fill before the meaning can be complete’ (Chambers 1985, p. 46). The
lack of closure in a poem such as Matthew Sweeney’s ‘The Bridal Suite’
(1997, p. 5) may not weaken the narrative impulse at all since the poem’s
events link strongly to a known story template, instead leaving the reader to
speculate on a number of motivations and endings outside the poem.
Chapter 2 thus offers a deeper analysis of reader reception theory as it
informs the way in which a lyric poem exercises a narrative function.
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What is Wedding Poetry?
Chapter 2 also contemplates the nature of wedding poetry. Writing poetry to
celebrate weddings has a very long history and it continues as a part of
contemporary cultural and literary practice. References to wedding poems
date back almost three thousand years, fragments of some by Sappho
surviving from the seventh century B.C. (Jones 1930, p. 351; Tufte 1970, pp.
10-11). I consider the epithalamium (or epithalamion) in order to establish a
context for the contemporary form of wedding poem. The epithalamium, a
traditional and ancient form of wedding poem, is essentially a ritual poem of
celebration addressed to a newlywed couple (Tufte 1966, pp. 33-34).
Traditional epithalamia were quite formulaic, as Greene points out in his
analysis of Edmund Spenser’s ‘Epithalamion’ of 1595, which is arguably the
best known and most popular epithalamium in Western history (Greene 1957,
pp. 218-220). They enjoyed great popularity in the Middle Ages and the
Elizabethan era. Marvell, Donne, Jonson and Herrick, among others wrote
celebrated examples. Shakespeare included them in his plays, and comedies of
the era typically ended with them (Tufte 1970, 232).
In contemporary times, the epithalamium is less restricted by the old
conventions of order, treatment and form. Wedding poetry nowadays is
treated as virtually any poetry intended or adopted for reading at a wedding
ceremony or reception. Accordingly, I have taken a broad approach to
defining wedding poetry but with the essential criterion that the poem contains
an actual reference to a wedding.
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Defining Narrative and Story
It is important to understand what is meant by these terms, narrative and story.
We live immersed in narrative, which constitutes ‘a strategy for making our
world of experiences and desires intelligible’ (Branigan 1992, p. 1).
Storytelling is a fundamental practice: ‘to learn to speak is to learn to tell a
story’ (Le Guin 1989, p. 39). It underlies the very basics of our
communications: ‘a generalized and virtual narrativity inhabits every form of
organised discourse’ (Zumthor 1990, p. 36). Since storytelling is a basic
human desire and such a pervasive activity, any argument that ignores or
denies its existence in lyric poetry must be questioned.
Nonetheless, there is confusion about the function of narrative in lyric
poetry, as evidenced by disagreement, ambiguity and anomalies in various
commentators’ attempts at defining both narrative and lyric. Plato and
Aristotle agree that narrative constitutes a recital of events, though they differ
in their preferences for how it should be presented. A recent definition is that
‘a narrative is a story, whether told in prose or verse, involving events,
characters, and what the characters say and do’ (Abrams 2005, p. 181).
Scholes and Kellogg similarly require only a story and its teller,
distinguishing the lyric as a simpler utterance by a single voice that does not
refer to any event (1966, p. 4), and yet this would mean very few poems
would qualify as lyric since they do frequently allude to or report events. That
anomaly is a key issue discussed in Chapter 2.
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What is Narrative?
Defining narrative by analysing the unit components of story, such as its
depiction of events, is typical of a structuralist approach to literature.
Elements of structuralism are useful for considering the function of narrative
in poetry, especially if we combine them with aspects of reader reception
theory. Doing so compensates for structuralism’s relative neglect of reader
engagement with the text (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 10; Eagleton 1998, p. 116). It
recognises readers’ urge to interpret texts in terms of story, and that they fill in
narrative gaps by calling on their own knowledge and experiences. The latter
action involves readers referring to the typical stories with which they are
already acquainted. But how do these basic units combine to make a story,
and what does it mean for lyric poetry?
Structural theorist Tzvetan Todorov stresses that in a story there
should be causal transformation and that a text must show how a state of
equilibrium is disturbed and then restored:
An ideal narrative begins with a stable situation that some force will
perturb. From which results a state of disequilibrium; by the action of a
force directed in a converse direction, the equilibrium is re-established;
the second equilibrium is quite similar to the first, but the two are not
identical (1981, p. 51)
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The idea of story centring on correcting the disturbance of an existing
equilibrium (sometimes expressed as compensating for a lack or a loss) is a
widely held one. In the archetypal hero tale, for instance, a key character must
often right a wrong by performing a deed such as rescuing a vulnerable
member of the community, and this often ends with a wedding. That is
evident in Vladimir Propp’s analysis of Russian folk tales (1968, pp. 128-133)
and Joseph Campbell’s celebrated analysis of mythic stories, which proposes
the hero’s journey as a model based on ‘tribal ceremonies [that] serve to
translate the individual’s life-crises and life-deeds into classic, impersonal
forms’ (Campbell 1968, p. 283). Christopher Vogler (1992) draws on
Campbell’s work, promoting its use in Hollywood movie scriptwriting and his
hero’s journey model. Other theorists such as Tzvetan Todorov (1981, p. 51),
Edward Branigan (1992, pp. 4-5), and Gerald Prince (in Rimmon-Kenan
2002, p. 1) agree that a central concept of story is pursuing a correction when
some initial state of equilibrium is disturbed and must be restored. Their
arguments are raised for comment later in the thesis.
Two issues are bound together here. One is that recognising that the
passage of time in a text is important for whether we acknowledge the
presence of narrative, and this is equally true when we read poetry (Brooks
1984, p. XI). The other is that a meaningful causal relationship must exist
between those events across time. But how are these attributes to be evidenced
in a story? What are the essential requirements? Because story involves events
situated in time that are bounded by starting and ending points, it must also
imply periods before and after those although it does not directly represent
them. It must imply continuity of action in the gaps that occur within the
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period covered by the text, too; otherwise, there would be a series of unreal
discontinuities that would spoil its chronological verisimilitude. We need the
passage of time in order that the reader may impute motivation or intention,
and evaluate the outcome of events.
This potentially places even minimalist poetry within the scope of
narrative since story can be identified in a lyric poem whether or not the
passage of time and change indicated in the text is slight, and despite the fact
that it might be represented in a subtle or incomplete way (Genette 1976, p. 7;
Branigan 1992, p. 4). That which is missing from a plot, and can reasonably
be imputed as connecting to the world it presents, thus provides a rich
resource for poets. This corresponds with the distinction made in Russian
formalism between plot and story (syuzhet and fabula), that is, between how
the text presents elements of story and what the reader constructs from it
(Abrams 205, pp. 181, 266; Bordwell 1988, p. 11).
Plot does not operate fully until the reader comes to its aid (Block
1978, p. 163; Crosman 1983, p. 91). The causal relationship between events
depicted in poetry, and the reader’s role in constructing story, are therefore
vital aspects of considering the narrative at working lyric poetry. How
successfully a short poem conveys a sense of narrative partly depends on the
kind of story, and the size of the poem. The amount of information contained
in the poem and, therefore, its length, may be indicators of that success but the
causal relationship need not be explicit in order to qualify the poem as
exercising a narrative quality.
Again, a common and historically enduring story template used in this
way is that of the wedding, so when readers encounter brief references to the
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wedding process they are readily able to place them in the traditional sequence
of events that comprise a typical wedding. Of course, the reader also has to
care about the world of the text enough to want to discover what happens next
(Brooks 1984, p. 37). Together, the desire of the reader to fathom a poem and
a tendency to construct narrative in doing so means that the lyric poem can be
rewarding in narrative terms despite its brevity.
While there are theoretical differences regarding the role of the reader
and the power of the author (see, for instance, Fish 1980a and 1980b; Freund
1987; Iser 1989, p. 229), the transformative process enacted by the reader
when encountering a text is more important for the purposes of this thesis. As
Frank Kermode says, ‘the omniscient author leaves gaps in which the reader
must work for his own meanings’ (1990, p. 35), pointing to the partnership of
poet and reader when engaging with a lyric poem, especially if there is limited
and difficult narrative information. The task of maintaining reader desire in
that case can be a significant test of the poet’s skills. Chapter 2 elaborates on
this aspect of reading the lyric poem.
What is the Lyric Poem?
For centuries longer poetic forms such as the epic were regarded as superior to
the lyric. The lyric gained popularity from the late seventeenth century
(Jeffreys 1995, p. 198; Hirsch 1999, p. 16), to some extent mirroring the
emergence of a greater focus on the life of the individual and a greater
inclination to represent more complex, inner states of being (Abrams 2005, p.
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115). The rise of the novel as a narrative vehicle arguably contributed to the
decline of the long poem, also leaving more scope for the lyric (Gioia 1995,
Online).
As mentioned above, there is the curious position that the lyric is now
the ascendant form of contemporary poetry but without agreement about what
distinguishes it from narrative verse and the degree to which that distinction
can be sustained. The dominant approach is still to treat the two as inherently
separate, an oversimplification that does not do the lyric justice or reflect how
it is read.
The lyric has mostly been regarded as the brief and intimate utterance
of one voice, perhaps divinely inspired, revealing an individual’s inner state
(Heaney 1988, p. 92; Simic 1994, p. 112). It is also said to emphasise the
imagistic and musical qualities of language (Preminger 1965, p. 462; Ruf
1994, p. 805; Abrams 2005, p. 154). On the other hand, when assaying
narrative poetry, commentators often rely on a poem’s greater length,
pronounced meter, formal structure, and formulaic diction (Welsh 1978, pp.
20-21). Some others, still, are less restrictive in their outlook (Drury 1991, p.
169; Strand & Boland 2000, p. 139; Abrams 2005, p. 181), acknowledging
that some narrative and lyric attributes may exist in a single poem, but this
view is uncommon. Differences in the way that readers engage with lyric
poetry—recognising its often faster pacing, sharp tension, and different means
of closure (or lack thereof) —must also be considered (Opie 1983, p. ix;
Strand & Boland 2000, p. 139). Closure is a key issue as it shifts the emphasis
away from issues of poetic language and form, raising the possibility that the
dynamics of a reader’s involvement with the poem are themselves significant.
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The continuing and wide disagreement in this area is important
because it indicates the difficulty of establishing a harmonious position on the
narrative function in lyric poetry. Few definitions match the actual range and
capability of the contemporary lyric poem well, though Abrams’ definition
(2005, p. 153) may come closest, as Chapter 2 explains.
The Narrative in the Lyric
The central issue of this thesis is whether a narrative function exists within
contemporary lyric poetry, yet Chapter 2 also considers the way in which the
narrative instant operates within a particular single photograph. The chosen
image shows a man snapped as he steps into the air above a vast puddle, the
picture pivoting on his decision to make that leap. The moment is suspended;
neither precisely of the past or the future, yet belonging to both. The future
that awaits him is clearer given that we know he decided to jump, or is it?
This photograph mirrors the power of the lyric poem in using narrative.
The decision point, so beloved of narrative (and wedding stories), can
be fruitfully exploited in lyric poetry precisely because it conjures notions of
both the past and the future outside the immediate moment of the poem, and
also of the deeper but unrevealed depths of the characters’ actions. It offers a
wider sweep of events than those directly depicted in the text because the
reader sees that they are logically connected to it and can be brought into
consideration. In fact, it is often difficult to avoid doing so.
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Chapter 2 ends by considering how, though its effectiveness ultimately
depends on the reader (Brooks 1984, p. xiv), lyric’s narrative authority stems
from the poet and the underlying unity of his or her vision and also the
drawing together of all the elements of the literary work.
Analysing Selected Poems
The subsequent chapters apply the earlier findings to a variety of
contemporary lyric poems that employ wedding references. In Chapter 3,
these are poems written by other authors and, in Chapter 4, a selection of my
own poems. These last are drawn from a collection, The Floating Bride,
written for this thesis, and which is attached as its creative component.
Collectively, the surveyed poems written by other poets represent all
of the key stages from courtship through to the honeymoon, but individually
they tend to deal with just one part of this sequence, and generally in a
straightforward way. The bride and the gown are the most common
references, with the bride usually presented in a traditional manner. Death or
some other threat of loss is often mentioned to create dramatic tension, and
Chapter 3 considers the further implications of overlapping an occasion of
celebration with one of mourning and sorrow.
Six of the surveyed poems, ranging from just three lines to several
pages in length, are discussed in detail, some of them revolving around
matters of loss or death. The analysis includes discussing the way a brief form
of poetry such as the haiku and the ghazal can use its very limited content to
26
convey a story, and how Imagist poetry achieves a similar result. The role of
the reader is again crucial here, as haiku poet Cor van den Heuvel remarks:
‘To see what is suggested by a haiku, the reader must share in the creative
process, being willing to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the
words’ (van den Heuvel 1999, pp. xv-xvi). As Wolfgang Iser says, ‘it is only
by activating the reader’s imagination that the author can hope to involve him
and so realize the intentions of the text’ (1980, p. 57).
The narrative tension created in each of the six closely read poems is
evaluated, with particular attention given to the creation of story momentum
and to the poem’s reference to that typical narrative device, the decisive
moment, or ‘hinge-point’ (Barthes 1977, p. 93). One key poem in this respect
is Matthew Sweeney’s ‘The Bridal Suite’, about an abandoned groom, which
begins in media res—after one critical decisive moment (the bride’s
disappearance) and before another (the groom’s own departure). As evident in
this poem, narrative is characterised by causal links between events, and by
shaping plot around a situation in which there is a need to compensate for
disorder or to overcome a loss of some kind. Chapter 3’s analysis shows how
these characteristics can operate in the lyric.
A common aspect of the featured poems is that, despite each poem
dealing with a relatively short lapse of time, the larger and complete story of
the wedding from which they are drawn always looms over them. The
significance of their subject matter is greatly contingent on the reader’s
understanding of how the action and concerns conveyed in the brief poem are
situated in that greater story. These poems show that a lyric can tell a story of
27
complexity even when it is brief, especially with the aid of a collaborative
reader.
Chapter 4 extends the previous chapter’s discussion of the formulated
ideas of lyric expression by applying them to wedding poems selected from
the collection that was written specifically for this thesis. Those poems vary
greatly in length and in the degree of realism of depiction, changing the
demands made upon the reader while continuing to demonstrate the narrative
function at work within the lyric. The analysis includes epithalamia and antiepithalamia (the latter a warning about impending nuptials), other poems that
employ the wedding gown and groom’s suit as surrogates for human
characters, and poems with darker concerns.
My collection shows how the reader engaged with a lyric poem is
implicated in constructing a story framework, even if the narrative has a very
subtle presence. I should add that the collection is intended to stand on its own
feet as well, that is, without attachment to the particular concerns of the
exegesis. It revolves around aspects of a cultural practice with which most of
will have a lot of exposure, in real life or in artistic depiction (in literature,
visual art, stage performances, TV shows, or motion pictures, etc.), and on
which we are bound to have an opinion as an expressive rite within a social
custom, the wedding as a gateway to marriage. As a result, I feel the material
will find a knowing and interested audience. It also represents a novelty since,
though anthologies of poems to be read at weddings are rife, collections of
original poetry embracing this theme seem rare—indeed, I could not find a
whole book of its kind.
28
Relationship between Research and Writing Practice
This project has involved both research and creative writing, and the two
aspects have been interwoven throughout. I had particular aims for the
creative writing component of the thesis (outlined in Chapter 2), that went
beyond preparing a collection of wedding poems. These principally involved
seeing what kind of interplay the creative writing would have with the
research aspect of the project (how one would feed into the other), and how I
could achieve my objective of making something new in the poetry that would
comprise the collection. Another major aspect was my more general aim of
discovery, that is, to see what might be revealed that I had not anticipated at
all. In that way, I would be treating the thesis as an open path with new
possibilities for exploration.
In Chapter 4 is a reflective section that reviews the process of
undertaking the whole thesis and its effect on my own work as a writing
practitioner. I address the implications that undertaking this thesis has had for
me for me as a practicing writer. In essence, it has raised aspects of my own
writing praxis and a continual search for originality, the quest for writing what
others have not written, as well as the distribution of a personal poetics
throughout my creative and critical work rather than being contained in a
summary statement (Sheppard 2009, pp. 3-26). That is to say, my poetics are
inevitably constituted in the whole of my output and not an individual
statement or manifesto. The lack of a neat document of that kind (recognising
that one’s understanding of artistic activity is continually evolving) is actually
29
not problematic. It complements what James Longenbach refers to in our
engagement with poetry when he says, ‘Poems show us how it feels to like
troouble’ (Longenbach 2004, p. 94). A tidy solution is not always desirable.
SUMMARY
It is a gross simplification to define contemporary lyric poetry in a way that
denies it a narrative function, as has been routine. Storytelling is manifest in
daily acts of making sense of how we live, and is arguably an essential
characteristic of language use. It is a key human tendency that equips us better
to communicate with one another and it is just as indigenous to lyric poetry,
even though its traces may sometimes be fainter, as it is to other forms of
textual communication.
A poem might be said to show narrative qualities even when it is very
brief and personal, sometimes through quite deliberate reliance on the reader
completing the text by invoking her own knowledge of human behaviour, rites
of passage and social practices. Charles Simic’s claim that the prose poem
may just be the ‘most outrageous example’ of lyric poetry (1994, p. 118),
underlines that different types of poetry share some attributes rather than
always being neatly separated. The remainder of this thesis expands on the
argument indicated above to show that the lyric poem operates in a narrative
mode as part of the basic process of making meaning through language.
Two central notions in this study have been those of resistance and of
spaces, or gaps, and each can be regarded in different ways. Resistance is
30
contemplated as the extent of argument over what constitutes the lyric, and the
unlikelihood of harmonious resolution there. It is also considered as the
poem’s unwillingness to divulge all (or too much too soon), since the pleasure
of discovery in reading would then be lost. Allied to this second facet of
resistance is the way that the lyric poem uses narrative gaps, and how the
reader must work in these to create a fuller sense of the story suggested in the
text. That work is, in a real sense, conducted in a space that lives outside the
text but which is as necessary as the writer’s creative mind to bringing the
poem to life. It is push and pull, tension and release, and the stage on which
that little drama of reading is conducted is the lyric poem.
31
CHAPTER 2:
SETTING COORDINATES
…to tell and listen to stories
is a biological function
Umberto Eco 2006, p. 246
32
INTRODUCTION
Contemporary lyric poetry performs a narrative function that is generally
unacknowledged despite often being central to its effectiveness. My response
to this apparent failure to adequately recognise a storytelling role has been to
undertake a number of specific activities. I read relevant theoretical works
about poetry and narrative, the better to examine numerous poems by other
poets, and I both wrote and analysed a poetry collection of my own. The
poetry by other writers that I chose and the body of my own poems, The
Floating Bride, relate to weddings. In this chapter, I describe my own
motivation for undertaking the project, explain some of the underlying
definitions and theoretical tools employed in my analysis, and outline my
argument. I believe that this project confirms my claim of a vital narrative
function at work in contemporary lyric poetry.
I am aware there is continuing debate about the nature and place of
contemporary poetry and how it engages with writers and readers both in
academia and at large. For example, poet and critic Dana Gioia’s influential
article ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ (1991) and his subsequent writings have fostered
much discussion, as has Joan Houlihan in her scathing articles in The Boston
Comment (2003, Online) under the banner, ‘How Contemporary American
Poets are Denaturing the Poem’. There is ongoing friction over the basis and
even the need for connecting poetic practice with a theoretical underpinning
(see Koethe 1991, Online; Harrison 2003, Online). Emblematic of that
difficulty if not resistance to discuss it is Howard Nemerov’s remark that,
33
‘The poetic attempt to say the world… is perhaps a matter altogether too
mysterious to be talked about’ (1972, p. 3). That outlook becomes evident
when we consider the definition of lyric poetry and discover reluctance to give
up a view of the craft of poetry as a mystical art.
In subsequent chapters, I expand on this initial discussion by
commenting on the ideas of poets and theorists that connect back to the
material here. The rest of this chapter sets coordinates for that future
discussion of specific poems towards a conclusion about the nature of lyric
poetry and its capacity to exercise a narrative function, as evidenced through
wedding poetry in particular.
WHY POETRY? WHY WEDDINGS?
I have been a practising poet for more than forty years. I also write short
fiction and nonfiction prose, and longer nonfiction, and I have the requisite
draft novels stored about the house, but my chief interest is in contemporary
poetry. One aspect of how a poem ‘works’ that has continued to niggle at me
is how a narrative function is triggered and performed in the moment when
the poem becomes a meeting point for writer and reader. Although a narrative
function has largely been denied or ignored in lyric poetry, much of it does
tell a story—even when its narrative quality might seem understated,
indistinct or, oddly enough, seemingly absent. This matter goes to the heart of
how we engage with poetry. What happens when we are faced with a poem?
(Stanley Fish has some interesting things to say regarding whether the text
makes the reader or vice versa, and how a poem is to be identified, as I will
34
discuss.) How does a reader attempt to make sense of a poem, and how does
our understanding of this process inform the art of writing contemporary
poetry?
These riddles pushed me to examine my own writing practices and,
further, to reconsider how I act as a reader when coming to the poetry of
others. I found these issues emphasised a few years ago when I was reading
books of traditional Japanese haiku alongside their contemporary Western
equivalents, poems normally no more than three lines long. Despite their
brevity, these sometimes do display clear elements of storytelling. How is this
possible? How could a story be constituted in a mere handful of words? The
answer lies as much in what the reader brings to the process as in the poem’s
inherent ‘data’, the reader responding to the poem as a package of both
obvious and less transparent information, which may be dressed with prompts
and clues to look beyond the poem itself. I wrote conference papers as early
reports on my research and thinking on such matters (Evans, 2003 and 2004).
Poetry can be one of the least direct forms of communication. Though it
sometimes wears its heart on its sleeve, poetry can be coyly oblique, even
reticent. It frequently employs figurative language devices such as
exaggeration, metaphor, simile, metonymy and synecdoche not just for the
pleasure of those techniques but to take the longer road to its destination. In
fact, taken together, these characteristics are what could be said to distinguish
poetry from other writing. They are not unique to poetry but are more
concentrated in it. Poetry is capable of being very enigmatic; it can speak in
other voices, say what it does not mean, and be ironic. The author of a poem
may choose to disguise or understate the information value of the words and
35
their intertextual relationships, including connections with cultural practices
and matters of identity construction, among other things. A literalist, someone
disposed to the most efficient means of communicating information, would
prefer less art and more directness—and should look elsewhere. Poetry may
employ delay and sly approaches, something that it shares with storytelling,
enjoying the process rather than rushing to an end. Theorist James
Longenbach argues for the value of resistance in the poem, in its deferral of
revelation in order to provide reading pleasure (2004, p. 97), and I will return
to his views in Chapter 2. Similarly, acclaimed poet Josephine Jacobsen says:
The essence of poetry is the unique view—the unguessed relationship,
suddenly manifest. Poetry’s eye is always aslant, oblique…Poetic vision
doesn’t see things head on. The poet’s angle of perception is not like
any other. Emily Dickinson said it best: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it
slant'’ (Jacobsen in Smith 1998, Online).
Poetry is not as single-mindedly instructive as, say, a dishwasher
manual. The delight of poetry is frequently in its sideways approach and its
capacity for surprise. That lack of transparency and of plain-language
utterance may not always be the result of deliberate playfulness, though; other
barriers may exist between the poet and reader. For a start, the poet creates the
poem as a transmission directed at a future and probably unknown reader:
A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue,
can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly
36
hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land,
on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense are under way; they are
making toward something (Paul Celan in Hirsch 2002, Online).
How does the poet know that the reader will be competent to decode
and appreciate the nuances imbedded in the poem, and understand it as the
author intended? A ‘perfect’ and completely predictable interpretation might
actually be unnerving and undesirable, but that outcome is unlikely. A poet’s
ability to communicate is governed not only by the extent of her own
knowledge and skills, but also by her reader’s similar limitations. A natural
breach or mismatch may then arise between the writer’s work and the reader’s
ability to interpret it. Assumptions about what differentiates diverse kinds of
reader and what might constitute an ideal one are implicit (if subconscious) in
the writer’s work, but there is no perfect reader: ‘no real individual or class of
individuals understands things precisely as the common reader does’
(DeMaria 1978, p. 464; see also Eco 1979, pp. 7-10, and Kertzer 2004, p. 2).
Therefore, whatever a poem carries to ensure its success as a tool of artistic
communication with an audience rests to a large degree on finding common
ground with an implied reader. Again we can look to Stanley Fish (1980a) in
relation to notions of shared experience and interpretative strategies, as I will
do later.
Theorist and children’s writer Aidan Chambers says that an author
needs a reader and, consciously or not, ‘creates a relationship with a reader in
order to discover the meaning of the text’ (1985, pp. 36-37). He cites
Wolfgang Iser’s comment that form can be defined as ‘a means of
37
communication or as a negotiation of insight’ (Iser 1974, p. 57), remarking
also that an author may choose to write plainly or to ‘leave gaps that the
reader must fill before the meaning can be complete’ (Chambers 1985, p. 46).
Apart from what we might see in an author’s choices of literary style, ‘we can
also detect from a writer’s references to a variety of things just what he
assumes about his implied reader’s beliefs, politics, social customs, and the
like’ (1985, p. 47). This is consistent, too, with the authorial inclusion of
references to one or two signal aspects of wedding rites as a kind of shorthand
for the larger series of events. Chambers reminds us that the act of telling
‘every story of any kind whatever, by the very nature of Story, is told by more
than one storyteller’ (1985, p. 61); that a story necessarily involves a writer, a
narrator, and a reader. A poem, too, is the instrument of an asynchronous
dialogue between the poet and reader, the site of a speculative process in
which the reader is always implicated.
So, to reiterate, as I was reading short poetry I pondered the compact
between author and reader and the nature of their engagement with the poem.
How does a poet satisfy the need to be original in a short poem while also
maximising reader engagement, that is, without adversely distancing the
reader? The answer stems in part from the synoptic nature of lyric poetry and
the reader’s ability to compensate by filling in its gaps. In particular, I was
intrigued by the latent power of lyric poetry to exercise a narrative function,
an interest that was further prompted by two other, related factors. One
emerged from my personal life, and the other from a specific poem.
The first extra element is that when I was in my early 40s I found
myself courting and then marrying. Suddenly, I was intimately involved in all
38
the steps of the traditional wedding process. More than would otherwise be
usual, I began to notice the frequency with which motion pictures, television
shows, and stage performances use weddings as a key part of their plot
structures. Even television advertising hooks its carriage to the wedding train,
with one advertisement showing several Aussie blokes initially watching
football on TV, then leaving the lounge-room and discovering their friend
trying on the wedding gown of his bride-to-be. The popularity of the wedding
partly reflects wishful thinking, a romantic inclination that desires a happy
outcome for a love story whatever the obstacles: ‘our culture, when it comes
to love, is essentially a honeymoon culture’ (Bazzano 2003, p. 8). This is a
longstanding impulse; for instance, Shakespeare’s romantic comedies often
end with a wedding.
As clichéd as wedding references may be at times, they are still widely
used. The allusion to a type of narrative that is commonly experienced or
known, such as the rites of passage associated with weddings, very efficiently
establishes shared knowledge. This was exploited in C.J. Dennis’s well known
extended poem covering courtship and marriage, The Sentimental Bloke, of
1915. The arc of the wedding story has several readily identifiable stages—
courtship, proposal, wedding ceremony, reception, and honeymoon—and it
also has a host of stock characters. It is perfectly suited to use in lyric poetry,
where the merest detail could suffice to alert a reader to the likely (if
unspecified) setting, characters, and normally expected plot outcomes.
The second additional element was encountering Matthew Sweeney’s
poem, ‘The Bridal Suite’ (1997, p. 5; and Appendix 3), which exemplifies the
notion of the compact between poet and reader. Its protagonist is stuck in a
39
mystery that he cannot solve. He has just married and his new bride is missing
from their hotel honeymoon suite; neither he nor the reader has any idea why.
This poem challenges because it situates the action in the immediate postwedding period (thus, obviously if tacitly referencing that ceremony) but it
withholds information that would seem to be critical to the reader’s clear
understanding of the depicted events. The reader implicitly identifies with the
groom through shared ignorance about the thoughts, motives and whereabouts
of the bride, but this means a gap in knowledge. With so much information
missing, how then can it successfully convey a sense of narrative?
Sweeney’s poem succeeds because it is built around readers’
knowledge of customary social practice, in this case the stages of the wedding
ritual, and because the bride’s absence runs contrary to normal expectations.
These two aspects allow the author to exploit readers’ awareness of the social
and emotional implications of the situation as well as their inclination to sense
the dramatic potential of the events. The reader understands the kind of
proceedings that would have lead up to the honeymoon and also feels the
weight of expectation that falls upon a newlywed couple. Any number of
reasons for the bride’s departure may then start to form in the reader’s mind.
The lack of any one particular and suitable explanation being offered in the
poem actually serves to reinforce the sense of bewilderment of the groom, and
the lack of specific disclosure is principally why the poem intrigues. Though it
denies resolution and an explicit understanding of causal links, and thus one
of the tenets of narrative, it effectively mirrors the protagonist’s situation. This
short poem highlights the ability of a poet to exploit reader familiarity with a
specific context and, particularly, to present an effective narrative text without
40
actually having to detail all of the inherent steps. The narrative may not be
closed but, even with multiple interpretations pending, it serves to tell a story.
I will return to this exemplary poem later for closer analysis.
By this stage, then, I had three motivators: an existing interest in
contemporary poetry, including curiosity about the relatively powerful
potential of even quite short lyric poems to convey a story; a personal
background involving my own wedding, which inspired awareness of the
wedding trope as a specific instance of narrative; and an encounter with a
short wedding poem that seemed to effectively illustrate the narrative potential
of lyric poetry despite deliberately withholding information. The conjunction
of these three key aspects intrigued me sufficiently to investigate further.
At this stage, I wish to deal with some issues of definition regarding
wedding poetry, narrative, and lyric poetry. This will establish the basic
argument about narrative in lyric poetry before I demonstrate its function in
the poetry of other authors and then to the development of my own poetry
collection, The Floating Bride, in later chapters.
WHAT IS WEDDING POETRY?
One form of wedding poetry that comes readily to mind is the epithalamium
(or epithalamion). Literally meaning at the edge of the marriage chamber—
from the Greek: epi ‘upon’ + thalamos ‘bridal chamber’—or even the bed, but
usually interpreted to mean at its door (Tufte 1966, pp. 33-34), the
epithalamium is essentially a celebratory address sung to a newlywed couple.
41
It has been described as ‘a ritualistic public statement, unconcerned with the
actual intimate experience undergone by individuals’ (Greene 1957, p. 221),
as a ‘poem or oration celebrating a wedding, real or fictional’ (Tufte 1966, p.
33), and more simply as ‘a poem written to celebrate a marriage’ (Abrams
2005, p. 86). With beginnings as a kind of ‘folk song in the pre-history of
literature, the epithalamium is rooted in fertility rites and dramas of generation
and death, out of which the great modes of comedy and tragedy probably
developed’ (Tufte 1970, p. 256).
References to wedding poems date back to Homer’s Iliad and original
examples are also traceable to Greece in around the eighth century B.C., with
fragments by Sappho surviving from near the end of the following century.
Some scholars also cite the Bible’s Song of Solomon and Psalm 45 as
comparable works (Jones 1930, p. 351; Tufte 1970, pp. 10-11; Welsford 1967,
p. 180; and, more generally, Wheeler 1930, p. 210).
Traditional epithalamia were typically formulaic. One of the early
masters of the form in the classical era was Catullus, whose works include
three longer poems about weddings, carmina 61, 62 and 64. The first of these
was frequently taken as a model for later epithalamists to follow (Greene
1957, p. 218). Epithalamia were classified and the number of their parts were
dictated, usually in relation to stages of the wedding day such as the wedding,
feast, procession and bridal retreat. The scope and order of the subject matter
were also proscribed, as well as how the bride and groom should be praised
(Greene 1957, pp. 218-220; Hieatt 1960, p. 78; Tufte 1970, pp. 132, 155;
Wheeler 1930, p. 205). Among these recommendations was that the bride and
groom be compared to natural elements, including plants and flowers.
42
Epithalamia were expected to support the institution of marriage and the
doctrine of increase, and comparisons with the natural order were intended
both to underline the importance of the wedding as a promise of fertility, and
to reinforce the value of family as a sign of harmony in the universe (Tufte
1966, p. 39 and 1970, pp. 14, 130, 136; Welsford 1967, p. 201; Wheeler 1930,
pp. 211-212).
Epithalamia enjoyed a boom in the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan
era: Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick and others
produced celebrated examples; Shakespeare, as I have mentioned, imbedded
them in his plays; and comedies customarily ended with ‘a wedding and
shaking of hands—and frequently with an epithalamium as well’ (Tufte 1970,
232). Probably the best known example in the English language is Edmund
Spenser’s ‘Epithalamion’, first published in 1595 and thought to be a hymn to
his wife, Elizabeth. This intricate poem in 24 parts has been considered as a
chronological trace of a whole wedding day and its various stages. This is not
an uncommon form; Ben Jonson wrote an epithalamium structured in the
same way (Hieatt 1960, p. 77). Certainly, Spenser’s work has excited
admiration and close study. A. Kent Hieatt (1960) even argues that numerical
analysis of its structure exposes an underlying symbolic message concerning
the seasons and mankind’s connection through devoted love to the immortal
truths. At least this underlines the significance that can be accorded the
organisation of formal poetry. Spenser’s ‘Epithalamion’ maintained the then
standing practice of classical allusion, with references to Greek gods, and also
followed convention in the ordering of its subject material but it did introduce
a difference, through its joyous focus on sensual and other personal pleasures
43
of the people associated with the wedding rather than a primary concern with
praising the institution of marriage itself (Neuse 1968, p. 48; Tufte 1966, p. 39
and 1970, p. 161). This extended a theme already indicated in his earlier
‘Amoretti’ courtship poems, which are seen as logically contiguous with the
‘Epithalamion’ (Lever in McLean, p. 635).
It is drawing a long bow to say that epithalamia always adhered
strictly to a fixed design, however, or that they should do so. Epithalamia
originally emerged as songs for only one stage of the wedding, the couple’s
withdrawal to the bridal chamber, rather than encompassing the preceding
feast and procession. One could argue then that the dictates of the rhetoricians
should have been more loosely applied. Even in Sappho’s time, the term
epithalamia covered ‘several kinds of wedding songs’ (Tufte 1966, p. 33).
Indeed, wedding poems in Spenser’s day did not have to strictly follow
dictates of content or structure or allusion: ‘not all poems for weddings were
epithalamia, and…not all the poems entitled “Epithalamion” fitted strictly into
the convention’ (Greene 1957, p. 215). The dominance of formulae did not
stop poets exercising their imagination: ‘Epithalamia had long been rhetorical
playthings for poets’ (Tufte 1970, p. 155).
I have not restricted my analysis to poems that align with the older and
quite proscribed notions of epithalamia. To call my subject material wedding
poems is convenient shorthand for poetry that might concentrate on a wedding
but which could equally make a powerful but outwardly slight connection
with weddings. My objective is not merely to examine poems that are
primarily about weddings but also those that may use a wedding reference for
other, perhaps even subsidiary, reasons. This approach arises naturally
44
because my concern is with the use of wedding references in poetry rather
than with the epithalamium, as such, which is merely one expression of
wedding poetry. I would not leave this section, however, without mentioning
that in tracing epithalamia back to antiquity, it becomes clear that writing
poetry to celebrate weddings is a longstanding practice, one that also meshes
with and reflects contemporaneous cultural practice as it depicts human
behaviour.
Wedding poetry in contemporary times is relatively unrestricted. An
epithalamium now might be about almost any poem dealing with a wedding.
A common epithalamium now is the earnest ditty to be found in books with
material specifically collated for weddings, as in this example:
Wedding Day
This day of days
Your separate ways
Become one.
This ring, this vow,
Tell you that now
A new life’s begun.
Two roads converging
Then, finally merging
Under the sun.
45
Good luck holding
A future unfolding
That can’t be undone.
(Lomas 2004, p. 14).
This is sentimental and rather crude work, much like the wedding day
poem written by celebrity actor Bec Cartwright for her own wedding
reception (Cartwright 2005, Online), and which received considerable
publicity. There is a demand for such commemorative verse, whatever the
quality. The editor of Poems for All Occasions, Ron Pretty (2002), remarks
that people were ‘constantly coming in to Collected Works [a specialist poetry
bookshop in Melbourne] looking for poems to read, not only at funerals, but
also at weddings and christenings and memorials…all those moments in
human affairs, those rites of passage’ (2002, p. 4).
DEFINING NARRATIVE AND STORY
I have used the terms ‘narrative’ and ‘lyric poetry’ so far as if they were
capable of straightforward interpretation and distinction, but that is not so.
Since my intention is to examine how narrative functions in lyric poetry, it is
central to consider what each of these terms means, beginning with narrative.
46
Firstly, though there is the matter of why narrative is considered
important. To say that narration created humanity is a large claim but several
theorists and writers have said as much:
Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that
we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell,
all of which are reworked in that story of our own lives…We live
immersed in narrative (Brooks 1984, p. 3).
