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This article is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.Story Tellers
The poet Stephen Dobyns, who is also the novelist Stephen Dobyns, once remarked with just irritation that the narrative, as a poetic strategy, is usually misread, or not taken for what in his opinion it is: a metaphor. As though when the poet couldn't think of anything interesting, he told a story.
Like Homer. Like the Bible.
Contemporary critics prefer, it appears, the static/rhapsodic, in which the translation of event to art is more literal: what is event in the world becomes, in the poem, luminous image. In fact, narrative is also transformation and recreation, and the use of stories managed in more ways, to more ends, than one. In the old battle to determine the greater form (a subject in itself) poet critics, eschewing the story, seem, like the Puritan fathers, to eschew entertainment, as though having a good time couldn't happen in the presence of sublime art. But the impulse to use narrative informs the work of some of our best (and certainly most original) poets. Dobyns, obviously, but also, in a quite different way, Robert Pinsky.
It is a standard misfortune of poets (and artists in general) that their work continues to be read according to whatever impressions or verdicts attended its debut. In consequence Robert Pinsky is often regarded as a poet of extensive dispassionate curiosity and wide learning, ethical by disposition, rational in bias, a maker of grids and systems, an organizer - the opposite of the fiery prophetic, the poet claimed by, overtaken by, emotion - and, in his calm, somehow disguised or withholding. Even when, as now, he is regularly and perceptively admired, he tends to be admired for his masterful interweavings of public and private, for his formal brilliance, for the extraordinary variety of his gifts (even passionately reverential notices sometimes digress with odd eagerness into Pinsky's work as a translator, his explorations of high-tech forms like computer games).
It is difficult to account exactly for the tone of this approbation. Pinsky is neither a poet of lyric compression nor a rhapsodist - the two forms to which readers habitually ascribe warmth, or intense feeling. And readers are, often, genuinely overwhelmed by the breadth of his erudition. But neither that erudition nor the poems' virtuosity completely explains the curious reticences and demurrals of even his most impassioned reviewers. It has sometimes seemed to me that he is read as though he were a cultural historian, in whose mind individual agony and enterprise are subsumed into, or emblematic of, panoramic history. Readers are, I suppose, distracted by Pinsky's considerable memory, his grasp of (and fascination with) data. But they mistake, I believe, the background for the foreground.
This problem with emphasis is in part a problem of expectation. In the ways we expect (at present) to see (or hear) the poet, Pinsky seems invisible, more the impresario than the coloratura. This preference for the heart-on-the-sleeve heart of lyric and rhapsodic poetry mistakes the performative nature of all art, mistakes performance for essence.
Moreover, there is, in Pinsky's human portraits, an evenhandedness that can seem, by present standard of judgement, concealing. Unlike most of his peers, Pinsky is not especially interested in individual psychology. Like the parent of many children, determined to appear to love all equally, Pinsky seems, by this standard, either withholding or (the explanation usually settled for) not interested in such things. We have been trained to distrust apparent absence of preference. And yet the same balanced affection informs everything Whitman ever did, though his work is, obviously, more effusive in manner. Human passion, human life - these seem, projected against the historical which is taken to be Pinsky's field of vision, merely the poignant labouring of tiny figures in a Bosch painting, or the stalwart repetitious efforts of valets and elevator boys, working hard for promotion. To the absence of visible bias, we impute either coolness of heart or, alternatively, larger, less immediate, aims, focuses.
None of these assumptions is correct. And yet, curiously, none of them is exactly incorrect either: Pinsky truly is interested in history; he truly is not a poet of the struggling or transported first person. What is so strange is the persistence of my impression that Pinsky is, among poets singled out for highest praise, the poet read both most closely and most anxiously. The poet, perhaps, whose work makes most plain the limitations of the contemporary reader, even (perhaps especially) the trained reader.
