Saturday, January 14, 2006

Michael Zbigley, a fellow Montanan, writes in to ask a reasonable and penetrating question about my verse-time/narrative-timelessness theory: what about The Odyssey? The Metamorphoses? The Divine Comedy? Paradise Lost? How does narrative in those poems not produce "anti-poetry"? Why, indeed, was poetry primarily a narrative vehicle for most of its existence? That last question has a relatively simple answer, I think: verse serves as a mnemonic device for non-literate cultures; the more poetry becomes about silent reading on the page, the less prominent narrative becomes in it. Verse is eventually liberated from its originary function, which is not the experience of time but the preservation of content through time—so form becomes content (and not coincidentally, poetry loses its popularity as it becomes impossible to use in a purely instrumental way as an envelope delivering plot and setting and character and history across the ages).

Michael's question makes me realize that what I'm talking about has, like most binaries, to be put on a continuum if it's really going to accurately reflect my experience. There's also the wildcard of translation to take into account: when I read The Iliad or Odyssey I'm not really reading Homer but Richard Lattimore or Robert Fagles, and their basically free verse interpretations I suspect reduce the hold metrics might have had on my ear if I were able to read the original Greek. (I'm guessing Alexander Pope's Iliad would register much more strongly as verse if I took the time to read it). Anyway, my experience of Homer has primarily been narrative—only the epithets like "rosy-fingered dawn" and "many-minded Odysseus" have stuck in my mind as language that must be assimilated in time. Dante is more temporal for me because the translations I've read preserve something of his terza rima and the three-line stanzas also help set up a rhythm for language unfolding in time. Milton is an interesting case—although there are vivid scenes, set-pieces, and characters in Paradise Lost I experience it primarily as poetry: as something read or even chanted, with the slippery syntax providing most of the drama, excitement, and propulsiveness that we generally expect from plot. For that reason Milton remains one of my favorite all-time poets and something of a model for the long-poem ambitions I'm harboring.

Can there be byplay between narrative and verse—each exchanging energy with the other? I suppose that would produce something close to the ideal narrative poem, and maybe Paradise Lost is the most successful example we have. As I bite more deeply into modernist longpoems like The Cantos and "A" and ARK, however, I'm finding that it's their organization of time—their explosion and extension of verse structures (generally a question of the line and stanza) into multiple cantos, chapters, or movements—that fascinate me the most and maintain these poems' viability for me as means and models of poetic communication.

No comments:

Popular Posts