Structural theorist Edward Branigan (1992, p. 1) says ‘narrative has
existed in every known human society…it seems to be everywhere:
sometimes active and obvious, at other times fragmentary, dormant, and
tacit…Making narratives is a strategy for making our world of experiences
and desires intelligible’. Philosopher Arthur Danto (1985, p. xiii) says:
‘Narration exemplifies one of the basic ways in which we represent the world,
and the language of beginnings and endings, of turning points and climaxes, is
complicated with this mode of representation to so great a degree that our
image of our own lives must be deeply narrational’. A more forceful way of
putting it is to say that, ‘a generalized and virtual narrativity inhabits every
form of organised discourse’ (Zumthor 1990, p. 36), or, as writer Ursula Le
Guin remarks: ‘Narrative is a central function of language. Not, in origin, an
artifact of culture, an art, but a fundamental operation of the normal mind
functioning in society. To learn to speak is to learn to tell a story’ (Le Guin
1989, p. 39).
47
Oddly, while the importance of narrative seems undisputed, there is
some disagreement over what it actually is. A plain definition is that ‘a
narrative is a story, whether told in prose or verse, involving events,
characters, and what the characters say and do’ (Abrams 2005, p. 181). Robert
Scholes and Robert Kellogg (1966, p. 4) offer something that appears initially
similar: ‘By narrative we mean all those literary works which are
distinguished by two characteristics: the presence of a story and a story-teller’.
They then extend the definition, tracing a continuum from lyric to narrative,
but in a way that suggests an anomaly:
A lyric, like a drama, is a direct presentation, in which a single actor, the
poet or his surrogate, sings, or muses, or speaks for us to hear or
overhear. Add a second speaker…and we move towards drama. Let the
speaker begin to tell of an event…and we move towards narrative. For
writing to be narrative no more and no less than a teller and a tale are
required (Scholes & Kellogg 1966, p. 4).
This is ambiguous if not simply contradictory, suggesting either that when
elements of story are included in an erstwhile lyric poem it ceases to be a
lyric, or that the lyric poem is capable of showing narrative characteristics by
telling a tale. There is obviously a definitional problem when attempting to
distinguish lyric and narrative.
Gérard Genette (1976, p. 1) initially defines narrative ‘simply as the
representation of a real or fictitious event or series of events by language, and
more specifically by written language’, but he then explains the limitations of
48
such a basic approach. A narrated account is equivalent to an act of speech but
is always restricted to telling; it can only be an imperfect imitation of its
subject (1976, p. 3). In addition, using a character to narrate introduces
subjectivity, Gennette says, because it invites interpretation of a previously
unannounced internal life that is attached to details of the story (p. 6).
Although narration is seldom uncontaminated in these ways, that aspect is not
at issue in my study. It is enough for my purposes to acknowledge the broad
basis of definition that Genette posits before he delves into the matters of
mimesis and narratorial identity.
Attempts to settle on a definition often resort to aspects of textual
structure, though the structuralist school of theory holds no consistent line
regarding the essential components of narrative and their sequencing. Its
approach is sometimes attacked for treating narrative as basically an
aggregation of story units and not something that relies on active engagement
with a text in order to produce meaning (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 10; Eagleton 1998,
p. 116), and other approaches have flowered in its wake: ‘Structuralism…in
turn gives rise to post-structuralism, deconstruction, and a resurgence of
interest in phenomenology and hermeneutics; mainly because of its
limitations’ (Rankin 2002, Online). Despite this criticism, I feel there are
elements of the structuralist approach that can be fruitful in considering the
function of narrative, as I will explain.
We must consider another implicit thread here, and that is time. As
Brooks (1984, p. XI) says, ‘narrative is one of the large categories or systems
of understanding that we use in our negotiations with reality,
specifically…with the problem of temporality: man’s time-boundedness, his
49
consciousness of existence within the limits of mortality’. This moves the
argument about narrative as a tool for comprehension and ordering
information to another level since it stresses the underlying requirement to
acknowledge story as involving change and thus the passage of time.
This multiplicity of theoretical approaches highlights consensus about
the importance of narrative, its saturating presence, and the implications for
the way that we tell stories even in relatively minimal texts. Though these
various statements differ in breadth and focus, most of them foreground
interpretation and our natural endeavour to make sense; they tell us that
narrative is a human concept. They agree that narrative is pervasive both as an
artistic artefact and as a tool for living; it is a basic human desire. The nature
and definition of narrative has occupied theorists and practitioners for
thousands of years because it is intrinsically bound up with how we perceive
life and our place in it.
Plato and Aristotle have distinctly different preferences for narrative
and dramatic presentations but agree that narrative constitutes a recital of
events (diegesis), such as the details of an historical incident, and that this
differs from drama (mimesis), which is imitative, such as in a presentation of
those same events by actors speaking or performing in character. That
distinction highlights the function of dramatisation in bringing to life the
details of a story, but it also indicates a need to clarify the particular sense in
which the word ‘narrative’ is employed in this study.
I am less concerned at this point with whether a story is told in
character (its lexis, or manner of speech) than with its substance (the logos, or
what is said). My focus is essentially on whether a given body of words
50
conforms to the idea of a story in the first place—but that introduces an
unwelcome oversimplification. Considering content alone and ignoring the
mode of delivery could create difficulty since one is inherently linked with the
other; a story may be conveyed through alternating narration and
dramatisation, for example. Indeed, maintaining that distinction between
narration and dramatisation, with the notion that the former is somehow
merely objective recital and devoid of performance, is itself fraught. Even
slight variation in narrative description exposes a ‘position’, an editorial
outlook, with consequent dramatic implications. We might ask why an
account of a person’s entrance into a room includes mention of the shoes they
wear, for example, since this indicates significance of the footwear and the
very act draws attention to other descriptive omissions (why not tell us about
the person’s hat?). Coupled with the fact that a poem’s speaker is never
completely effaced (the reader will never forget for long that someone is
speaking/narrating), it does seem true that ‘narrative exists nowhere in its pure
state’ (Genette 1976, p. 11). Additionally, all representation in literature is
necessarily pretence because it can never be the same thing as the actual series
of real or fictitious events that it conveys. Luckily, the question of how a
poem is narrated, though important, is not critical to my current task. At this
stage, then, I will largely put aside the matter of the character mode of the
teller and the degree of her visibility to the reader.
What then is ‘story’ and how should we test a poem’s propensity to
tell it? The degree of effort required to discern a story varies between texts but
it is possible to discover story even when a text offers no more than subtle
variation between different points in its unfolding depiction. Genette speaks of
51
the ‘irreducible narrative finality’ to be found even where Robbe-Grillet
constitutes ‘a narrative (story) by the almost exclusive means of description
imperceptibly modified from page to page’ (1976, p. 7). This is to assert that a
story might be found where there is merely slight change.
The Russian formalist distinction between plot and story, syuzhet and
fabula, is important here. The first comprises the text as it is discovered by the
reader, the ‘facts’ of the tale as set out by the author and constituted in the
text, whereas the second is what the reader constructs from this material
(Abrams 205, p. 181; Bordwell 1988, p. 11). A key difference, for example,
might be the reader’s realignment of the related events into a normal
chronological sequence if they were initially found out of order due to the
author’s use of flashback devices. Plot is thus an incomplete account, the
writer’s artistic rendering from which a reader constructs the story. It is
implicit then that one story is capable of generating an infinite number of
plots, and that we cannot tell all of them. Brooks refers to plot as ‘the design
and intention of the narrative, what shapes a story and gives it a certain
direction or intent of meaning…the logic that develops its propositions only
through temporal sequence and progression’ (1984, p. XI). He calls it ‘the
very organizing line, the thread of design, that makes narrative possible
because finite and comprehensible’ (1984, p. 4). A mere inventory of events
within a story would lack the creative organising/editing imprint of a
storyteller, and plot conceived in such terms is greatly dependent on reader
recognition of the author’s intent and design.
Aristotle argues that action in plot takes precedence over character; the
nature of the plot reveals what one needs to know about human behaviour
52
(1987, pp. 39-40). He also believes that a plot should have a clear beginning,
middle and end; that a story should begin at a point where no preceding events
would have a necessary connection, and end where no subsequent events need
follow (1987, p. 39). This places a premium on including all of the events that
are critical to the story and knowing which ones should be left out because
they are not important enough.
Can determining existence of a story be reduced to testing for ‘a
résumé of action [whose] progression…does involve causality, sequence and
consequence’ (Kinney 1992, p. 10)? That is, do we automatically or
consciously ask of a text whether it demonstrates a plausible set of contingent
conditions, a series of logically ordered events, and an understandable
outcome? And, if so, would all of those attributes need to be evident on the
page, or might the reader contribute to them, at least in part? These are key
questions, not least because they deal with the interaction between text and
reader and the way that the text is given life.
They relate to narrative in general but we also must consider the
particular case of narrative verse, which the Encyclopedia of Poetry and
Poetics describes succinctly as poetry ‘that tells a story’ (Preminger 1965, p.
542). Poetry in general may not tend to be as forcefully narrative now as the
centuries of verse represented in The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, which
editor Peter Opie (1983, p. vi) described as ‘nothing more than a storybook…a book of tales…with this in common, that each of them has been
made, through the peculiar alchemy of verse, more memorable and
significant’.
53
The taste for narrative in poetry is strong. Critic and poet Dana Gioia
(2003, Online) remarks that although Modernism resisted narrative poetry in
favour of the lyric, it is an argument that ‘no alert critic…would risk today’,
given a contemporary grass roots preference for storytelling in verse. If not all
narrative verse is as forceful and overtly linear as in the popular forms to
which Gioia mainly refers, the act of telling is often foregrounded in the
contemporary poetic idiom despite plot fragmentation.
Where we look for indications of story, we respond to depictions of
recognisable events, ones that have resonance in our prior understanding of
human behaviour and customs. Familiar incidents and social practices have
greatest currency, hence the statement (regarding the epithalamium in this
case) that: ‘the poem acquires dramatic impetus not from an institution—
marriage—but from a series of concrete actions—a wedding’ (Welsford 1967,
p. 219). The perceived social value of a tradition registers with the reader,
though it is rather abstract. Foremost is the familiarity of the related events
themselves, as real happenings able to be visualised. The event can thus be
effectively and efficiently summoned to the reader’s mind due to the writer’s
use of just one well-chosen word: wedding, bride, altar, vow, and so on. The
planting of one such term opens the door to association with the rest, so that
they can crowd in to the reader’s mind along with the archetypal story to
which they belong, and which gives them meaning.
Distinguishing the characteristics of narrative has occupied literary
theorists through centuries. Is there some general area of agreement, and how
that would inform an understanding of narrative in lyric poetry? Aristotle’s
preference for orderly structure and completeness would be tested by much
54
modern fiction let alone poetry. He argues that a causal chain of events is
critical to story. Structural theorist Tzvetan Todorov also feels that this needs
to be evident in the text (1997, p. 232) and he emphasises that causal
transformation must show how equilibrium is disturbed and then restored.
Again, a short poem might struggle to demonstrate such material
comprehensively, but much would depend on the magnitude of the story, and
the size of the poem.
There is some consistency in one kind of storytelling. In his extensive
survey and analysis of a type of folk tale, structural theorist Vladimir Propp
(1968, pp. 128-133; see also Rouhier-Willoughby, [date unknown], Online)
identifies a repeated structure that centres on a hero compensating for a lack
or a loss. Joseph Campbell (1968, p. 283), embracing a Jungian approach in
analysing mythic stories, proposes a similar model in his own idea of the
hero’s journey: ‘the tribal ceremonies of birth, initiation, marriage, burial,
installation, and so forth, serve to translate the individual’s life-crises and lifedeeds into classic, impersonal forms’. Campbell emphasises the lasting
amenity of myth in helping to bind up the individual’s fullness of identity in
the society as a whole (pp. 382-383), and Christopher Vogler (1992) draws on
this work, championing its use in the context of Hollywood movie
scriptwriting. Edward Branigan (1992, pp. 4-5) offers a five-step model of
causal transformation in narrative that concerns the disturbance and
subsequent repair of a situation initially in equilibrium. Gerald Prince
essentially agrees, defining a minimal story as comprising a static event to
which an active force is applied, bringing about an altered static event
(Rimmon-Kenan 2002, p. 1). All of these theorists share a key concept of
55
story that revolves around an undesirable situation being corrected,
characterised by three principal elements that are causally linked. An initial
state is altered by an intervening force, which triggers a consequent purposeful
attempt to restore equilibrium.
The events themselves must be more than mere incidental occurrences;
the triggering intervention has to have significance, since no action would be
required if it did not produce a meaningful loss or inferior state of some kind.
That situation generates a desire on the part of the hero to overcome, to put
things right.
THE ROLE OF THE READER
This view of story is more than mere structuralism since it implicates the
reader. For instance, we could look at Todorov’s argument about minimal
units in another way and say that what his approach really values is
identifying the basic conditions of narrative, including but also moving
beyond the depicted events. Chief amongst these factors has to be change. The
passage of time is necessary for the reader to impute motivation or intention,
and to evaluate a likely or apparent outcome.
In a narrative, some person, object, or situation undergoes a particular
type of change and this change is measured by a sequence of attributions
which apply to the thing at different times…The beginning, middle, and
end are not contained in the discrete elements, say, the individual
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sentences…but signified in the overall relationships established among
the totality of the elements, or sentences…Narrative is thus a global
interpretation of changing data measured through sets of relationships
(Branigan 1992, p. 4).
Once we detect change, we can ask why it is happening, but a
precondition for this position is that we also have to care, to have some kind
of investment in the subsequent judgement—which once more introduces the
role of the reader. The change is not just gauged at the level of the individual
phrase or line, but at a larger one. Thus we acknowledge the power of the
reader’s prior exposure to other texts and the important function of reader
desire:
The source of the codes is in what Barthes calls the déjà-lu, the
already read (and the already written), in the writer’s and the
reader’s experience of other literature, in a whole set of
intertextual interlockings. In other words, structure, functions,
sequences, plot, the possibility of following a narrative and
making sense of it, belong to the reader’s literary competence
(Brooks 1984, p. 19).
Brooks (1984, p. 37) emphasises the reader’s passion for
determination, for finding meaning and significance in the text. The time of
the text is unique; it borrows the reader and seduces her into a game in which
she is invited to glean meaning and structure, and it stands outside her normal
57
life. Brooks says that ‘we can, then, conceive of the reading of plot as a form
of desire that carries us forward, onward, through the text. Narratives both tell
of desire—typically present some story of desire—and arouse and make use
of desire as dynamic of signification’. Desire is not just a reader’s perception
of a personal need but also of a continued willingness to act on the urge to
satisfy it by reading further. If a story is to pull a reader through, it must create
a wish in the reader to want an outcome beyond the present, right up until the
story reaches its end. That need cannot be satisfied too soon or the story will
falter, reaching a false conclusion.
Reader response theory ‘recognises the reader’s role in making
meaning’ (Tompkins 1980, p. 223) and has been described as focussing on the
way in which a general readership responds over time to a text. For a given
reader, that response is ‘the joint product of the reader’s own “horizon of
expectations” and the confirmations, disappointments, refutations, and
reformulations of these expectations when they are “challenged” by the
features of the text itself’ (Abrams 2005, pp. 271-272). There are different
theoretical positions regarding the role of the reader, however, and no
apparent prospect of harmonising these (see Freund 1987). Disagreements
revolve around the extent of the power of the author; for example, whether the
reader writes the text (per Fish1980b), or whether reading replicates the
reader. Phenomenologist Wolfgang Iser, who refers to this area as
communication theory (1989, p. 229) is positioned somewhere between these
last two, viewing the text as the site of a creative partnership. I will return to
him shortly.
58
In his book S/Z, Roland Barthes identifies five interacting levels of
connotation, of which the first is the hermeneutic code. This is essentially a
question and answer process by which the reader seeks resolution: the code
works to ‘articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of
chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer’
(Barthes 1971, p. 17). The basic effect of this code is expectation, assuring
that reader interest will be maintained and that ‘the enigma of the narrative
will be solved’ (Mayne 1976, Online). The task of the hermeneutic code is to
reveal the truth that the narrative has had to hide as it develops, and ‘in its
barest expression, it refers to standard elements of traditional plot structure:
exposition, climax, denouement (Mayne 1976, Online). ‘Expectation,’ as
Barthes says, ‘thus becomes the basic condition for truth: truth, these
narratives tell us, is what is at the end of expectation’ (1971, p. 76).
The reader is necessarily implicated in a process of problem solving,
or making meaning, which cannot be completed until the whole text has been
read but which is underway from the outset of reading. He or she is inclined to
add to the construction of story as part of their normal repertoire of responses
to a text, as cognitive theorist Andrew Elfenbein comments, when their
‘concepts from background knowledge connect with concepts from the text to
become part of the developing memory representation. Their activation and
the strength of their connections will also fluctuate during reading according
to their perceived relevance’ (2006, p. 488). The associative triggers presented
in the text are vital in that process. Theorist Peter Hühn says, ‘meaningful
sequences come into being only with the help of reference to contexts and
word knowledge. Authors and readers, that is to say, can grasp or understand
59
texts only by referring to pre-existent meaningful structures to familiar
cognitive schemata that already have a meaning’ (Hühn & Schönert 2005, p.
5). They connect the text with their own sense of the world.
The reader revises the text, as semiotician Michael Riffaterre describes
it, when he moves forward through it in an act of structural decoding
conducted in relation to the poem as a single unfolding work—with its peak
significance necessarily embedded in its end, where the importance of the
beginning and middle can be fully seen (1978, pp. 5-6). The reader undertakes
performance of the semiotic process, what Riffaterre refers to as the ‘praxis of
transformation’ (1978, p. 12). In this stage, a struggling reader would begin to
rationalise, trying various means to bridge semantic gaps: ‘He resorts to
nonverbal items, such as details from the author’s life, or to verbal items, such
as preset emblems of lore that are well established but not pertinent to the
poem’ (p. 13). The reader refers to his known systems of signs, testing them
for suitability of fit with the possible and emerging meaning of the text. The
poet can profitably use an understanding of that reading process when writing
a lyric poem.
When Frank Kermode says that ‘the omniscient author leaves gaps in
which the reader must work for his own meanings’ (1990, p. 35), he is
alluding to the writer’s judicious non-disclosure and that ‘the narrative works
as much by what it does not as by what it does say’ (1990, p. 37). Such
omissions can pose positive if tacit questions for the attentive reader to ponder
(What did actually happen in the attic? Do I understand why this character
collects shoe laces?), that is, if they ultimately add value to the reader’s
experience of the reading. A reader’s progress through a text thus comprises a
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series of questions, answers, and eventually ascribed meaning; an
accumulation of changing ‘positions’.
Theorist Stanley Fish once offered a class of students in English
religious poetry of the seventeenth century a list of authors’ names left over
from a class on linguistics. He found that they could construe the details to fit
within the framework of issues and meanings consistent with their own area
of interest. He has repeated the exercise and discovered similar results. He
says, ‘acts of recognition, rather than being triggered by formal characteristics
[within the text], are their source’ (1980a, p. 326). A list becomes a poem
because the reader sees it as one, whether directed to try to do so or from
some other motivating force. Fish continues:
It is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of
attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the
emergence of poetic qualities. As soon as my students were aware that it
was poetry they were seeing, they began to look with poetry-seeing
eyes, that is, with eyes that saw everything with in relation to properties
they knew poems to possess (1980a, p. 326).
Virginia Jackson would add that they could not then unsee it as one either,
even if an alternative explanation and therefore interpretation subsequently
arose; the two readings would survive in tandem regardless of which is seen to
have more credibility or authority. Speaking of Dickinson’s writing, and
whether or not it was intended to be read as poetry, Jackson says, ‘…we
cannot go back to a moment before they became lyrics, or back to a moment
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before lyric reading was the only way to apprehend a poem’ (2005, p. 116).
Fish’s students had interpreted a poem that they themselves had discovered or,
one might say, had made.
Fish argues that ‘readers of poetry know that no part of a poem can be
slighted (the rule is “everything counts”) and they do not rest until every part
has been given a significance’ (1980a, p. 330). He contends that a poem and,
in his particular case, also an assignment, ‘do not have their source in some
bed-rock level of objectivity’ (1980a, p. 331). In analysing an awkward
expression in a particular poem, he says that ‘to clean [it] up is to take from it
its most prominent and important effect—the suspension of the reader
between the alternatives its syntax momentarily offers’ (1980b, p. 73). This
focus on the achievement of the text through what the poem does, parallels the
tension required in the plot of a story. It highlights in this case the value to the
reader in deferment, in the text leaving possible readings and plot options
open for a while. Fish (1980b, p. 75) argues that it is with simple texts, those
seemingly requiring little effort to interpret, that we are denied such pleasures
and that ‘poetry…is characterized by a high incidence of deviance from
normal syntactical and lexical habits’ (p. 76), thus demanding more
interpretative work by the reader. That quality of deviance is common in lyric
poetry, so we would expect its readers to have to make greater effort.
As far back as the early twentieth century, W.B. Yeats recognised that
‘if the situation [in a poem] is sufficiently banal, sufficiently everyday or
transparent, the poem leaves “undetermined” a number of relations and
connections which the reader supplies’ (Block 1978, p. 161). In other words,
the reader is called on to complete the poem and will be more competent at
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this task if the gaps found there are associated with what is familiar. ‘The
reader searches his own experience, both human and literary, to find the frame
of reference and significance to which the poem applies’ (Block 1978, p. 163).
Even when a text frustrates expectations, ‘the expected frame of reference
plays a role, since it makes us aware of norm-breaking, and encourages us to
infer a story even from disparate narrative elements whose logical connections
may escape us’ (Crosman 1983, p. 91). The text is a product of the writer’s
intentional acts that partly control the reader’s responses, according to
Wolfgang Iser, but they also contain gaps and ‘indeterminate elements’ that
the reader must fill (Abrams 2005, p. 266). He states that ‘central to the
reading of every literary work is the interaction between its structure and its
recipient’ (Iser 1978, p. 20), and that the frustration of the reader’s
expectations is essential: ‘…it is only through inevitable omissions that a story
gains its dynamism. Thus whenever the flow is interrupted and we are led off
in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our
own faculty for establishing connections—for filling in gaps left by the text
itself’ (1980, p. 55). This act of reading creates the text as an individual
‘performative utterance’ (Iser 1989, p. 6). Such indeterminacy is vital since it
allows the reader more room for interpretation; it is ‘the fundamental
precondition for reader participation’ (Iser 1989, pp. 9-10). The alternative
would be to somehow lock the text into one and only one meaning, a clear
impossibility.
A reader’s sense of the imagined world having some ‘reality’ is
heightened when some of its constituent parts have recognisable counterparts
in his experience of reacting to the actual world. It is because perfect
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knowledge is impossible that reader imagination is so important. Guiding
devices in the text help control the reader:
…reception is a product that is initiated in the reader by the text, but is
molded by the norms and values that govern the reader’s outlook.
Reception is therefore an indication of preferences and predilections that
reveal the reader’s predisposition as well as the social conditions that
have shaped his attitudes (Iser 1989, p. 50).
And:
…the reader’s code guides the selections that make the text/world
relation…concrete for him…Thus text and reader act upon one another
in a self-regulating process (Iser 1989, p. 229).
The reader is a product of her times, experienced to a degree in the
practices of engaging with a text, the reading process, and bringing to it a
wealth of knowledge about cultural and sociological behaviours. The intention
of the text can be spoken of ‘only as the result of conjecture on the part of the
reader,’ according to Umberto Eco (1990, p. 58), who adds that ‘the internal
textual coherence controls the otherwise uncontrollable drives of the reader’
(1990, p. 59). This describes a process of reading in which the text ‘becomes’
as it guides the reader. One aspect of that engagement is to bring
reading/decoding skills to bear in order to control the text in some degree, and
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to create a satisfying experience through creating story. To that extent, ‘every
narrative is a miniature, and every book a microcosm, for such forms always
seek to finalize, bring closure to, a totality or model’ (Susan Stewart 1993, p.
xii). The goal of reading in this view is to bring the text to a form in the
reader’s mind that maximises its efficiency—everything possible is assigned
an integrated meaning and purpose; there is no waste. Each reading, then, is
essentially oriented towards reduction and closure, even if that is ultimately
thwarted.
The main thing to be gleaned from considerations of the reader’s role
is that the text does not stand alone; the author and the reader are compelled to
work together, even if sometimes awkwardly and with varying success. The
language that helps to establish the stage and the features of the textual
performance includes a common repertoire of references to rites of passage,
acceptable and taboo behaviours, and tribal stories. The wedding is prominent
among these, with recognisable events comprising the arc of the typical
narrative in that case.
We use narrative to navigate through life, to remember, to
communicate, and for entertainment. We use it to make journeys through
texts, creating the circumstances in which we see a story that projects into the
future, and which poses a mystery worth solving. In the smallest lyric poem it
is possible to present components of a story that, however minimal, meet that
criterion. They excite interest and provide information that connects to
elements of a reader’s existing knowledge to produce an interpretation of a
story, however provisional. The reader is never provided with a complete
decoding tool or a full set of plans with which to decipher the plot: that would
65
destroy the enigmatic quality of storytelling that is fundamental to our desire
for entertainment. We live in the gaps, with what is not said, and the urge to
intuit what will follow is our essential diet. Suspense and the deferral of
revelation add to our delight. In perceiving narrative, we survive on basic
information, on spare if vague clues, and a sense of how motivation drives the
affairs of humankind. There is no reason why that desire should be
acknowledged in soap operas, novels, short stories, plays, movies, TV serials,
and our own lives, but not in lyric poetry.
WHAT IS LYRIC POETRY?
Defining the Lyric
This thesis concentrates on poems after 1950 since the intention is to deal with
those that are recognisably part of the current world of the lyric. Theorist Peter
Hühn says, ‘the analysis of lyric poetry…is notoriously lacking in theoretical
foundations—perhaps to the extent of opening the way to the development of
a theory of the lyric’ (Hühn & Schönert 2005, p. 2), and he does pursue this
aim in his narratological research.
One approach is to treat the lyric as essentially the plotless expression
of the state of one mind, which will stand independently of any text in which
it is located (Olson 1969, pp. 59-66) but definition of the lyric, formal or
otherwise, has varied over the centuries:
66
…any universal agreement concerning a distinct generic status and
definite boundaries for the lyric remains an implausible fiction; in any
event such an agreement is undesirable because it would only obscure
the complex history of the term lyric (Jeffreys 1995, p. 198).
The lyric has not always been highly rated. For a great time it was
subordinated to longer forms of poetry such as the epic, though it began to
claim popularity in the late seventeenth century (Jeffreys 1995, p. 198). The
late eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw ‘an extraordinary rise in the
prominence and prestige of the sort of lyric poem’ that displaced the longer
forms of epic and tragedy (Abrams 2005, p. 115), with a greater focus on the
validity of the individual’s personal experience and inner states. Part of this
growth coincided with the emergence of the novel as a favoured vehicle for
narrative (Hirsch 1999, p. 16), stealing some of the ground of the long
narrative poem:
The transformation of poetic taste is nowhere more evident than in the
almost impossibly high expectations now placed on narrative poetry.
The evocative compression and lyric integrity of Modernist poetry left
most readers impatient with the loose, expansive style of traditional
narrative verse. The new narrative must tell a memorable story in
language that constantly delivers a lyric frisson (Gioia 1995, Online).
We may ask then what really distinguishes the lyric from narrative
poetry, and one aspect to consider is the formality of structure. Andrew Welsh
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points out that ‘most long narrative poems have required a consistent meter
which organises the language into regular verse-lines, and in oral epics further
organises it into fixed patterns of formulaic diction’ (1978 pp. 20-21). The
appearance of such poems reflects a formal discipline that may not be evident
with a lyric poem, but this is not a decisive characteristic since a lyric poem
may also adhere to regular form and metre. Length may be a guide, but unless
one imposes brevity as a criterion for lyric poetry, that alone will be
insufficient. Another element of structure is the organisation of the text in
terms of sequencing and completeness. Obviously, a longer poem has the
potential to contain more information for the reader to work with but there are
also the matters of how it is organised and whether, in the end, it constitutes or
even implies a finished story.
Another aspect of difference is the reader’s own approach to reading.
Peter Opie (1983, p. ix) says that ‘narrative verse needs a different reading
technique from lyric and reflective poetry’, absorbing the story in a first
reading and then allowing pauses during a second reading to ‘be dazzled by
the brilliance of…metaphors’ that is, deferring a focus on such things until the
story, which has primacy, has been absorbed in a first reading. His analogy is
that ‘a narrative poem is in the nature of a sea voyage, and it is no good
poking about in the rock pools waiting for the sea anemones to unfold their
fronds’(p. ix); the big-scale features matter more than the small. According to
Opie then, the first reading of narrative poetry is meant to be energetic, riding
the momentum of the plot rather than dwelling on technical virtuosity and
effect.
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The emphasis in narrative poetry is much less on effects of particular
lines as on the larger plot path. Theorist Jonathan Culler remarks that, ‘If
narrative is about what happens next, lyric is about what happens now— in
the reader’s engagement with each line’ (2008, p.202). The lyric, he says, is a
‘linguistic event’, foregrounding the use of language: ‘Narrative structures are
translatable, but lyric, in its peculiar structural patterning, forgives the
giveness, the untranscendability, of a particular language, which seems to its
user a condition of experience’ (2008, p. 205). But Culler’s approach seems to
posit a false dilemma, unnecessarily denying a narrative structure to the lyric
when it is really a matter of degree rather than exclusivity. Pulitzer Prize
winning poet Mary Oliver also speaks of the reader’s focus when dealing with
the lyric:
The narrative poem is generally longer than the lyric poem, and its tone
is without such a tightly coiled force. It is discursive, it pauses for
moments of humour and slowly unfolding description. It sets an easy
and readable pace, and helps us to enjoy sequential events. At times, in
the lyric poem, we feel we are in a vortex; when we listen to the
narrative poem, we are comfortable. Engaged, and at times entranced,
we could listen for hours. We do not love anything more deeply than we
love a story—narrative is at the centre of all literature (1994, p. 85).
Even this does not mean that narrative should preclude lyric, or vice
versa. Prominent poets Mark Strand and Eavan Boland prefer to treat narrative
and lyric functions as detectable characteristics rather than restrictive
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formulae. Instead, they emphasise the evolutionary aspects of such function in
poetic forms. As an example, they highlight the stanza’s use in both capacities
over time, and its ‘superb capacity to maintain a tension between narrative and
lyric elements, to close off a story and open up a drama, all on the same page’
(Strand & Boland 2000, p. 139). This emphasis on elements (or functions)
rather than forms appears to be a more sensible approach than treating poems
as if they must swear allegiance to the narrative or lyric flags. It acknowledges
that the two attributes can co-exist. Poet Eamon Grennan regards lyricism as
being about both ‘fragmentation…fracture…things seen in passing’ and ‘an
attempt to slow things down a bit and hold on’ so that the poems can ‘bring
the macro and the micro constantly into a single focus’ in a kind of ‘unified
field of being’ (in Williams 2006, Online). This addresses the idea of poetry
that captures the instant but also moves beyond it to identify a greater world
of reference. One of the few writers I have found who directly acknowledges
the narrative function that is possible in lyric poetry, John Drury, says that
‘good lyrics often have a secret or camouflaged plot, a suggestion of action in
or around the poem (just before or just after)’ (1991, p. 169), which he sees as
partly a matter of compression or intensity:
Lyric poems capture the moment of crisis, narrative poems the
unfolding of conflict. Lyric poems represent stasis, the “still point of the
turning world” in T.S. Eliot’s words, while narrative poems represent
action and motion, the turning itself (just as we have plot turns and
twists) (Drury 1992, p. 169).
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Underscoring the tension in the lyric, the notable US poet Robert
Pinsky relates the lyric poem to lack and desire, the very things often used to
describe plot in stories:
The word "wanting" means both to desire and to lack. These related
feelings are basic to life and to poetry. The lyric poem organizes the
sounds of language so that the very cadences and patterns express
wanting something (Pinsky 2005, Online)
Several features have been advanced as suitable tests to define lyric
poetry. In the original Greek, lyric ‘signified a song rendered to the
accompaniment of a lyre’ (Abrams 2005, p. 154), and the dominant approach
was originally to treat its chief expressive characteristic as an intimate
involvement with sound and song—as its classic root in ‘lyre’ suggests. We
still often tend to think of lyrics these days as words set to music. More
recently, other technical criteria such as attending to matters of form—
mentioned above—and focussing on imaginative distillation have been
emphasised. Aspects of using heightened language, often combined with an
emotional or mystical element, are also included:
•
‘the lyric is the union of concision and amplitude in a highly
developed and recurrent metrical form’ (Whitmore 1918, p. 595);
•
‘the lyric…require[s] of us an immediate sublimity’ (Edmund in
Collins 1930, p. xi);
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•
‘the musical element is intrinsic to the work intellectually as well as
aesthetically: it becomes the focal point for the poet’s perceptions as
they are given a verbalized form to convey emotional and rational
values’ (Preminger 1965, p. 460);
•
‘The lyric is a short poem derived from individual episodes in a
person's life. The long poem is a more major and more thoughtful
statement. It does not rely upon an emotion the way lyric does’
(Precosky 1987, Online);
•
‘All lyric poetry always celebrates a single theme or tone of motif’
and shares an essential concern with mastering tempo (Packard 1992,
p. 61);
•
‘the lyric moment…a sort of fervent crescendo when the emotional
world of the writer joins with the emotional world of the reader’
(Dobyns 2003, p. 45); and
•
‘a lyric is any fairly short poem, uttered by a single speaker, who
expresses a state of mind or a process of perception, thought or
feeling’ (Abrams 2005, p. 153).
More complexly, Frederick Ruf suggests three characteristics that he
claims are ‘generally’ associated with the lyric:
1. Lyric has one voice, as does narrative.
2. What the lyric voice speaks of tends to be less public than the subjects
of drama or narrative.
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3. The relation between the lyric voice and what is spoken is intimate.
We tend to feel as though we’re eavesdropping, overhearing the
private thoughts of the speaker (1994, p. 805).
Though I observe Ruf’s qualifying use of ‘generally’ and ‘tend’, I also
note his assertion that lyric poetry can actually sustain more than one voice
(alternating monologues, or even a dialogue). This is also evident in verse
novels, for instance some of Australian poet Dorothy Porter’s. Ruf contends
that lyric poetry can relate to public events, which would seem to leave the
last and commonly proposed characteristic, intimacy, as maybe a better
indicator at this stage. Ruf regards the position of the narrating voice as the
key:
…the distinguishing difference, between narrative and lyric lies in the
fact that narrative perceives someone else’s thoughts from without and
presents them in a magisterial voice, while lyric speaks of thoughts from
within and entrusts them to the reader. The difference lies in the relation
between the voices and the inward state (1994, pp. 805-806).
Narrative, he adds, is also a matter of ‘far greater scope’ since it
‘presents a single voice that relates a great variety of characters, actions, and
objects, all pulled together into one account’ (1994, p. 809). The capacity of
the narrator to know all or to operate in a more limited way is fundamental to
interpretation of religious texts, for instance, which is Ruf’s primary area of
concern, but we might equally apply it to thinking through issues of textual
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completeness and coherence, comparing the narrator’s and reader’s roles. For
example, does the writer allow the narrator to present the reader with a full
picture and to speak in the most intelligible terms to aid reader understanding,
or is the reader forced to work with limited information that is obliquely
presented? A shorter prose story is handicapped in regard to exposition
because it must work within the discipline of fewer words than a novel, and
lyric poems are similarly restricted, but there are ways in which brief forms
can compensate for their relative lack of data—or, indeed, capitalise on it.
The defining characteristics have widened over time, as the lyric has
become much more inclusive. Virginia Jackson says that ‘from the midnineteenth through the beginning of the twenty-first century, to be lyric is to
be read as lyric—and to be read as a lyric is to be printed and framed as a
lyric.’ (2005 p. 6). This gives primacy to the reader, acting on whatever
criteria is applied to class a poem as lyric. It is, in a real sense then, out of the
hands of the poet. Jackson describes a process of lyricization, by which ‘lyric
did not conquer poetry: poetry was reduced to lyric. Lyric became the
dominant form of poetry only as poetry’s authority was reduced to the
cramped margins of culture’ (2005 p. 8). Here then, she is striving to remind
us that classifications are retrospective: ‘history has made the lyric in its
image, but we have yet to recognize that image as our own’ (2005 p. 15).
So what characteristics are ascribed to the lyric?
Preminger, in the Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, offers a short
but assertive list, albeit a qualified one: ‘Though the attributes of brevity,
metrical coherence, subjectivity, passion, sensuality, and particularity of
image are frequently ascribed to the lyric genre, there are schools of poetry
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obviously lyric which are not susceptible to such criteria’ (1965, p. 461), and
that in the contemporary era, lyric poetry is ‘thematically representational of
the poet’s sensibility as evidenced in a fusion of conception and image’ (1965,
p. 462). A recent issue of the Australian poetry journal, five bells, includes
essays on the nature of the lyric, in one of which, Sheryl Persson remarks:
In the twenty-first century, a lyric poem, although the boundaries are
flexible, is usually short, non-narrative, and is one in which the poet
writes about her or his thoughts and feelings…the essence of the lyric is
an attempt to understand some aspect of our complex experience of life
(2004, p. 9).
This is to return to a definition that favours a fundamental ‘intimate
and individual expression’ approach. She adds: ‘The general rule that can be
extrapolated is that lyric poetry works upon a basis of a contrast between
some problem or some unattractive or disorderly aspect of life and the idea of
a better more attractive order’ (p. 11). While I disagree that this is ‘general’, it
highlights an idea central to plotting of narrative that a story should evidence
some lack that provides the protagonist with the motivation to seek change,
for example, ‘to save a maiden’, and thus presents a causal sequence of
events. In the same issue, Phyllis Perlstone reinforces Persson’s claim
regarding emotional representation, saying that ‘this combination of the
autobiographical and the meditative expresses openness to emotions and the
dilemmas endemic in reality [and] often marks the lyric poet’ (Perlstone 2004,
p. 7).