For most of this century, poets have been divesting themselves of the arsenal of devices which had come to seem static or imprisoning. What remains is tone, the medium of the soul. Set aside, for the moment, the fact that very few poets are capable of evolving even a single unprecedented tone: the depressing corollary of this divestment has been marked atrophy of skills within the reader. Because Pinsky isn't using tone as an instrument of hasty self-portraiture, tone is hard to fix, fluid: for all their dazzling aural pleasure, these are not poems made to be acted out in Theater 101. Moreover, in Pinsky's art, form does what we have come to believe only tone can do. That is to say, form here is not intellectual construct but rather metaphor. For the poems to be understood at all they must be apprehended entire, as shapes.
I said earlier that readers have mistaken the background for the foreground. It may be more accurate to say that they miss the larger scrim against which history is projected, by which it is dwarfed. History, in these poems, is a means not an end: to view it as an end is to miss the awe that permeates Pinsky's work.
History is what human action accumulates into. If Pinsky is not particularly interested in psychology, he is gripped by cause-and-effect. Hence (at the most obvious level) the mechanical figures. Hence, formally, the larger musical analogies, the way, in poem after poem, one figure answers another figure, like jazz improvisations: bird song, shard of narrative, shimmer of tree over water. The overwhelming preoccupation of the poems is less history than what lies beyond history: chaos, eternity. Projected against this unknowable void, history takes on the poignancy of what is (in other poets) the property of individual life. And the need to understand the shapes of history is driven by the hunger to know how chaos works: the poems try to outsmart, second guess human limitation: all their constructions are postulates, the single provable side of an algebraic equation, a seeking after parallel inference. Human life is to history as history is to chaos. Pinsky is less a synthesizer of data than a student of the great mysteries: against the background of the eternal, the void, stories are musical phrases, simultaneously completed formal shapes and inconclusive fragments.
Narrative elements, characteristically, figure in, but do not dominate, the poems. Even when, as in 'From the Childhood of Jesus' the story gives its shape to the whole, the poem invokes, in its closure, the shifting ground of the eternal, in a classic cinematic dissolve:
... The moon
Rose higher, the Jews put out their lights and slept,
And all was calm and as it had been, except
In the agitated household of the scribe Annas,
And high in the dark, where unknown even to Jesus
The twelve new sparrows flew aimlessly through the night
Not blinking or resting, as if never to alight.
Precisely because stories are not explored as psychological archetypes, Pinsky is free to use them as notes, or phrases, as a painter would use a wash of violet or sepia. A suggestion, a resonance. They fade in, fade out, unravel, and their long unwinding or unravelling is part of Pinsky's intent, and characteristic of his treatment of every element in the poem: don't shut it down, play it like a kite on a very long string, let its every implication, its every nuance, elaborate itself, express itself: if shape is metaphor, dangerous to impose it prematurely.
In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
A catbird singing, never the same phrase twice.
And then, answering the catbird, a swatch of story:
Here, under the pines a little off the road
In 1927 the Chief of Police
And Mrs W. killed themselves together
Sitting in a roadster...
Layer after layer, the poem builds. The tenor in his clown costume finishing his aria, applause, cheers, other stories, all accumulate into the long trance, the held note of Pleasure Bay, our little errand in the world. The Chief and Mrs W. come back again in the poem as they meant to, having died 'to stay together, as local ghosts'. No poem I can think of renders so indelibly the evanescence of the palpable:
Here's where you might have slipped across the water
When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.
That the poem begins and ends with the same words, the first line echoed in the last line, makes it seem to have occurred in a heart beat, or less than a heart beat, all the stories, the war, the catbird, accumulating (in the absence of lyric compression) into the lyric moment: stopped time. Only in Pinsky's art, lyric time pulses and quivers, like the tenor's vibrato, shifting, adjusting. 'At Pleasure Bay' (a title rich in itself in associative possibility) never undertakes to describe or fix the consciousness in which it occurs. Towards the poem's mid-point, 'Shivers of a story that a child might hear/and half remember...' simulates the birth of awareness as much as it names a focus. In lesser hands, the poem would turn on itself here, the various elements reiterated, reconverging, as a mind forms itself around these details, sounds, mica-chips of narrative. But as Pinsky designs the poem, the emerging 'you' who dominates its latter third presides over a movement increasingly spectral, non-concrete: the fixed verbs of the story, of the catbird's song, the 'killed themselves together' of historical time, become the loose hypotheses of eternal speculation, as though individual mind and individual identity were the most, not least, elastic element:
Here's where you might have slipped across the water
When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.
