Saturday, July 24, 2010

Narrating America: A Review

When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, I always imagined writing novels. I'm drawn to characters and stories. I've always loved fiction and movies. I love to be pulled into a narrative that overpowers me and changes me. But I didn't end up a fiction writer. I ended up a poet, but a narrative one.

I find that poetry is the medium in which I can best tell the stories I have to share. People often think of poetry and think of rhyme and lyric based work. They think of images only, and some people, sadly, think of abstraction. Anyone who has read my work will know that is not me. I tell stories. I build characters, and, in the course of a poem, I give you a glimpse into a particular world or relationship. Many people misunderstand narrative poetry. I often hear people say, "so it's just a short story with line breaks." No, it's not. There are clear differences. Most narrative poems, but not all, are still shorter than a story would be. There is a compression, which is always my go-to definition of poetry. A poem, even a narrative one, doesn't necessarily follow a traditional story arc. Pieces may be left out or shortened. It is often a quick glimpse at something or someone. The development is different. I love it because is it freeing. Poetry, to me, is the most free form of writing.

I read a lot of different kinds of poetry, but my favorite to read is also narrative based. Two months ago, I bought and read the amazing anthology called Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS. I wrote a blog post about it, so if you missed it, go read it. One of my favorite poets who was featured in the anthology was Richard Ronan. Philip Clark, who edited the anthology, told me that Ronan was also one of his favorites and that if I loved his work, I had to read Narratives from America, so I bought a copy from an online used bookstore. That's the thing about poetry: it goes out of print quickly and can be hard to find. Ronan's book was published in 1982 (the year I was born). It is a collection of long narrative poems that you don't see very often. Many of the poems are over five or six pages.

I was fascinated by his range in the book. When I began each poem I had no idea where I was going or what life I would be entering. Many discuss relationships, others death and sadness. As I was reading, I was suddenly reminded of Robert Frost. Ronan begins his book with a quotation from Frost, which, after reading the book, is very fitting. Frost is, in my opinion, the most misunderstood American poet. Most of Frost's work is very dark and while he is more known for his slightly shorter work, he did write some really great, long narrative poems. Ronan's poems are very much in line with Frost's "Home Burial" and "The Fear," which are two my favorites. There is something distinctively American about Ronan's work as there is with Frost's.

Ronan's book attempts to weave the various narratives of America together, but these aren't the overused or cliched narratives we are familiar with. For instance, he writes a poem about a woman dying after hitting an owl with her car and veering off the road in winter. This is a strangely beautiful poem that ends with these lines:

She was surprised to feel herself filled
with a deep sadness.
She wondered how she came to wear this long
coarse robe of snow and wings.

This poem also weaves together letters that her daughter is sending her from India while she is freezing to death. These poems are glimpses of everyday people. They aren't heroes or villains. They are just people. American people.

I also loved the poem "Seated Nude" about a woman whose husband has lost the function of his legs and everything else below the waist. It's a tender poem, but surprising as well. There is a realness to it and to her feelings and reactions. Other great poems include "The Pickerel," "The Scholar," and "The Beekeeper's Sister."

My favorite lines in the whole book are from the poem "Provincetown." I love when you get to a moment in a poem and you suddenly have to stop and read lines again because something has struck so close to you. In this poem Ronan writes:

There is the street, the sea,
the tiny and remnant lives, the sudden
conviction that the stranger
you kept out of the wind yesternight,
though nameless, could be as much
the reason for your life as you
yourself could be.

This struck such a chord with me and it seemed a fitting overall theme of the book. These are narratives of people and how they interact with each other and the world. Maybe we are all here for someone else, even a nameless stranger. It is these small interactions we have that are the core of life.

I'm glad to have found Ronan and his narratives. As I've sat and read this book over the last few days, a book that is the same age as me, I've found a kinship with it. Ronan's life was cut short by AIDS, but his work lives on and provides this poet with great inspiration.

-Stephen (Storyteller)


  1. That line you quoted from "Provincetown" really struck me too. Now I really want to read more of his poetry.

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