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Hühn says that: ‘Attempts to define lyric poetry systematically and
theoretically as a distinctive genre after the model of drama or narrative have
failed to produce satisfactory results’ (2004, p. 141). Nonetheless, he lists the
basic features of lyric poetry: ‘heightened artificiality, self-referentiality,
subjectivity, and deviation as well as the production of unstable illusion’
together with a tendency to overcode language (2004, p. 142). Werner Wolf,
in attempting a reconception of the lyric, produces a list of nine traits —
potential oral performativity, brevity, heightened language, versification,
heightened self-reference, a pronounced and seemingly unmediated
consciousness (the ‘lyric I’), favouring the individual perspective
(subjectivity), minimising the importance of external actions, and absolute
utterances (less referentialised with regard to normal expression, and
projecting personal experience) (2005, pp. 23-24). Obviously some of these
are closely related, and most are detectable in some prose and present a
difficulty of degree — that is, the extent to which their presence is a reliable
sign and the problems in determining measurement. Wolf stresses ‘the
impossibility of a watertight, systematic definition of the lyric’ (2005, pp.3334, 39). He concludes that the best way is to look for a preponderance of the
suggested traits, conceding though that the lyric is very much whatever the
reader thinks it should be (2005, p. 39).
The absence of a clear definition is obvious, and the debate continues.
A call to define lyric less strictly has been resisted, with reluctance to treat socalled language poetry and its particular focus on form and disrupted syntax as
part of lyric at all (McCooey 2005; Rowland 2005). The poetics of language
poetry, a postmodern movement that emerged in the 1960s, draw attention to
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form and pattern in the uses of language that might normally be overlooked,
taken for granted; they foreground the activity of writing itself (Perelman
1994, p. 307). Language poets claim to ‘systematically disarrange the
language’ and ‘let the words demand their own form’ (Walker 2008, Online):
‘there is no natural speech, only artificiality naturalised’ (Filreis 2008,
Online). The poem is thus treated, consciously and somewhat suspiciously, as
a mere device. While decrying the artifice of narrative structure and what they
see as the relatively static determinism of nouns, language poets nonetheless
acknowledge their reliance on the reader to fill in gaps. Alison Croggon,
whose poetry has sometimes employed demanding elisions and quite fractured
syntax, writes: ‘the gaps or the silences in the lyric are as important as the
words’ (Croggon 2002, p. 55; though, curiously, this statement occurs in an
extended prose poem). The reader is implicitly part of the process of making
meaning:
Language writing is often posed as an attempt to draw the reader into
the production process by leaving the connections between various
elements open, thus allowing the reader to produce the connections
between those elements. In this way, presumably, the reader recognises
his or her part in the social process of production. But just as important,
the ambiguity of the structure of many of these poems should remind the
reader that any connections drawn are arbitrary. It is the framing process
itself, and by extension the process of ideological framing, which is no
longer taken for granted (Hartley 2008, Online).
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Language poetry is represented in the Australian anthology, Calyx
(Brennan & Minter 2000), and collections by Kate Lilley (Versary 2002) and
Michael Farrell (ode ode 2002), among others. In some cases, the reader has
to work quite hard to engage with language poetry. Reviewing the Farrell
book, poet Kevin Gillam describes the poems as ‘difficult’, ‘almost
incomprehensible’, and pieces of ‘exalted obscurity’ that ‘alienate the reader’
and rarely create ‘an opportunity for linkage’ (2004, p. 51). There is
something paradoxically both intellectual and anti-intellectual at play, which
strives in part to de-institutionalise language and get back to an unadulterated
and ‘original “purity” of words’ (Kinsella n.d., Online); encouraging a
response from the reader that is more intuitive. Charles Altieri, in responding
to Margaret Perloff’s book on poetry criticism and the claim that ‘it seems
historically necessary now for poetry to engage the discourses and media of a
technologized society’ (Altieri 1991, p. 582), acknowledges the need to find
alternative poetic expressions but is wary, adding:
Just as we need a poetry that addresses technology and the suspicions of
inwardness that it inculcates, we need a poetry that can convince us
there are arenas of our lives that remain not entirely shaped by such
technological frames. Thus Sharon Olds not only develops a domestic
lyricism, she also seeks in the domestic a source of values capable of
resisting everything that Perloff thinks poets must incorporate into their
work. In my view that resistance is at least as important a contemporary
stance as are the efforts to develop somewhat less domestic models of
intimacy one finds in Robert Hass and the later Ashbery (Altieri 1991,
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p. 585).
Interrogating poetry on these terms seems to overlook that there can be
an overlap between the technology of the poem and its thematic or subject
concerns, notwithstanding that there is a charm to resisting the conventional.
Difficulty of definition is not a recent issue. As Charles Whitmore
acknowledges in the early twentieth century, one cannot always give ‘a
precise and satisfactory statement of what constitutes the essence of the lyric
form’ (1918 p. 584), and he favours the poet’s imaginative distillation above
all other characteristics. Seventy years later, renowned Irish poet Seamus
Heaney (1988, p. 92) says, ‘…poetry, having to do with feelings and
emotions, must not submit to the intellect’s eagerness to foreclose. It must
wait for a music to occur, an image to discover itself’:
The poet is credited with a power to open unexpected and unedited
communications between our nature and the nature of reality we inhabit.
The oldest evidence for this attitude appears in the Greek notion that
when a lyric poet gives voice, ‘it is a god that speaks’. And the attitude
persists into the twentieth century (Heaney 1988, p. 93).
James Longenbach ponders the balancing act required when a difficult
poem is encountered, speaking of its resistance, its unwillingness to
completely divulge itself. He says:
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If the poem is resisting itself strenuously enough, then chances are that
our own resistance to the poem will be overwhelmed. The language will
give us pleasure because it gives us work to do, work that can never be
completed no matter how fully explained the poem might be. (2004, p.
97)
Longenbach argues that the world must remain a place of wonder, a
riddle in many ways: ‘the wonder of language depends less on meaning than
on the ways in which it means, the shape of the temporal process we negotiate
in the act of reading or writing a poem’ (2004, p. 100). But there are limits to
holding the reader at a distance; mere opacity in expression is not a substitute
because there must be the right balance between maintaining reader desire and
withholding fulfillment. He adds a rider:
…if one danger is the poem whose language does not return us to the
world’s unintelligibility, another is the poem that embraces the
unintelligible so single-mindedly that there is nothing to be lost. If the
resistance to poetry is the wonder of poetry, how do we prevent
resistance from becoming a fetish, something with which we are merely
fascinated? (2004, p. 102)
Lyric poetry is already celebrated for calling attention to the power of
language to produce subtle but powerful effects on its reader, including
something approaching mysticism. Poet Charles Simic says that ‘lyricism, in
its truest sense, is the awe before the untranslatable. Like childhood, it is a
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language that cannot be replaced by any other language. A great lyric poem
must approach untranslatability’ (1994, p. 112). The notion of divine
inspiration persists, with its connotations of tapping directly in to a
subconscious generator of pure meaning. Paul de Man says that ‘as a primitive
art, closer to natural impulses, lyric poetry is ‘precisely the antithesis of
modernity’ (1970, p. 154), and former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky claims
that the best poems ‘…involve a bridge or space between the worldly and the
spiritual’ (1988, p. 3). Poet Hale Chatfield observes that there is a ‘common
notion not only that verbal art can aspire to the condition of music but also
that such an aspiration is a moral imperative’ (2002, Online). Thus, poetry
may be regarded as involving an unspoken meaning that is first received
physically and magically, before the intellect begins its translation.
Hazel Smith and Roger Dean consider this from the writer’s
perspective in their recent book on the relationship between research and
writing practice:
Creative writing practitioners have sometimes argued that theorisation
or documentation of the creative process risks subduing the creative fire
or reducing the range of responses to their work. But such arguments
reinforce the mystification of the creative artists and romantic ideas
about the spontaneity of the creative process. Creative practitioners
traditionally had an ideological investment in such mystification
because it shored up the idea of the creative genius (2009, p. 25).
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There is a tension here, what James Longenbach refers to as the
resistance to poetry. It is active in delaying the delivery of what the poem
promises, so that the reader is suspended awhile in a state between wanting
the poem to deliver and yet also wanting to enjoy the pleasures of deferral. It
seems a rather sexual metaphor. The poem itself can be said to embody this
delicious anxiety, keeping a ‘place to hide’ (2004, p. 9) that eludes a final
interpretation. The reader thus needs to move beyond any tendency towards
dry translation of the poem, trusting in the beauty of language and emotion as
seductive pleasures in themselves. Longenbach prizes one poetic staple that
might help slow the reader, sound: ‘We trust the poem because it wants to be
listened to, spoken, savored in the mouth before it is understood’ (2004, p.
37). Writing of George Oppen’s poems, he argues that they ‘demonstrate the
inseparability of story and song, sincerity and objectification, aural pleasure
and experimental form’ (2004, p. 45). The tension between wanting language,
at its most immediate and figurative in the lyric poem, to make us feel
elevated beyond intellectual reasoning (at least, in the first moment) is at odds
with the purely technical, analytical perspective:
Objects of wonder must remain perpetually unnamable if their power is
to be relished repeatedly, and the language of great poems will resist our
mastery long after we have explained the events they happen to be
about. (2004, p. 101)
The highest form of lyric poetry would then be that which most closely
approaches the primal; that transcends language or, at least, reduces it to its
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most basic and most common elements. This is rather like depicting the poet
as shaman, as conduit, and these lyric qualities are contrasted with poetry that
adopts a narrative mode, often with a reduction of lyric qualities and less
‘inspired’ speech (in the sense of having been breathed into the poet from the
subconscious or from magical outside sources)—as if narrative poetry
demands plainer speech in order to serve a different priority, that of the story.
As long as language involves signification, which it must, there will
always be a moment of mediation and interpretation, however. Language is
not natural but learned. No matter how swift that process of translation, and
no matter how appealing the idea that we are linked by some innate shared
nature, it is not the same thing as magic. There is still a strong mediating
impact. Ian Jack points out that while it is ‘still sometimes supposed that
lyrics are spontaneous utterances created without thought…the whole history
of lyric seems to suggest that his audience frequently exercises a strong
influence on a lyric poet’ (1984, pp. 1-2).
The concept of pure expression is problematic for poetry’s technicians,
as it wards off analysis, thwarting those who want to tinker under the bonnet
of the car, so to speak, in order to find out exactly how things work. That does
not mean that we are always entirely conscious of the way language operates.
It might still be said that ‘Poetry is a voicing, a calling forth, and the lyric
poem exists somewhere in the region—the register—between speech and
song. The words are waiting to be vocalized’ (Hirsch 1999, p. 5). To stop at
this, with the stress on the musicality of lyric poetry and on the physicality of
the human body’s involvement, with or without conceding some kind of
emotional engagement, would be to omit recognition of a common underlying
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function at work in lyric poetry. As with the definitions above, the fact that a
song may tell a story tends to be omitted from consideration of its character.
That kind of demarcation is consistent with Aristotle’s influential
classification of poetry as epic, drama and lyric in his Poetics. While it
reflects the conventions of his time, and conventions may change, the fact that
Aristotle’s scheme has endured also suggests that it possesses a timeless truth.
Aristotle treats epic as a form in which the narrator tells a story in the
first person and then allows the characters to speak for themselves, usually in
a long recitation. Drama, he says, involves the characters alone speaking, and
lyric is where the work is only uttered through the first person (see also Hirsch
1999, p. 15). These definitions are not always adhered to now, however.
While first person utterance still prevails as one defining characteristic, lyric
poetry might include a variety of voices. It may still emphasise musicality and
heightened language but relatively plain speech is also frequently employed.
Aristotle, though, regards lyric as lacking plot, his own stated hallmark of
poetry. Prominent British writers and philosophers Francis Bacon and Thomas
Hobbes helped to ensure the ‘dominance of dramatic and narrative poetry’ in
their own time, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Dowlin
1941, pp. 167, 181), relegating lyric poetry to a subordinate role, one without
storytelling.
Can the lyric coexist with narrative, and vice versa, especially in
contemporary poetry? Despite his emphasis on concision, Whitmore thinks
that poetry in general ‘can assuredly tell a story’ (1918, p. 591), but he does
not elaborate this attribute with respect to lyric poetry in particular. To
highlight the confusion over this aspect, we need only revisit the
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epithalamium. Wheeler describes it, with particular reference to Sappho and
Catullus, as ‘essentially a lyric method’ (1930, p. 220). Tufte comments that
Sir Philip Sidney’s epithalamium, a ‘short pastoral lyric’ of 1580 or 1581,
reflects both ‘the lyric mode of Catullus 61’ and ‘the narrative epic
epithalamium of the classics’ (1966, p. 39). Spenser’s ‘Epithalamium’ has
been described as ‘a wedding hymn…a lyric rapture…a song which surges
forward in a series of musically sweeping stanzas and images’ (Cirillo 1968,
p. 20), as ‘the song which is the poem’ (p. 25), and as ‘the most magnificent
lyric ever penned of love triumphant’ (Smith & De Selincourt, 1937, p.
xxxvi), even though it comprises 24 distinct sections in a chronologically
linear and narrative sequence. While these comments refer to epithalamia of
different writers, the subject poems are not so disparate as to explain the
apparent variation in commentators’ remarks unless we acknowledge that the
works are capable of showing both lyric and narrative characteristics. The
epithalamium can be both a song and a device for establishing harmonious
resolution to a story, the restoration of equilibrium.
During the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century, the boundaries
of epic, drama and lyric began to blur. According to Hirsch, readers began to
‘experience how the narrative or story like element drives lyric poems; how
the musical element, the rhythm of emotions, charges narrative poems; how
the element of dramatic projection empowers many narratives, many lyrics’
(Hirsch 1999, p. 16). Director Peter Brooks still maintains differentiation,
saying that lyric poetry ‘strives towards an ideal simultaneity of meaning,
encouraging us to read backward as well as forward (through rhyme and
repetition, for instance), to grasp the whole in one visual and auditory
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image…whereas narrative stories depend on meanings delayed, partially filled
in, stretched out’ (1984, p. 21). This is a false dichotomy; the two positions
need not be exclusive. They could be operating at the same time in a lyric
poem, with movement between attempts to construct a linear story as well as
appreciation of the rewards of continuous reflexive readings. Abrams
comments that ‘there is an implicit narrative element even in many lyric
poems’ and illustrates this by pointing out characters’ actions to be inferred
when reading William Wordsworth’s poem, ‘The Solitary Reaper’ (2005, p.
181). Such specific acknowledgement in relation to lyric verse is rare,
however. At the point of Abrams’ quoted remark, his explanation does not
extend to deeper analysis or attend to matters such as other ways to discern the
presence or process of narrating story in lyric poetry. Clearly though, when
reading a poem that refers to a wedding, one might apply the same method as
Abrams in inferring actions that are not explicitly detailed in it.
Cognitive theorist Reuven Tsur points out that an indirect but ‘highly
favoured way’ in which language can be used in poetry is ‘to generate the
unique diffuse character of emotions: to evoke in the reader's imagination a
landscape in which orientation may take place’ (1997, Online). A poem might
use techniques (longer words and lines, for example) that slow the pace of
reading or that suggest a reduced level of energy, in order to produce a feeling
that will support the intention of the piece; but without direct statement to that
effect. It might rely on the sound of the words to create an atmosphere of
urgency or of relaxation. Tsur says that ‘emotional quality is present in the
poem not only by way of telling but also by way of showing’ and that it may
be dispersed through the poem (1997, Online). The effect so produced can be
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generated by subtle means, ones that need not draw attention to themselves,
and the reader is conditioned to read in a particular frame of mind. In a similar
way, the use of a wedding term can be part of a deliberate intention, in
different situations, to indicate a place and an atmosphere and a state of mind;
for example, to suggest happiness or apprehension or acceptance or other
emotional states.
Thus far, we have several characteristics that might help us define lyric
poetry but no real consonance. Those few anthologies that identify as
gathering lyric poetry use quite different bases to do so and, surprisingly, they
cannot even agree on whether to specify musicality as a basis for inclusion or
for exclusion. There is still an abiding, if not universally applied, criterion of
the individual self-reflective voice that utters a monological response to a
crisis or epiphany (Jeffreys 1995, pp. 200-202). The laziest definition of all
recognises a tendency to conflate the lyric with poetry altogether, making it
the standard form, and thereafter only establishing criteria for exclusion of
other types of poetry. Jeffreys argues that this is an unsurprising outcome of
poetry having been ‘pushed into a lyric ghetto because prose fiction became
the presumptive vehicle for narrative literature’ (1995, p. 200).
Discovering the longstanding lack of agreement over which attributes
are key to defining lyric poetry is not so surprising in one sense. I doubt that it
matters given that the term has virtually become a synonym for nearly all
contemporary poetry, and also because pinning it down in a formulaic sense
seems both genuinely impossible and practically unnecessary. What benefit
would flow from agreeing on a rigorously applied and useable set of criteria?
Some poetry would be inside the corral and some outside, and similar quarrels
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would likely emerge within each camp about the characteristics of their own
poetry of interest. It is true that this very lack of agreement about the nature of
the lyric is at the heart of this thesis, however, because it evidences resistance
to acknowledging the narrative function in lyric poetry. In any case, it does
not stop us moving towards a working definition of the lyric (even as that
term seems to mean just about all contemporary poetry), and for the purposes
of this study, a more inclusive view is appropriate.
Thus, I would define lyric poetry as displaying some if not all of the
following: brevity, musicality (which I couple with a sense of heightened
language), an emphasis on subjective utterance by individual voice(s), and a
degree of intimacy. I find this falls closest to Abrams previously offered
summary of a lyric as ‘any fairly short poem, uttered by a single speaker, who
expresses a state of mind or a process of perception, thought or feeling’ (2005,
p. 153). In all, I would also look for a sense of disclosure or epiphany that
draws the reader back into reviewing the poem. Of the lyric’s characteristics,
it is brevity that bears most weight for the purposes of this study since it
reflects an inextricable connection to the extent of information made available
to the reader, and that informs their ability to glean a sense of the fuller story
of which the lyric is part.
THE NARRATIVE IN THE LYRIC
Having considered the problem of defining lyric poetry, it is now
necessary to turn to the narrative function within it. The signs of narrative are
more practical than ecstatic, but there is no reason why they cannot be
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represented within lyric poetry’s altered states. In any case, both narrative and
lyric writing rely on a common factor, the reader. What then are the signs of
narrative function in the lyric? Narratologist Peter Hühn says that ‘lyric poems
generally feature the same fundamental constituents as narrative fiction’,
which he lists as ‘sequentiality, mediacy, and articulation’, that is, having a
temporal sequence of events that are mediated from a particular and narrated
perspective (2004, p. 140).
Critic Sonny Williams (2006) argues that poets mostly fail to offer
truly engaging narrative. Clearly stating a preference for big adventures, he
argues that poets are missing the opportunity to ‘place individuals in a larger
outward context and explore ideas too large for the lyric poem’. He adds:
Unlike prose, poetry moves more cinematically, from line to
line, image to image, scene to scene. Time is compressed, and
the skilled poet can manipulate the movement and pacing of
story in less space than prose. Words carefully chosen and placed
can produce a wealth of allusions and meanings that prose
cannot (Williams 2006, Online).
While lyric poetry (and many verse novels) might not meet Williams’
personal criteria for a satisfying story, his argument allows the possibility of
narrative production in lyric poetry. Narrative becomes easier to recognise
when attributes of storytelling, such as explicit causally linked events, become
more evident—both more explicit and greater in number. A short poem may
have narrative characteristics in common with a verse novel or a conventional
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novel—just fewer of them, and more often implied than explicit. Lyric poetry
is capable of alluding to a world outside its literal content.
Tzvetan Todorov, for instance, recognises the role of causality and its
influence on the nature of the reader’s engagement:
If a narrative is organized according to a causal order but keeps its
causality implicit, it hereby obliges the potential reader to perform labor
the narrator has refused to do. Insofar as this causality is necessary for
perception of the work, the reader must supply it; he then finds himself
much more determined by the work in the contrary case: it’s actually up
to him to reconstruct the narrative. We might say that every book
requires a certain quantity of causality; the narrator and the reader
supply it between them, their efforts being inversely proportional (1981,
p. 46).
Williams may have an ally in Ursula Le Guin who says that:
‘Narrative is a strategem of mortality. It is a means, a way of living. It does
not seek immortality; it does not seek to triumph over or escape from time (as
lyric poetry does)’ (1989, p. 39). I would qualify her parenthetical remark,
though, and have it read ‘as lyric poetry sometimes does’. In any case, Le
Guin argues that the key property of narrative is its assertion of directional
time. She illustrates this with an example of how seemingly disconnected
things in a dream might easily be drawn together in a motivated and rational
story, and describes the dreamer engaging in what she calls ‘rendering
sensible-seeming’ (1989, pp. 40-41). Making sense is not to be denied the
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reader of the lyric poem either. To engage in lyricism is not necessarily the
same thing as to flee narrative/storytelling.
Peter Hühn acknowledges the presence of narrative when he says that
‘the notoriously problematic subjectivity of the lyric genre can be defined
neutrally as an operation in which the speaker provides him- or herself with a
story mediated in a poem in order to constitute his or her identity’ (2005a, p.
256). He bases the argument for the presence of narrative on two conditions;
sequentiality (also termed action) and identity. Of identifying the former in a
lyric, he says:
Borrowing the concepts of frame and script from cognitivism makes this
possible in two ways. They provide a controlled means of linking a
poem to its sociocultural context via the reader’s relevant world
knowledge, and these schemata provide a new, specific, and precise way
of describing the distinctive kinds of progression in poems (and thus
their meanings) (2005a p. 257).
In broad terms, ‘frame’ here refers to an identifiable theme and ‘script’
to the separate acts that make up or operate to serve it, that is, they are the
central concern of the poem and the depiction of states that convey it. These
changes might relate to tangible objects or to a mental /emotional state, or
both. In any case, what is notable is that Hühn also stresses that the
construction of story depends on the reader’s inferential contribution, working
out what is happening in the ‘fuller’ world indicated but not richly detailed by
the poem.
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Frederick Ruf stresses that narrative (and he routinely uses the word to
mean story) has not only more information to present but also more
intelligibility, notwithstanding any gaps and disruptions, because of the way
that the reader perceives the authorial voice:
This authority is not seriously undercut by ‘peripeteia’, that is, surprises
or discontinuities in a narrative, for in spite of them, as Thiemann points
out, the narrative still ‘move[s] towards a discernable conclusion’ (86).
In fact, we might say that the strength of the narrator is increased for we
attribute to the narrator an underlying unity that exists despite all sorts
of hindrances. The narrator is telling us all these events, full of
mysteries and surprises, so, evidently, he or she is not subject to
peripeteia. In some sense, the narrator “contains” the entire story, gaps
and all. He or she possesses coherence even where it does not seem to
exist (1994, p. 810).
Logically, this must also be an argument for according lyric poetry a
narrative authority. The poet’s choice of that form, with its attendant
limitations of length, is no less deserving of a reader’s trust in authorial voice
and a sense of underlying unity. A reader’s confidence in the narrator might
be stronger in a longer text where there is repeated opportunity for any doubt
to be allayed, but whether the text is perceived as moving ‘towards a
discernable conclusion’ is surely an issue unique to each case. Not all textual
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gaps will be productive for the reader but in principle their judicious use can
be very fruitful, in lyric poetry as in prose.
We search for patterns and logical links that are causal and
chronological, even if we have to identify them on a provisional basis pending
better information. Presented with a bridal gown, a honeymoon suite, and a
groom, but no bride (as in Matthew Sweeney’s ‘The Bridal Suite’ poem), a
reader will instinctively reach for a rational explanation of the events that
would give this situation sense. The power of a textual fragment to encourage
story building is shown below.
A NARRATIVE INSTANT IN THE LYRIC THEATRE
To illustrate a key element of narrative function, the paradigm of opposition
that pulls a reader through a story, I will now offer a brief description of a
situation. It will also provide an analogy for the narrative process as we
encounter it in the lyric poem.
Let us imagine a man in a street whose path is blocked by a very large
puddle. What might happen next (putting aside the slapstick possibilities of
passing cars and a sudden drenching)? He might retreat altogether, or look for
a path around the obstacle, or walk through the puddle, or try to jump over it,
for example. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was famed for his mastery of the
photographic portrait and especially for his ability to see and to react quickly
to an opportunity to record a fleeting image, apparently encountered a similar
situation.
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In 1932, he stuck his camera between the slats of a fence near the
St.-Lazare railway station in Paris at precisely the right instant
and captured a picture of the watery lot behind the station,
strewn with debris. A man has propelled himself from a ladder
that lies in the water.
No wonder other photographers couldn't believe Mr. CartierBresson's luck, much less his skill. The term that has come to be
associated with him is ‘the decisive moment’…Mr. CartierBresson described ‘the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of
a second of the significance of an event, as well as the precise
organization of forms that give that event its proper expression’
(Kimmelman 2004, Online).
Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
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There are two important things to note here in the context of this
meditation on narrative and the instant. The ‘decisive moment’ may refer to
Cartier-Bresson’s ability to rapidly realise an image as an aesthetic object and
to appreciate its composition, but Kimmelman’s comments are illuminating in
another respect because they also refer to Cartier-Bresson’s recognition that
the image will have the capacity to signify, to be organised, to express.
The ‘decisive moment’ is ambiguous in that it could equally apply to a
character’s threshold moment, when an action can be undertaken or withheld,
one path or another taken. This point of multiple possibilities will eventually
be resolved by the still pending decision, but until then it presents an
unresolved plot outcome (my thesaurus offers ‘up in the air’ as an alternative
to ‘unresolved’, a happy coincidence given the photograph here). The moment
is suspended; it belongs briefly and equally to more than one future…and then
the step is taken, as we see in the picture.
The reader flicks back and forth between the moment that preceded the
jump and its after effects, both of which are outside the frame, in much the
same way as a reader contemplates the larger context in which a brief poem is
located. The instant of decision is when the other alternative futures are
cancelled. The narrative is propelled along a ghostly track of possible
pathways that are each firming up as consecutive decisions are made. The
paradigm of opposition functions in a story to provide a series of these
decisive moments, each of which must be determined before the next can be
offered—though not every one of them is apparent to the reader. Such
graduated closure, the serial collapse of plot potentialities, is how the plot
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becomes manageable. In terms of the wedding story, it may be when the
groom or bride says ‘I do’ or, instead, runs from the church.
This frozen moment, the narrative instant, implies a number of things.
It suggests a larger story structure in which the instant must be imbedded,
which means a period before and a period after it. It follows that we must have
a cause and an outcome, otherwise the moment is an immaculate conception,
miraculously independent of the normal causal connections in the world. A
narrative framework requires such links that make a logical connection
between successive events, or else they will be perceived as merely
coincidental and unrelated. In addition, reader interest will be raised if there is
uncertainty of outcome and also something of significance at stake, since both
predictability and triviality would rob the moment of dramatic tension.
Ideally, too, the choice that is to be made is at least partially within the
protagonist’s control, so that he carries some responsibility for what happens.
The creator of the narrative instant also presumes a reader’s capacity,
tendency, even need and desire to draw inferences about these things. Brooks
remarks that he wants to ‘see the text itself a system of internal energies and
tensions, compulsions, resistances, and desires’ (1984, p. XIV), that is, as a
kind of energy system in which the reader is vitally implicated.
That is a lot to expect from the combination of a single image and a
reader but it stems reasonably from our capacity to situate meagre evidence in
a greater context in order to make sense of what we encounter, even if that is
done quite provisionally. We continually ask ‘what is going on here’?’
Whether the story then constructed is weak or strong in narrative detail is not
the main point, but rather that a story is latent in the smaller work regardless.
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We do not need to construct a cogent plot on the immediate occasion of each
encounter but to be willing to work towards one. The tendency to infer action
is evident also in photographer Robert Capa’s famous 1939 diptych, ‘Tour de
France’, which shows the faces of a street crowd before and after the passage
of the pelaton but does not show the competing cyclists themselves. As poet
Heather McHugh remarks of these images, the action is missing but the idea is
present (1993, p. 25):
All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn. It is
the very art of turnings, towards the white frame of the page, toward the
unsung, toward the vacancy made visible, that wordlessness in which
our words are couched (McHugh 1993, p. 75).
There is no reason to discriminate between a photograph and a small
lyric poem in relation to the reliance on inference, as each one is suitable
ground for the reader’s exercise. Either might use a connection to a wedding
because that connects to a wealth of ancillary wedding events with which a
reader might construct a larger framework, a tentative story. A wedding
photograph embodies both the instant and the arc of the larger narrative from
which it is taken. It does not exist in isolation because it already belongs and
indicates (signs) the relational world that gives it fullest meaning. Our
understanding of that image is triggered by reading it and deducing the
context: we stand at a distance and construct a place for the frozen moment
which is part of a continuum. Kinney says that it is overly tempting to ‘deal in
tidy binary oppositions (poetry/prose, lyric/narrative)’ (1992, pp. 8, 191).
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Ultimately, she decides that poetic narrative illustrates that poem and narrative
can co-exist, thus contributing a vital dynamic tension (p. 191).
While Roland Barthes devotes a chapter of Image Music Text to
photography (1977, pp. 15-31), his interest there is not in its narrative
potential but primarily in the capacity of the image to operate as code, albeit
in a limited way, and the way that it functions in conjunction with any
accompanying text. Nonetheless, the framing of particular contents in an
individual photograph results from an editorial choice about inclusion and
omission (what is inside and outside the image, and how this is presented).
Barthes recognises that the created image may use iconographic elements and
the viewer’s likely association of ideas that go with certain stock figures and
symbols (1977, p. 22).
A lyric poem need not present an unequivocal decision point, though
that would be a strong indication of a narrative mode. In some poems, it might
offer little more than gestures towards an event but, even then, with the
reader’s contribution through their recognition of the situation and its
significance, it is possible for the poem to perform a narrative function. Signs
of a wedding in a lyric poem conjure myriad possibilities—they may be
miniature but powerful because they reflect acts on the stage of a commonly
understood theatre of human behaviour.
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SUMMARY
At the beginning of this chapter, I outline the genesis of the project and posit a
general lack of recognition of a narrative function within lyric poetry. The
next stage necessarily involves defining wedding poetry, with a brief
historical account of the traditional wedding poem, the epithalamium.
Wedding poetry is then broadly defined as ‘poetry that might concentrate on a
wedding but which could equally make an incidental connection with
weddings’. This enables me to cover the widest range of wedding references
and to consider them more fully than a proscriptive approach would allow.
Defining narrative and story is more complex, especially given the
different theoretical positions that inform some views. There is general
agreement among theorists that telling stories is intrinsic to our
comprehension of the world and to negotiating our lives in it—and that story
can generally be regarded as embodied in any account of change through time.
Distinguishing plot from story highlights the reader’s role in working to
construct the latter, with obvious ramifications for the way that lyric poems
are read. Stimulating the reader’s desire to work through textual material is
key to the argument that fragmented and discontinuous elements in a lyric
poem may still be adequate to allow a narrative process. The role of the reader
is thus critical, since she integrates the text with experiences and knowledge
that exist outside it, routinely employing an indefatigable tendency to try
making sense, that is, to bring the text into a scheme of order that she already
possesses. Narrative functions to unite the text and the reader, establishing an
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interpretative framework that the writer anticipates in order to maximise the
effectiveness of their work. In broad terms then, my view approximates that of
the structuralist and communication theorists in this respect.
Defining lyric poetry is more problematic. Lyric is the dominant form
of contemporary poetry and thus most relevant to understanding current
modes of writing and reading poetry. Commonly agreed characteristics of
lyric poetry are brevity, musicality (which I team with heightened language),
an emphasis on subjective utterance (usually by an individual voice in the first
person), and a degree of intimacy. A sense of disclosure or epiphany is also
likely. This kind of poetry makes demands on the reader, strongly relying on
her inclination to construct meaning and narrative from occasionally sketchy
and disordered material. The inescapable conclusion is that there is a narrative
function in lyric poetry, and I illustrate the process at work with discussion of
a single photographic image, which is analogous to the minimal features to be
encountered in a lyric poem.
In the following chapter I will begin to apply these ideas to analysis of
specific wedding poems by other authors and then turn to the poems that I
have written for this project, The Floating Bride. In the process, I will draw
out in more detail some of the theoretical aspects of narrative and the lyric
poem raised so far.
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CHAPTER 3:
A FISTFIGHT, A HANGMAN, A LION’S
BRIDE
…no author worth his salt will ever attempt
to set the whole picture before his reader’s eyes
Wolfgang Iser 1980, p. 57
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INTRODUCTION
In this chapter, I discuss the kind of research undertaken to discover wedding
references in contemporary poetry, and then explain the significance of the
findings. This applies the ideas raised in the previous chapter about both lyric
poetry and the nature of narrative. I then illustrate aspects of the narrative
function at work in such poems by analysing selected poems in detail.
In the body of wedding poems that I have surveyed, the key features of
courtship through to the wedding ceremony and eventually to the honeymoon
are represented, if sometimes only through implication. It is unusual that a
single poem deals with that whole sequence; instead, we are mostly presented
with a slice of the continuum and expected to imagine the events on either
side. These poems tend to show a clustering of techniques and themes. The
poems generally depict wedding activities and attitudes towards them in a
straightforward way, and wedding references more often play a supporting
rather than central role.
The poets do occasionally give absurdist approaches rein; a wedding
gown becomes the sail of a boat in Charles Simic’s ‘Marina’s Epic’ (Simic
1995, pp. 91-93), and brides drift through the skies in Andrew Motion’s ‘A
Dream of Peace’ (Motion 1997, pp. 86-93). Most poems treat the wedding as
a traditional and solemn occasion and, by inference, place it as a high point in
a couple’s life. Frivolity and satire are rare, though there are some sarcastic
references when issues of fidelity are raised or when women’s roles in society
are raised for critical comment. On the whole, the wedding is treated
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respectfully and provides the poets with an occasion to make serious
observations about the nature of human relationships.
As we might expect, the poets predominantly choose the bride as their
subject. The mythology of the bride figure is so firmly entrenched that it
provides a ready resource to which poets naturally tend when writing about
weddings (and it might also help that the bride has the boldest costume).
Historically, she has been seen as imbued with the virtues of innocence and a
type of femininity that have been highly valued. The bride is seldom reinvented in these poems, that is, she is not made into a starkly new kind of
creature. She is still conservatively represented as a traditional figure with a
central position in the ceremony. This treatment also makes the bride a site of
contestable ideologies that ask what is desirable for women in this role if,
indeed, they are required to play it at all. In the second part of Sarah Day’s
poem ‘Brides’, for instance, the bride-to-be is in procession, moving towards
what she sees as an event over which she now has no control (1987, pp. 6364).
Brides are often represented in the poems as iconic but powerless,
symbols of a socially required rite and position. I was surprised that there was
not more joy and more irreverence. Where were the poets’ depictions of
brides as vital and responsible figures? Where were the brides as rebels or as
powerful agents of their own futures? Because of their marked absence, I
wrote such women into poems for The Floating Bride. In contrast, the
bridegroom was comparatively under-represented and this relative absence is
a little puzzling; it makes for a very lop-sided wedding. In the surveyed
poems, he is more often incidental; a necessary figure but not generally
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sufficient to justify a focus of his own. He is there to ‘make up the numbers’,
or even merely to be inferred rather than being explicitly depicted. In general,
the groom stands, ghost-like, somewhere off to the side.
The most common wedding motifs in the surveyed poetry, other than
the bride herself, are veils, rings and photographs, and especially the gown.
Their use may seem predictable to the point of cliché in some cases, but they
are instantly recognisable, which is a virtue when literary economy is
concerned. Critic Kathy Hunt writes that, ‘if a cliché is defined as a truth told
too often, all truths great and small are at the mercy of a writer’s sincerity and
ability’ (Hunt 2005, p. R15). Clearly, the onus is on the poet to lift the
familiar, such as a reference to a bride, so that its contribution to the poem
moves beyond predictability. Some poems in this research did not achieve that
distinction but they mention recognisable objects as part of their repertoire of
getting the reader to identify and react to a shared iconography, thus helping
to frame the story.
Wedding motifs in the poems are often simply named for what they
are, without any particular poetic effect seemingly intended, though they may
help to locate or describe actions and actors. The poet may simply want the
reader to know that a particular character is a groom in order to fix that person
and his role in relation to what we expect of grooms when subsequent events
are made apparent. It is an informative function—in other words, there is no
special art at work: ‘There is no poetry in the direct expression of an idea, the
poetry is in the figurative, symbolical, metaphorical expression’ (Elie Rabier
in Brown 1996, p. 99).
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Using ‘bridal’ or ‘wedding’ as an adjective clearly identifies gowns
and rings and photographs as wedding paraphernalia, but such advertisement
is less necessary with references to veils as they are infrequently worn outside
weddings (though that may be changing with the influx of conservative
Moslem customs to Western countries). Within the poems, the terms act as
clear, shorthand references to the weddings, and many of the poems identified
in this project rely on that charged association without having to elaborate
explicitly on the nature of the connection; that is, they rely heavily on reader
knowledge.