We don't respond to the narrative elements in Pinsky as we respond to stories, in part because outcome isn't at issue. The materials are either the materials of legend or, more typically, the narrative comes to us in pieces or summaries; these are, with the sensual data more common to poetry, components of developing perceptive life: one brain cell imprinted with a bird call, one with an old story, their apparently arbitrary juxtaposition less arbitrary than it initially seems - we have to back away a bit, so that perspective grows wide enough to accommodate diversity.
The visual correlative of a Pinsky poem would be an arc yearning upward. A poem by Stephen Dobyns is nothing like that: where Pinsky is essentially meditative, the poems elaborating themselves in coils and spirals, Dobyns' poems are a rapid downward trajectory, the poems' accumulating mass increasing their speed. Where Pinsky is speculative, Dobyns is apocalyptic, his use of narrative material much closer to what prose reading leads us to expect. Here, typically, the story shapes the poem; like the great novelists, Dobyns has a moral vision; he seems, sometimes, a cross between Jonathan Edwards and Quentin Tarantino, with something of Twain's slyness mixed in. The poems are fierce, impatient, judgemental, wildly funny. He has not been, as Pinsky has, praised and misunderstood. Neither has he received (except from other poets, among whom he has the status of the hero) the kind of attention his gifts deserve. His practice of several arts (and his staggering productivity) unnerve readers who have adopted a mantra concerning range: it bespeaks, they think, superficiality. Like all mantras, this simplifies judgements. In any case, the manifold examples of Dobyns' mastery continue to appear with stubborn frequency under various numbers in the Dewey decimal system.
Dobyns' range has cost him his attention; so has his wit. Though the poems move like slalom runs, hair-raising, relentless, they are (many of them) too entertaining, too well written (to invoke Pound's notion) for classroom pieties. No one devises wilder, more unexpected occasions. But Dobyns' brilliance lies less in his initial inventiveness than in his sustained resourcefulness: in poem after poem, that resourcefulness builds, invention doubling and tripling like poker stakes.
His habit is to begin casually:
This morning, because the snow swirled deep
around my house, I made oatmeal for breakfast.
And the slight adjustments and modifications and amplifications that follow seem initially perfectly reasonable: 'At first it was runny so I added more oatmeal...' Within a few lines though the radio is 'playing Spanish music', the speaker has become 'passionate'. And a great deal of oatmeal is being generated. Characteristically in Dobyns the casual occasion gets very quickly out of hand, the figurative taken too literally; even his wittiest poems generate, in their pacing, some flicker of dread.
It matters that this poem, in which the amassed pots of oatmeal become 'souvenir ashtrays' and, eventually, an erotic Galatea, begins innocently; it matters that, once begun, its momentum is unstoppable. Life, Dobyns means us to see, is all momentum, speeding up as the end approaches; it won't (like poetry) stand still.
At a certain point in the poem, under the influence of that inspiring Spanish music, the impulse toward creation dislodges the impulse toward mass production (as in the evolution of mind or of civilization); the many pots of starchy clay become a woman made of oatmeal, and the poem reveals itself as parable, not anecdote. One of the conclusions you come to, after studying the work of Stephen Dobyns for a few decades, is that it is possible to be inventive and obsessive simultaneously (Frank Bidart's career offers another example of this phenomenon). Dobyns understands that the obsessive writer runs the risk of selfimitation: he deals with this risk in several ways, partly by shrugging it off, knowing that in a career so monumentally fecund, larger architectural paradigms must sooner or later be apparent, and partly, crucially, through the combining of dramatic resourcefulness with a sort of tonal fearlessness. No one since Plath (and, before Plath, no one since D.H. Lawrence) has taken on the reader in such inspired and varied confrontations: this is one of poetry's genuinely thrilling tactics - impossible not to react (it is also, interestingly, the most dramatic way in which Dobyns is misunderstood, mainly by listeners who mistake the strategies of art for personal violence, personal aggression). As a tactic, combativeness of this kind must be inventive; we arm ourselves very quickly as readers; for combativeness to work, it must surprise us, throw us off-guard. Too, there must be a sense of something more serious at work than simple misanthropy. Dobyns' confrontations are rooted in, fuelled by, his insistence that we recognize our own taste for palatable falsehood, and, having recognized it, recognize its capacity to destroy feeling.
