(Ed. note: This is a continuation of Laurence Goldstein's essay about the encounter poem. Find part one here.)
Rules of the encounter poem:
1) For maximum effect, the narrative must dramatize a meeting between two people that is clearly a one-off, a nonce occurrence. These two people will never meet again, and that fact is understood by both parties. The unrepeatable quality of their encounter intensifies their emotional and intellectual exchange. Love poems do not belong in this category, nor poems of family and long friendship.
2) There is an imbalance, a fundamental incongruity, in their status. The speaker is likely to be the younger person, more a listener and learner taking mental notes. It is he or she who registers the impact of contact with a person likely to be somewhat exotic, exceptional, troubling, capable of surprising statements. The speaker is almost always impressed by the strangeness of the other’s presence.The best poems in this mode have that Pip-meets-Miss Havisham affect.
3) To say as much is to indicate the closeness of the genre to fiction and drama as models. The encounter poem treats scenes in ways familiar to all consumers of literature, film scripts, and popular songs. It is intertextual to a high degree, its practices open to introjection from a variety of familiar and recondite sources. The encounter poem sounds like a scene in a novel or a condensed short story. A certain moral weight attaches to the encounter poem because of its deliberate situation in the literary mainstream. Rules for social conduct are right on the surface.
4) There must be some dialogue to fulfill the above-mentioned dialogic structure of the dramatic lyric, though the speaker may prefer to direct his part of the conversation to the reader in the form of a meditative aside. Meetings with non-human creatures may have some of the same conventions as the encounter poem but their rhetorical strategies differ from this person-with-person mode. The epiphanies that belong to poems of contact with birds, fish, moose, skunks, groundhogs, bears, deer, dogs and cats (readers can supply some famous examples) differ from the turns and intentions of the interpersonal poem.
5). Likewise the allegorical conjunction of one human and one spirit figure do not qualify. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is one of the great ballads of the English language, but it does not advance by exchange of dialogue. The demon lover sings, sighs, and moans; she does not speak beyond her false declaration, “I love thee true.” (Nor does the “glimmering girl” in Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus” who calls her victim’s name but disappears before she can establish herself as anything other than an archetype.) I would make an exception of some special cases like T. S. Eliot’s encounter with the “familiar compound ghost” in “Little Gidding” and the dialogue of the two dead soldiers in Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting.” Probably it is Owen’s death in war that makes us subconsciously hear the “I” of the poem as the posthumous voice of the poet. Dialogues with God do not qualify for this category (sorry, George Herbert!) but because the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are persons, a conversation with, say, Koch Industries, is allowable.
6). The fact that the speaker has written a poem to document the encounter becomes an important motif, either explicitly or implicitly. The artifact brings news about how knowledge and power got transmitted to the talented speaker. “Something for your poetry, no?” says the Colonel as he pours a sack of human ears onto the table to intimidate the poet-journalist who is dining with him. Precisely. Carolyn Forché’s prose poem enacts the shift of power between them after their encounter, when her world-famous text mortifies his bullying performance.
(Laurence Goldstein is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and Editor Emeritus of Michigan Quarterly Review (1977-2009). His most recent book is a volume of poems, A Room in California (Northwestern University Press, 2005). A book of literary criticism, Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the City’s Essential Poems, is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press. )