A range of poetic devices relies on knowledge of the paraphernalia and
practices of weddings. The metaphoric value of references to gowns, veils and
rings is critical to the success of these poems since their brevity is consistent
with the poets’ need to be concise and to allow other issues to be given more
weight. Metonymy, when a characteristic object stands for the actual subject,
is sometimes employed, such as when, for example, ‘gown’ is used to mean
‘bride’. Synecdoche, the naming of a part that stands for the whole, is also
part of the arsenal, when for example ‘ring’ might mean ‘marriage’
(Matterson & Jones 2005, p. 46). The poems would otherwise labour under
the need to spell out each link that is being made, such as when the single
word ‘bride’ is being used as a sign for ‘submissive woman’ or ‘optimistic
woman’ or ‘woman on the verge of blissful future’ (some irony intended).
A feature not addressed in the literature of lyric poetry but discovered
in research for this thesis (and might prove fertile area for further researchers)
is finding the most prominent theme in the wedding poems is death. This
might seem unusual until one considers that the key premise of weddings is
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hope. Death arguably represents the extinction of that optimism, or at least a
reminder of its fragility. A shadow is thus thrown over weddings, dramatic
tension requiring that a happy outcome is to be complicated with uncertainty
and the possibility of sadness. But why introduce death to a wedding poem at
all? With rare exception, these poems do not merely celebrate the delight of
marital union; they are not aimed at an audience that demands happy endings
or simplistic treatments. Just as other artistic representations of weddings offer
light and shade, and create suspense rather than a sure and happy outcome,
these poems taste a darker joy. By incorporating references to death they
remind us of the fleeting nature of our human affairs and earthly pleasures,
and that nothing should be taken for granted. It is a subject with a natural
appeal for the poet wanting to make an impact in a brief poem, as poet Simon
Armitage remarks in his edited anthology, 101 Very Short Poems (2002, p.
xiv).
Death and love are intertwined in another way, through the
longstanding notion that each orgasm is a ‘little death’: ‘In the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries to “die” means to experience the consummation of the
act of love’ (Brooks 1966, p. 182; and see Flinker 1999, p. 214). In an article
exploring Renaissance literature’s representations of sexuality, and the orgasm
in particular, Paul Hartle points out Aristotle’s claim that the orgasm is lifethreatening (Hartle 2002, p. 80 re ‘De Longitudine et Brevitate Vitae’) and
that John Donne takes up this idea in several of his poems, notably in ‘The
Canonization’ (‘We’are Tapers too, and at our own cost die’; 1994, p. 7), in
‘Farewell to Love’ (‘…each such Act, they say, / Diminisheth the length of
life a day’; 1994, p. 49), and in ‘The First Anniversary’ (‘Wee kill our selves
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to propogate our kinde’; 1994, p. 175). A recent example embodying this idea
is in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop
Worrying and Love the Bomb, in which US military commander Brigadier
General Jack D. Ripper ‘rants about fluoridation being a commie conspiracy
to “sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids”’ (Axmaker 2008, Online).
With death casting a shadow even over moments of sexual bliss, it is no
surprise that it would be thought of in conjunction with weddings also.
There is another connection between the lyric poem and death.
Disruptions in poems can be used to ward off coherence and thus ‘connection,
consequence and death’ (Cameron 1979, p. 203), achieving a brief kind of
timelessness. Fragmentation resists the construction of a linear narrative path
with its attendant ‘arrival’ or completion; incoherence and an open ending
help to leave the poem unresolved. That might be the reader’s perception in
the transient moment of fullest engagement with the text, when time appears
to be suspended. In one sense, this tallies with a view discussed in an earlier
chapter of this thesis regarding the difference between the narrative and lyric
poem, the lyric poem offering an intensely felt experience and the narrative a
more discursive one, and yet immersion in a long prose text arguably offers a
greater period of displacement from real life.
Trying to escape a sense of order through such techniques is a forlorn
ambition in the end since a reader frustrated or delayed by textual
fragmentation will still pursue a scheme that registers with her own
conception of pattern and logic in life. When regarding a lyric poem with
intellectual detachment rather than the immediacy of the intensely felt reading
experience, it is clear that such strategies must also inevitably and
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simultaneously elicit notions of the opposite, that is, of death and closure: ‘All
action, these poems seem to insist, and consequently all narrative and story on
whose shoulders action is carried, leads to ending, leads to death’ (Cameron
1979, p. 203), but it is a technique that can only slow rather than negate the
process of recognising a narrative path in the poem. Claims of distancing
death or distracting from it by use of such lyric techniques must concern
merely temporary sensations and, thus, be essentially illusory victories. In any
case, the focus on death in the remainder of this chapter relates to
representational aspects in the poetry.
In this chapter, then, I look at a number of poems in detail to illustrate
the use of wedding references and their thematic aspects. Some concern
brevity, at least one poem might be read as an anti-epithalamium, and several
do revolve around issues of loss or death. The main poems discussed are:
•
‘The Wedding’ – Steve Kelen
•
‘The Wedding Plan’ – Aidan Coleman
•
‘Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding’ – Beth Ann Fennelly
•
‘The Bridal Suite’ – Matthew Sweeney
•
‘Marrying The Hangman’ – Margaret Atwood
•
‘The Lion’s Bride’ – Gwen Harwood
What remains now is to consider the selected poems and to see the
extent to which each could be said to exhibit a narrative function. All but the
very brief Kelen poem are attached in Appendices.
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INVITING THE READER TO A WEDDING: ‘THE
WEDDING’
Addressing the problem of how to define a narrative sequence, structural
theorist Tzvetan Todorov considers the individual’s faculty for judging
whether a complete narrative sequence exists in a given text or not. A mere
image or description may not be regarded as comprising a narrative; there is
some boundary area where texts are considered to qualify as narrative or not
(Todorov 1977, p. 232). This innate competence is too imprecise to function
as a reliable test in itself (along the lines of, ‘I think there is a narrative, so
there must be one’); it relies on impressions rather than an externally validated
process of classification or on any particular and reasonably robust defining
characteristics. Todorov (1977, p. 232) thought that more was required: ‘the
tale requires not only action but also reaction, it also requires a lack of
coincidence. One should not just gather random phrases and call them a poem.
There should be an evident causal chain in the text, with a triggering incident
or situation and a corresponding effect rather than merely a bundle of
unmotivated and disconnected elements.
Given the brevity of most lyric poems, we could anticipate that this
causal chain might not be wholly represented in them. In such a miniature
piece as Steve Kelen’s ‘The Wedding’, reproduced in full below, we see that
the narrative thread may initially seem tenuous, but that it is present and
active:
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The Wedding
Punch-up in car park
Groom spits teeth, classic wedding
Never forgotten
Kelen 2000, p. 22
This poem concisely depicts a scene that appears in numerous
accounts of weddings and wedding receptions, the confrontation. Haiku-like
in structure (seventeen syllables disposed as 5-7-5 beats across three lines),
the poem encapsulates much that is important and stereotypical of weddings,
especially with its implicit tension and manifest conflict, as playwright Jack
Hibberd has remarked of weddings in general and of his famous wedding
reception play, Dimboola, in particular (2006, pers. comm., 7 March).
Even in a very short poem, it is conceivable that there are
redundancies. For example, we may ask whether the final line of the Kelen
poem is really necessary. It might be deleted without significant loss of
narrative value for a typical reader, then simply reading, ‘Punch-up in car park
/ Groom spits teeth, classic wedding’. Even ‘classic wedding’ could be
discarded, becoming the revised title—or that line be retained and the title
dropped: in traditional haiku no title would be used (Hardy 2002, p. 16),
though it is common in recent Western versions. The phrase in question does
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seem to preclude an even more brutal conclusion, so it performs a useful
closing role in particularising, especially since it could be read as expressing
the significance of the event to the narrator.
What do we actually know about the events that the poem presents?
There is a fight that involves the groom, and it occurs outside the site of the
wedding or reception. What causes it and what follows are not explained. We
might imagine that the brawl stems from a simmering dispute. The individual
possibilities are many, but the general types are few and we draw on our
existing knowledge of such events to refine the likely explanations.
Analysis of haiku by Masako Hiraga shows that they ‘assume common
knowledge that shapes the cultural cognitive model’ employed by readers to
gauge the meaning of the text. Hiraga (1999, p. 461-479) refers to the poets’
and readers’ reference to customs and everyday experiences during this
process. Each element in a brief poem is important for its contribution, just as
with the construction of narrative:
Every separable element in a narrative can be said to have its own plot,
its own little system of tension and resolution which contributes its bit to
the general system. Not only every episode or incident but every
paragraph and every sentence has its beginning, middle and end
(Scholes & Kellogg 1966, p. 239).
Haiku may communicate much more than their few words initially
suggest, as Kyoko Selden remarks of one of Hosai Ozaki’s spare but resonant
pieces: ‘it conveys all the more fully the sense of completion and of the still
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standing detached observer. This is typical of Hosai’s language through which
he recorded, one step behind himself, his knowledge of the present instant’
(Ozaki 1993, p. 13). The moment is alive with multiple possibilities; it is
contextual, living on its attachments to the world that give it meaning for the
reader. We see this in an untitled haiku by Jack Kerouac, where the bride is a
figure who may be ghostly or real:
The falling snow—
The hissing radiators—
The bride out there
Kerouac 2003, p. 163
The poem presents the seasonal reference traditional to haiku that
contrasts heat and cold in order to emphasise the vulnerability of a presumably
displaced bride, and suggests the snow-white wedding gown worn by the
bride. The reader has to summon possible explanations for this strange
situation. Interestingly, Charles Simic also sets characters in a snowstorm in
his short poem, ‘Blizzard of Love’, and pushes the reader to explain events
that occur when a bridal figure appears out of the swirling whiteness (Simic
1999, p. 44). One might expect a claim to be made for intensity of vision in
haiku poetry that is consistent with traditional definitions of the lyric. The
translator of Modern Japanese Poetry, James Kirkup, states this about
Japanese poetry (in what itself might be called a lyrical outburst):
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Every poem is an essence, a distillation of a whole lifetime, a whole
civilization, through a vision or an insight …eternalised in a breath, a
sigh, a shout of joy or indignation, a laugh, a song, a prayer, an
expression of impossible longing (1978, p. xxxii).
At first blush, a small lyric poem might be thought too compact to
permit reader construction of a coherent narrative, but its ‘compactness is
relieved by the attendant amplitude, felt not only in what is actually said but in
all the suggestions implicit in skilfully chosen words, or in the movement of
the lines’ (Whitmore 1918, p. 596). In other words, there is more to the poem
than the mere information content of the words on the page; suggestion must
be received and recognised, and acted upon by the imaginative reader. In
addition, there is scope for a reader to apply her own knowledge of the
cultural background on which the poem relies. Haiku scholar Harold Stewart
writes that, ‘the haiku poets could assume in their audience a familiarity with
the lore and legends, ceremonies and customs, of their common cultural
heritage’ (1969, p. 10). This would enable the readers to bring to their reading
a relevant knowledge of context that would explain and amplify some of the
more subtle nuances within the poem. We might recall what has already been
said in an earlier chapter here about the integral role of the reader, given what
one internationally recognised editor and writer of haiku, Cor van den Heuvel,
says:
The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness…To see what
is suggested by a haiku, the reader must share in the creative process,
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being willing to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the
words. (van den Heuvel 1999, pp. vv-xvi).
On the surface, the lyric poem may be thought to face obstacles in
making high demands on the reader. It can be argued that its
‘comprehensiveness is extremely limited because the world that is engaged is
so small…and because the vision is not accomplished, not finished’ (Ruf
1994, p. 811), but that charge could be levelled at other kinds of text also, and
it is still the reader who takes up the work of completion. Ruf (p. 811) adds, as
a further criticism of the lyric poem, that there is ‘a sense of a larger, looming
world outside of lyric’s vision which makes the lyric stance far from
magisterial’. What would he make of the Kelen poem? While emphasising
limitations of the lyric in apparently lacking a masterful authorial presence
(the ‘magisterial’ stance), Ruf tacitly and simultaneously underlines the
valuable role of the reader in recognising key aspects of the world that looms
outside the poem rather than having to be told them.
A poem need not be magisterial in the sense that Ruf intends, as that
would require more exposition than the imperatives of lyric style would
normally employ, or often need. Making deliberate omissions or using textual
lacunae to prompt reader engagement is evident in westernised haiku too, as
in Gary Snyder’s Zen Buddhism inspired poetry: ‘The poems demand that
their reader exceed rational and discursive approaches and engage his
imagination, and ultimately his intuition, actively in the completion of the
poetic experience’ (Norton & Snyder 1987, p. 43). Snyder’s poetry, like the
Kelen poem, usually elides the speaker, but still narrates.
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The haiku is not the only type of brief poem that exercises a kind of
narrative function. The ghazal also relies on our innate urge to read texts as
narrative. A terse poem of between five and twelve closed couplets (called
shers or shi’rs), its form dates from at least the thirteenth century and persists
today. The Persian mystic Rumi (1207-1273) is a celebrated exponent. In the
classical ghazal, according to Lorna Crozier, ‘you have to be willing to give
up anything that resembles narrative. Story is sacrificed for suggestion,
implication, allusion’ (2003, p. 60); yet this view is hard to sustain. It is more
that ghazals distance the clear links that narrative employs in order to pull the
reader into the task of making connections.
While the ghazal should avoid obvious storytelling, it cannot and
should not completely efface it. The presence of a narrative connection in
some traditional ghazals is highlighted in one study that states, somewhat
critically: ‘the work is simply a hodegpodge of lyrics strung together by a
slender thread of narrative’ (Dankoff 1984, p. 9). There is normally a tension
in the ghazal between creating a finely balanced series of images that point to
a unifying view but that do so rather shyly, avoiding a transparent naming of
the very links on which they ultimately rely. In fact, Crozier remarks that
sometimes ‘the poems don’t seem to be going anywhere…often the ideas and
images seem unrelated. As readers we are asked to do a lot of work. The form
demands trust as we look through the glass darkly to see or intuit the hidden
harmony that is there’ (Crozier 2003, p. 64), which reveals the first plank of
narrative construction, the reader’s engagement in sense making.
The ghazal is not then actually antagonistic to narrative. Rather, it is
deliberately delicate about it how it employs the reader’s tendency to
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construct meaning and narrative. It knowingly embraces the art of the
glimpse, of being tentative, but it is still about unity: ‘The form challenges our
notions of what can be brought together and held’ (Crozier 2003, p. 68). A
similar view is put by Frances Pritchett, who says that the seeming
independence of the individual shi’r is a ‘trick of perspective. For the shi’r in
fact inhabits the whole ghazal universe, and so becomes one node in an
elaborate, richly articulated network’ (1994, p. 89). Even as ghazals resist
interpretation that would go beyond surface meaning, they pose a deliberate
test of the reader’s resolve to find it (1994, p. 193) and to make connections,
as ghazal writer Eric Folsom also notes (1996, Online). A similar intention
can be gleaned in other lyric poetry, where the pleasure of language is never
completely divorced from story, even in such abbreviated forms as the haiku.
The ghazal is garrulous compared to the haiku, however, and it
operates on the basis of connection between the couplets, using a narrative’s
momentum: ‘the couplet’s closure is not allowed to last, for one seemingly
complete pair of lines is followed by another tugging it forward until the
inconclusive finale’ (Crozier 2003, p. 69). Patrick Lane’s use of four-couplet,
end-stopped ghazals ‘to stop himself from drifting into a hint of narrative’
(Crozier 2003, p. 74) actually underlines the power of narrative to assert itself.
The natural state of the reader’s engagement with text is construction of story.
Such a minimal poem as the ghazal embraces narrative just as it dances on the
edge of it. Indeed, in one of her own ghazals, Crozier writes, ‘Hasidic wisdom
says that God / made the world to tell him stories’ (Crozier 2003, p. 16).
In another poem also simply titled ‘The Wedding’, Andy Kissane
similarly represents a wedding in his contemporary adaptation of the story of
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Tristan and Isolde, a tale of love and tragedy that dates from the twelfth
century. The poem reflects something of the tone of the Kelen poem and also
alludes to the reader’s knowledge of the common characteristics of weddings,
especially in relation to their lines ‘classic wedding’ (Kelen 2000, p. 22) and
‘It was like any other wedding’ (Kissane 2000, p. 52). This is an excerpt:
It was like any other wedding
The bridesmaids’ dresses
The speeches
The awful music
The telegram from the football team
And Uncle Morgan’s joke
That my hem needed taking up
Kissane 2000, p. 52
As with haiku, a reader would bring sufficient knowledge to both of
the above poems to understand the significance of the car park incident and
the probabilities for various, subsequent courses of action, even if there were
some uncertainty about the particularity of events on either side. Edward
Branigan, who opposes the treatment of lyric poetry as if it has a narrative
function, nonetheless writes:
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…a narrative schema becomes important. It helps to direct our
search for pertinent causes by proposing a segmentation applicable
on many scales of action and ‘filling in’ any connectives that are
missing from the surface structure. We discover and justify
connections among narrative elements with respect to such
schematic functions as goal, reaction, resolution, epilogue and
narration (Branigan 1992, p. 29).
This supports the idea that the reader locates the events of the poem in
a personal frame of experience. Branigan goes on to say that: ‘these schemas
are a way of working through cultural assumptions and values. Thus ‘cause
and effects’ emerge, as it were, after the fact as explanatory labels for a
sequence of actions’ (1992, p. 29). We interpret the text provisionally as our
reading proceeds, imputing motives and outcomes based on our own
knowledge and cultural stance. The poet has invited the reader to share in the
basic premise of what constitutes stock wedding plot lines, thus limiting the
wayward interpretation of key events. As with prose fiction, a poem must
always engage the reader’s imagination, avoiding predictability and
overexposition. It is true, then, that ‘…no author worth his salt will ever
attempt to set the whole picture before his reader’s eyes’, as Wolfgang Iser
says, and that ‘ if he does, he will very quickly lose his reader, for it is only by
activating the reader’s imagination that the author can hope to involve him
and so realize the intentions of the text (1980, p. 57).
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BEST LAID PLANS: ‘THE WEDDING PLAN’
In Aidan Coleman’s poem, ‘The Wedding Plan’, a prospective groom
incisively recounts the politics of his in-laws’ reaction to news that their
daughter is engaged to marry. In various ways, the family members seek to
delay the wedding. Far from posing the wedding as a general cause for
celebration, the poem treats it as a fraught occasion:
They’ve planned a holding operation:
hired ushers,
an actor for the ‘speak now
or forever…’
and a car outside
with the motor running,
tickets to anywhere.
Coleman 2005, pp. 31-32
The narrative tension in the poem derives from varying the sentiment
associated with the standard sequence of wedding events instigated by
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courtship and a proposal of marriage. Instead of sharing the couple’s pleasure
in deciding to wed, the family offers reluctance bordering on outright
hostility. The poem builds on the tradition of star-crossed lovers and family
feuds, stacking the odds against the newly engaged.
Story requires difference. It would not satisfy readers and hold their
attention if the elements together told them no more than they already knew.
A story needs what Willliam Labov calls a ‘most reportable event’ that
readers value highly: ‘A most reportable event is the event that is less
common than any other in the narrative and has the greatest effect upon the
needs and desires of the participants in the narrative’ (Labov 1997, Online).
The reportable event in this poem is the surprise of the family reaction and
their resort to strategies that would delay or even halt the planned wedding.
Novelty and surprise are highly valued: ‘A narrator evaluates events by
comparing them with events in an alternative reality that was not in fact
realized’ (Labov 1997, Online).
The narrator’s constant weighing of story paths and potential outcomes
must in some ways prefigure the assessment by the reader about which of the
realities is ultimately to be realised. Will the wedding go ahead? Will the
couple achieve their goal despite the family’s explicit resistance? This process
of deferring an outcome (in the case of this poem, indefinitely so) requires us
to undertake a provisional reading in which there is interplay of several
possibilities, pending further information. The poet knows that this can be
carefully employed to keep the reader guessing until the last moment, and that
giving away such data too soon will mean that the poem may overstay its
welcome or need some other driving interest to take over. Coleman’s poem
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casts great doubt over whether the wedding will proceed, increasing the
dramatic tension. Far from running on the spot, and concentrating on just the
simple utterance of the family’s opposition, he conjures different
manifestations of that attitude and, crucially, leaves the ending open.
The doomed marriage is a staple of book and film and, in this case, it
is the women in the family who most voice resistance. When their strategies
prove fruitless, they switch to taking over the planning of the wedding as a
way of stalling. It lets them remain connected to the daughter and, therefore,
able to maintain their advice to call the wedding off. There is also a standing
offer to supply the daughter with an escape route: ‘a car outside / with the
motor running, / tickets to anywhere’ (Coleman 2005, p. 32). The narrative
devices of tension and uncertainty are exploited.
This poem captures the momentum of the greater wedding story at its
second dramatic peak, the first being when the proposal of marriage was
made. That earlier stage involves a hesitation, a decision point at which the
story temporarily hovers while we wait to see the direction in which events
would move—except that we are not shown it. We know that the answer to
the proposal was Yes, but that action precedes the timeframe of Coleman’s
poem, and so we are dealing with its aftermath. It might be regarded as a
bound motif, as Boris Tomashevsky would have it, one that is essential to the
story (Tomashevsky 1965, p. 62) but in this case it occurs before the poem
begins. Neglecting mention of the earlier event does not detract from the
dramatic energy of the poem. We know that it is a necessary prerequisite of
facing the family, and since it is a logical precondition, it does not need to be
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shown when its precise details are not especially important in themselves. It is
enough to know that it has happened, and we can safely assume it.
This recognition of decisive story moments or what Barthes calls
‘hinge-points’ (Barthes 1977, p. 93) highlights the dilemma facing the couple,
and though it may not be quickly recognised, there is an unstated decision
point mooted within the poem. It concerns how the couple reacts to the
family’s opposition. Do they elope, for instance? Or do they, instead,
acquiesce for the time being and decide to proceed slowly, hoping for gradual
acceptance? That is what is left hanging at the end of the poem. But that sense
of open-endedness and ambiguity can be satisfying, and even pursued by a
reader. As poet Kevin Brophy remarks:
…as we listen or read not only do we hold and consider ambiguities but
at a barely conscious level we seek out ambiguities…Poetry tends to
fragment the normal procession of language, thought and experience.
We are suspended upon ambiguities or upon the multiple meanings of
images (Brophy 2003, p. 86).
Barthes comments that ‘narrative is a hierarchy of instances’ in which
it is not sufficient to merely follow the consecutive steps, the horizontal axis
as he puts it, but to read across the story as well, in the vertical axis (Barthes
1977, p.87). He contends that stories can be regarded as a series of functions,
the smallest unit of criterion being meaning, wherever that may be found (p.
88). In other words, everything in a story necessarily contributes to it, but we
can classify the component parts according to the degree to which they enable
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the narrative to move forward rather than just providing filling. The conflict
between the family members over the wedding provides just such a meaning.
Tomashevsky (1965, p. 71) says that: ‘The development of a story may
generally be understood as a progress from one situation to another, so that
each situation is characterized by a conflict of interest, by discord and struggle
among the characters’. Clearly that is what we have in the Coleman poem.
The young couple faces unexpected opposition and now must resolve a
response.
As far as we can tell, the Coleman poem dwells on events that occur in
a single meeting, maybe in the space of just a couple of hours. We have the
elements of narrative; action and response, suspense and meaning, and
reliance on the reader’s assumptions about events that must have preceded the
beginning of the poem. The stakes attached to this scenario and the
implications for the future direction of the couple are high. The poem also
leaves it open to the reader how the story may evolve beyond the last detail
that it offers, ensuring that there is awareness of a larger contingent story
being told.
Narrative can exist synergistically with and be deliberately modified
by lyric method in poetry. In examining the function of narrative in long verse
forms, Clare Kinney acknowledges that the Spenserian stanza ‘temper[s] the
linear unfolding of the larger narrative with the more synchronic design of the
lyric’ (1992, p. 6). The two are not mutually exclusive. But why start with
long verse that is so close to prose with its great volume of information, which
is the raw material, so to speak, of narrative? More challenging would be to
begin at the least ‘unit’ and see whether narrative still holds, and why. At least
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Kinney points to the temporary nature of the closure that each stanza affords,
only ‘briefly distract[ing] us from the larger sequences of meaning in which
the stanza is merely a unit’ (1992, p. 7). The effect of the whole work is what
ultimately matters, and the constituent elements combine to that goal, as
Samuel Taylor Coleridge says: ‘the common end of all narrative, nay of all
Poems, is to convert a series into a Whole…’ (in Griggs 1932, p. 128).
It is easier to ‘find’ evidence of narrative and sub-narrative in longer
poetic works; there is simply more material to juggle, more potential for
connection. Kinney’s analysis perceives a greater energy in the text, which
subverts attempts to contain it tidily in a single narrative thread; the text
creates a story or stories that are bigger than the text itself.
One cannot overestimate the potential impact on a reader of a fleeting
and apparently small reference. The Imagist poetry movement that developed
early last century relied upon just that. It sought an instantaneous epiphanic
effect that might be wrought by a single visual image (or a quick succession
of these), often drawn from objects or actions based in the past and common
life, and expressed in as few words as possible (Pratt 1963, p. 29). A wellknown example is Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, which is distilled
through several longer drafts until it emerges as a couplet, albeit with a title
that acts as an extra and informative first line:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound in Jones 1972, p. 95
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With such emphasis on clear depiction and the immediate power of the
image, it is no wonder that Pound remarks, ‘The image itself is the speech’
(Pound 1914, p. 469). The image needs to work without elaborate exposition,
thus placing more reliance on the reader to make cognitive leaps.
No true poem can be without human content; but in the Imagist poem,
the human content is implied rather than stated. It is implied in the very
choice of the image, as well as in the tone with which the image is
treated (Pratt, 1963, p. 30).
‘In a Station…’ exemplifies the work of the Imagist movement with its
brevity and the metaphoric interplay of its key elements. A straightforward
juxtaposing of faces and blossoms allows the reader to make the obvious
connection; the intent of the poet could hardly be mistaken. In some ways its
antithesis would seem to be T.S. Eliot’s celebrated 1922 poem about death
and renewal, The Waste Land, which is built around a host of intertextual,
cultural and myth references, and a repeated water motif. Its accompanying
footnotes explain some of these, as if Eliot were hedging his bets and not
trusting the reader to sufficiently understand the complexities of this long but
compressed poem without such props. The use of the notes suggests an
inherent weakness in the poem or a lack of faith in the reader (Williamson
1967, p. 120).
The parallel with wedding references is at the level of the individual
word, idea or image that immediately resonates with the reader—in other
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words, more like ‘In a Station…’ than with the myriad references to be found
in The Waste Land. But that is not to say that any particular reference in the
latter could not function quickly and effectively in that manner, directly
conjuring other images and experiences from the reader’s world.
The shorter the poem, the fewer the semantic units to which we can
attach a sense of the characteristic signals of narrative: climax, anticlimax,
reversal, change of pace, etc., but limitations of size do not eliminate narrative
from brief poetry. Instead, reducing its imminent presence, such ellipsis
increases reliance on the reader to compensate for a lack of rich narrative
detail in the text. Coleman’s poem demonstrates that narrative function is not
the prerogative of manifestly narrative poetry.
THE ANTI-EPITHALAMIUM: ‘POEM NOT TO BE READ
AT YOUR WEDDING’
Some poems observe a wedding in a straightforward and positive manner.
Others start in anti-epithalamic mode but are devised to turn, so that after a
cautious start they end with an affirmation of love and partnership. One such
is Bill Holm’s ‘Wedding Poem For Schele and Phil’ (2005, pp. 97-98), which
begins ‘A marriage is risky business these days’ and ends with a celebration
of marriage. Others may remain critical of the wedding and, usually then,
marriage itself, such as Kate Jennings’ ‘Couples’ (1977, p. 54) or simply
hesitant about what seems an inevitable event, as in Gregory Corso’s poem
‘Marriage’ (1963, pp. 15-19). The next poem, though, might be seen as a
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companion to the Coleman poem since it also shows reluctance to give
blessing to a wedding. In this case, someone who has been asked to write an
epithalamium weighs the gravity of that request. Clearly, the narrator thinks
the signs are not good for the future happiness of the couple and considers
how to tell them this. It ends:
Well, Carmen, I would rather
give you your third set of steak knives
than tell you what I know. Let me find you
some other, store-bought present.
Fennelly 2003, Online
The Coleman poem condenses its action into a very short span of time.
The Fennelly poem presents us with action over a number of days, selecting
particular moments that convey the important aspects of the predicament, but
it is still brief—actually 109 words compared with Coleman’s 133. It opens
with factual information that is more than a series of events concerning a
request. To take up Barthes’ point about a vertical axis (Barthes 1977, p.87),
we see that the beginning of the poem also conveys a set of obligations. In the
first place, there is the matter of the requested wedding poem being regarded
as a reciprocated favour.
There is the tacit possibility that the narrator may have felt insulted by
this offer, or that she had little choice—both situations likely to engender
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some bitterness. The stronger issue is the difficulty that the narrator feels
about the writing task itself, and it is not immediately revealed that the hub of
the problem is not an artistic one but to do with her attitude to the impending
marriage. As in the Coleman poem, it is not clear whether the reaction has to
do with the particular match or with marriage in general.
Unlike the Coleman poem, we have more than contemplation of a
position—we also have the resultant action. The scope of the poem is greater,
and the meditative stage persists in our minds after the consequent action has
been decided and taken, echoing Roland Barthes’ comment: ‘Sequences move
in counterpart; functionally, structure of narrative is fugued: thus it is this
narrative at once ‘holds’ and pulls on’ (Barthes 1977, p. 104). We can see the
sequence and the causal connection in the poem between elements of the story
that move us forward, but we also carry earlier impressions, judgements and
knowledge external to the poem with us as we go. The poem offers a slice of
time in the period before a wedding and we can project forward and aft from
it, while it also remains a contained story in its own right. Its narrative
elements seem to be quite clear.
AFTER HAPPILY EVER AFTER: ‘THE BRIDAL SUITE’
Matthew Sweeney’s poem, ‘The Bridal Suite’, sits neatly at the end of the
sequence of wedding events. In this poem we are introduced quite abruptly to
the situation of the protagonist. There is no editorialising; no preparing the
reader with a preamble that sets the context or sketches the characters or
background of the players—instead, we step straight both into the specific
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time and into the state of mind of the groom as he worries about his recurring
dreams: ‘On the third night in the bridal suite / without the bride, he panicked’
(Sweeney 1997, p. 5). After fretting over the mysterious absence of his bride,
the groom has had enough, and he abandons the suite.
To look at aspects of storytelling here, it is useful to begin with an
account of the poem that reduces its content to rudiments; a groom wakes
alone in his honeymoon suite, realises that his wife will not be returning, and
so abandons it. Rendering the poem’s plot elements in such an unadorned
manner highlights the minimalism of the story. It is certainly clear, though,
that we have more complex information than either of the preceding poems
offered. We could say that nothing much happens in the poem, and the
timeframe is short, indeed shorter than in the Fennelly poem, with the directly
represented events occurring in the span of part of just one night, the third one
after the wedding. The ‘real’ action is both brief and undemonstrative; it
consists of the groom waking, bathing, telephoning, gazing out a window, and
departing. There is what might be regarded as more substantial action but it is
contained only in anxious dreams. Is this a story, and what constitutes a story,
in general?
We can apply Gerald Prince’s model (mentioned earlier in discussion
of disequilibrium as a driver of plot), in which at least three components are
required for the existence of story: an initial situation A (stative) is followed
by and joined to B (active), which causes and is therefore followed by C
(stative) (Prince in Rimmon-Kenan 2002, p. 1). In other words, an existing
situation is modified by an intruding action to create a new situation. Taking
Matthew Sweeney’s poem as an example, this conjunction of stative + active
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+ stative could be construed as wedding + quarrel + abandoned groom. The
dispute, we might presume, has caused the absence of the bride. Instead, it
could be that the bride might not have quarrelled with the groom but had
private doubts, taken her own counsel, and then abandoned her partner.
The model used by Prince overstates the requirements for a story if we
treat the three segments as having to be expressly evident in the text, since
causality can often be projected onto temporality. As critic Shlomith RimmonKenan remarks: ‘Does this mean that any two events, arranged in
chronological order would constitute a story? Theoretically speaking, the
answer must be Yes…the temporal conjunction requires us to imagine some
world where these events can co-exist’ (Rimmon-Kenan 2002, p. 19). Here,
Rimmon-Kenan is writing of story in prose, and though she does not say so,
her argument must be equally true of poetry: two sequential events would be
potentially no less a story in a poem than in prose.
In the Sweeney poem, a couple marries and then the groom is alone in
the bridal suite. The intervening causal factor can be inferred, if not with
certainty. The mystery, the lack of information, forms part of the reward for
the reader partly because the bride’s absence is a mystery to the groom also—
though as we read we do not know this for sure, and we can never know.
Nonetheless, the storytelling capacity of poems should be beyond doubt. If we
look at Sweeney’s poem recast as a skeletal account of constituent events, we
see that it contains many more than two or three sequential incidents
concerning the same character. Yet ‘The Bridal Suite’ is a lyric poem, and
lyric poems have seemingly been warned off telling stories.
Narrative poetry is usually distinguished by virtue of its greater length,
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for one thing, using a wider range of techniques to spell out its intent, though
it may lapse into obviousness in the process: ‘the “narrative” tends to exhaust
the signified within the signifier’ (Zumthor 1990, p. 105). Narrative poetry
also has a tradition of representing a clear sequence of events. The role of
poetry as a vehicle for story could thus be reserved to that which fits a quite
formulaic model. Epic poetry, dealing with heroes and mythological creatures
and quests, neatly fits that scheme but is not the only variant. Modern ballads
and bush poetry, for instance, typically present a series of incidents in normal,
linear chronology that drives a story towards an unequivocal ending. On the
other hand, lyric poetry, with its traditionally assumed emphasis on musicality
and intensity of feeling, is cast as the more personal, even eccentric, poor
relation though in the modern idiom especially, it can be a powerful tool for
conveying a strong sense of a story’s development. For instance,
contemporary readers may be more inclined (and more able) to fill in gaps, so
that what might have appeared previously to be a discontinuous gathering of
bits and pieces is now perceived as having a satisfying structural integrity. In
fact, the size of the lyric may help with this: ‘Large-scale texts such as novels
or epics cannot be continually ‘present’ to the reader with an identical degree
of intensity’ (Iser 1978, p. 16). Other things being equal, we would expect a
poem to be more easily grasped because of its brevity. The reader has a better
chance of apprehending the whole.
As this research has stated, the distinction between narrative poetry
and lyric poetry is largely artificial and difficult to sustain. Lyric poetry
employs what are often regarded as the characteristics of prose fiction to tell a
story. Its relative brevity means that it has to employ greater economy in
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doing so. The prose poem may just be the ‘most outrageous example’ of lyric
poetry, as Charles Simic claims, drawing all things and all people together:
‘The prose poem reads like a narrative but works like a lyric, since it relies on
juxtaposition of images and unexpected turns of phrase. An interrupted
narrative, it insists that it has to be read over and over again until its words
and images radiate their full mystery’ (1994, p. 118). What this signifies is a
blurring of the demarcations, a loosening of claims on the territories and
properties formerly treated as belonging to one or another style of poetry only.
With that haziness of definition comes the possibility of abandoning notions
that any single form of poetry alone has sole claim on storytelling in
particular. Simic’s notion of an ‘interrupted narrative’ acknowledges that a
reader may not be presented with, or need to be presented with, the complete
concept of a story in all its details of events and exposition of motivation.
The reader’s recognition and construction of narrative is aided in
another way. Social norms are read as conservative—they resist
modification—but this creates a tension that is productive. In contemporary
texts, as Wolfgang Iser says, these norms signify not just endorsed behaviour
but also the wider spectrum of all possible behaviours (1989 pp. 38-39). What
is perceived as a normal and tolerable action must have a counterpart that is
neither of these—good suggests evil, for instance. Acceptable attributes of
heroic characters thus raise notions of alternative behaviours that may prove
to be both against type and more challenging. Such amplification into
opposites offers a more complex and realistic dimension, a contrast between
light and shade that is also the basis of suspense since it admits that change is
possible and a different situation may eventuate. In the situation of a wedding,
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it might mean that the innocent bride has a potential and darker alter ego, and
the readily summoned notion of a happy path to the altar suddenly conjures its
own shadow, a troubled and uncertain one. The reader cannot know one of
these without acknowledging the other.
‘The Bridal Suite’ is not a narrative poem as it would have been
defined previously, yet it does tell a story. Since the events in the poem must
occur after the wedding, it allows both retrospective and prospective views.
On the one hand, we look back at what might have happened, having to guess
at this since no suitable detail is forthcoming. Was there a specific argument
or a simmering dispute that fractured the relationship? Was this marriage a
mismatch from the start, an awkward alliance that the commitment of the
actual wedding revealed, to the anguish of the bride? Did the bride plan all
along to flee and, if so, what advantage did she obtain by going through with
the wedding? Was the groom some kind of liability—too innocent or cruel or
dumb to be borne by his new bride? These are all matters of conjecture as to
cause and motivation. On the other hand, we also look forward and wonder
what will become of the bride and groom. Is she waiting somewhere, soon to
change her mind? Would she be taken back by the groom if she did? Is there
some further, worrying revelation around the corner?