The diversity of Dobyns' scenarios has a second function (beyond what it accomplishes in service of tone), a function specifically connected to the obsessive core of his work. The story he tells, over and over, is the death of hope (or delusion), the death of innocence, an aspect of which becomes, through the endless variety of the poems' locales and circumstances, its omnipresence. By showing us the wall everywhere, the poets insist that we see it: the hope they hold out is not the false hope of evasion but the hope that there may be, after the devastations of accuracy, durable wisdom.
As contemporary prose fiction has grown more static, evolving mainly as exploration of voice or consciousness, it has grown less explicitly moral in its preoccupations. Perhaps more clearly than any other American poet, Dobyns knows why: as an artist driven by moral passions and imperatives, he sees that only narrative can adequately represent in art the insidious onset of harm. This is hardly the lyric's forte: with its commitment to the concluded, the archetypal, the timeless, the lyric can hardly hope to embody what is by definition both progressive and dramatic. Dobyns writes poems in which it is impossible to fix the turn, the moment: how do you say, in 'Oatmeal Deluxe', when, in the elaborate comic turn that constitutes the poem's first, say, two-thirds, the red flag goes up? When the speaker turns to his lover, the point is already made, the poem has proven what is now asserted as self-evident, because it has been, as metaphor, richly enacted:
... You ask me
why I don't love you, why you can't
live with me. What can I tell you? If I
can make a woman out of oatmeal, my friend,
what trouble would I make for you, a woman?
That 'Oatmeal Deluxe' would not be grouped among Dobyns' harrowing poems makes the structural point more tellingly. The poem parallels creation as invention with creation as self-delusion: the woman in this poem cannot be spared suffering, but her insistence on self delusion will prolong that suffering, and complicate it. As the turn makes plain, she insists on seeing this confrontation as a conflict of wills; the point, though, is that if she gets what she wants (a life with the speaker, the demonic creator) her suffering will begin in that life and culminate, after that life explodes, in a moment like the present moment, with the added bleakness of self accusation. Why hadn't she read the signs, why had she wasted so much time trying to effect impossible transformations? The alternative isn't freedom from pain, but the substitution of the pain that comes of facing truth for the prolonged pain of denial.
As in all the great Dobyns poems, it is possible to see, even at the level of grammar, the single fascination Dobyns shares with Pinsky, a fascination with cause-and-effect. (In an interesting reversal of the lyric, which freezes narrative into static archetypal configurations, Dobyns has dramatized this fascination in a book of poems based on paintings; The Balthus Poems construct, for that painter's riveting tableaus, story lines; they recreate the implications of stillness in a different, more volatile, contemplative mode.)
Under the poems' warnings and chastisements and ferocities, there seems to me to be a core of deep tenderness, increasingly apparent. The turn at the end of 'Oatmeal Deluxe', the direct address with its complex nuance, that phrase 'my friend' has been more widely copied by young poets than any similar gesture by any poet in my generation. Ironic, distant, and yet informed also by helpless affection, the tribal affection of mortal for mortal, all of us flawed, doomed, embarked on courses of damaging affection, always ready to respond to Spanish music, in our foolish, desperate obsessions, all of us incipiently scarred. Dobyns' notion of the social is more immediate, more pressing than Pinsky's: he tracks damage; not surprising that among his myriad forms is the detective novel, the novel in which the self's collision with the world must, as a matter of form, involve punishable crime. But I think at bottom Dobyns means to spare and to save: the savagery of his poems is less a taunt than an intended deterrent. He is a poet appalled by human fate, appalled that what can be foreseen cannot be prevented.
