Question #4) Lynn Kilpatrick writes: “poetry and
narrative are not opposed and that all writing is narrative in
that once I put two words next to each other a relationship
begins to rise up between them.” Do you agree? That is,
to what extent do you think all writing is always already narrative?
In a somewhat similar impulse, Stephen Ratcliffe suggests the
following in relation to Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals: “(it
is) writing that transcribes actual things/actions/events in
the world as they were, or seemed to be in that present moment
of seeing/noting them. The writing in REAL tries to do something
of this 'translation' of world into words.” To what extent
is writing a narrative of the ‘real’? That is,
how are poetry and prose narratives translations of the world?
And, is Kilpatrick right in suggesting that poetry and narrative
are not as dialectical as some writers seem to suggest?
Sally Ashton’s essay forthcoming in Sentence 2 takes
a position subtly different from Kilpatrick’s:
A more accurate description might be that human thought continually
seeks narrative, seeks to place disjunctive experience in a
coherent frame. The mind encounters the world through neural
impulse, received by the senses and tempered by intellect.
Part of the human enterprise is to order these perceptions
and thereby give shape and meaning to experience.
Though I might not go as far as “order” and “meaning,” this
is useful to me; narrative is simply one of the strategies
the brain uses to place its host on the map in a corner of
the universe, inside a house built of older narratives. So
I would say with Ashton that poetry isn’t necessarily
always already narrative, but that poems (and stories and paintings)
are a leaping off point for our innate narrative powers. Whether
we’re reading, on one hand, epic poems rich in narrative
or traditional short stories, or, on the other hand, poems
as disjunctive as Bruce Andrews’s Tizzy Boost, we
always superimpose a narrative of our own construction over
of what we’re reading—not necessarily to make
sense of the text, but to contextualize it. Or, to spin on Ratcliffe,
we may translate the world into words, but we also translate
the words into our world in a kind of feedback loop. The idea
that language (our use of it and its use of us) is partially
generative of the real is a much more interesting proposition
from which to write than any attempt at representation could
possibly be for me.
Writing is only interesting to me if it
offers itself as part of a conversation. Too often, poems
seem to have the right
answer or not to be interested in what the reader might have
to say back. This is certainly not a new idea. Whitman’s
great catalogues are a kind of open-ended narrative that begs
the reader to add to the list and thus to the American story.
Open-endedness, whether of narrative or of semantics, seems
to be one of the specializations of short prose work these
days. Is the prose poem any more inherently equipped for these
ends than projective verse, free verse, verse? Probably not.
But it’s where I find myself most open to the widest
Brian Clements is the editor of the small press Firewheel
Editions and its journal Sentence: A Journal of Prose
He is the author of Essays Against Ruin (poems from Texas
Review Press); Flesh and Wood (Mbira Press); and Burn
Whatever Will Burn: A Book of Common Rituals.