None of the many possibilities here is inherently more suitable to the
reader than another but the fact that there are so many possible answers, does
not negate the narrative role of the poem. ‘Like other kinds of narrative,
narrative poems also typically end with some kind of narrative
resolution…there may be narrative elements in lyric poems which are brought
to a close in a similar fashion’ (Furniss & Bath 1996, p. 381). I would turn
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that about and say that the open-ended narrative is not to be denied to socalled lyric poetry either. A lack of obvious closure does not remove the
element of story from a poem whatever its usual descriptive label anymore
than it does from other forms of writing. One can dig at the expectation of
closure in narrative poetry as poet Mark Strand does when, irreverently, he
claims to be working on a negative narrative poem that refuses to begin or end
and that has become ‘an inexhaustible conjunction’ (Strand 2001, pp. 63-65).
There is a risk that a deep concern for story structure in a poem, such as
insistence on an unambiguous ending, could become both part of a circular
definition and, thus, an unhelpful imposition
The success of ‘The Bridal Suite’ depends greatly on one critical
factor; our common understanding of what constitutes the archetypal wedding
narrative. The specific story sketched in the poem relies on the reader
knowing what kind of emotional investment a bride and groom usually make
in preparing for their wedding and life in marriage. We also know the
sequence of steps in the wedding ritual, and even if they are presented in
isolation or disorder they can act as something like ‘satellites’, as critic
Seymour Chatwin (in Kermode 1981, p. 89) calls them, which ‘form
associations of their own, nonsequential, secret invitations to interpretation
rather than appeal to a consensus’, and which eventually coalesce around
nodes of recognisable behaviours. They might be present as anchor points
within a text, reminding us of the social rituals and connections shared
between people.
Collectively, these ingredients mean that the path of a wedding offers
great potential for disruption. This is the tension that can add drama and thus
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reward a reader, even when the story’s ultimate goal is a happy ending, and
regardless of whether that goal is achieved within the text. The question may
be broadened from ‘will they get there?’ to ‘how will they get there?’ Setting
‘The Bridal Suite’ three days into the honeymoon, places the groom at the
point when the wedding is still fresh and the prognosis for the marriage would
normally be assumed to be rosy. Sweeney thrusts us instantly into the problem
of the missing bride. The question hanging over the whole poem is ‘why?’:
why is she missing, and, almost more importantly, why is he still waiting?
The effect of withholding background details is to heighten tension, forcing
the reader to surmise possible scenarios and outcomes, the latter extending
beyond the timeframe of the depicted events.
The poem resurrects a decision point that has already occurred in the
recent wedding ceremony when the couple formally resolved to commit to
marriage. We might guess that the bride has since faced another decision that
led her to a different commitment (unless she went into the marriage
unwillingly), and we subsequently learn that the groom makes his own
decision to leave the hotel. These choices exemplify the paradigm of
opposition, in which a story progresses through a series of alternative
pathways. As each decision is made to follow a particular fork in the road, so
to speak, the other possibilities collapse; they are no longer available to be
taken. In a sense then, the story is built on a succession of mini-deaths or
closures, as various alternative plot pathways are eliminated. More than this,
the outcome of the poem is a signal of the death of the marriage since both
bride and groom have separately abandoned the site of their honeymoon. The
marriage, and thus the wedding, is dead.
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The reader performs an aesthetic act, which is partner to the original
author’s artistic act of creation, and essential to realising a literary work: ‘the
text only takes on life when it is realized…the convergence of the text and
reader brings the literary work into existence’ (Iser 1980, p. 50), and very little
is sometimes needed for a reader to construct a story from a text. A poem can
tell a story very well even if it is nominally a lyric poem, contrary to
traditional definitions. As Iser also says, ‘The unwritten aspects of apparently
trivial scenes and the unspoken dialogue…not only draw the reader into the
action but also lead him to shade in the many outlines suggested by the given
situations’ (1980, p. 51).
Poetry assumes an economy of diction and information, with the result
that its readers have become adept at filling in gaps. A lyric wedding poem, in
particular, makes it comparatively easy for a reader to glean a sense of story
because it is part of the poetry about our own lives. The underlying and
general immanent story is well understood prior to the particular and apparent
account that is presented in the poem. The printed poem is a Snow White
utterance that must be revived by the kiss of the reader, its implied audience.
In the case of Matthew Sweeney’s ‘The Bridal Suite’, this task involves
picking up a story that is in mid-process (an interrupted narrative, to use
Charles Simic’s term) and imagining the rest.
A LONGER NARRATIVE: ‘MARRYING THE HANGMAN’
A more complete and explicit narrative is evident in a poem dealing with a
courtship that has a dark side. Margaret Atwood’s ‘Marrying the Hangman’
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(1978, pp. 48-51) is longer than the other poems featured here. Greater length
alone does not guarantee the creation of narrative in a poem but it certainly
coincides with an increased level of ‘factual’ detail and also of complexity
within the imagined world. The availability of extra information means there
is a greater chance of a story being perceived since there are more data that a
reader can try to connect.
The principal character in ‘Marrying the Hangman’ is a woman who
has been condemned to death. She understands that her only reprieve would
be to marry the executioner, but that job position is vacant. This fact saves her
for the time being but it also cruelly prolongs her waiting to die. Additionally,
it produces uncertainty since she has no way of testing whether there might be
a real chance of release through any such marriage. What if the new
executioner were already married, for example? It does appear that there
might be a way through this dilemma, however, and the female protagonist
decides to become the agent of her own salvation. There is a male prisoner
who is not facing death and, in a double proposal, she persuades him, firstly,
to apply for the undesirable position of executioner and, secondly, to marry
her. In this way, death saturates her marriage: she is alive but living with a
man who has become a legally sanctioned killer in order to save her from
execution. Had he taken the first step (becoming the hangman), but not the
second (marrying the woman), he would have become her killer. Either way,
the positions of the two characters are bound in a knot of life and death.
Atwood concludes the poem with notes that indicate it is based on true events.
Again, in this poem we see the narrative function of decision points.
The standard Western Christian wedding vow contains the words, ‘till death
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do us part’. The wedding in Atwood’s poem is a contract that turns this on its
head since it offers the bride reprieve from death but simultaneously ushers
the groom into a life of killing; they will have a kind of life within death. It
reminds us that living always harbours the germ of death. The couple’s
wedding offers the consummation of marriage, yet the groom also personifies
death, offering another kind of consummation to some prisoners when he is
called upon to execute them. Atwood says ‘poetry…tends to revolve a good
deal around sex and death, with regeneration optional (Atwood 1995, Online).
Apart from being at the heart of abiding questions about human
purpose, death often provides a point of resolution in a story: ‘problems of
love and death…are the fixed bases of the entire course of human history’
(Tomashevsky 1965, p. 64). Indeed, the ending of some stories is marked by a
death or a wedding:
Novels and plays, for example, often close with either the death or the
marriage of their principal characters (the former in comedy, the latter in
tragedy). Yet such events may also work to achieve closure in a strong
sense by purporting to resolve the struggles, tensions, and loose ends of
the whole narrative or dramatic action (Furniss & Bath 1996, p. 381).
Weddings can function in a similar way, and the two may be harnessed
together as we have seen in the Atwood poem. Numerous other poems join
death and the wedding in a direct manner, such as John Bray’s ‘Death at the
Wedding’, from his series of adaptations from Greek mythology: ‘Death, not
your lover, was your bridegroom…’ (1978, p. 41), and there are various other
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scenarios. Anne Sexton’s poem, ‘All My Pretty Ones’ (Sexton 1962, p5) has
the narrator’s father die just before he is to re-marry, and in ‘Santa Cecilia in
Trastevere’, Jan Owen sets a wedding in a church, emphasising that it is used
for both funerals and weddings, sometimes on the same day (Owen 2002, p.
92).
More grimly, poets have written of one wedding partner as death
itself: Mike Ladd with ‘Poems from Water’, where death becomes a bride
(2000, p. 54); Seamus Heaney with a re-telling of Antigone in ‘Burial at
Thebes’ (Heaney 2004, Online); and Margaret Atwood with ‘Midwinter,
Presolstice’ where the narrator dreams of ‘repeated weddings with a stranger,
wounded / with knives’ (1970a, p. 20).
In Michelle Roberts’ poem, ‘the oyster woman’, women’s garments of
death and weddings are directly juxtaposed (1995, pp. 30). Margaret Atwood
combines death and the wedding in another poem, ‘Charivari’ (1970b, p. 37),
where a black man is killed for daring to marry a white woman. Ritual
slaughters for weddings appear in Aaron Baker’s ‘Chimbu Wedding’ (2003,
Online) and Mike Ladd’s ‘Anakhronismos 7’ (2003, p. 12), both poems
offering a meditation on mortality, while Charles Simic depicts the whole of
life as a wedding feast that ends with death in ‘Ambiguity’s Wedding’ (Simic
1999, p. 52).
What these poems say collectively is that life is transient and one
should celebrate what can be enjoyed. The shadow of death is a reminder that
we should not take love for granted. ‘Marrying the Hangman’ is essentially a
prose poem, but it illustrates the continuum between what is traditionally
conceived of as lyric and non-lyric poetry. Atwood’s prose poetry sections are
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interrupted by two, shorter, lyric moments, the first of which represents the
dialogue between the prisoners as they initially sketch the terms of their trade.
The man offers freedom and safety; the woman offers physical contact and
pleasure.
He said: the end of walls, the end of ropes, the opening
of doors, a field, the wind, a house, the sun, a table,
an apple.
She said: nipple, arms, lips, wine, belly, hair, bread,
thighs, eyes, eyes.
They both kept their promises.
Atwood 1978, p. 210
The poem ends with another verse of this kind, echoing the same discussion
between the characters, but with a deliberately less romantic base. It is cryptic
but understandable; all the terms resonate within the field that they create, and
within the compact that the two characters have agreed upon.
He said: foot, boot, order, city, fist, roads, time,
knife.
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She said: water, night, willow, rope hair, earth belly,
cave, meat, shroud, open, blood.
They both kept their promises.
Atwood 1978, p. 211
We have the information in the rest of the poem to help us make sense
of these discontinuous pieces, plus our personal knowledge of the protocols
and social niceties. ‘The reader is forced by the pauses imposed on him to
imagine more than he could have if his reading were continuous’ (Iser 1978,
p. 192), and a similar process of reader compensation/completion is required
when a poem presents only a partial picture of events. We can extend this
notion of connection between seemingly disparate data to the specifics of a
wedding narrative. The blanks in a story can be treated as linking devices that
demand the reader’s problem solving skills, as Wolfgang Iser asserts: ‘The
first structural quality of the blank, then, is that it makes possible the
organization of a referential field of interacting projections’ (1978, p. 197).
Applied to poetry, this means that a reader constructs a field of narrative
reference from as few as two elements, such as a man and a church. The
reader recognises similarities and differences between the different elements,
and their possible influence on each other. The reader’s ideation ‘explains’ the
movement from one element to another, with the first encountered element
being conditioned by the second one, creating a theme. For example, the
element ‘a man’ may be followed by the additional element, ‘church’, so that
a reader makes a provisional explanation for their conjunction. This might
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include a practice of standard religious rites such as a baptism, wedding or
funeral. To this theme is added a third element (no bride?), and so on, each
one introducing its own gap to be filled. The gaps in the text are thus the glue
that binds the reader to it, initiating the reader’s process of building sequences
through a process of cumulative revision and continual transformation that
collectively constitutes story (Iser 1978, p. 203).
The power of a decision point to affect the path of the story and
therefore its potential outcome is addressed near the end of the Atwood poem
when questions force the reader to consider alternative outcomes where there
might otherwise have been a narrowing of story options. The narrator asks
whether the woman has made a good choice. Was death preferable, after all?
What did they say the first time they were alone together in the same
room? What did he say when she had removed her veil and he could see
that she was not a voice but a body and therefore finite? What did she
say when she discovered that she had left one locked room for another?
(Atwood 1978, p. 211).
‘Marrying the Hangman’ is more complex than the Sweeney poem,
partly at least because its length affords Atwood the opportunity to expand on
elements of the situation. Her narration contemplates what the characters are
thinking at various stages, and meditates on the relevance of their situation for
contemporary lives, particularly those of the narrator and her friends. Had
Sweeney’s poem somehow been stretched to a similar length, it could also
have accommodated such digressions and a more explicit contemplation.
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The key narrative points in the poem are that a woman persuades a
man to save her life in exchange for becoming his bride, and then revises her
view of the contract. In addition to this, we have a more explicit
contemplation of the nature of the exchange that underlies a wedding contract,
and also of the power of storytelling. Sweeney could have elaborated his
poem along such lines also but leaves the reader to make such interpolations
without his prompting. What we can see with these two poems is that despite
a more elaborate structure in the Atwood poem, both could be reduced to a
basic outline.
What does it prove to distil a poem to a few, basic elements in this
manner? Surely, that could be done for any poem, with varying degrees of
finesse and success? The key aspect is recognition that there are narrative
functions implicit in the poems, to which we respond by connecting the
content of the poem to the broader knowledge we possess about the greater
narratives of the world.
EATING THE BRIDE: ‘THE LION’S BRIDE’
A poem that treats death in quite a different way to Atwood’s is ‘The Lion’s
Bride’ by Gwen Harwood (2003, p. 44). It is a first-person account that uses
the notion of a wedding to emphasise the nature of the protagonist’s
relationship and his depth of feeling. The protagonist is a lion who professes
love for his keeper’s daughter and her daily practice while barefoot of
delivering a special bowl of food to him. One day that routine changes. The
poem ends:
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an icy spectre sheathed
in silk minced to my side on pointed feet.
I ripped the scented veil from its unreal
head and engorged the painted lips that breathed
our secret names. A ghost has bones, and meat!
Come soon my love, my bride, and share this meal.
Harwood 2003, p. 44
Thus the poem depicts a series of actions that form part of the animal’s
normal day and which set the reader up for what is to follow. We can visualise
these and we can imagine some form of strange attachment between the lion
and the woman. The second stanza (most of which is quoted above) presents
the consequence of the lion’s limited understanding being inadvertently
tested, so there is a clearly evident causal chain. It is obvious from the
beginning that the narrator is a lion and not a human being. Death is central to
this poem, incarnate in the lion as groom because we know the history of
human interaction with such animals and their predatory behaviour. Just as
with lion-taming acts in the circus, tension is implicit in closely juxtaposing
predator and prey. How long can the seemingly natural order be deferred?
Will he or won’t he eat her?
The poem hinges on the lion’s failure to recognise the female keeper
when she is dressed differently, and its crucial irony lies in him wishing to
share his new meal with the person whom he is, in his ignorance, eating at that
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very moment. One could be critical of the poem’s contrivance and its reliance
on an uneven suspension of disbelief. After all, why would someone depict a
character feeding a lion while barefoot, other than as a device that better
allows for the mistaken identity necessary in the second stanza? For the
purposes of this thesis, the key focus is the use of the term ‘bride’. It is firstly
offered in the title of the poem, where it poses an immediate puzzle. What
could normally be a bride to a lion except a lioness? The revelation,
technically at the very end, of the bride being a human is actually eased into
by preceding references in the first verse where the lion speaks tenderly of the
woman.
That the so-called marriage is between animal and human twists the
narrative nonetheless, and the effect of its inclusion at this final point is
interesting. Where the last line might otherwise have read ‘Come soon my
love and share this meal’, inserting ‘my bride’ simply and clearly indicates the
intensity of the relationship from the lion’s perspective and also heightens the
sense of intimacy. There can’t be a much more physically intimate act than
consuming a loved one; it is a real consummation, which simultaneously
foreshadows the lion’s greater sense of loss that will emerge when the woman
fails to reappear in her usual guise. At the heart of the poem is the tacit idea
that a groom may not truly see his bride for who she really is, especially when
she assumes the costume that transforms her into a totem.
In this case, a small wedding reference summons a host of notions
about the nature of the wedding ceremony as it betokens a sacred union, but
kills the prospect of that occurring because of a gruesome consummation of a
different kind. The effect is to heighten the effect of the killing through the
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use of just one word, ‘bride’. The use of that word emphasises the narrative
power latent in wedding references.
In each poem, the enduring shape and detail of the archetypal wedding
narrative encourages quick recognition, allowing readers to knowledgably fill
in gaps. The relatively stable nature of the wedding narrative does not mean
that it is fixed in cement but its durability means that poets can use it as a
frame from which to deliberately stray, sure that the reader will be aware of
the distance of departure. The reader will draw an inference, adding their own
contribution to the significance of the poem, without the poet having to spell
things out. Again, it is a matter of economy, affording the poet an opportunity
to focus on heightened language rather than elaborate construction of story,
yet usefully employing elements of narrative that point to a story.
Reading is an active process of interpretation triggered by but not
wholly resident in the raw material of the text. For the poet, the process of
relying on the reader’s knowledge is part intuition (a subconscious act) and
part strategy (the exercise of literary craft), and the poem is always
intertextual: ‘Poets do not write in a vacuum. They write from experiences
and perceptions, but those experiences and perceptions are with other poetry
and literature as well as with the world’ (Kohl 1999, p. 95).
Literature is performative, a continuous act of making meaning that
both writer and reader undertake. This performance manifests our constant
connection to story templates that help us to make sense of life. Far from
resisting the extent to which stories play on permutations of these metanarratives, we should be embracing them: ‘we must finally acknowledge that
we cannot even recognise uniqueness except as a deviation from some norm.
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A world of unique objects would not only be overwhelming and intolerable; it
would not even be perceptible’ (Scholes 1975, p. ix). Lyric poetry exemplifies
the power of even minimal texts to amplify their effect through synergistic
connection to an ur-narrative.
Robert MacFarlane noted as a kind of warning rather than actual
criticism about poet Ciaran Carson, that ‘the recitation of anecdotes does not
constitute literature,’ adding that, ‘he usually succeeds in going beyond simple
recitation and in transfiguring what he describes’ (1999, p.22). This last
qualification points directly to the failing that Todorov identifies when he
rejects mere iteration as narrative. He goes on to say that, ‘the simple relation
of successive facts does not constitute a narrative: these facts must be
organised, which is to say, ultimately, that they must have elements in
common’ (Todorov 1977, p. 233). Narrative requires a marriage of the two
characteristics of difference and similarity; it needs to draw together the
seemingly disconnected elements and reveal their shared qualities.
Applied to poetry, it means that narrative traces would not be
identified or acknowledged where the poem’s lines only comprised
disconnected statements. Confronted with a poem of this type, we might ask
where the necessary organisational function would lie that might yet bind the
text so that the reader actually would discern a narrative (I recognise, of
course, that locating narrative is not the goal of every reader with every
poem). It could be argued that the material enabling this transformation must
be in the poem itself, but a poem does not acquire life and meaning without a
reader. The reader’s experience and intuition about the personal and cultural
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resonance of the text completes the compact with it that enables the sense of a
narrative to be gleaned.
Some poems offer a detailed and integrated whole story, while others
give the merest clues to its existence. Both methods are products of the same
process of interpreting and stating our place as acculturated creatures. We
understand a text, its type and its concerns, through placing it in a greater
discourse. We note literary techniques through our prior reading and training
(metaphor, synecdoche, allusion, etc.). We understand its moral, ethical, and
social implications from our personal attitudes, cultural experiences, and
historical knowledge. No poem is produced in isolation. A new poem acts
backwards in relying on the existing store of poems, to which it adds, and it
acts forwards in preparing different ground for the next poem.
As John Kertzer (2004, p. 2) says, ‘Ideal readers catch every allusion
and influence, but at the cost of losing the shock of first discovery’ since those
readers’ vast knowledge diminishes some of the impact that the poem would
otherwise offer. The poet’s inflections, hints, and partial references will more
readily be identified and, if necessary, decoded. The experience of reading a
poem will be richer for those in the know, though not necessarily a weak one
for others—that would depend on the nature of the reference. If a fragment of
speech from an obscure play has a valid place in a poem, the knowing reader
will be rewarded whereas others must either research the odd phrase or live
with their ignorance. As a result, poets can, thankfully, step back from
complete exposition.
Kertzer remarks that, ‘the process of understanding…is contextual and
systematic’ (2004, p. 2). In other words, we derive meaning from
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understanding how the words that are put before us draw on the prior
existence of language and grammar, and of historical events and
psychological behaviour, etc. These preconditions enable the text to operate
more effectively and more efficiently. Among these are the symbolic stories
of our age, including the wedding narrative, which is imbedded in social
practice and in a multitude of existing story variations.
The argument for the immediacy of initial literary experience
superseding any intellectual enquiry is fraught. The direct experience of a
striking metaphor, for instance, may be said to have an impact before it can be
subjected to the interrogation of criticism (Frye 1996, p. 27). There is,
however, still an intervening step of intimate mediation, whether consciously
invoked or not; a moment of reception, interpretation, comparison and
evaluation that implies a distance from the work and that cannot be eradicated
without losing the central value of the metaphor itself. In other words, it has to
be consciously processed. Apart from the reaction to a purely sensory quality
in a text, such as its sound, there is no instant reader response. Instead, it is an
intellectual one that relies on understanding ideas, concepts of image, meaning
and language, and also on testing for novelty. Kertzer (2004, p. 3) notes that
‘understanding lags behind experience’ and cites Lyotard’s comment that ‘“no
mode of thought is capable of thinking” directly, only of reconstituting in a
displaced form’.
Roland Barthes refers to the moment when we interpret texts:
‘however casual may be the act of opening a novel or a newspaper or of
turning on the television, nothing can prevent that humble act from installing
in us, all at once and in its entirety, the narrative code we are going to need’
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(1977, pp. 116-117). We begin to read a poem knowing we apply skills that
complement the writer’s intentions. With the right knowledge, we can use a
poem to open doors in time, looking into the past and the future. We can
unfold the poem until it is a map many times bigger than it began, and use it
to travel into the heart of the human condition.
The choice of material for a poem is important, of course, but no proof
against opacity, even with originally lucid setting out. ‘Implicit intertexuality
is highly vulnerable to the erosion of time and cultural change, or to the
reader’s unfamiliarity with the corpus of the elite that bred a particular poetic
generation’ (Riffaterre 1978, p. 136). This is likely why writers often resort to
the more durable and, thus, less sensitive tropes, whose use increases the
prospects that a higher proportion of readers will understand their allusions.
The familiarity of the wedding narrative recommends itself in this capacity
and allows the writer a deal of play with the reader. In this process, the writer
may feel comfortable rendering the narrative flow deliberately discontinuous,
or introducing deliberate gaps in meaning, for example.
Both acts could be undertaken in order to pull the reader into
providing structure and sense according to a shared set of referents. The value
for the writer in doing this includes allowing reduced exposition, as well as
engendering a partnership with the reader. What may appear to be greater
freedom of interpretation for the reader is, according to Riffaterre, illusory.
Rather, he says, it is ‘a scanning of the sociolect’s commonplaces, the practice
of a lore of well-tested exempla, the recognition of forms and hallowed
symbols…’ where ‘the reader continually seeks relief by getting…back to safe
reality’ (Riffaterre 1978, p. 165) and towards an elusive final meaning.
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SUMMARY
Lyric poetry employs common prose fiction techniques to perform a narrative
function with which it is seldom credited. The argument in this thesis
necessarily involves re-considering the traditional definitions of narrative
poetry and lyric poetry. By extension, we also have to ponder the very nature
of poetry, and how narration and story are intrinsic to human nature. As Paul
Zumthor (1990, p. 36) forcefully argues, ‘… a generalized and virtual
narrativity inhabits every form of organised discourse... every artistic
production, poetry as well as painting and the plastic technical arts including
architecture, is a tale (récit) at least in some latent way’.
The principal poems discussed above represent different stages of the
wedding process but, interestingly, not the actual wedding ceremony. The
action in Steve Kelen’s poem occurs outside the place of the wedding, for
example, such as at the wedding reception. Aidan Coleman’s poem deals with
the aftermath of a proposal to wed; Fennelly’s addresses reluctance to write an
epithalamium to be read at a wedding ceremony or reception; and Sweeney’s
adopts the perspective of a groom abandoned in his bridal suite. What the
difference in focus and the apparent segmentation demonstrate is that the
overall wedding story lends itself to being readily divided into a three-act
structure comprising courtship, wedding and honeymoon. This is superficially
consistent with Aristotle’s desired three-part structure, but we must proceed
with caution:
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By ‘whole’ I mean possessing a beginning, middle, and end. By
‘beginning’ I mean that which does not have a necessary connection
with a preceding event, but which can itself give rise naturally to some
further fact or occurrence. An ‘end’, by contrast, is something which
naturally occurs after a preceding event, whether by necessity or as a
general rule, but need not be followed by anything else. The ‘middle’
involves causal connections with both what precedes and what ensues.
Consequently, well-designed plot-structures ought not to begin or finish
at arbitrary points, but to follow the principles indicated (Aristotle 1987,
p. 39).
None of these poems claims to represent the whole arc of the three
stages of the full wedding story from courtship to honeymoon. We do know
where each one fits in that sequence, though, and we are capable of
understanding the significance of each in the wider tale. By regarding each
poem as partly contingent on such location we give it more power to resonate
within the larger but implied narrative, and with freedom to construct details
for the outlying sections of the story rather than being bound by more precise
and limiting specifications. In any case, there is nothing arbitrary about the
starting and ending points of these poems. Each frames the events that
comprise its central concern, even while it also reaches beyond the page to
connect with a fuller but unstated narrative, the events that precede and
follow. Like Aristotle, theorist William Labov stresses that a writer should be
able to justify the selection of a chronological starting point on the basis that
prior events don’t require elaboration; they should be safely assumed because
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their specific details have no direct and important bearing on the tale (Labov
1997, Online). A wedding story might then begin with the ceremony itself
rather than aspects of the courtship, or start at the end of the ceremony rather
than its beginning, or at the reception rather than the wedding ritual, or,
indeed, the honeymoon, as each case warrants.
There is tension in reading, between lingering and moving further into
the text. This is more pronounced with the lyric poem than prose because the
reader expects (the poem demands?) that attention be given to every word in a
slower and more intense engagement with the poem instead of glossing. Yet,
were proponents of the lyric to claim there is the stasis of the isolated
word/image, it would be illusory. There may be momentary hovering over an
idea or an image, and that is a normal part of reading, but it is not total
stillness nor complete quarantine from the connection to other texts and the
world of experience because these are what give the poem its life. The next
sentence pulls the reader on, or the next word does, even as the first one
resists, each like a little gravity system out of whose orbit the reader must
inevitably launch themselves.
The stories that lyric poems tell are not necessarily limited by the
number of their words, as the poems selected for this chapter evidence. They
serve to show that a lyric poem can indeed tell a story of some complexity,
especially with a collaborative reader who has prior knowledge of the full
‘wedding narrative’. At each step, it is the reader who responds to the lyric
poem by filling in details that are not explicitly contained. As philosopher
Ludwig Wittgenstein says: ‘Uttering a word is like striking a note on the
keyboard of the imagination’ (1953, p. 4e). Lyric poems can tell stories.
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CHAPTER 4:
A PALIMPSEST OF BRIDES
Even a lyric poem has…an exoskeleton
Roger Seamon 2006, p. 253
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INTRODUCTION
If, as poet Howard Nemerov says, ‘poetry is a species of thought with which
nothing else can be done’ (1978, p. 13), then all talk about it would seem
futile, including his own. Nemerov, I believe, is emphasising the need to
understand a transcendental quality of poetic expression, one that shortcuts
connection between the idea and its reception, almost as if to force language
into a more direct and non-lingual role:
…because poetry deals first with experience, and only derivatively with
meaning; it attempts to catch the first evanescent flickerings of thought
across the surface of things. It wants to be as though the things
themselves were beginning to speak; they would speak somewhat
darkly, the light that came from them would be black light at first
(Nemerov, 1978, p. 11).
That is not the same thing as refusing any discussion of poetry, however.
While poetic expression may seem a thing apart, all thought is a mystery in its
own way, which is what poetry partly celebrates.
In my accompanying collection of poems, The Floating Bride, I apply
ideas of lyric expression but with a constant eye on the narrative function that
is also at work. In this chapter, I analyse a number of those poems in order to
illustrate that aspect at work in different ways. The collection includes short
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poems with depiction that ranges from realistic to the surreal, and longer
poems where there is more scope for fleshing out the detail of events. Their
subject matter varies considerably but each poem contains some kind of
reference to a wedding. At times that is quite central to the poem and at others
it is peripheral, a variation that was deliberately undertaken in order to present
a mixture of approaches.
In the following analysis, I initially consider poems that would qualify
as epithalamia, or that otherwise relate strongly to that form. After considering
my own versions of this traditional type of wedding poem, I examine
examples with anti-epithalamic content, the essence of which is a direct or
indirect warning against being wed (Tufte 1970, p. 247). Next, I look at a
variety other poems, initially focussing on matters of length, with differences
in the way that their narrative function operates. One, ‘On Second Thought’,
connects a couple’s hesitance to commit to marriage with their use of
surrogates, the wedding gown and groom’s suit. ‘Dress Sense’ also focuses on
the wedding gown as a symbol of the bride and virtually a character in its own
right. Another, ‘Crow on the Cross’ uses animistic elements similar to folk
tales, and there are others that celebrate and otherwise comment upon
weddings.
EPITHALAMIA & ANTI-EPITHALAMIA
I have written two poems in contemporary epithalamic mode, that is to say,
poems employing a celebratory tone to address real and living newlyweds and
the fact of their wedding. The traditional epithalamium was systematised,
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observing a number of rhetorical devices, including reference to
recommended classical characters and events, as well as to Nature. The older
epithalamia were not always so prescribed as well-known examples like
Edmund Spenser’s ‘Epithalamion’ might suggest, however, and tended to
present marriage as a ‘practical condition of adult life’ (Tufte 1970, p. 257).
Contemporary epithalamia certainly tolerate more deviation from the
traditional template.
As a writer, I hoped for a productive tension between the lyric and the
narrative in these poems, between wanting the reader to linger over a word or
image for its own sake while also acknowledging the essential movement of
the poem, thus sometimes shifting on to its next part with a little regret, a little
look backwards. In this, what matters is manifold: both the instant and the
flow; the beauty and the bones. A certain ambiguity is expected and, indeed,
necessary, so that the poem can better breathe rather than being too narrowly
interpreted. Some of these issues, that bring together aspects of the creative
and the critical dimensions of writing poetry are contemplated in the
following.
The first epithalamium in The Floating Bride is ‘Water’, which arose
when a friend asked whether I would write a suitable poem for his daughter’s
wedding. Writing for people I had never met seemed a folly but when I learnt
that the couple was to wed in a dry creek bed in the Outback, I reconsidered.
and stuck with a basic theme, water. This would underscore their choice of
location for the ceremony and provide metaphoric material that was relatively
easy both for me to work with and, I trusted, easy for the audience on the day
to understand. I chose a deliberate declaratory tone in order to add a sense of
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solemnity. This is one of the least narrative poems in the collection,
presenting philosophic (even sermonising) statements largely in metaphor
rather than telling a story with discrete event steps. It does end with a
prospective step, though, as the married couple looks to the future. The
musicality of the poem is not prominent, though the use of part rhyme at
alternate line endings makes that more obvious in the last verse (‘water, mine,
river, same, together, one’).
The second epithalamium, ‘And Yes’, is quite different. The groom
had asked me to read a poem of his choosing at the ceremony but three days
beforehand requested that I write and read one of my own instead. I accepted
warily, soon realising I would be unable to create a traditional song of praise
in the time available. In order to start, I wrote about how hard it was to write,
a resort sadly reminiscent of creative writing students who hand up stories
about not writing their stipulated assignments. It quickly became a meditation
on the nature of the epithalamium itself and on its inadequacy when faced
with the depth of a couple’s commitment. It begins:
What can one say to newlyweds
that doesn’t involve a sweet retreat
to ancient pleasures?
Here are the inevitable lines
alluding to the beauty of a sky
that brims with nothing but blue,
or a river of stars.
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I used rivers as a metaphor in both poems, their confluence
representing the union of the couple, then unaware that this was typical in
traditional epithalamia (Jones 1930, p. 373; Tufte 1970, pp. 180, 188, 190,
245; Woodward 1962, p. 38). The poem initially raises the difficulty of
offering something new in an epithalamium and rejects lazy referents in
Nature—a similar quandary to the one canvassed in Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet
18’ (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’), though I make no claims to
matching the artistic quality of that line. Greeting card poems, like much of
the epithalamia in various books that collect poems to be read at weddings, all
too quickly embrace abstract notions of love rather than concrete illustrations,
and this approach is what the second verse of ‘And Yes’ rejects. In the face of
the inadequacy of language, the speaker simply calls for an affirmation from
those assembled, marking their shared pleasure at the wedding of the couple.
My reference in the poem to a ‘crossing point’ was not only to a literal
sense of the couple changing their social status via a rite of passage but also to
take up Howard Nemerov’s use of the term to describe ‘the moment of
expressiveness’ for which poets strive. Essentially, he says that we can’t really
understand what goes on at that instant of poetic discovery and that fact ‘tells
us that something in language is not linguistic; that something in reason is not
reasonable’ (Nemerov 1972, p. 3). The term was intended to indicate
something almost magical, certainly surpassing our ability to express it
definitively—which is also the general thrust of the poem. Hopefully, the
poem stands as well as any epithalamium would in raising love as the
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paramount concern and conceding the limitations of poetry in that situation,
while still sincerely rather than ironically blessing the couple.
The previous two poems work within the convention in a
straightforward way. Another possible epithalamium, ‘Clowns in Love’, is
quite different. Reading it at a real wedding would risk offense but it deals
directly with a fictional couple generalised within their type; clowns.
It’s a courtship with animal balloons
and a rain of glitter.
with flapping arms and Look out behind you!
until she says Yes.
The epithalamium has been capable of ironic mode since its
beginnings (West 1974, p. 347). In some ways, ‘Clowns in Love’ adheres to
what Tufte calls the anti-epithalamium (1970, p. 247), a poem that warns
against being wed. Whether or not one agrees that her term is properly struck,
the gist of its purpose is clear: writing to dissuade one or both members of a
couple from marrying. There could be any number of reasons for such advice,
though most seem to centre on the perils of a bad match rather than a
prejudice against the institution of marriage. The poem is also a satirical
commentary on the average wedding couple.
In any case, my purpose in this poem was to choose an unlikely
situation (a circus) and allow it to be compared, implicitly, to the performance
of a real courtship and wedding, which is sometimes in danger of lapsing into
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overly choreographed activity. The series of highly visual acts depicted in the
poem serve to underline the artificial and comic aspect of a ritualised
approach to the wedding, while also keeping in mind the notion that clowns
mask sadness. This last point promotes the sense of dark and light coexisting,
the notion of balance.
Undertaking depiction of a sequence of actions in this poem meant
adhering more closely to conventional notion of narrative than the previous
poems mentioned, though the causal connections are weak because the first
part concentrates on fleshing out the clowns’ deviation from normal
behaviour. Nonetheless, the different stages are presented in virtual comicbook mode as successive moments within a brief story leading to a
conclusion. The poem is relatively self-contained, with little tension between
the lyric and narrative elements. The narrative dimension did not need to be
drawn out since the main aim of the poem is to underline the pervasive desire
for companionship whatever the ritual underpinnings.
QUESTIONS OF LENGTH
In this section, I discuss some of my short works and then a selection of
longer pieces. All would be classed as lyric poems, and none approaches the
length of the traditional epithalamia, for instance, though one of the longer
poems is in the form of a ballad and therefore more closely related to narrative
poetry as I have previously defined it.
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One of the shorter poems in The Floating Bride, and one that points
directly to the nature of story in lyric poetry, is ‘The Bride We Pass’. This is
the penultimate version of the poem, a mere six lines in dot point, and with a
slightly different title:
the bride we passed on the side of the road
•
has popped out to the shop for some smokes
•
is breaking in the dress for a friend
•
has told the driver, ‘Just stop here’
•
is afraid of the stranger who wears the gown
•
is scared of the one who will take it off
Posed rather like a multiple-choice question, this poem is about the
mystery connected with an unexpected sighting of a bride. Though small, it
illustrates the dynamic of storytelling. The scenario presented in the title is
brief and incomplete, and meant to intrigue. It creates a gap, an expectation on
the part of the reader that more information will help to solve the puzzle.
Reading is driven by desire that pulls the reader through the text
towards a resolution (Brooks 1984, p. 37). That process is partly achieved by
strategic omission from a text, including delayed revelation. Writer Patricia
Duncker remarks about fiction that a plot hiatus creates a gap in which the
reader hesitates and speculates. Its significance may not be clearly indicated at
that time and what the reader does with it may be guided by clues in the text
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on either side. Fiction, she adds, is driven by a succession of choices, and the
story is a process of navigation (Duncker 2007). I edited this poem through
different versions, expanding it as I searched for a suitable way combine the
riddle of the bride’s presence with a depiction that would stimulate the
reader’s imagination and trigger an emotional reaction.
The poem’s first mystery concerns narration since the identity of the
‘we’ in the title of the poem and their relationship are initially unexplained.
The reader might picture puzzled looks when the observers see this displaced
woman in a wedding dress (rather like encountering the bride in the back of
the bus in the final scene of the movie, The Graduate). Their discussion would
produce several explanations. The word ‘we’ also places the narrator as a
first-person speaker and, ultimately, an outsider to the question that affects the
apparent central character, the observed bride figure.
The poem moves in two main sections, the first introducing the
narrator and the second posing reasons for the bride’s presence. The first line
adds location, ‘on the side of the road’, and this vitally informs the rest of the
poem since it places the bride outside her usual context. The tacit issue is the
oddity of someone dressed as a bride being found in these circumstances; the
poem simply asserts this anomaly, relying on the reader’s own knowledge of
customary practice to recognise its strangeness. Here we might think of
Stanley Fish’s argument about the importance of context in narrowing the
likely interpretation of meaning of an act or situation. He says, ‘we create
[poetry] through interpretative strategies that are finally not our own but have
their source in a publicly available system of intelligibility’ (1980a, p. 332).