My dictionary defines 'moral' in a paragraph of ways, almost all of which unite the idea of character and the idea of action. In practical terms, it is difficult to separate the two; in life, character inevitably becomes behaviour (though the translation is sometimes surprising and includes the various devices by which we try to avoid revealing ourselves - silence, withdrawal, and so on). Insofar as poets have been concerned with the moral they have tended to be concerned with the speaking of, and discerning of, truth; that poetry has not been preoccupied with the moral as it is transformed into and by gesture owes in part to poetry's treatment of the issue of time.
This has always been poetry's special province, a charged and resonant subject. But the terms in which time is regarded have been absolute: death, age, the loss of love. Sequential time, that enacts itself in gesture (as opposed to ritual) has no place in the world of extremes and archtypes. It has remained, though, to be reclaimed for poetry by forms more imperfect and more expansive than the lyric, forms more interested in vicissitude and ramifications.
Certainly it is Pinsky's implicit subject. Time is what lies beyond history, or surrounds it - 'At Pleasure Bay' makes of time an envelope, an enclosure; time, like the poem, becomes that medium in which we are suspended, curiously free of gravity (this is different from lyric suspension, in that lyric time disdains or opposes history). In 'At Pleasure Bay' the reiterated phrase, reintroduced at intervals in its multiple variations, that phrase 'never the same', while not exactly the same stands, in the poem, for that which recurs as sound and as gesture; it stands for recurrence even as it asserts the absence of perfect duplication. And time becomes, like the physical universe, unknowable, infinite, shapely.
And for Dobyns, time is all gravity, irrevocable as Milton's fall but in slow motion, with error terrifyingly diffused. In Dobyns' time, nothing can be sustained, nothing is safe: the painful duration of a Dobyns poem is a protest against the fact of time even as, in its unfolding content, the poem embodies time's effects. Dobyns shares with the lyric a sense of the inescapable terminus; unlike the lyric, his poems simulate human guile and human labour, the endlessly poignant human attempt to avoid the end.
Ultimately, no attempt to distinguish narrative from lyric can depend simply on the presence of sequential action. Set aside the obvious objections: the inherently sequential language itself, whether written or spoken, which, in following sentence one with sentence two invokes or simulates chronology, so that even stationary outcry unfolds dramatically. Consider, simply, visible or gestural action, of which there are, I think, two major types. When Apollo pursues Daphne and Daphne turns into a laurel tree, something occurs that, despite its narrative structure, seems unmistakably the terrain of lyric: the story of Daphne enacts two states, linked by a hiatus of pursuit; it moves through time not as evolutionary unfolding but toward transformation, toward a condition independent of time, one thing or one state having become another. Said another way: when Daphne attains her true or ideal form, that transformation terminates action: time freezes into paradigm. But emblem and paradigm are not the only means by which the true, or eternal, or soulful can enter poetry; they are, simply, the means by which poetry stabilizes the true. My use of the term 'narrative' means to identify a habit of mind or type of art that seeks to locate in the endless unfolding of time not a still point but an underlying pattern or implication; it finds in moving time what lyric insists on stopped time to manifest. Plainly, pattern cannot be inferred from two states or gestures: if pattern sketches in the paradigmatic, it doesn't do so by resisting mutation. It is precisely such relentless mobility that occurs in the work of both Dobyns and Pinsky, in the proliferating oatmeal shapes of 'Oatmeal Deluxe' and in Pinsky's unstoppable river: an unfolding, as opposed to the iconic stasis of which the laurel tree makes an example.
The glory of the lyric is that it does what life cannot do: this also means that it is less flexibly responsive to life, more defined by the poet's obsessions and associations. Over centuries, this can mean stagnation within the form, as the inventions of genius come to be incorporated as norms. Neither Pinsky nor Dobyns has the look on the page of the cutting edge, the experimental: no showy contempt for grammar, no murky lacunae, no cult of illogic. And yet it seems to me that in the richest way this is what they are: they enlarge the definition of the art.
This article is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.