“A good photograph is knowing where to stand” Ansel Adams
During our June residency at Antioch University Los Angeles, poet Carol Potter spoke about how poets can benefit from the techniques of fiction.
Potter’s lecture put me in mind of one of my favorite fiction-tools for poetry: vantage point—how (to paraphrase Ansel Adams) a good poem is also about knowing where to stand.
Lately, I’ve been fascinated by poets who write fiction and story-tellers who write poetry. For instance, Wendall Berry (poet) has a fine story in the latest Hudson Review. D.H. Lawrence is often honored by the epithet “not a bad poet”. Raymond Carver (storyteller?) and Tess Gallagher (poet?) are the two genres’ most famous salt-and-pepper shakers.
When I’m reading a poem, I like to look at beginnings. I even have a nickname for poem-starts: I call them “the handshake”. A solid handshake can do a lot of narrative and vocal work.
Take (and take apart for yourselves) Raymond Carver’s “Bankruptcy” for example (a poem that uses its title to contain some vital narrative information—running slantwise from the rest of the poem’s content).
But I am also on the Official Fan List for Poet-Teller Laura Kasischke, a novelist of suburban American motherhood and shopping malls, who is also a poet who imprints a sort of hairspray sensibility onto a metaphysician’s overlay of mind, body, and soul.
Here is a poem by Kasischke where the narrative pinnings (subject? object?) waver mightily and productively for three stanzas before the poem fixes and settles:
Blizzard at the Chelsea Fair
Too late I decide I would chase him through the gate, un-
strap him from that contraption
and pull him back,
but it’s already begun,
the fans, and the lights, the whole
thing rising from its platform, and by god
“She’s a Brick House” being sung
sotto voce from the great beyond. Still
for a minute, watching
the rickety thrill of their Blizzard
I would be the happiest woman who ever lived
If my son weren’t in it.
Two means of narrative punning (through a perfectly orchestrated unclarity—unlike a student writer’s accidental unclarity) blur the emotional universe of this poem.
“Blizzard at the Chelsea Fair,” Kasischke calls it. And we see an act of weather until the counter-evidence piles up: “contraption” (line 2), “fans and lights” (line 5), “rising from its platform” (line 6). It’s not until line 10 (stanza 4) that we know that we’re talking about an Amusement Park Ride (“the rickety thrill of their Blizzard”).
The first line of the poem represents a second productive unclarity: Is this a poem about a lover leaving (“Too late I decide I would chase him through the gate, un-“). No. It’s about a son. But we don’t know that until the last four words of the fourth stanza!
This is no student effort, no unchosen, accidental duality: the ghost impression of weather remains, and is fruitful; the idea that a son (line 12) is all love, all one’s whole heart, remains also, because our poet has evoked both son and lover—so Kasischke’s misdirections give this story a second stormy resonance beyond the literal. And it is in the narrative elements' punning throughout these stanzas, that the poem’s true resonance resounds.
Here, excerpting a bit so I can direct your eye a little, is how Kasischke finishes the poem, with a second set of puns on God and Satan:
Then I catch a glimpse
of him blur by
with what appears to be a smile—little
I’m frozen in time,
And also I’m
an entire flock of birds being
buffeted wildly around in the wind. I have
avoided disastrous statistics
all my life until this minute. More
than once, the shadow
of some enormous machine
has rolled right over me,
and I always walk away unscathed. God,
the sloppy temporary jobs I’ve done, the promises
winks at me. He knows
I’m thinking, Give
me back my boy
and for whatever it’s worth
you can have my soul.
“Mom,” he says,
touching my shoulder
when the whole thing’s over…
…”Mom, I want to go again.”
From Gardening in the Dark
Ausable Press, 2004
The poet Reginald Shepherd introduced me to a phrase that applies brilliantly here. He exhorted his students who wrote narrative poems to pay attention to so-called “information management”. The techniques of fiction—character, plot, rhetoric, time, and the secondary thematic universe—if handled expertly can orchestrate a reader's experience in the unfolding counterpoints of our poems.
Extra Credit: Which famous 20th century poet called poetry “the supreme fiction”?
One Final Note: Also explore Tess Gallagher’s “Each Bird Walking", a poem which embeds itself in an unexpected puzzle of overlaid time.