The unanswered riddle is what I wanted to pull the reader on. The poem does
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not answer this conclusively but offers a number of alternatives, some of them
not very plausible. It is as if to mirror the ‘what if’ enquiry process in the
observers’ heads as they try to rationalise the situation.
The first possibility offered is that the woman ‘has popped out to the
shop for some smokes’, using contrast to stress how one might trivialise use
of the gown and traditional respect for it. The line asks the reader to conceive
of a situation in which the bride might casually walk out in her wedding dress
to conduct a minor commercial transaction. At this stage, there has actually
been no mention of the dress, merely of a bride. The next possibility,
‘breaking in the dress for a friend’, confirms that she is wearing a wedding
gown, and adds to the idea of disrespect through someone other than the bride
wearing the garment out of doors prior to the wedding. There is a layering of
‘offences’ now. The real bride has the status entitling her to wear the dress, so
this would be a double breach of protocol.
Umberto Eco warns that ‘a text is a lazy machinery which forces its
possible readers to do a part of its textual work’ (1981, p. 36), adding that a
reader will ‘look for possible contexts capable of making the initial [textual]
expression intelligible and reasonable. The very nature of signs postulates an
active role on the part of their interpreter’ (1981, p. 45). In this poem, I
wanted to test the tension inherent in withholding information, forcing the
reader towards scenarios that would determine which would be the most
plausible explanation, and thus highlight the narrative process of eliminating
alternatives.
All of the explanations so far generally offer directions of thought
along two tracks, a surface one that uses absurdity and light humour, and a
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deeper one that links with taboos of unacceptable practice associated with the
gown as a symbol of bridal status. The next three options in the poem are
darker, and they might be taken collectively or individually. Why has she
abandoned the bridal car, and was it before or after the wedding? If the latter,
her new husband would have been beside her, adding a further dramatic
element. Is she really a bride or merely dressed as one and, if so, why would
that be? Is she an actor on a break? The reader is not likely to insert
implausible explanations, even if attuned to the solutions proposed in
whodunits.
I then revised the poem to bring the moment of reflection away from
the woman and back to the witnesses, dropping the bullet points approach
(plus the staccato effect they provide). It retains the central mystery of the
bridal figure’s presence, and with the new closing lines it adds a tension
between the couple in the car. The poem remains quite skeletal. It offers no
comprehensive trail of events that would minimise uncertainty. Its key feature
is to highlight and exploit uncertainty so that several potential narratives are
suspended, all held without the imminent prospect of crystallising any
particular one. Apart from its use of heightened language, including musical
qualities, lyric poetry is also often recognised for featuring an epiphany, or
revelation, and that:
In its brevity, lyric poetry thrives on exclusion, leaving a good deal of
context to be supplied by a reader. It thus reminds us how much reading
is a creative process, to which we bring not only our knowledge of the
conventional possibilities of literary form, but also all of the unique
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experiences that each of us, as individuals, has undergone (Lilia Melani
2000, Online).
The poem presents the bride out of her normal context as a puzzle to
be solved, but it does not offer the expected epiphany. The effect of not
shutting down all paths but one by the poem’s end and, instead, denying story
closure, is to draw attention to both the art of narrative and to the reader’s
role. In this instance it also raises questions for the reader in relation to the
bride, as a broad concept (including notions of the constraining power of ritual
and, potentially in the realm of feminist studies, of the bride’s ‘right place’
and behaviour) and in herself as an individual character in this poem.
Overarching all of this is the bigger matter of how our attitudes to weddings
affect the reader in weighing up the woman’s actions. The decision to wed is a
major one, and there is a lot at stake both in going through with it and turning
away from it at the last minute, or just afterwards; culturally, financially and
individually.
The difficulty of getting the balance right in writing this was the
reason for the numerous edits. The poem as story offers a brief period in
which a couple conjecture about an unexpected sight, and then we see its
effect on their own relationship; a lot rests on implication rather than direct
statement as far as the couple is concerned. The event-ness of the poem is low
in terms of physical action (although there is a flicker of successive
possibilities regarding the wearer of the dress, each with its own back-story),
but it is high in terms of potential impact on the narrator’s future happiness.
Thus the lyric character of the poem embraces a projected narrative. The lack
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of closure does not threaten the utility of the poem in that respect, and its open
ending does not reduce narrative function, but rather serves to highlight it
even as it turns away from traditional story structure.
Poet and academic Stephen Dobyns says that ‘clearly, a poem need not
have any narrative at all, or perhaps only the smallest degree of narrative,
since an element of narrative exists whenever we have two moments in time’
(2003, p. 45). That is broadly consistent with the structuralist notion of
minimal narrative units, though I would like to have seen examples of what he
terms a completely narrative-free poem. Dobyns adds that ‘this diminishment
or absence of narrative limits the role of suspense in poetry’ (2003, p. 45). In
the case of ‘The Bride We Pass’, the small amount of information available
makes it more difficult for a reader to discover the ‘true’ features of a hidden
story. Where there is no single story to be discovered, no intention of
crowning one particular interpretation, the purpose of the poem can yet be
served and a narrative function can still be performed. It may be that the
possible story lines grow ghostly where they move into undetailed territory
before or after the events disclosed on the page, and to the extent that they
involve undisclosed motives. But suspense, after all, relates to deferred
disclosure.
‘The Bride We Pass’ is a short and deliberately fragmented poem that
relies on the reader’s knowledge of customary situations for wearing a bridal
gown, so that curiosity is roused about the wearer’s displacement to an urban
roadside setting, creating a desire to find an explanation. Incomplete though
the different explanations remain, they directly address the nature of narrative,
and especially the exercise of the reader’s talent for making sense within the
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scope of their puzzle solving skills. In turn, that is based on their prior
knowledge of wedding practices.
What does a reader recognise as the elements of a potential story? One
way is for the reader to look at the means by which the poem’s information is
organised. Branigan states, ‘Although the essence of a narrative is a
presentation of systematic change through a cause and effect teleology, there
is no reason that an actual narrative may not also contain some of these other
ways of organizing data’. He then lists the methods of organisation, which I
have adapted as follows:
1. A heap – random association
2. A catalogue – objects similarly related to a ‘centre’
3. An episode – the consequences of a central situation
4. An unfocused chain – a series of disconnected causes and effects
5. A focused chain – a series of connected / centred causes and
effects
6. A simple narrative – a series of episodes collected as a focused
chain
(Branigan 1992, p. 19)
This list describes both atemporal and temporal associations of data—
with increasing levels of consequentiality and, arguably, increasing levels of
explicit, traditional narrative. As a continuum of ways to organise
information, moving towards more tightly structured narrative forms, it also
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provides an interesting scale on which we might place different types of
poetry and consider whether each constitutes a narrative. This suggests that
the makings of narrative arise earlier, or at a more basic (non-narrative) level,
than the typical definition of narrative poetry would recognise.
Some readers will be more adept at sense making at the lower levels of
organisation than other readers. Information can be presented in a deliberate
and subtle way that will suggest one particular structure to a reader more than
others. One way to do this is to make references to selected symbols (such as
wedding motifs; garter, ring, veil, etc.); another is to use the nature of items in
a list-style of poem to produce a cumulative effect on the reader, which I
intended with this particular poem. As Roger Seamon comments in his
critique of Aristotle’s Poetics, ‘Even a lyric poem has…an exoskeleton’
(2006, p. 253), an outer world to which it relates both in style and
information, and this poem relies on such a connection being made. I have
played with these notions in constructing ‘The Bride We Passed’.
The next poem, ‘On Second Thought’, is a brief lyric that appears to
be relatively short on characters and action, and to have a small cast, like ‘The
Bride We Pass’. The latter poem had a narrator and some other witnesses plus
a bride; ‘On Second Thought’ has a narrator who is not directly involved with
the depicted events, plus a suitor, though it is arguable that the bride is also
present in the form of a bridal gown. Reducing the bride to a wedding gown is
a kind of metonymic representation to which Susan Stewart alludes in her
1993 book, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the
Souvenir, the Collection. While the technique is a convenient one, it has
elements of control and power that provide a deliberate and unspoken
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undercurrent to the way some figures are depicted in the poems. In essence,
though, this is not really a poem without human beings.
on second thought
the suitor stays at home
he sends his suit instead
This satirical poem jumps straight in at a decision point but not at the
traditional moment of the celebrant’s question about whether one person
‘takes’ the other. It presents a similar decision but just before the wedding,
employing metonymy to play on the symbolic value of the wedding attire as a
substitute for the actual wearers. It implies that the wedding is a mechanical
ritual that could continue without the bride and groom, so it constitutes a
criticism, albeit humorously intended. The strange fact of newlywed clothing
acting independently suggests that real newlyweds might be regarded as
caricatures. The closing lines refer to where the special costumes of wedding
end up, slotted in storage. There is an implied criticism of marriage in this
depiction since one could (pessimistically) read into it the idea of a similarly
unexciting end for human newlyweds. In also alluding to a ‘coming
attractions’ notice made in a motion picture theatre, the conclusion of the
poem indirectly connects the costumes with the empty pageantry and
showiness of a world of make-believe.
As with the preceding poem, the story content is slim and it also has a
small cast. As meagre as the chain of events is, it comprises a narrative since
it involves meaningful acts through time; they are more than coincidental. We
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automatically try to conjure reasons for the decisions of each person in turn, to
impute possible motives for their actions. That we may not succeed in such an
attempt does not preclude narrative performance. My intention was to strip the
events in this poem back to the least, while still retaining a coherent sequence,
and nudging the reader to infer something about the lives of the human
counterparts ‘behind’ the clothing.
In the longer poem ‘Crow on the Cross’, I have again taken a surreal
approach with first-person narration of the first stages of a wedding by a crow
observing events from the church’s steeple cross. As quickly becomes clear,
the bird is a competitor for the affections of the bride-to-be:
from the steeple cross
I see the glossed white tin
of your bridal car approaching—
I adjust tail feathers the lustre of coal
a porcelain sheen turns on my wings
deep as black water
And ends:
leave your grieving family—
the mouth of death won’t have us yet
let them look for us in skies and trees
we will look back from the little cross
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we will peer through the stained glass
and sing our inelegant songs
the hymns to loss and faith
the long wet light of winter on us
The poem employs narrative’s trademark paradigm of opposition to
heighten reader engagement: the plot path might take one of two or more
directions, and a decision must be made. The crow is an intruder, a threat to
the sanctioned marriage that would otherwise be taking place. The vain bird
announces his claim on the woman in a song of dedication that is half
summons and half spell, as if he is hypnotising. The outcome is uncertain.
Though he sees her begin to change physically, there is not enough evidence
of her irrevocable commitment. She might be saved, or save herself, if indeed
leaving with the crow is something from which to be saved. One might also
imagine a verbal or physical response coming from the fearful and angry
groom and congregation, for instance, before events are really determined—so
a tension still lingers.
In terms of story, this poem exemplifies narrative function in lyric
poem. The period covered is very short, and there is no introduction of
background information to set a context for the reader since action begins in
media res. In particular, there is no justification tendered for the normally
impossible events in the poem—an animal vying for the affection of a human
being in this manner—so we are being asked to suspend disbelief in that
respect (just as with Gwen Harwood’s poem discussed earlier). We are in a
very different world where a very different kind of marriage is being offered
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by the crow, and the possibility that the crow’s persuasions might be based on
a legitimate claim leaves the question of certain taboos unresolved. Is the
crow what he appears to be? Is his act malicious or is it meant to set
something to rights? Perhaps there is also magic at work in the situation. As
with ‘The Bride We Pass’, the lack of closure at the end is not fatal to the
narrative.
The language of the poem is not plain but stylised, adopting an almost
musical voice and a delivery that is out of the ordinary, unlike, say, that in ‘on
Second Thought’. Writing of George Oppen’s poems, Longenbach argues that
they ‘demonstrate the inseparability of story and song, sincerity and
objectification, aural pleasure and experimental form’ (2004, p. 45), and this
exploration of alternative lyric modes underpins the strategy of variety within
the creative component of the thesis.
In one view, ‘the typical poem can be thought of…as a miniature
drama in which two ‘sides’ meet, come into conflict and are eventually
reconciled’ (Bateson in Furniss & Bath 1996, p. 393), but the presumption
that different philosophies or attitudes within the poem can (or should) be
reconciled may inappropriately narrow the range of possible readings. The
author might not have intended a neat and obvious reading, but rather have
deliberately sought an openness that would allow ambiguity, as in this case
where the reader is left to decide. Rather than ruining the prospect of a
meaningful reading, the lack of resolution poses different interpretations
between which the reader can jump, achieving an alternation of satisfying
readings. Ambiguity, used in this way, provides a specific reward. The idea of
an upset that delays proceedings at a wedding or even critically violates it is
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consistent with principles of dramatic movement. To maintain reader interest,
a story generally requires high stakes and uncertainty of outcome. Again I
would mention Peter Brooks’ assertion that ‘narratives both tell of
desire…and arouse and make use of desire as dynamic of signification’
(Brooks 1984, p. 37).
Turning to a different kind of lyric poem, one that is closer to a
common perception of story in verse, ‘TV Weddings’ is both longer than the
poems discussed so far in this chapter and also structured differently. It
comprises a series of four-line stanzas that use rhyme and half rhyme, clearly
echoing the idea of song in the lyric form. The tone is a little different from
that used in the earlier poems, but the difference is less than first appears.
Other poems have been ironic and humorous too, but this one deals with the
very familiar world of popular television drama, so its tone might be read as
more closely identifying with the reader since he or she is likely to know the
described world just as well as the narrator does.
The thrust of the poem is the shared experience, the familiarity of the
wedding day as a vehicle for dramatic exposition. It is narrated with some
affection and there is a large cast of characters, most of whom get up to antics
that we have probably observed or seen depicted. The story elements are
much more in evidence, ranging from a self-aware reference to storytelling in
the very first line, to the behaviour of stock characters in their various doubts,
disappointments, betrayals and indiscretions. Nearly every activity depicted is
undesirable in some way but, in aggregate, somehow funny.
This poem is in the mode of Jack Hibberd’s successful play,
Dimboola. Hibberd says that from a writer’s perspective the key to its success
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lies in understanding the value of conflict in a story. Bringing together the two
family tribes for the wedding and reception is the catalyst for their subsequent
warring behaviour (Hibberd 2006, pers. comm.). That play’s premise is
similar to Robert Altman’s 1978 film, A Wedding, in this respect. The latter
involves an extravagant wedding and reception that do not go to plan and it
paints a picture of a complex tangle of relationships that threaten to burst the
cosy domesticity of outwardly happy families. But these two families
definitely don’t get on: there is, a pregnancy, drugs, death, a reception without
guests, and dark secrets to be overcome. This is also a wedding movie where
death casts its shadow (via a car crash). Some of this incident may come from
Altman’s own experience:
And what about his wedding day? He and his fiancée, LaVonne
Elmer, were in a car crash; he was unscathed but she had her jaw
mangled so badly it had to be wired up and, during the
ceremony, she had to mutter her wedding vows through clenched
teeth (Farndall 2002, p. 21).
That the poem turns a bit sugary at the end is deliberate. Such elegiac
treatment is typical of the sentimental volta that one might also see in a
Hollywood script, where things usually tend to come out right. The poem is
doubly resolved. On the one hand, the broadcast story (that is, as contained
within the text that is the TV show) ends with the newlyweds driving away,
and the credits roll as if representing the people gathered for the reception
who will continue to party. On the other hand, the newlyweds retire to their
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honeymoon suite and a cosy future. And yet this is a lyric poem, a form of
verse that is seldom accorded narrative status. It is a folly then to deny that
there is a storytelling mode at work in a poem of this kind, or in the briefer
poems that I have discussed earlier in this chapter. The narrative and lyric
facets of the poem are productively interwoven rather than competing with
each other.
THE RESEARCH AND PRACTICE CYCLE: GAPS,
RESISTANCE AND INSIGHTS
This study has connected key parts of my own practice as a poet;
creative production and intellectual enquiry. Writing the collection of poems
has meant thinking about how that process meshes with the research
component of this thesis. For example, producing the poems has raised
questions about such things as: shaping the narratorial voice and identity; the
degree of explicit narration of story; the variety of topic matter of the
individual poems; and how to link that to the overarching wedding theme. It
has also required planning the extent of gaps left in the poems, and thus how
hard the reader would have to work to infer the larger story. These have been
more conscious considerations than they would have been prior to
undertaking the thesis.
While what I intended as a writing practice with The Floating Bride
does not constitute a broader personal manifesto of a poetics (that is
something to ponder in more depth at another time), I am intrigued by what
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Robert Sheppard says in this regard: ‘Poetics is a paradoxical theory of
practice and practice of theory. It asks not just what kind of text is this, but
how do I write one like it or, more probably one not like it?’ (Sheppard 2009,
p. 4). That last phrase in particular rang a bell, since one of my criteria was to
produce in each poem something that I had not encountered in my reading of
wedding poems by others. Graeme Sullivan, who researches cognitive
practice in the arts and is here writing on practice-led research, says that
Cezanne sought an original perspective in his work and argued, ‘once
understood, conventional practice served best as a basis for what not to do’
(Sullivan 2009, p. 41). Though that pertains to a wider area of his artistic
practice than my exercise in writing The Floating Bride, the principle is the
same one of understanding what has gone before in order to pursue the new.
Sheppard discusses how defining a poetics varies considerably between
writers, remarking, ‘I was keeping my own poetics discourse alive outside of
the academy: in reviews, in my magazine Pages, in the editing of an
anthology, in the poetry itself and in the simple keeping of a notebook,
something that continues’ (Sheppard 2009, p. 5). That is to say, his poetics did
not end up in one document as a neat, single, summary statement (though he
says he is fond of making lots of statements). Rather, it was spread across a
variety of different places, including within his own creative work.
Sheppard’s acknowledgment is directly analogous to recognising the
essential interdependence of writing practice and research. In my case, my
continuing research helped to refine the kind of writing that I was
undertaking, allowing me to better establish what would be needed to create
something that fitted my concept of novelty in wedding poems. From the
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beginning of this study, I had termed that deviation from others’ poems
‘writing into the gaps’—well before the other aspects of that term became
more apparent. Committing to the discipline of that criterion made the
material original and also added to my enjoyment in writing. With rare
exception (for instance, the epithalamium, ‘Water’), there is something about
each poem in The Floating Bride that is tied to this particular objective. Be it
the voice or nature of the narrating character, the setting, the situation, the
indicated outcome, or some other aspect, I wanted to produce something with
an element of novelty in each case.
This project turns out to have been about gaps in another way as well.
They also emerge as a fundamental part of the readers’ contribution through
their need to infer the missing parts of stories that are present only in fragment
within the poems; that is a gap-filling process. This project has not just dealt
with such spaces, but also about resistance, something that had informed my
writing for a long time but which became more pronounced during my study.
The poem may strike resistance from a reader where the gaps are too large and
the reader decides that the degree of difficulty is unwarranted. On the other
hand, some resistance is good since it involves the poem not offering up too
easy a solution, thus prolonging the profitable journey of discovery that the
reader makes. I like what James Longenbach says in this respect:
So while poems cannot help but leave things out, and while the job of
interpretation is in some sense to supply what the poem has appeared to
omit, we return to poems when they make our job difficult. Poems show
us how it feels to like trouble (Longenbach 2004, p. 94).
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I now feel more acutely how the creative and research sides of my
project have been interwoven. For example, researching narrative techniques
and examples of others’ wedding poems, and the parallel process of writing
my own wedding poems, made me more aware of how I structure my poems
and the extent of exposition built into each. The thesis has reinforced my
conviction that much learning comes from doing. My research and creative
writing are not opposed but operate in a cyclic and reciprocal process that
both varies in direction (there can be a series of back and forth effects, one
contributing to the other in turn) and intensity; they are symbiotic. Graeme
Sullivan says:
…practice-led research that is supported by critical reflection and
reflexive action can be seen to invert the research process because it
encourages working from the ‘unknown to the known’ and it is
purposeful yet open-ended, clear-sighted yet exploratory. Practice-led
research makes good use of this creative and critical process and may
provide novel perspectives in reviewing existing knowledge
structures…the imaginative outcomes generated consequently serve as a
means to critique existing knowledge (Sullivan 2009, p. 49).
Sometimes my writing or research headed off in a new direction that
was tangential to my original purpose, though it always looped back to the
first concern, raising the questions: what is my practice as a writer, and what
are the implications of this research for my practice? Poet and academic Paul
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Magee refers to this kind of divergence in his recent survey of contemporary
Australian poets, some of whom found difficulty conceiving how some acts
might not be research if they eventually became connected with their writing
(Magee 2009, Online). It does not seem strange to me that the different areas
of thought should have such interplay; the relationship between research and
practice is not a one-way street. A blend of research, theory and practice can
operate in complex and virtually simultaneous relationships. Sullivan says
‘Practice-led researchers…move eclectically across boundaries in their
imaginative and intellectual pursuits’ (Sullivan 2009, p. 49), and that ‘the
artist intuitively adopts the dual roles of the researcher and the researched, and
the process changes both perspectives because creative and critical enquiry is
a reflexive process’ (Sullivan 2009, p. 51). Similarly, writer and teacher Cindy
Nichols says:
When I’m thinking about writing, when I’m writing about writing, when
I’m WRITING: I feel the need to hold multiple approaches and
discourses lyric and Language, Formalist and Culturalist, constructed
and lived, theoretical and scholarly and aesthetic in mind all at once
(Nichols 2008, p 85)
There is no reason that our mind’s normal habit of skittering and
sometimes lingering around a variety of different areas of thought should
somehow stop when we are involved in creative writing. As Nichols points
out above, there is every reason to suppose the opposite, that writing is
dependent on such interweaving, such exploration. Kathleen Vaughan, in
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outlining how she approached a research project, makes a similar comment: ‘I
see the role of art as research and research as art less as creating new
knowledge and more as calling forth, pulling together and arranging the
multiplicities of knowledges imbedded within’ (p. 170). To isolate writing
from research would be to deprive the writer of the very fuel needed to
imagine, to create, and to reflect.
Together, these writer-researchers highlight the possibility and
practicality of moving between process and goal orientations. Hazel Smith
and Roger Dean note that: ‘While the process-driven approach obviously
lends itself to emergence, in fact at any moment an emergent idea may lead
the way to more goal-oriented research’ (2009, p. 23). Flicking between
writing/practice and exploration/gathering is fundamental to creative
production. Interestingly, Smith and Dean also speak about the artistic process
in a way that parallels how reading a lyric poem links to the reader’s own past
experience and enculturation:
…although we might be tempted to think of these [creative process]
choices as individually motivated, they are made in response to broader
social and artistic forces. So the selection process is more cultural than
biological and analogous to the activity of memes – ideas, theories and
artefacts which evolve through mutation… (Smith & Dean 2009, p. 22)
I am aware that there is some debate over whether artistic practice
itself is a reasonable or even viable basis for research. For example, Camilla
Nelson has recently rejected Paul Dawson’s argument (Dawson 2006 & 2008,
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Online) that pedagogy is the better basis for research in creative writing than
is praxis. She says:
…the goal of the academic writer should not be to amass 'literary
authority' as Dawson (2006: 28) argues. Rather, the goal should be to
enquire in a writerly kind of way into the processes of writing and
reading, production and reception (Nelson 2008, Online).
It need not be a matter of mutual exclusivity, however practice is a
legitimate site of research and the practitioner is ideally situated to explicate
ideas of creativity that contribute to an understanding of artistic production.
The benchmark statement of the National Association of Writers in Education
in the UK (NAWE) describes the nature and scope of research in creative
writing, giving special prominence to ‘imaginative simulation of experience’,
drawing on ‘tacit knowledge of human experience’, and ‘tapping internal
emotional, intellectual or psychological energy’ (NAWE 2008, p. 12):
Creative Writing research is an investigative and exploratory process.
Of the various approaches adopted, some may be called ‘situated’ or
action research; some reflexive; some responsive; some may result from
an engagement with ‘poetics’; some may adapt or adopt the
investigative procedures of other disciplines, where useful (NAWE
2008, p. 12).
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This quite an open description. While it is clear that practice-led
research is not the only way to contribute to a body of knowledge, the
argument about primacy of either practice or research only seems to muddy
the water. That kind of contest is not directly related to my purpose in this
thesis but it does highlight the potential for practice and research at least to
complement each other.
The poems in The Floating Bride are illustrations of narrative at work
in the lyric. Their production and my research both involve filling in gaps in
knowledge and ideas, and understanding more about narrative in lyric poetry
necessarily feeds back into the act of creating it. That interplay is not always
systematic; there were periods of dedicated research work such as reading,
noting, analysing, evaluating (and drafting comments on the readings to see
what I thought), but these were interspersed with periods of my own creative
writing. The latter sometimes occurred at planned opportunities and with
particular goals in mind, but inevitably became acts of the moment, in which
intuition and ingrained habits playing their role. Nonetheless, they were also
an inevitable result of cumulative research, even without following a recipe
for the individual poem at each instant. As well as being a literary work, then,
The Floating Bride is inevitably also a locus of discourse about its purpose, its
production, its achievements, and more. I cannot think of it as simply a
collection of poems; there is always a merging with the associated research,
and with the creative process itself as that implicated ideas of narrative
function.
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SUMMARY
A poem is the cultural product of a writing process that enables its ‘best’
meaning to be gleaned when it is decoded by a mind similarly well acquainted
with that culture—its literary heritage, and its linguistic devices and signing
systems. A logical choice for a topic to capitalise on this is a popular cultural
practice for which there is widespread knowledge, such as a wedding. The use
of such references more precisely directs the reader to a particular set of
common associations, whether the poet intends a straightforward depiction,
irony, or something more ambiguous. Anchoring the text by referring to wellknown objects and events, even relatively domestic ones, permits greater
concision that is especially valuable in lyric poetry. The best known of them
give the written work greater durability and transportability. Reader
familiarity allows the poet to reduce exposition and also allows a deal of play,
such as using a deliberately discontinuous narrative flow.
In writing the poems here I have consciously embraced a range of
forms and styles, and varying degrees of prominence were given to the
wedding. I also made choices about length, producing poems that ranged from
six lines to several pages: all of them fit the contemporary notion of lyric
poetry and all of them show a narrative function. This focus on length is
consistent with the interest in how brief poems, in particular, operate since the
presence of a narrative function in them would be less expected than in a
longer form. The poems in The Floating Bride represent a varied outlook on
the way that wedding stories are told, prizing lyric poetry’s heightened
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language and brief moments. They cover a wide range of techniques and
perspectives, and narrative intensities, but they share dependence on the
reader to place the poem’s concerns in the larger arc of known wedding
stories and, critically, in the world of human experience.
A fundamental driver in writing my own poems was to create some
point of difference to the wedding poems I encountered in my research. In one
poem this might manifest as a central character or a situation unlike those in
the poems by others. In another poem it would be a theme or perspective not
found in my reading. Elsewhere, I explored the sound quality of words,
options in natural versus contrived /artistic speech in narrating voices, and
different levels of narrative conspicuity (obscure or clear causality;
fragmented or full story detail, etc.). This meant that the poems were
sometimes straightforward and at others more demanding and open to
interpretation. As Longenbach says:
If all things were alike, if meanings were always perspicuous, then
poetry’s endlessly variable negotiation of story and song would be
superfluous. If all things were different, if a story could never be told,
then the allure of sound would be lost. There would be no meeting
place, no place of resistance. Error would be uninteresting rather than
provocative (2004, p. 48).
And so, The Floating Bride, too could include the strange and
unexpected, inviting reader curiosity and input as I brought together facets of
the research I had undertaken with the production of new poetry. The
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interplay of writing and research was a key element in producing a better
understanding of how narrative works in the lyric poem.
The collection makes an original contribution, standing as a creative
product in its own right. It draws consciously on a particular narrative
template, the wedding story, while working within a lyric mode that prizes
brevity, musicality and subjective utterance. In doing so, it meshes with
research into the narrative and lyric modes, and contests the common belief
that the narrative and lyric are antagonistic characteristics.
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CHAPTER 5:
CONCLUSION
the pleasure of language is never completely divorced from story
Lorna Crozier 2003, p. 69
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INTRODUCTION
Dramatic verse had been preferred over the lyric, treating the latter as of an
inferior, even non-poetic status until about the early twentieth century. That
relegation was generally on the basis that the lyric lacks a desirable narrative
function. Yet the lyric has emerged as the dominant to the extent that it is
equated with almost all contemporary poetry. Why has this rise not triggered
greater debate about the importance of narrative in poetry? Why has it not
prompted reconsideration of how we define both the lyric and the narrative
poem? Despite this, critical discussion of the nature of the lyric largely
ignores narrative, with continuing resort to comparatively black and white
ideas of what characterises both.
The debate over what constitutes the lyric is not settled and appears
unlikely to be. In considering the likely criteria that might be employed,
Virginia Jackson speaks of ‘the messiness that I would like to attach to what
are often purified terms’ (2005, p. 235). This ‘messiness’, which she seems to
welcome, characterises lyric as a category-busting form of writing that shrugs
off defining criteria otherwise requiring a near perfect fit; criteria that would
narrow what it means to write in a lyric mode and get to the true idea of the
lyric. The lyric is messy; it does resist classification. That is the beauty of it.
And yet, we cannot resist trying to dissect it.
The question of a narrative function in the lyric is important for what it
indicates about our engagement with contemporary poetry, and in the absence
of such debate, a number of questions remain unanswered. If the lyric is non188
narrative, does the trend toward it signal that narrative is now less important
in poetry? Or, does narrative persist in the lyric anyway, though
unacknowledged? We have not fully understood the nature of the lyric and
how readers engage with it. The continuing lack of agreement on how to
define both lyric poetry and narrative at best obscures this issue, and at worst
is wrong, for it denies the lyric poem a claim to exhibit a narrative function.
That refusal overlooks a critical aspect of reading all poetry, the reader’s urge
to construct story as a normal extension of a fundamental use of language to
build sense patterns.
Cognitive theorist Richard van Oort says that even prelingual animals
tend to project an event sequence when faced with certain basic data: ‘We
duck when we see someone aim to throw an object at us, because we interpret
the raised arm as an index of the entire sequence of throwing. But so does a
monkey or a bird or a dog’ (van Oort 2001, Online). In other words, the
perceiving intellect infers connection between one event and a known
sequence; there is a story template, something with a degree of predictability.
At the other, highly linguistic extreme, acts of associative cognition operate at
the symbolic level, where the connection is within a virtual system. A word
(which is something not spatially or temporally connected with its referent)
can reliably suggest the idea of something that is not actually even knowable
in the real world, such as unicorns (van Oort 2001, Online). This cognitive
spectrum leaves a lot of room for a poet to directly or indirectly prompt a
reader to think of a particular story template by the judicious use of indexing
terms. In this way, the word ‘proposal’ might evoke the idea of courtship and
wedding, since there is a propensity for the reader to locate it in a recognised
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system.
Theorist Piero Scaruffi says that memory is the critical element,
providing the basis for a method of organising both experience and knowledge
into concepts: ‘There is a fundamental unity of cognition, organized around
the ability to categorize, to create concepts out of experience’ (Scaruffi 2001,
Online). And the various categories are connected to each other: ‘It is hard to
think of something without thinking also of something else. It is hard to focus
on a concept and not think of related concepts’ (Scaruffi 2001, Online). The
word ‘groom’ may refer to someone who attends on nobility, or on horses, but
without a specific contextual link to either of these it is likely that a reader
will also (or instead) think of a newly married man, and then also a wedding
ceremony.
Keith Harrison neatly summarises the advantages of memory and recall
processes for coping with life, indirectly indicating the value of relying on
these when creating a text. We understand how the cognitive process vitally
underpins the writing and reading of poetry:
If cognitive research suggests that memory often stores knowledge as
scripts, then much of human understanding can be described as “a
process by which people match what they see and hear to pre-stored
groupings of actions that they have already experienced” (Schank and
Abelson quoted in Herman 1048). This kind of matching would reduce,
or maybe even avoid, the imaginative demands (and duration) inherent
in repeatedly engaging the complexity of the world through fresh
perceptions and new inferences. Having learned hundreds or thousands
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of these scripts, each with its own Aristotelian beginning, middle, and
end, and ordered by chronology and causation, humans possess a
narrative representation of many aspects of their cultural world, so that,
in effect, future experiences have already been largely anticipated and
sorted out by past ones that the brain has stored as stereotypical process
analyses involving consecutive steps leading from an expected
beginning to a preconceived end. Literary narratives require familiarity
with many of these scripts as part of an understanding of what is
happening in a novel, and scripts perhaps act as the prototypes for such
story-telling (Harrison 2003, Online).
Thus cognitive theory tells us that if a lyric poem references a wedding
motif of some kind, a reader will readily identify the larger narrative to which
it belongs. That potential is a powerful one, and a reason why the lyric
exhibits a narrative function despite its brevity and relatively fragmented
recounting of events.
THE IMPORTANCE OF NARRATIVE
If basic units of meaning operate to produce a sense of narrative structure
when encountered in conversation or on the page of a short story, then
logically they will do the same when framed in a lyric poem. If we accept that
their function is independent of such issues of location, as we must, how
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important is narrative to the process of the lyric poem? It is vital on two
counts:
•
it is intrinsically linked to the poet’s craft, and
•
it is a rudiment of the reader’s interpretative actions, integrating the
poem with her own schema.
Narrative function allows greater economy in the poem. It gives the
poet more latitude for concision and subtlety since there is not the need to
spell out so much detail of characterisation and plot. Poets reliably exploit
references from a common stock of culturally understood events that are also
emotionally substantial and, thus, suited to creating the suspense which
deferral of decision-making offers in storytelling.
THE ROLE OF THE READER
Contemporary poets benefit from the work of others at the turn of the
twentieth century whose poetry began to demand greater reader involvement
in the text: ‘since the 1950s poets feel they have achieved the goal of radically
re-educating the audience. It is with much less sense of struggle that poets
today ask the reader to participate in creating the poem’ (Block 1978, p. 165).
With such reader engagement seemingly commonplace and with the
dominance of the lyric mode in poetry, we should expect narrative techniques
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of brevity and omission to be used in contemporary lyric poetry, including the
judicious use of well-known cultural motifs such as weddings.
If the true value of a poem lay only in its clarity, the best of them
would read like instruction manuals. They would be unambiguous, direct and
plain, incapable of more than a single, ‘correct’ interpretation, and altogether
efficient, if unimaginative, vehicles for transmitting information. They would
anticipate and answer every relevant and significant question that might
otherwise arise: a bare account of how to assemble a set of bookshelves would
be the pinnacle of the art. A traditional haiku could not compare despite its
outward simplicity and its economic structure since there is something elusive
in its statement about how things are—something unsaid, something left to be
guessed at—and that would be a sign of its failure.
On the other hand, as Laurence Sterne, author of The Life and
Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, says:
No author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good
breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can
pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and
leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself (Sterne
1967, p. 127).
Thus, no poem can or should say everything; no poem should exhaust
the possible. Kevin Brophy remarks about the fragments of information in
poems that they:
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…are like parts of maps across which our gaze can move, making
decisions about a possible journey at each crossroad…The fragment
always suggest there is more that might have been said. It declares the
impossibility of saying everything (Brophy 2003, p. 91).
We expect something else from poetry and a large part of it is to leave
room for our own discovery, and the prospect of epiphany, otherwise the
poem is merely a catalogue. Establishing the narrative context is a reward of
that reading process and, accordingly, lyric poems do not need to be densely
detailed in that respect. As Hühn says:
Narrative sequences in poetry frequently lack explicit circumstantial
explanations and connections which are conventionally required in
novels and short stories…they can also easily dispense with making
explicit, and motivating, the transition between two points in time.
(2004, pp. 152-153)
In practice, lyric poetry offers the reader a journey of discovery
instead. It may sometimes be the brief, meditative utterance of a state of mind
with which the lyric is historically associated but it can also offer readers a
narrative path, one that combines the satisfactions that normally arise in
storytelling through combining significance (something that matters) with
uncertainty (a lack of predictable outcomes).
Contemplating list-like words that Emily Dickinson inscribed on the
back of a chocolate wrapper, Virginia Jackson decides that they are
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‘inscrutable, since everything that would explain them is missing. What is
missing is in turn what lyricizes the notion of the unread lines’ (2005, p.240).
Bringing the fragments of such a message into close inspection is part of the
natural tendency of trying to make meaning, anchored in relation to the world
as the reader knows it. The seemingly difficult text is read as a code that can
be unravelled if only the reader can find a match in his or her experience, in
an actual or fictional life that they know. What is deliberately missing from
the lyric poem is what the reader attempts to provide, and that pairing is
exactly what brings a text to life.
ANALYSING THE LYRIC POEM
The poetic focus for my discussion of narrative in the lyric is the
contemporary wedding poem, which demonstrates strong links to the wedding
narrative that has endured for thousands of years; the sequence of courtship (a
quest), ritualised bonding (the wedding ceremony), and in some cases its
immediate aftermath (the reception and honeymoon). Consistent with that is
the longstanding form of story that involves motivating a key character to
overcome a lack or a disturbance, such as being excited to defeat an intrusive
competitor or to rescue a kidnapped damsel. To maintain reader interest,
storytelling employs a number of techniques (such as withheld information,
conflict, uncertainty, suspense, duplicity, decision points, and setbacks) on its
path to a triumphant celebration that is often a wedding. That archetypal
structure is apparent in narratives worldwide.
195
Several hundred contemporary wedding poems were surveyed in the
course of this study in order to gauge the ways in which wedding references
are used in lyric poetry. A prominent feature of reading them is to discover
how the reader is forced to conjecture, in the manner suggested by Roland
Barthes’ hermeneutic code (1971, p. 17). When a poem locates characters and
events in the context of a wedding story, it reduces the extent of readers’
guesswork that would otherwise be needed and provides a template to help
them fill in details that may not be explicit in the poem. On the other hand, a
small deferral of information is often intentional, aimed at pulling the reader
into deeper engagement with the poem from the start by offering a small
mystery, as also happens with narrative in other genres. It shows how the
temporal aspect of a poem can be profitably exploited, in the very first steps
involved with creating reader desire to construct a narrative. Collectively, the
analysed poems show that the standard features of narrative structure and
suspense can be used fruitfully in lyric poetry despite its brevity, and in many
ways.
Poems that I wrote for this thesis deliberately present wedding
references in a variety of unusual ways rather than following a simple
template of celebration. They cover a wide range of interests that also reflect
the kind of dynamic elements of a narrative to be found in many stories,
whether in verse, in prose, or on the screen. The details in some are consistent
with linear narrative; in ‘Eloping’, two characters keen to wed suffer a
bureaucratic delay before that obstacle is overcome in a comic manner. Their
situation and the events that follow are conventionally portrayed in
chronological sequence, whereas, at other times, the poems play with the idea
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of the ambiguous and mysterious, as is evident in ‘The Bride We Pass’
discussed earlier. There is theoretically a hidden story in this poem; a single
‘true’ narrative that might be guessed at, but which ultimately remains a
secret. And since death and other threats to the wedding are notable in the
surveyed poems, some of my original pieces also deal with more sinister
aspects of events and characters. In ‘Paper Doll’, the bride is an unreal and
menacing character, and a gun haunts a bride in ‘Wedding Present’. The
darkest poems are those that directly deal with death; ‘Angel’ and ‘Death
Goes Wooing’ present death as a suitor, for example.
I have had to think through what constitutes the lyric poem, and the
complexity of arguments about its defining criteria. Virginia Jackson’s
comments about the ascendancy of the lyric and the consequent difficulty of
not reading texts as lyric come to mind. She says, about the closing passage of
an Emily Dickinson letter: ‘Can a text not intended to be read as a lyric
become one? Can a text once read as a lyric be unread? If so, then what is—or
was—a lyric?’ (2005, p. 6). I decided that it would be unproductive trying to
write a poem that aims to match every criteria on the various lists of what
characterises a lyric. Following Wolf’s list alone would mean contending with
nine different attributes (Wolf, 2005, pp. 24-31), which he acknowledges may
not all be prominent in a single poem that is clearly regarded as a lyric,
anyway—and that is before adding the other variations that numerous people
have listed. Nor would it be profitable to take poems by others and subject
them to such fine-toothed screening; other theorists have tried before with
relatively unfruitful results. I have already established the extent of
disagreement about these attributes, including the problems of characteristics
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being shared with other genres and the difficulty of measuring them. As a
poet, I have been attuned to the many faces of the lyric that vary according to
the faith of the reader, and recognise that it cannot own or display all of them
in every instance, and also that a more basic view of the poem relates to its
musicality and intimacy. In all cases, however, the language of the poem
offers at least the bones of story, and I see myself as a storyteller in even the
slimmest poems. With that in mind, brevity is perhaps the most important
attribute in this study because it is in the smallest poems that the narrative
presence is most tested.
SUMMARY
The lyric poem is not merely the commonly claimed field for expression of an
emotional state. Reader response theory, supported by elements of
structuralism, highlights that the lyric poem is intimately attached to the way
in which readers seek to make meaning by constructing story. As also shown
by the poems analysed in this study (both my own and those written by
others), lyric poems demonstrate a narrative function. They tend to use it in
subtle ways, relying on links to the reader’s world and on the reader’s cooperative interpretation.
The lyric is dominant. Its broad set of defining characteristics means
that little poetry can escape the label. The argument that a narrative function
lies in the lyric inevitably then becomes one that it applies to some degree in
all contemporary poetry. As I have shown, the narrative gaps in lyric poetry
are where the reader works to fill in story detail; this function must be no less
198
relevant to other verse. That tendency is even more pronounced when the
poems are very short and fragmented, since the information withheld from the
reader forces them to flesh out the story more. The reader may also imagine
the kind of narrative arc that precedes and follows the given text when they
guess at motivation for character action inside the text or what may ensue
beyond it.
It may seem banal to reduce this complex issue to a simple statement
that lyric poems employ narrative because it is universal and, thus, that they
tell stories—despite Roland Barthes’ claim that narrative is ‘simply there, like
life itself’ (Barthes 1977, p. 79). However, it is true, that they do just that,
whether by design or default. The poems may be stories in a fragmented,
discontinuous form. They may be cryptic; distillations of fuller and more
detailed accounts of events. Regardless of the method, they exploit the
reader’s basic expectation of narrative and a tendency to fill in gaps in order to
create causal sequences.
As a writer, I have found this illuminating. An important result has
been that I treat the elements of a poem in progress with greater awareness
about the potential of language to amplify and resonate, and especially with
attention to how it might be pared back to its most effective parts when such
editing is required. That means more than making a dehydrated poem—or a
Zipped file, to use a contemporary computer reference. The poem is never
merely a miniature or condensed version of a larger one but the catalyst for
the reader’s creation of a personal text based on their own knowledge. Judging
the right references to employ is still an art, but it is valuable knowing that a
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brief lyrical poem can open out into a large and intricate work that transcends
its more obvious signs.
I think about the notions of wonder and spaces that came to inform my
investigation into the way narrative works in the lyric poem. In that respect, I
also contemplate what James Longenbach says about the gaps in which the
reader must work, the way that poetry must resist divulging all, and how
textual resistance serves us as readers:
The very things that resist wonder must also be the things on which
wonder depends, or else we could never feel it. Wonder contingent on
inexperience and firstness can be easy to feel, and the challenge is to be
wounded by “composed wonder”—wonder produced by poetry’s
mechanisms of self-resistance: syntax, line, figurative language,
disjunction, spokenness. Without these mechanisms, poems would be
vehicles for knowledge, explanations of experience that would threaten
to dispel its wonder. They would be useful, then disposable (2004, p.
97).
Is my poetry better for having thought about the nature of the lyric and the
narrative function underlying it? Am I more capable as a poet through being
better informed in this regard? One might as well ask whether there is a better
form of prayer to be found, something that we can say empirically has a
greater chance of being heard by God. No one knows or will ever be able to
tell, but in the case of the poetry I can say that writing is still a holy place for
me, even as I ponder the technical aspects of story that live within it. Such
200
reflection on the practice of writing does not intrude on my creative work;
rather, it is an intrinsic part of it.
201
CHAPTER 6:
CREATIVE COMPONENT
THE FLOATING BRIDE
202
THE FLOATING
BRIDE
Rosemary Laing ‘Flight Research’
Poems by
Steve Evans
203
LIST OF POEMS
CROW ON THE CROSS ....................................................................................................206 CROW ON THE CROSS .........................................................................................................207 BRIDAL WALTZ ..................................................................................................................209 AND YES ............................................................................................................................211 WHITE (1)...........................................................................................................................213 DEATH GOES WOOING .......................................................................................................215 WATER ...............................................................................................................................216 POSTMODERN .....................................................................................................................217 WHITE (2)...........................................................................................................................219 AN AUDIENCE WITH JULIE..................................................................................................221 ALWAYS .............................................................................................................................223 CLOWNS IN LOVE ...............................................................................................................225 HAUTE COUTURE ...............................................................................................................227 MIXED MARRIAGE .............................................................................................................229 WEDDING PRESENT ............................................................................................................231 THE ROSE GARDEN ............................................................................................................236 REALITY TV .......................................................................................................................238 GATHERING UP...................................................................................................................240 THE BURNING RIVER......................................................................................................242 MAKESHIFT ........................................................................................................................243 A MODERN VOW ................................................................................................................245 SOCIETY WEDDINGS ...........................................................................................................247 HACK..................................................................................................................................249 SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW: A MASS WEDDING..................................................250 ON SECOND THOUGHT .......................................................................................................252 EATING THE GROOM...........................................................................................................253 IMMACULATE RECEPTION ..................................................................................................255 DRESS SENSE ......................................................................................................................257 DACHAU .............................................................................................................................259 THE BURNING RIVER ..........................................................................................................261 FAQ ...................................................................................................................................266 THE LOVE SONGS OF LAWYERS .........................................................................................267 MY LANGUAGE ..................................................................................................................269 GET ME TO THE CHURCH ON TIME .....................................................................................271 ELOPING IN CANADA ..........................................................................................................273 NEWLYWEDS ......................................................................................................................275 IN THE ALBUM ....................................................................................................................277 TV WEDDINGS ...................................................................................................................279 LITTLE MURDERS ............................................................................................................285 VOWS .................................................................................................................................286 THE RELUCTANT BRIDE .....................................................................................................288 ANGEL ................................................................................................................................291 THE GROOM .......................................................................................................................293 BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN ...................................................................................................294 THE BRIDE WE PASS ..........................................................................................................295 UNPRETTY ..........................................................................................................................296 THE WARRIOR BRIDE .........................................................................................................298 THE JESSIE DAYS................................................................................................................300 LITTLE MURDERS ...............................................................................................................303 COMA .................................................................................................................................305 PAPER DOLL .......................................................................................................................306 204
MRS. DEATH.......................................................................................................................307 A WEDDING STORY ............................................................................................................309 THE HAPPY COUPLE ...........................................................................................................311 205
CROW ON THE CROSS
206
Crow on the Cross
from the steeple cross
I see the glossed white tin
of your bridal car approaching—
I adjust tail feathers the lustre of coal
a porcelain sheen turns on my wings
deep as black water
I alight from the spire in a lazy arc
step into church with my coat ablaze—
was there ever as sleek a groom?
was there ever a sharper foil for a bride
than this lit darkness
this brilliance I am?
my beak is full of spells
a gush of wedding song
I will sing the fractured axis
I will sing the ghost of longing
I will sing the wild tilt of unearthed things
and pour us back into the sky—
207
we will fly
bird and bride
and all the angled winds
a riff on the bible of flight
see
your plumage already begins to grow
come with me
leave your long white car
leave your grieving family—
the mouth of death won’t have us yet
let them look for us in skies and trees
we will look back from the little cross
we will peer through the stained glass
and sing our inelegant songs
the hymns to loss and faith
the long wet light of winter on us
208
Bridal Waltz
for Kate
I am up late
marking students’ papers
when you enter the room
in your wedding gown
it is beautiful on you still
a bit snug now
but you are under sail
all grace and cleavage
maybe enchanted
or maybe under the
humour of its elegant
and regal presence
you decide to wear it
all the next day—
on the train to work
and interviewing clients
on your lunch-time walk
and shopping for lunch
209
you carve a path of calm
in the frenzy of the city
by the time you get home
I am feeling foolish
in my suit and flowers
waiting on bended knee
the choir of neighbourhood kids
seems a bit redundant
and my little speech silly
especially when you say
you’ve received three
proposals that day
finally in the house alone
we hang up the suit and gown
like ghostly chaperones
and begin the dance
of the newlyweds
naked, blessed
210
And Yes
for Sue and Rob
What can one say to newlyweds
that doesn’t involve a sweet retreat
to ancient pleasures?
Here are the inevitable lines
alluding to the beauty of a sky
that brims with nothing but blue,
or a river of stars.
There is the conjured gaze of love,
a painted portrait of the serene couple.
Always this temptation to resort to poor replicas.
We could wheel out the box of familiar parts,
reaching into drawers named Trust and Devotion
but they are always empty.
That work’s an illusion.
No-one has seen such insubstantial objects.
They do not live in boxes.
211
What can one say?
Let’s not wave old flags
but share the joy of the inexpressible,
and think of these two
standing in a space beyond words
where they have joined hands,
together at the crossing point.
What can one ever say to newlyweds
after this
but Yes
and Yes?
212
White (1)
in the National Gallery of Victoria
that itch of white
starts at me when I first walk in
a tablecloth in McCubbin’s ‘Sketch for After Breakfast’
then dirty washing over there
its afternoon glare
and a cloud blowing overhead
is blown twice
once in the sky
its twin on the water is sunlit too
bright as sand arcing at the edge
of the next picture’s lake
a saucer’s rim
where bleached shells tipped onto the beach
are broken china
ground into flakes of meringue
stark as a wedding dress
a starched apron hung on the line
beneath a white moon in a white sky—
the tablecloth gave it to the clouds
213
that flung it back
the lake washed it clean and threw its milky
light into buckling shifts of sky
I’m pulled from frame to frame by all these
snatches of white until I have to
shade my eyes and duck my head—
everything one
and blinding
214
Death Goes Wooing
I slick back an unruly lock of hair,
scuff my shoes on the trouser cuff
of my borrowed suit,
and enter the room smiling.
That first look is still a thrill.
Sometimes I’m rushed by circumstance
but I prefer a leisured approach,
wooing by degrees,
persuading with persistence
and natural charm.
My devotion is legendary.
I’ve lost count of my loves,
but it was never about numbers.
No, it’s always been the chase,
despite the fact that
they all say yes in the end.
215
Water
an epithalamium
Even dry, a creek bed knows
the fluid heart beneath all things;
the constant river underground.
The world is an endless pour
between this place and that.
Love, like water, can't be held.
It is the vapour we breathe,
our food and drink;
and patient love’s a welcome rain,
our souls’ replenishment.
They say we're nine-tenths water,
so place your hand in mine
and we'll be that constant river,
changing and the same.
We will flow together,
two streams joined as one.
216
Postmodern
the bride wanted horses and coach
but inside the church
already an uproar of pipe-organ
and Uncle Henry tweaking the bridesmaids
vows made never to resort
to innuendo and smutty
jokes in drunken speeches
before confetti flickers on the aisle
with Dad’s relief that finally
the gowned one has arrived
he’s sent out to get the groom
whose crooked tie from the slap he copped
when one last feel tickled no fancy
and you a nearly married man
have you no shame
now get in there and do the
right thing before someone discovers
an alcoholic accordion and
club-footed piano cranking out
the waltz to announce
217
a honeymoon suitcase parked
by the door of the graffiti’d car
that’s already gone—
we won’t be trying this again soon
218
White (2)
the cool surface of scalded cream
left under lace
on the verandah
the curtain dazzling
as daylight’s slow tide
fills the room
the stilled wheels of dinner plates
a row of white port holes
standing on the shelf
finding you in the hallway
wearing your wedding dress
and a fold of afternoon sun
the ivory of wax
in the hive
long before the wick is lit
219
the candle stuttering in our room
trying over and over
to describe you
220
An Audience with Julie
he took a day off driving trucks came down to where she worked
having borrowed his best friend’s bike and his older brother’s suit
wedged a posy against the bars that arrived almost intact and he
had to tell the gateman or they wouldn’t let him in to Preston’s
clothing factory even with his flowers and suit
his heart was light with joy and fear too nervous for rehearsals
he’d have to wait to hear them said the words that he would offer
when he found her there and as he passed the rows of girls all their
machines fell silent a wash of murmurs pushed him on
he saw someone had just told her from the way she turned her
head as chafe-necked and suit-awkward he approached her sewing
team who looked at her not him as he said his weeks were sixty
hours with the overtime and all and next year he’d make foreman
if one more shift came on and they’d rent a flat the first year while
they saved for their own place
and could she, that is, if he, maybe, would she, anyway…? and the
knock-off whistle screamed so when her hands went to her face he
couldn’t hear her say a thing and in the quiet that came next a
221
hundred women watched her and Julie did not speak though all
Preston’s held its breath
he left the flowers on the roadside hung his brother’s suit to air
drove the trucks and slept between shifts as if he didn’t care
though he’d turn that puzzle over in his mind for years and years
the terrible beauty of a late afternoon in the western suburbs his
bicycle clips still shining and a hundred lookers-on and how a redhaired girl who loved him could say no without a sound
222
Always
a woman in a wedding dress
takes tickets on the tram
her hem is scuffed and dirty
mouth fixed as a post-box slot—
another one cutting ham
in the corner shop
throws back her fly-wire veil
—next order please!
others scrunched in car seats
sitting at red lights
bustle in a mass of tulle
tap unringed fingers on their wheels
the mechanics and plumbers
the clerks and sales assistants
in a froth of silk
the dentists and cleaners
in hand-stitched satin trains—
the army of them waiting
in their vast white uniforms
223
ready at a moment’s notice
but always the bridesmaid
never the bride
224
Clowns in Love
Behind the pratfalls and the bright red nose,
you’d like to think, there is someone like us
when they’re off duty,
as ordinary as an executioner eating dinner,
but the truth is that
even in bed there’s still that lunatic smile,
the slapstick and tears
where the make-up smears
and the body’s awkward language of sex
flicks between pictures of cartoon excess.
They prank to hide grief;
Romeo with rubber knife and a fizzing mug,
Othello with outsize hankie
playing tragedy for laughs,
and no passion is too big for mime.
Even if their big feet get in the way,
their fat hearts still beat on their sleeves.
225
It’s a courtship with animal balloons
and a rain of glitter.
with flapping arms and Look out behind you!
until she says Yes.
Then nothing is done by halves—
the wedding ring’s really a water pistol,
the bouquet explodes into scarves,
the in-laws are drowned in confetti
as the couple departs in a pedal car,
throwing custard pies at each other.
Ah, true love they know is no joke.
226
Haute Couture
the salesman’s scowl says it all—
billowing falls of creamy silk are nothing now
they’re so last season, pure pastiche—
instead he opens a display book where
a scarecrow in a man’s waistcoat stares back
her thin arm propped at the hip
above a long skirt of torn paper strips—
the new theme is The Bible, he says, Old Testament
hand-printed, hand-shredded, only the best
for just a few thousand more, ten or so
he’ll knock you up a ripper—
no one forgets a wedding when
the bride’s gown is made of fish
their long bodies slung like blades around her waist
or if the dress is a shimmer of condom packets
that rustles like cellophane—
their edible contents saved for dessert
(surprise your guests)
227
you’re thinking it would be cheaper
and more stylish
to cover yourself in masses of glue
and roll in the money you’ve scrimped
but then he shows you the next picture
and you see that’s already been done too
now what’s this at the back—
simple, sheer, and utterly you?
how much?
he frowns
fifty dollars, Madam
it’s a dry-cleaning bag
228
Mixed Marriage
her parents did not approve
mine made their point by moving to France—
these were minor problems
one of us had too few tentacles
one of us breathed too much oxygen
but we worked our way through that
I wore my best outfit
she polished her antennae
and swung her hips in four dimensions
I struggled with English syntax
she spoke twelve languages
simultaneously
the priest was reluctant
it was a mixed faith wedding
the reception was held in Dimboola
we honeymooned on the moon
while I held my breath
after all, love is about compromise
229
we’re hopeful for the future
there’s more tolerance these days
our kids will be multi-skilled
bi-pedal, blue and many-gilled
but if the neighbours are cruel
I know we’ll survive because
she’ll eat them alive
230
Wedding Present
it lies at the back of a drawer
the third drawer of the chest
of drawers in the corner of the room
that catches the late afternoon light
in a soft diagonal of ivory
from the high window
in there
in the third drawer
behind the silk camisole
and the lace edge of some underwear
she’s worn just twice
it lies cool and matter of fact
when her Uncle Guy was seventeen
he bought it from a pawnbroker
nudged the shop door and its small bell aside
to claim the shining form
that had winked at him from the window
that had called him from across the street
231
to pull every coin and note he had
from his pockets
perhaps he fancied himself
a river-boat gambler
holding it snug in his palm
the small but powerful part
of an equation he waited to see
spelt out before him
somewhere in the future
real or imagined
either way possible
her father hated it
said that it went to his head
Uncle Guy’s head
though his main complaint was
that it went to his head
her father’s
because of Uncle Guy’s habit
when drunk
of waking her father
while holding the gun
232
to the curve of bone behind his ear
and talking about death
for an hour or three
about its pleasure and its inevitability
her father knew the circle of its barrel
firmly
intimately
against his skin
and the drunken whirl of logic that kept it there
now in the back of the drawer
a small nickel plated revolver
nestles against her underwear
a gun neat as a baby’s fist
shiny as a champagne flute
its handle intricately carved from
mother of pearl
shows Lazarus rising
her father stole it from her uncle
when he was out drinking
and kept it in a sack in the garden shed
wrapped in hessian and laid next
233
to the new season’s iris bulbs
until Uncle Guy began to forget
and her father began to grow as strange
as Uncle Guy had ever been
and one day
her wedding day
he presented it to her
as if a bunch of flowers
smiling
on its handle the figure is still looming
in subtle rainbow tints from its grave
the gun is waiting
cold and metallic
and its purpose
instilled in those long nights
at her father’s ear
is not forgotten
in three weeks
she will pull out the drawer and
reach in there blind
her hand swimming around for a bra
234
will connect for long enough
and the gun will finally fire
through the left cup of the bra
through the back of the chest of drawers
through the wall of the bedroom
and through the picture of her late father
and her late uncle
hanging in the next room
one of them will suffer a flesh wound
at last
235
The Rose Garden
after the Spring rain
flamenco ruffles blossom on their racks
the arbour erupts into soft chandeliers
and the rose garden’s simply haute couture—
all the blooms toss up their skirts
in Folies Bergère
their tousled heads a mad coiffure
of devil may care
such flim and flam
such flounce and show
such glam and sheer excess
their blowsy curves and pointed buds
stir the scented air
except in the corner of the yard
where the mother of the bride
is too uptight to stir
in her awful petalled hat
disapproving perhaps
or simply lonely by herself—
236
while the rest shower pathways
with coloured scraps
slippery as painted lips
she’s prim and proper
as reserved as the Queen of Sleep
the others laze in afternoon’s watery light
when we snip and clip
bringing them in to vases and bowls
placed by drowsing windows—
such opulence spoils us
their satin turbans shine like potentates’
sumptuous satraps from eastern realms
royalty who visit in our own home
where we’re unsure of protocol—
should we curtsy or bow
or dance for pleasure
for the sheer hell of it?
237
Reality TV
a film of a log-fire crackles on the other set
to warm a winter’s night
while the celebrity chef drizzles melted chocolate
into her wide open mouth
the perfect show for food voyeurs
who can’t even boil water—
at eight o’clock it’s the wedding channel
a clatter of churches and confetti
limousines and drunken receptions
kisses and brawls
that aren’t ours, thank God—
and logically next
the 24 hour showing of public executions
the hapless figures shuffling down
long corridors in prison grey
or still in street clothes
lined up on Chinese sports fields with heads bowed
for half-time display and dispatch
238
but his master stroke was the premium channel
a non-stop random assortment of the lot
monsters of our own curiosity
he knew we would always want
the whole comedy of sex, food, hope, death—
we rushed to subscribe
to the reality of ourselves
watching ourselves watching
the rows of brides on death row
cooking as if their lives depended on it
239
Gathering Up
dipping his fingers into her skull
he ripples the water
finds a spoonful of honey
a bundle of sticks
grated lemon peel
a pinch of dirt
a splinter in her finger
a stalk of lavender
a ball of string—
here are the unread letters
and the wedding ring she lays
on her bedside table every night
a tin-cup and whistle
the puzzle, the bits—
the world unravelling
in a jitterbug
St. Elmo’s Fire
but the angel at
the foot of her bed
240
is bored now—
watching the clock
scratching his head
under a reggae hat
he stubs out his butt
and clicking his fingers
gathers her up
241
THE BURNING RIVER
242
Makeshift
courting her
I came to the used cereal packet that was her step
and carefully knocked twice
my knuckles denting the cardboard door
houses there were made of fruit boxes
old tins rolled flat and riveted for a roof
bad work that let in sun and rain
but the colours were stupidly pretty
she called me inside
I set my weeds in a jar on the milk-carton table
and glanced around the single room
what sort of bed is that I asked
and with three people already in it?
243
be thankful she said
her thin arms threw the newspaper blanket open to me
fake pearls glistened on her breast—
come in quick, while they’re still pretending to sleep
244
A Modern Vow
Repeat after me:
Will you, my beloved Patricia
[the party of the first part]
knowing my great passion for you
[subject to the codicil of the attached agreement]
consider me, your loving Patrick
[the party of the second part]
to be your husband
[as defined in sub-paragraph 3(g)]
sharing life’s ups and downs
[seasonally adjusted]
and forsaking all others
[as far as clause 8 requires]
so long as we both shall live *
[according to Statute 12 of
the Medical Assistance Act of 2003]?
245
If so
please click in the box
enter credit card details
and hit Send
#
* no warranty, expressed or implied, is given
# the security of this transaction is not guaranteed
246
Society Weddings
in that dress
she was a cake of thin
white chocolate plates
melting onto the grass—
she’d never been more edible
he was equally trendy
a designer suit in fire-engine red
the newspaper said—
though the printed colour
looked more like mud or shit
their cake’s wild architecture
like stacks of discarded hats
offered tiered little palaces
ziggurats of bleached roses
that would break your teeth
247
but that was at least a year ago
the cameras’ flash is long faded
the carnival’s back in its box
the dress and the suit went to charity
the wedding is on the rocks
248
Hack
insult the editor, they said
and you’ll be on obituaries
scribbling around with the dead
or worse
sent off to write up weddings
the snobby daughters of your employers
and their feckless beaux
gloating by the Roller
at the honeymoon chateaux
the dead are kind of charming
and cannot answer back
while a bride described off-kilter
may just get you the sack
so each one is a princess, right?
(ignore the gossip writer’s laughter)
with a blissful future to live in
always happily ever after
249
Something Old, Something New:
A Mass Wedding
Do you:
Aubrey Basil Crispin Desmond Elliot
Fishburne Godfrey Horace Ignatius
Jerome Kelvin Leonard Maximilian
Neville Oswald Percival Quentin
Reginald Spencer Theodore Ulysses
Vernon William Xavier Yester and Zero
take:
Azzure Brianna Chelsey Destini E*star
Faylene Gabr’elle Hevenlee Innasentia
Jakayla Krystel Litisha Maddyson Nyeesha
Odalyss Paige Q’ellee ReeAnnon Shyanne Tarlia
Ursuluh Valkeiree Willowe Xynthia Yazsmine and Zzoey
to be your lawful wedded wives?
The crowded chapel is hushed.
The ancient, trembling millionaires
and their former beneficiaries
await an answer from the youthful brides
250
Outside, a solitary bird begins to sing
and mobile phones begin to ring
in the rows of lawyers’ black limousines
251
On Second Thought
On second thought
the suitor stays at home.
He sends his suit instead.
A hundred dollar hire,
it knows the haunts
of doubts and vows,
arrives in time
to meet the gown
that is fashionably late.
A perfect match
brideless
groomless
they
honeymoon in
a wardrobe near you.
252
Eating the Groom
with the groom there is no question
one must start with the head
you could leave it to last but begin at the top
with his tiny hat and skull instead
then the smart little jacket
that dinky cravat and striped pants
an upper class groom
is gone in a crunch or two
like a dainty hors d’oeuvre
then the bride
who’s pure dessert
all that swish and cream
a soft-centred meringue
and lingering nibble
to sweeten the mouth
so give in to temptation
when no one is looking your way
block their view of the cake
the newlyweds won’t notice
253
they’re about to go missing
it’s all yours to take
and the little figurines
in their smart gloss of icing
want you to do it
far better a bite and a lick
than twenty years stuck in a tin—
not to eat would be the sin
254
Immaculate Reception
every vol-au-vent is perfect
crisp as the groom’s shirt-front
each speech a model of decorum
its humour not too blunt
no-one propositions the bridesmaids
to the bridesmaids’ slight regret
the cake’s a wonder of confection
that’s not been bettered yet
the bridal dance is fluid
a dream of sublimated sex
she could have so many men
but now she’s made her pick
255
the music’s sweet and edgy
just the very latest thing
the happy couple circulates
showing off the wedding ring
no snide remarks to spoil things
nor fights between courses
and no-one will find the best man
till the sprinklers start at four
256
Dress Sense
1.
afterwards the gown
is hung in a wardrobe
a member of royalty
among the rustling lower class
all those jealous silent commuters
where it’s standing room only—
or else it’s wrapped in tissue paper
folded into a stiff lined box
and kept under the bed
sleeping beneath the carnal river
the tears of joy and last breaths
a daughter may wear it
and a grand-daughter
in a palimpsest of brides
but eventually it will be consigned
to the old clothes basket
from which it may one day rise
257
to go princessing
or to disguise a son in the costume
of a high ranking official of the orient—
lesser ones first float limply into op-shops
to be hauled out for fancy-dress
or scarecrow duty
2.
I am this odd one
slung on a twist of wire
in the chook-house
queen of the muttering clutch
that settles to the night—
some eye saw in me a perfect curtain
to fox and otherworld
now only the gully breeze fills me
and I will never be stepped from again
never slump in a honeymoon sigh
of ivory silk and lace
I am the reliquary past holiness
garment of an exotic land
sister to the brood
dusty and white as my hens
258
Dachau
you’ll rise when ready
dust off the years
collect your clothing from the heap
and dress without embarrassment
among the naked crowd
you’ll find your watch easily among
the thousands sprawled on the tables
and your ring will be an obvious circle
in the first wooden box you choose
from all those stacked against the wall
pick up the brown suitcase
from the corner where it was thrown
your tag still on the broken handle
then consult the list on the desk
to uncross your name
all that will be left
will be to walk the yard
to board the train home
259
the sun will be shining
as you wait by the track
the grass swooning in the wind
and conversations will begin
of trivial things—
which curtains to put in the kitchen
what dress to wear to a cousin’s wedding
where to plant the roses
260
The Burning River
on my last New Year’s Eve in the town
after the parties all died down
Cowley’s mob stole a petrol drum
to set the water alight
and where we had earlier swum
tipping our mouths back wide
in that soft confluence of river and summer rain
was a wild rag of blue flame
that I watched from the jetty
the burning river a signal to the stars
and those about to leave this place
but now my feet leave no prints on that soft shore
the lights of town squint to a blur
and I sweep from here to anywhere
as easy as flicking stations
on the Falcon’s radio—
invisible
261
I slide past the open shed at the corner mill
the stacked sap-wet ends of new timber
are raw 45s with the years’ slow music in their rings
blonde stalagmites of dust lie under the bench
where Tom Wright lost a finger
to a second’s dreaming
and when asked how he did it
showed them with another one
at town’s edge
cattle like scattered handbags
still graze the hillside above Baxter’s dump
where heaped papers in constant migration
turn through summer air
and accidental sculptures of cast-out wire
lie tangled as my old homework excuses
a broken pram on its side
is a billy-cart in waiting
and the gold and orange
of nasturtiums along the road
will work their mysteries of light
in morning’s glare
262
I pass the paddock’s charred circle
where we jumped at Guy Fawkes’ crackers
rattling ladders of red and green
the strings of squibs thrashing underfoot
and where the tang of soursobs in spring
was as bitter as old torch batteries
tested on the tongue
now thistles’ cardboard crowns crowd along the fence
and the flat ground has been graded into squares
a dusty map for new houses
that are still a long time coming
in Newland Road
in that house with worn shutters
I am nine years old
sprawled across a soft-sprung bed
dreaming of the fastest bicycle in the world
half-pedalling it already
my mother by the kitchen radio
re-stitching the collars on my father’s shirts
and he two days away
on a sales round through
263
other towns just like this one
at Pattersons’ place down our street
the dog’s dish is an old hub-cap
their side-gate’s an iron bedstead
their chooks in the doorless fridge out back
are tucked into crooning sleep
quieter than the Patterson twins
who snore on the cool of the verandah floor
Mick Junior chasing sparrows
with a pinch of salt
can’t even catch them in his dreams
Heather Timms
Heather Timms
what became of Heather Timms?
the newspaper said she left a note
that she eloped at seventeen—
she fell into the dark
I wondered about weddings
and missed her
her absence hung about us
her mother left town
264
her father would not speak
though I knocked on her door for weeks
the streets I ran
are quiet now in night’s held breath
but all of yesterday’s scraps revolve
the brash colours and faces flashing their instant
like summer slide-shows in the garden
images floating on a hung white sheet
every time I step out
dreaming my old town
265
FAQ
it could be with a thousand roses
a lurking choir and a violin
a proposal on prime-time radio
or a billboard that poses the question
a sky-written query will do it
or the query drawn in wet sand
cheaper is the suddenly stuttered
will you, you know, like, maybe…?
perhaps a letter from his lawyers to hers
suggesting a merger without romance
but none worse than that just left hanging
the uttered but unanswered one
the frequently given answer
when she simply affects not to hear
266
The Love Songs of Lawyers
the love songs of lawyers are like their dancing
slow as cows walking home
a cumbersome grace
romance is a contract in draft
they court each other with lyrics
wherein the party of the first part
woos the party of the second
though beyond the codicils clauses and heretofores
I can still hear the faint sound of a charmed language
when I hear their heartfelt ballads
I think of whales calling across the sea floor—
even retuned to my frequency
they make no sense
it’s a language we hear but will never know
aching with lugubrious majesty
out there in the moonlight
their strange calls linger
terms pitched above my ears’ normal range
267
hang in the thin air
like the mating cries of bats—
a para-legal calling for a mate
a barrister cooing
the shy courtships sound
down the miles of cases held over
for adjournments of the heart
268
My Language
She said, ‘Your language is fucked’,
but it wasn't
yet.
We were still courting;
it would be weeks until
I slipped off her vowels
and tangled clumsily with notions
of prefix and tense.
She spat on puns and wordplay
but her tongue was a sweet song
of dialects unknown to me,
shaping phrases for a slippery
new translation of sex.
And then it was over;
a scattering of letters
like papery ashes
gusting into summer wind.
269
No calls,
and language left
without a sound—
the awkward syntax
that, however you turned it round,
spelt jilted.
270
Get Me to the Church on Time
it wasn’t me—
the alarm clock failed
I dropped my lucky charm
my shirt was stained
the car wouldn’t start
there were two flat tyres
I took a wrong turn
and lost my way
I misplaced the ring
I wore odd socks
I had a murderous migraine
and where were you, Miss Perfect?
swishing about in a bridal gown
tapping your feet at the steps like royalty?
no—
whiling your time in a pub nearby
hustling cigarettes
and telling awful stories
about less than glorious sex
271
taking bets on whether
I’d turn up drunk
or skip the whole affair
well, here I am, my darling
a little worse for wear
I’m sure that I’ll be right as rain
after a pint or two
then we can stroll up to the registry
say those words
take snaps out on the landing
and duck back here for smokes
272
Eloping in Canada
for Bob Hefner
we fled our homes in the late afternoon
drove out of my county and then hers
the licence crisp in the glove box
the ring like a new coin in my pocket
the celebrant slowly finished his meal
while we sat in his parlour holding hands
and played names with the family portraits
solemnly ranged across the walls
taking up his hat he said
we’d have to marry in the county
where the licence came from
for the wedding to be valid
so we drove the twenty miles back
and stepped onto the roadside
stood in the dirt of the verge
in the fading winter sun
273
who’s going to be your witness, he asked
and we realised we had none
until he waved down an interstate bus
and we stood with its driver
in an aisle of passing headlights
to the hymn of passing trucks
and the cheers of forty bus-passengers
as we became husband and wife
it was three years before you left
then a Greyhound ticket appeared on our credit card
and the names of other towns on each monthly bill
as you eloped again and again
274
Newlyweds
On the second day,
making love in the rented flat,
they break the shower’s curtain-rail
and nearly break their backs.
No room is spared their antics,
kitchen floor or hall;
no piece of furniture unexplored
for their avid communion.
They’ve a nuzzled password for
this cubby-house they live in
that means Let’s go home,
early to bed and sleepless.
She’s his radio and TV,
his conversation and discovery,
his simple meditation on
the looming moon.
275
He’s the wide night sky
outside their window,
the rush of self un-selfing
held close so far away.
276
In the Album
These figures in the old album
seem heroic and quaint
stiff mannequins in black and white
posing for matinee posters—
a handful of shots meant
their premiere performance was half over
a prickling state of unreality
and first-night jitters ahead
These days it’s a thousand
charmless arty snaps—
everyone’s an actor
the groom framed sleekly
in the mirror of the Jag
the bride caught hitching her garter
(the V of her gown a perfect tease—
just lean this way, lower please)
flower-girls cute as puppies
and no-one out of character
277
Until the last shutter click
until the last stranger
has ghosted into the gallery of replicas
when the actors resembling you and me
have unzipped their masks
and gone home
to await the official record
of themselves
278
TV Weddings
the narrative is readymade
no need to roll your own
the plot’s been writ, the cast’s been hired
roles set for bride and groom
three acts at each recital
(he’ll hunt, she’ll catch, they’ll play)
the bridesmaids flirt but no-one’s hurt
and the bride is given away
now, say you want to alter
the basics of this lay
the bride might do a runner
or the groom declare he’s gay
well, it hardly even matters
if the whole thing goes quite strange
we’ll be happy ever after
the last commercial fades
279
although the service is funereal
and the priest has lost his place
and the groom is feeling bilious
and the bride is on his case
though the poor girl’s drowned in tulle
and the bridesmaids look like yachts
and the groom’s eyes just roll upward
when he’s meant to tie the knot
though the reception is no better
‘cause his mother acts the fool
and her brother screws a bridesmaid
in the annexe of the hall
though the bride’s dear greying father
turns cantankerous and drunk
when his ex, the poor bride’s mother
arrives with some slick hunk
280
if the great and groaning trestle
is pavlova’d to the hilt
and a bridesmaid’s dancing knickerless
with Daddy in a kilt
if the best man slurs his way to hell
his humour just a hunch
each indiscretion listed
names named and punchlines punched
if his speech is rough as flintstone
as cruel as the worst wit
and by the time he’s finished
the groom’s the fan the shit has hit
if noisy tribes of children
loop through doorways at a pace
throw up in the garden
then scoop more food from the trays
281
if the uncles are obnoxious
and three sheets to the wind
and dance as if they’re funny
though the hired band’s still grim
if there’s angry words and shambling
and a fistfight by the cars
and the groom comes in all lipsticked
and bearing two new scars
well that’s normal for screen weddings
it’s life lived for our sakes
with one word from our sponsor
we can take a toilet break
and return to see from on high
the hall’s roof and spilling lights
the sprawl of ancient music
the peace after the fights
282
a spud jammed up the tailpipe
by some wacky new in-law
streamers, cans and petals tossed
whipped cream sprayed on doors
the couple then are jettisoned
to find their own way home
night swallows them like water
as the wedding ship sails on
the credits slide across the screen
and there are all the names
like real guests on a wedding list
joined by hope or shame
off-screen the couple ponders
‘faithful only unto you’
and cuddled in their marriage bed
he does, she does, they do
283
one wedding’s like another
variations on a theme
same tune, though different instruments
the music of our dreams
284
LITTLE MURDERS
285
Vows
for richer, for poorer
for need and desire
for her dry dry wit
for her obvious punch-lines
for her independence
for her vulnerability
for her forward manner
for her foul temper
for her, naked in pearls
for her, wintered in wool
for her tenderness
for her hard hard heart
for her drinking each word
for her forgetting
for her
for her
286
for the short broken edges
of sweet laughter in a tossed bed
for silences bitter as a ruined house
the dry pen, the laryngitic song
the fabulous nonsense
strung between pride and lies
the vows we made
and nothing left but words now
like cellophane crackling its complaint
but listen, she says
it’s not too late
to elope all over again
just next time with somebody else
287
The Reluctant Bride
I was promised, custom said
but when they came
I found an attic box
just big enough to hide me
until they had all left,
then I fled over rooftops
clambered down a walnut tree—
the back-fences, roads, fields,
the next town, a train, a ship.
Days and breathless days
I ran and ran.
I slept in cellars and under stars.
I slept in frosted orchards
by the glow of smudge-pots.
I changed my name and dyed my hair.
I learnt a new language.
I dressed as a boy.
I wore a tattoo.
I worked on road-gangs.
288
I traded skins
that made me three fortunes I lost,
then I set out beyond the camps and houses,
beyond the world of man.
There I ate wild fruit and small lizards.
I fought with lions and a mad moon;
then, where skies turn a roiling mass of blue,
where birds live underground and fish in air,
I stopped running.
I built a house from mud and sticks,
bred honey bees,
grew pears
and stayed.
Six years safe
and here he comes again,
his step less sure
and without his clamouring entourage
but I know that grin.
I'll stand at the doorway
in my own rough finery to greet him
and this time
289
maybe
I will
just say No.
290
Angel
Death haunts the street
in her wedding dress
searching for a suitor—
no rags or scythe
she’s all gorgeous light
though blurry at the edges
will you?
will you take her?
or let her take you?
her kiss as sweet as any wine
you’d drink from a late harvest
but with an aftertaste to chill
she’s earthy and transcendent
physical yet fey
Mae West or Mother Teresa
visceral as a fistfight
dreamy as a haiku high—
and if you’re part of her harem
291
well, she’s faithful in her way
and though the ceremony’s brief
the marriage will be stellar
waiting between houses
in the ordinary streets
she patiently rehearses
her serene proposal
sure that you’ll look in her milky eye
grateful to say
I will
292
The Groom
the groom is
made of twigs
sticks and bits
of dry leaves
voodoo doll
black-cat bone
ju-ju
dead wood
but a little spit
a bead of blood
wets the tiny
pulsing heart
dark berry eyes open
twiggy fingers twitch
a bride is out there somewhere
he feels that needy itch
293
Bride of Frankenstein
I’m a simple mosaic
but not simple
a patchwork of borrow and steal
I would give my heart
if it were mine to give
if you asked it of me
what should I wear
naked as the air
but this scrawl of stitches?
they’re the finest threads
but I don’t care
the crudest work would do
I’m your betrothed
the shadowed one
who wants the want in you
294
The Bride We Pass
the bride we pass on the side of the street
that white figure
walking the footpath with her head erect
and long train trailing in the dirt
has popped out to the shop for some smokes, I say
or is breaking in the dress for a friend
as she dwindles in our mirrors
you pause at my joke, then say
no, she has told the driver of the wedding car
‘Just stop here’
suddenly afraid of the stranger who wears the gown
and the other one who will take it off
and though your hand still rests on my leg
as I drive, we don’t talk
the whole way home
295
Unpretty
sings with a bird in her heart
knows a lie before it starts
looks into your eyes and sees
the sky looking back
empty as usual
unpretty is
skinny in a floral dress
says wait on the corner
she’ll be there at six
with a bottle and a wish
oh, tell me a story
with a girl who dishes it out
to those in white gowns
lined up at altars
like swans for the slaughter
296
she knows the lyrics
and she knows the exits
and she knows what you really
mean when you say
there’s no-one else quite like her
that unpretty one
knows the stars in the sky
and none in her eyes
will get in the way
when she finds that dear someone
297
The Warrior Bride
she bails him up at the edge of the path
and in language he can barely understand
she makes him an offer he can’t refuse
she tells him she wants a man
she scratches a map in the dirt at her feet
with the sharpened edge of a bone
shows the safe way past the fathoms of dark
in the forest between there and home
she’s practical with shelter
and herbs to heal all wounds
she fishes for dinner in a chilling stream
bleeds in time with the moon
she needs a husband to cook and sweep
and make a bed of flowers
to wait while she dances the spell of the hunt
and to sing her down the hours
298
leather is nice for a bridal gown
a knife or two at her waist
small creatures bound by their feet and hung
at her neck for just in case
he turns to look at his village
its smoke and its tidy roofs
then he laughs at her mad and blue blue eyes
and he holds out his hand as his troth
299
The Jessie Days
the radio knows where we live
it says we’re special
and this could be our lucky day
I tell Jessie, don’t worry
I sent in the coupon last week
and our fortune’s on its way
she flickers naked through the room
ribs like a greyhound’s
waist like a wasp’s
she sits beside me
and balances a knife
on the back of her hand
Jessie stubs out a cigarette
dangles legs from the edge of the sofa
edge of the cliff
down there somewhere is
the irresistible pull
of the machine that wants us all
300
she jumps off
and gets me another drink
I say we’re doing fine
and it’s only a bit of a lie
Jessie bites her nail
gives me a micro-second smile
now we sit around swatting angels
calico scraps that scribble like moths
around the light
she says she wants to burn every letter
I wrote her
and I don’t tell her she’s too late
the cat seeps through the room like
rain in a gutter
I say do we have a cat?
but Jessie’s putting on her blue dress
and I want to take the question back
she just narrows her eyes and meows
301
she gave me this scar
on our wedding night
it was a back-seat romance
and a midnight flit
now we’re just skeletons
drinking in the moonlight
I’ll take off her dress
we’ll light a fire on the roof
and watch for satellites
I’ve got photos of her eating
I’ve got photos of her sleeping
because someday this will end
302
Little Murders
when she walks the aisle
she’s sexless and pure sex
in a crown of lavender and cloves
unwanting and wanted
saint and seductress
her veil’s made of spun-sugar
a glistening confection
a light snack for someone
already licking his lips
she floats toward the altar
like a fairy princess
her bridal gown of bees’ wings
took a million little murders
more or less—
not seeing in the future
half a life and miles away
a house in weeds and rust
the smell of sulphur in the air
before the days of rain
303
the raw spines of nettles on the sink
a slack-string guitar
and a wire-door closing
304
Coma
I was tinder
for that first pulse,
the flick and flicker
when a match’s hiss whispers:
sleep through this.
You thought
flame could lift me;
vapours blue as kerosene
and clouds passing like wishes—
the shimmer and mirage
of suttee.
No-one knows who’s inside
the face I wear.
I’ll be the bride,
true to my vow.
That cruel husband is waiting;
his cool hunger calls me now.
I’ll throw my bouquet to you.
305
Paper Doll
in this starchy light
intense as wedding sheets’ glare
the bride is her own invention
see her blooming
she rises slowly
unfolds as elegantly as a Japanese fan
but she is colourless fruit
the husk of a scalded white wasp
and her voice is no voice
just the crackle of her own stiff fabrics
like spikes of radio waves flung into space—
the fierce static of absence
now she waits to kiss the one
who courted her under a paper moon
her bleached lips as dry as her dress
and here he comes—
in her thin hands she holds tight
a bright bouquet of scissors
306
Mrs. Death
I’m growing really tired of him
being out all hours,
returning with excuses
and a bunch of wilting flowers.
When I dust the wedding snaps
on the long black shelf,
two grim faces leer at me,
the reaper and myself.
Time was when we courted,
he asked me for a date.
I said I had to wash my hair.
He said that he would wait.
He had a kind of charm then,
fresh as a holiday;
quiet but attentive
in a dark, persistent way .
307
He said there would be others;
he never hid the fact.
I knows it’s in his nature
and that I can’t go back.
Mum said to wed that doctor
but he’d have been on call
and ‘Mrs. Death’ had a ring to it—
now dull as a broken bell.
But his long nights out are over;
he’ll settle down, poor sod.
When he learns that I’m expecting,
he’ll change his tune, by God.
308
A Wedding Story
I could try little scraps of dialogue
let the characters speak
(instructions to florists
and confessions overheard)
she (does this)
he (did that)
fill in all the gaps later
I could insert iconic objects
dresses rings and veils
and furious family arguments
(can you believe these prices?)
(who does he think he is?)
I could write doubts and blind hope
a hens’ night ending in tears
rumours of secret lovers
accusations shouted down telephones
letters thrown into the rain
309
I could put a bridesmaid in temptation’s way
(too traditional)
or give the bride a limp
make the groom a right bastard
who doesn’t deserve this saint—
too easy and clichéd
maybe I’ll just drop them at the church
and marry them right away
310
The Happy Couple
after Imogen’s painting
The sky began blue and clear
of everything but itself
then slowly filled with clouds and rainbows
and a crowd of singing bees.
He slowed and lay in the grasses
waiting for her,
letting it all revolve above him,
sinking his feet into the earth.
Once my hair was spiky short;
a jagged fiery crown
with a faint halo behind it.
Now it’s wild and coloured
and tied with wiry bows
as it falls down to the ground
like a ravelling cape behind me.
There may be birds in it too.
311
Both of them forced to stare forwards
for their wedding portrait here
though he still senses her next to him
when he strains his eyes to the side,
this bride of his he can’t quite face.
Her hands are the twigs of two branches;
her hair a river of wheat.
He hopes she’s smiling like him.
Somewhere to our left
there was a house with a chimney
and a tree in the yard
where a swing was hanging.
Perhaps I have just stepped from that house.
Perhaps it is where we will stay,
but for now it is just out of reach
and we live where we both stand,
unmoving,
basking in this yellow wash of light—
before night comes quickly,
sudden as the closing of a book.
312
APPENDIX 1:
THE WEDDING PLAN — Aidan Coleman
[This poem is referred to in Chapter 3]
The Wedding Plan
Your family has seen the film,
some read the book –
they cried buckets –
but apparently love is no argument.
We’ve tried ‘happy’, but it’s not on their grid.
Your sister’s done the maths
for liberation:
fifteen lovers before you’re thirty,
you can maybe marry then.
Your mother, desperate to find a clause,
offers washer and dryer, a TV, if only
we’ll wait
the length of a warranty.
Your father finds, in me, a mine
of talkback gold.
But still they’ll choose the cake
and eat it –
run the wedding,
try to talk you out of it.
This is why I could just about
marry out of spite.
They’ve planned a holding operation:
hired ushers,
an actor for the ‘speak now
313
or forever…’
and a car outside
with the motor running,
tickets to anywhere.
Aidan Coleman 2005, pp. 31-32
314
APPENDIX 2:
POEM NOT TO BE READ AT YOUR WEDDING — Beth Ann Fennelly
[This poem is referred to in Chapter 3]
Poem Not To Be Read At Your Wedding
You ask me for a poem about love
in place of a wedding present, trying to save me
money. For three nights I've lain
under glow-in-the-dark-stars I've stuck to the ceiling
over my bed. I've listened to the songs
of the galaxy. Well, Carmen, I would rather
give you your third set of steak knives
than tell you what I know. Let me find you
some other, store-bought present. Don't
make me warn you of stars, how they see us
from that distance as miniature and breakable
from the bride who tops the wedding cake
to the Mary on Pinto dashboards
holding her ripe, red heart in her hands.
Beth Ann Fennelly 2003, Online
315
APPENDIX 3:
THE BRIDAL SUITE — Matthew Sweeney
[This poem is referred to in Chapter 3]
The Bridal Suite
For Nuala Ní Dhomnaill
On the third night in the bridal suite
without the bride, he panicked.
He couldn’t handle another dream like that,
not wet, like he’d expected,
but not dry either — men digging holes
that they’d fill with water, donkeys
crossing valleys that suddenly flooded.
The alarm-call had a job to wake him,
to send him out from the huge bed,
past the corner kissing-sofa, up two steps
to the shower he hardly needed,
where he’d scrub himself clean as the baby
he’d hoped to start that night,
under the canopy like a wimple,
in that room of pinks and greens.
Naked and dripping, he’d rung Reception
to see if she’d rung, then he’d stood
looking out at the new marina,
as if he’d glimpse her on a yacht.
On the third night he could take no more —
he dressed, to the smell of her perfume,
and leaving her clothes there,
the wedding dress in a pile in the wardrobe,
he walked past the deaf night porter,
out to his car. He had no idea
where she was headed, only that she,
if she ever came back, could sample
the bridal suite on her own,
could toss in that canopied bed
and tell him about her dreams.
Matthew Sweeney 1997, p. 5
316
APPENDIX 4:
THE LION’S BRIDE — Gwen Harwood
[This poem is referred to in Chapter 3]
The Lion’s Bride
I loved her softness, her warm human smell,
her dark mane flowing loose. Sometimes stirred by
rank longing laid my muzzle on her thigh.
Her father, faithful keeper, fed me well,
but she came daily with our special bowl
barefoot into my cage, and set it down:
our love feast. We became the talk of the town,
brute king and tender woman, soul to soul.
Until today: an icy spectre sheathed
in silk minced to my side on pointed feet.
I ripped the scented veil from its unreal
head and engorged the painted lips that breathed
our secret names. A ghost has bones, and meat!
Come soon my love, my bride, and share this meal.
Gwen Harwood 2003, p. 44
317
APPENDIX 5:
MARRYING THE HANGMAN — Margaret Atwood
[This poem is referred to in Chapter 3]
Marrying the Hangman
She has been condemned to death by hanging. A man
may escape this death by becoming the hangman, a
woman by marrying the hangman. But at the present
time there is no hangman; thus there is no escape.
There is only a death, indefinitely postponed. This is
not fantasy, it is history.
*
To live in prison is to live without mirrors. To live
without mirrors is to live without the self. She is
living selflessly, she finds a hole in the stone wall and
on the other side of the wall, a voice. The voice
comes through darkness and has no face. This voice
becomes her mirror.
*
In order to avoid her death, her particular death, with
wrung neck and swollen tongue, she must marry the
hangman. But there is no hangman, first she must
create him, she must persuade this man at the end of
the voice, this voice she has never seen and which has
never seen her, this darkness, she must persuade him
to renounce his face, exchange it for the impersonal
mask of death, of official death which has eyes but
no mouth, this mask of a dark leper. She must
transform his hands so they will be willing to twist
the rope around throats that have been singled out
as hers was, throats other than hers. She must marry
the hangman or no one, but that is not so bad. Who
else is there to marry?
*
318
You wonder about her crime. She was condemned
to death for stealing clothes from her employer, from
the wife of her employer. She wished to make herself
more beautiful. This desire in servants was not legal.
*
She uses her voice like a hand, her voice reaches
through the wall, stroking and touching. What could
she possibly have said that would have convinced him?
He was not condemned to death, freedom awaited
him. What was the temptation, the one that worked?
Perhaps he wanted to live with a woman whose life
he had saved, who had seen down into the earth but
had nevertheless followed him back up to life. It was
his only chance to be a hero, to one person at least,
for if he became the hangman the others would
despise him. He was in prison for wounding another
man, on one finger of the right hand, with a sword.
This too is history.
*
My friends, who are both women, tell me their stories,
which cannot be believed and which are true. They
are horror stories and they have not happened to me,
they have not yet happened to me, they have
happened to me but we are detached, we watch our
unbelief with horror. Such things cannot happen to
us, it is afternoon and these things do not happen in
the afternoon. The trouble was, she said, I didn’t
have time to put my glasses on and without them I’m
blind as a bat, I couldn’t even see who it was. These
things happen and we sit at a table and tell stories
about them so we can finally believe. This is not
fantasy, it is history, there is more than one hangman
and because of this some of them are unemployed.
*
He said: the end of walls, the end of ropes, the opening
of doors, a field, the wind, a house, the sun, a table,
an apple.
319
She said: nipple, arms, lips, wine, belly, hair, bread,
thighs, eyes, eyes.
They both kept their promises.
*
The hangman is not such a bad fellow. Afterwards he
goes to the refrigerator and cleans up the leftovers,
though he does not wipe up what he accidentally
spills. He wants only the simple things: a chair,
someone to pull off his shoes, someone to watch him
while he talks, with admiration and fear, gratitude if
possible, someone in whom to plunge himself for rest
and renewal. These things can best be had by marrying
a woman who has been condemned to death by other
men for wishing to be beautiful. There is a wide
choice.
*
Everyone said he was a fool.
Everyone said she was a clever woman.
They used the word ensnare.
*
What did they say the first time they were alone
together in the same room? What did he say when
she had removed her veil and he could see that she
was not a voice but a body and therefore finite?
What did she say when she discovered that she had
left one locked room for another? They talked of
love, naturally, though that did not keep them
busy forever.
*
The fact is there are no stories I can tell my friends
that will make them feel better. History cannot be
erased, although we can soothe ourselves by
speculating about it. At that time there were no
female hangmen. Perhaps there have never been any,
and thus no man could save his life by marriage.
320
Though a woman could, according to the law.
*
He said: foot, boot, order, city, fist, roads, time,
knife.
She said: water, night, willow, rope hair, earth belly,
cave, meat, shroud, open, blood.
They both kept their promises.
NOTES: Jean Cololère, a drummer in the colonial troops at Québec, was imprisoned
for duelling in 1751. In the cell next to his was Françoise Laurent, who had been
sentenced to hang for stealing. Except for letters of pardon, the only way at the time
for someone under sentence of death to escape hanging was, for a man, to become a
hangman, or, for a woman, to marry one. Françoise persuaded Cololère to apply for
the vacant (and undesirable) post of executioner, and also to marry her.
—Condensed from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume III, 1741-1770
Note on Sources
This poem was first published in 1978 in Two-Headed Poems (Oxford University
Press, Toronto, pp. 48-51). The version above is taken from Selected Poems 19761986 (1987, Houghton & Mifflin) and was downloaded on 8th December 2006 from
the Poetry Foundation’s archive website at:
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=177287
The print version available to me at the time of completing this exegesis is in another
volume of selected poems, Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995 (Virago Press,
London, pp. 209-211). This last was used for page references in the exegesis.
321
APPENDIX 6:
WEDDING POEMS
Listed below are poems containing wedding references that were encountered in
reading for this thesis.
Adès, David 2008, ‘Amphitheatre in Pamukkale’, Mapping the World, Friendly
Street Poets, Adelaide, p. 18.
Agard, John 1996, ‘Old Man’s Proposal’, Blue light clear atoms: poetry for senior
students, eds. Peter McFarlane & Lisa Temple, Macmillan Education
Australia, South Melbourne, p. 172.
——— 1996, ‘Young Woman’s Reply’, Blue light clear atoms: poetry for senior
students, eds. Peter McFarlane & Lisa Temple, Macmillan Education
Australia, South Melbourne, pp. 172-173.
Aitken, Adam 2000, ‘Sonnets for ‘58’, Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles, Brandl &
Schlesinger Poetry, Rose Bay, pp. 52-54.
——— 2000, ‘To a Runner Dressed in Black’, Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles, Brandl
& Schlesinger Poetry, Rose Bay, pp. 55-59.
——— 2000, ‘Washing the Flag’, Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles, Brandl &
Schlesinger Poetry, Rose Bay, pp. 37-38.
Albiston, Jordie 1998, ‘Letter Home (Margaret Catchpole)’, Australian Verse: An
Oxford Anthology, ed. John Leonard, Oxford University Press, Sydney,
pp.11-12.
Allan, J. Alex 1994, ‘The Bride Wakes’, The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poems,
ed. Jennifer Strauss, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, pp. 53-54.
Allnutt, Gillian 2007, ‘Advice to Thomas in Mid-Life’, Poetry Daily.
http://www.poems.com/poem.php?date=13741
[accessed 15th August 2007]
Aquilina, Jude 2000, ‘Con Nubial’, Knifing the Ice, Friendly Street Poets in
association with Wakefield Press, Adelaide, p. 54.
——— 2000, ‘Magneting’, Knifing the Ice, Friendly Street Poets in association with
Wakefield Press, Adelaide, p. 86.
——— 2000, ‘Mrs Doom’, Knifing the Ice, Friendly Street Poets in association with
Wakefield Press, Adelaide, pp. 52-53.
Anon. 2004, ‘On Your Wedding Day’, Poems and Readings for Weddings, Penguin
Books, London, p. 105.
Apthorp, Deborah 1990, ‘The Wedding’, Number 14 Friendly Street Poetry Reader,
eds. Neil Paech & Ann Timoney Jenkin, Wakefield Press in association with
Friendly Street Poets, p. 2.
Armitage, Simon 1992, ‘Robinson’s Statement’, Kid, Faber and Faber, London, pp.
75-77.
Ashley-Brown, Henry 2003, ‘Suicide Bomber’, [unpublished], submission for
Friendly Street Reader #28, Adelaide.
Atwood, Margaret 1970, ‘Charivari’, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Oxford
University Press Canada, Don Mills, p. 37.
——— 1971, ‘Hesitations outside the door’, Power Politics, House of Anansi Press,
Toronto, pp. 48-51.
322
——— 1966, ‘A Messenger’, The Circle Game, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, pp.
13-14.
——— 1970, ‘Midwinter, Presolstice’, Procedures for Underground, Oxford
University Press, Toronto, p. 20.
———1978, ‘Marrying the Hangman’, Two-Headed Poems, Oxford University
Press, Toronto, pp. 48-51.
———1978, ‘A Red Shirt’, Two-Headed Poems, Oxford University Press, Toronto,
pp. 102-105.
———1978, ‘Two-Headed Poems’, Two-Headed Poems, Oxford University Press,
Toronto, pp. 59-75.
———1978, ‘The Woman Makes Peace with Her Faulty Heart’, Two-Headed
Poems, Oxford University Press, Toronto, pp. 86-87.
———1987, ‘Marrying the Hangman’, Poetry Foundation.
Taken from Selected Poems 1976-1986, Houghton & Mifflin.
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=177287
[accessed 8th December 2006]
——— 1998, ‘Down’, Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995, Virago Press,
London, pp. 334-336.
———1998, ‘Marrying the Hangman’, Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995,
Virago Press, London, pp. 209-211.
——— 1998, ‘The Robber Bridegroom’, Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995,
Virago Press, London, p. 280.
Ayres, Pam 2006, ‘Yes, I’ll Marry You’, Poetry on Marriage.
http://www.wedding-references.com/poetry_on_marriage.htm
[accessed 21st April 2006]
Baker, Aaron 2003, ‘Chimbu Wedding’, Poetry Daily.
http://www.poems.com/chimbbak.htm
[accessed 18th March 2003]
Bakowski, Peter 2002, ‘The Hiroshima Maidens Project’, Days that We Couldn’t
Rehearse, Hale & Iremonger, Maryborough, pp. 66-68.
Bang, Mary Jo 2001, ‘Crossed-Over, Fiend-Snitched, X-ed Out’, The Best American
Poetry 2001, eds. Robert Hass & David Lehman, Scribner Poetry, New
York, pp. 37-38.
Banus, Maria 1990, ‘The Wedding’, The Virago Book of Love Poetry, ed. Wendy
Mulford, Virago Press, London, pp. 44-45.
Becker, Robin 2003, ‘Why We Fear the Amish’, Overheard on a Saltmarsh: Poets’
Favourite Poems, ed. Carol Ann Duffy, MacMillan, London, pp. 3-4.
Betjeman, John 2006, ‘A Subaltern's Love-song’, Poetry Daily.
http://www.poems.com/today.htm
[accessed 5th December 2006]
Bierds, Linda 2003, ‘The Lacemaker’s Condenser’, Overheard on a Saltmarsh:
Poets’ Favourite Poems, ed. Carol Ann Duffy, MacMillan, London, pp. 1718.
Blanco, Richard 2007, ‘Taking My Cousin's Photo at the Statue of Liberty’, Poetry
Daily.
http://www.poems.com/poem.php?date=13842
[accessed 24th November 2007]
Blase, Marty 2008, ‘Dr. Seuss performs a wedding’, Rec.Humor.Funny.
http://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/00/Oct/seussvow.html
[accessed 20th April 2008]
323
Boland, Eavan 1984, ‘Degas’s Laundresses’, Night Feed, Arlen House, Dublin, pp.
37-38.
——— 1995, ‘Domestic Interior’, Penguin Modern Poets 2, Penguin Books,
London, p. 101.
Borson, Roo 1996, ‘Margaret Livingston’, Water Memory, McClelland & Stewart,
Toronto.
Boruch, Marianne 2003, ‘Smoking’, Overheard on a Saltmarsh: Poets’ Favourite
Poems, ed. Carol Ann Duffy, MacMillan, London, pp. 22-23.
Bostok, Janice 2003, ‘at the touch of mimosa’, Amongst the Graffiti, Post Pressed,
Flaxton, p. 73.
——— 2003, ‘so long ago’, Amongst the Graffiti, Post Pressed, Flaxton, p. 40.
Bottoms, David 2009, ‘Montana Wedding Day’, Poetry Daily.
http://poems.com/poem.php?date=14506
[accessed 22nd October 2009]
Bowman, Catherine 2001, ‘Demographics’, Nerve.com.
http://www.nerve.com/Poetry/ExtraordinaryTide/extraordinaryTide/extraordi
naryTide3.asp/
[accessed 2nd May 2001]
Boyle, Peter 2001, ‘Jottings’, What the painter saw in our faces, Five Islands Press,
Wollongong, pp. 75-79.
——— 2001, ‘Missing words’, What the painter saw in our faces, Five Islands Press,
Wollongong. p. 49.
——— 2001, ‘What the painter saw in our faces’, What the painter saw in our faces,
Five Islands Press, Wollongong, pp. 87-109.
Bradstock, Margaret 2000, ‘The lesbian silk-spinners of Shunde County’, The
Pomelo Tree, Ginninderra Press, Canberra, pp. 19-24.
Bray, John 1977, ‘Ballade’, The Friendly Street Poetry Reader, ed. Richard Tipping,
Adelaide University Union Press, Adelaide, p. 13.
——— 1978, ‘Death at the Wedding’, No. 2 Friendly Street Poetry Reader, eds. Ian
Reid and Andrew Taylor, Adelaide University Union Press, Adelaide, p. 41.
——— 1979, ‘To Sappho’, Number Three Friendly Street, eds. Larry Buttrose &
Peter Goldsworthy, Adelaide University Union Press, Adelaide, pp. 12-13.
——— 1982, ‘To Petale Who Died on her Wedding Night’, Friendly Street Poetry
Reader Number 6, eds. Anne Brewster & Rob Johnson, Friendly Street
Poets, Unley, p. 7.
Brock, Geoffrey 2004, ‘And Day Brought Back My Night’, Poetry Daily.
http://www.poems.com/twop2bro.htm
[accessed 14th February 2006]
Brook, Heather 1988, ‘Rain for Weddings, Sunshine for Funerals, Wind for my
Clinging to Smoke-Rings’, Number 12 Friendly Street Poetry Reader, eds.
Jeff Guess & Donna McSkimming, Friendly Street Poets, Unley, pp. 6-7.
Brophy, Kevin 2003, ‘The Art of Moving’, Portrait in Skin, Five Islands Press,
Wollongong, pp. 52-53.
Brown, Susannah 2003, ‘Moments of Friendship’, Shadows on Glass, buffs, p. 51.
Burke, Andrew 2003, ‘Cats and Crabs’, Knock on Wood, Picaro Press, Warners Bay,
p. 4.
——— ‘The Suit’, Knock on Wood, Picaro Press, Warners Bay, pp. 10-11.
Butkin Roth, Jane 1998, ‘The Wedding Proofs’, Redoubt 26, University of Canberra
Imprint, Canberra. pp. 72-73.
324
Buttrose, Larry 1986, ‘The Brides of Christ’, Learning Italian, Foreign Books,
Sydney, p. 15.
——— 1986, ‘Married Woman’, Learning Italian, Foreign Books, Sydney, p. 42.
Byro, Laurie 2007, ‘White Wedding’, About Poetry.
http://poetry.about.com/library/bl1007ibpcentries.htm
[12th October 2007]
Byron, Catherine 1990, ‘Wedding at Aughrim, Galway 1900’, The Virago Book of
Love Poetry, ed. Wendy Mulford, Virago Press, London, pp. 142-143.
Caddy, Caroline 1997, ‘Streetwise’, Working Temple, Fremantle Arts Centre Press,
South Fremantle, pp. 12-13.
Caesar, Adrian 2001, ‘Nest Builders’, The June Fireworks, Molonglo Press,
Canberra, p. 76.
Carbis, Gaylene 2003, ‘The Bride Who Became Frightened When She Saw Life
Opened’, Muse, No. 225, Canberra, February, p. 19.
Carson, Anne 2009, ‘Epithalamium NYC’, The New Yorker.
http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2009/08/24/090824po_poem_cars
on
[accessed 12th November 2009]
Carson, Ciaran 2008, ‘Through’, The New Yorker, 28th January.
http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2008/01/28/080128po_poem_cars
on
[accessed 12th February 2008]
Cartwright, Bec 2005, ‘Wedding Poem’, Ivan Rubinstein.
[originally in Daily Telegraph, 25th July]
http://www.ivanrubinstein.com/?p=530
[accessed 17th April 2006]
Chang, Leslie 2006, ‘Watermelons’, Poetry Daily.
http://www.poems.com/today.htm
[accessed 20th October 2006]
Churches, Christine 1986, ‘Catering for the Wedding’, The Orange Tree: South
Australian poetry to the present day, eds. K.F. Pearson and Christine
Churches, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, p. 163.
Clanchy, Kate 2004, ‘For a Wedding’, Poems and Readings for Weddings, ed. Julia
Watson, Penguin Books, London, p. 104.
Clarke, John 1994, ‘Another Subaltern’s Wedding’, The Even More Complete Book
of Australian Verse, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards. p.50.
Clarke, John Cooper 2006, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, Wedding References.com.
http://www.wedding-references.com/romantic_love_poems.htm
[accessed 21st April 2006]
Clover, Joshua ‘Ceriserie’, The Best American Poetry 2001, eds. Robert Hass &
David Lehman, Scribner Poetry, New York, pp. 59-60.
Coleman, Aidan 2005, ‘Looking for a Car Seat’, Avenues & Runways, Brandl &
Schlesinger, Melbourne, pp. 51-52.
———2005, ‘The Wedding Plan’, Avenues & Runways, Brandl & Schlesinger,
Melbourne, pp. 31-32.
Collins, Billy 1988, ‘Personal History’, The Apple that Astonished Paris, University
of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, pp. 46-47.
——— 2001, ‘Scotland’, Sailing Alone Around the Room, Random House, New
York, pp. 166-167.
325
——— 1995, ‘Thesaurus’, The Art of Drowning, University of Pittsburgh Press,
Bloomington. p. 44.
Compton, Jennifer 2003, ‘My Sisters Are Literally Killing Themselves’, Brick,
Picaro Press, Warners Bay, p. 8.
Cook, Stanley 1999, ‘Second Marriage’, Short and Sweet; 101 Very Short Poems, ed.
Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, London, p. 13.
Coombe, Valerie 1984, ‘As Witness I Ingest the Deed -’, Number 8 Friendly Street
Poetry Reader, eds. Robert Clark & Jeri Kroll, Friendly Street Poets, pp. 2425.
Copello, Beatriz 2001, ‘Red Hands Cave’, Meditations at the Edge of a Dream, Glass
House Books, Brisbane, pp. 25-26.
Cornish, Mary 2007, ‘Lotus Feet’, Poetry Daily.
http://www.poems.com/today.htm
[accessed 10th January 2007]
Corso, Gregory 1963, ‘Marriage’, Penguin Modern Poets 5, Penguin Books Australia
Ltd, Ringwood, pp. 15-19.
Croggon, Alison 2002, ‘Arthur’, Attempts at Being, Salt, Applecross, pp. 151-159.
———2002, ‘The Breach’, Attempts at Being, Salt, Applecross, pp. 13-19.
Croft, Julian 2004, ‘Two Oceans’, Voices in a Café, Kardoorair Press, Armidale, pp.
16-17.
Cronin, MTC 1998, ‘But This’, The World Beyond the Fig, Five Islands Press,
Wollongong, p. 69.
——— 1998, ‘Your Heart’, The World Beyond the Fig, Five Islands Press,
Wollongong, p. 16.
——— 2002, ‘Introduction’, My Lover’s Back, University of Queensland Press, St
Lucia, p.102.
——— 2002, The Confetti Stone’, The Confetti Stone, Picaro Press, Warners Bay,
pp. 1-3.
Crozier, Lorna 1999, ‘The Mother: Without Blessing’, What the Living Won’t Let
Go, McLelland & Stewart, Toronto, pp. 59-60.
——— 1999, ‘Visit’, What the Living Won’t Let Go, McLelland & Stewart, Toronto,
pp. 18-19.
——— 2002, ‘At the Bottom of the Well’, Apocrypha of Light, McLelland &
Stewart, Toronto, p. 38.
——— 2005, ‘Drought’, Apocrypha of Light, McLelland & Stewart, Toronto, p. 42.
Cummings, E.E. 2003, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town…’, Overheard on a
Saltmarsh: Poets’ Favourite Poems, ed. Carol Ann Duffy, MacMillan,
London, pp. 19-20.
Daniels, Jim 2003, ‘Skywriting’, Poetry Daily.
http://www.poems.com/skywrdan.htm
[accessed 21st June 2003]
Day, Sarah 1987, ‘Brides’, A Hunger to be Less Serious, Angus & Robertson, North
Ryde, pp. 63-64.
——— 1987, ‘The Landlord’, A Hunger to be Less Serious, Angus & Robertson,
North Ryde, p. 7.
——— 2002, ‘Bride’, New and Selected, Arc Publications, Todmorden, p. 17.
——— 2002, ‘Goldstein’s Drapery’, New and Selected, Arc Publications,
Todmorden, pp. 26-27.
326
Dawson, Paul 2006, ‘Lunatic Brothel’, Imagining Winter, Interactive Press,
Carindale, pp. 34-37.
——— 2006, ‘Thanks For The Poems, Pauline Hanson’, Imagining Winter,
Interactive Press, Carindale, pp. 21-24.
——— 2006, ‘A Wedding Kiss’ Imagining Winter, Interactive Press, Carindale, pp.
76-77.
Delanty, Greg 2003, ‘The Bindi Mirror’, Overheard on a Saltmarsh: Poets’
Favourite Poems, ed. Carol Ann Duffy, MacMillan, London, pp. 52-53.
Deller-Evans, Kate 2004, ‘Tea Strainer: from the bridal register’, Pulling Shadows
Apart, eds. Bel Schenk & Eva Zawistowski, City of Onkaparinga, Adelaide,
p. 72.
de Pisan, Christine 1990, ‘A Sweet Thing is Marriage’, The Virago Book of Love
Poetry, ed. Wendy Mulford, Virago Press, London, pp. 82-83.
Deutch, Richard 2000, ‘Purple Stone on a White Stone’, Heart with Piano Wire,
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, pp. 75-78.
Dickey, James 1992, ‘The Wedding’, The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 19451992, Wesleyan University Press, Hanover, pp. 59-60.
Dickinson, Elizabeth 2003, ‘Turning Four’, Beyond the Shimmering: A Gawler
Literary Fund Anthology of Poetry, ed. Cathy Young, Gawler Literary Fund,
Gawler, p. 54.
Diesendorf, Margaret 1994, ‘Selections from Holding the Golden Apple’, The Oxford
Book of Australian Love Poems, ed. Jennifer Strauss, Oxford University
Press, Melbourne. pp. 85-86.
Digges, Deborah 2003, ‘Two of the Lost Five Foolish Virgins’, Overheard on a
Saltmarsh: Poets’ Favourite Poems, ed. Carol Ann Duffy, MacMillan,
London, pp. 63-64.
Dionysius, B.R. 2002, ‘A Brief History of Sperm’, Bacchanalia, Interactive Press,
Carindale, pp. 45-46.
——— 2002, ‘Why Did the Chicken Strangle Itself?’, Bacchanalia, Interactive
Press, Carindale, p. 25.
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