I believe it was T.S. Eliot who quipped that a poet who defines poetry is really describing his own poetry[i]. I wish neither to undertake such a hazardous enterprise as defining poetry, nor to add to the rubbish heap of definitions that have been advanced, scrutinised, defended, and eventually discarded.
At the same time, I find myself writing poetry so out of keeping with the prevalent fashions that fashioning an ars poetica, some apology for my aims and methods, may prove not wholly useless. Articulating my own thinking will, at any rate, help my own craft, and may possibly inspire other poets or provoke them to reject my thoughts and, in so doing, refine their own theory and practice of poetry.
What follows is something of a manifesto for reviving metrical, rhymed, narrative poetry as a living art form. Most poems today are short, free-verse utterances of self-expression, so long bouts of storytelling in traditional poetic forms are extreme outliers. ‘Surely’, the objector will say, ‘such poetry has had its day!’
I once mentioned to a formidable student of Milton my aspiration to write an epic. ‘So you’re working on a novel?’ he replied. ‘No one reads verse anymore.’ Yet I believe that good narrative poetry still has its place as an expression of culture, and that—as a Miltonist should know—an audience ‘fit though few’ is an audience worth having. As the Lord told Elijah, there remain 7000 who have neither bowed to Ba’al nor kissed him[ii]. Whether my poems are fit for their esteemed contemplation is another question. Whether they are, or whether they aren’t, I now set forth the principles that inform and guide my work as a poet.
No doubt Eliot correctly observed the tendency among poets (himself included) to define poetry in terms of their own poetic projects. I suppose that most poets, beginning to articulate a theory of poetry, naturally feel the need to define the subject at hand, and (quite reasonably) reduce to its abstract bare-bones their own poetic aspirations. Eliot himself tacitly expounded his own poetics against William Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ This formulation, and the explanation that accompanies it, nicely suits some Romantic poetry (‘Tintern Abbey’ being a prime example), but is too narrow to include even many of Wordsworth’s own narrative ballads. Eliot countered Wordsworth by defining poetry as an escape from emotion, where which the poet acts as an inert catalyst facilitating the fusion of artistic tradition and emotional experience into poetry, while remaining personally unaffected. Like Wordsworth’s, Eliot’s definition (if I understand it rightly) does not even encompass all his own work. Is it possible to write ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ or ‘Gerontius’ impersonally?
Definitions are tricky things. They do not merely function as descriptors of that which is; they also serve as canons or standards by which potential specimens can be admitted or denied membership to the class being defied. ‘A mammal is an animal with fur or hair.’ A horse is therefore a mammal; a newt is not. Herein lies the stealthy but astounding hubris required to define poetry in terms of one’s own ideals: ‘What I write is poetry; what other people write is not.’
The trend since Wordsworth has been to observe poetry through the lens of the poet’s intentionality or internal process[iii], as can be seen in the Romantic notion of genius, Hopkin’s inscape and instress, Whitman’s unabashed egotism, and the tendency of 20th and 21st Century lyric poets to label themselves and their poetry in terms of narrow artistic aims (e.g., ‘language poetry’ or ‘beat poetry’) or identity politics (e.g., the Harlem Renaissance or Latina poetry).
This trend has had mixed results, including much excellent poetry; it also illustrates an inevitable consequence of defining poetry with reference primarily to the poet. Each poet is finite, with a unique personality, story, and social location. Consequently, defining all poetry in terms of a poet or poetic movement is like defining all humanity in terms of the 18th Century English landed gentry. If Wordsworth was right and poetry is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, then poetry does not include Jorge Luis Borges’ intensely intellectual speculations, or Lucy Hutchinson’s theological meditations on Scripture, or John Donne’s metaphysical conundrums, or William Shakespeare’s commercially-motivated soliloquys, or Chaucer’s beast tales, or Marie de France’s lais, or Dante’s condensation of a particular high medieval model of the universe in the Commedia divina, or Ovid’s fantastical shape-shifting tales, or even the fons et origo of nearly all Western poetry, Homer’s epic poetry.
At the risk of sounding terribly unintellectual, I suggest that poetry is ineffable; its precise nature lies beyond the descriptive capacity of words. There may be some erudite professor of capacious intellect, incisive analysis, and lucid explanatory powers who can set forth a definition of poetry that includes and excludes all the right things. More likely, such a person does not and cannot exist, for poetry, at the very least, involves the written expression of truth, goodness, and beauty—categories which themselves transcend definition in the final analysis. Poetry cannot be defined; only recognized.
I labour this point because the current trends of fashionable poetry—the sort of poetry that wins contracts, prizes, and teaching gigs—presuppose a narrow definition of what constitutes poetry, or at least, good poetry. Consider the case of the late Seamus Heaney. He won the Nobel Prize, had a Creative Writing Programme named in his honour, and at times sold twice as much poetry in the UK as all other poets, past and present, combined[iv]. No poet better demonstrates the fashions than he. Heaney’s typical poem is less than 50 lines of unrhymed free verse, highly sonorous and descriptive, with the poet’s capacity as an observer and interpreter of the world playing a central role, making the ‘I’ who perceives and speaks at least as important as the ‘It’ being perceived and spoken of.
Such poetry can be excellent, but I don’t wish to specialise in it. My work is not merely unfashionable, but not to be countenanced by some of the poetic elite. Indeed, it may not even be considered poetry, as I learned some years ago at an ‘open mic’ event some years ago, when a young man read a perfectly crafted humorous ballad that provoked me to chuckle heartily. The widely published poets present scowled coldly, and one said in my hearing, ‘There’s no poetry in it.’
They were, obviously, wrong. It was not fashionable poetry—thank God!—but it was poetry. It lacked the grandeur of epic and the delicacy of lyric, but it has a long, honourable ancestry, born of humorous verse on its mother’s side and narrative verse on its father’s. It merits a chair at the dinner party of poetic genre, seated a fair distance from the presiding lord and chatelaine, perhaps wearing the wonky bowtie and dishevelled hair of the eccentric bachelor uncle, dining between the pompous dramatic monologue and the wastrel limerick, but nevertheless one of the esteemed diners.
To write narrative verse is to tack against an unfavourable wind; one must assert and argue that it remains a practicable artform. At the risk of sounding like one of those hipster brewers who, discovering a 12th Century recipe for beer in a crumbling vellum manuscript from the library of a Belgian monastery, lovingly re-creates a refreshing stout with malty undertones and a slightly bitter aftertaste of hops, I contend it is time to resurrect narrative poetry of every description. Like seeds that lie dormant for decades but spring to life when kissed by a desert rain, poetic forms never truly die. They might need unusual events to revive them. They may remain vastly underappreciated. Nevertheless, they are still able to flower and present their fleeting beauty to those intrepid nomads reared in the landscape and attentive to the rare aesthetic treasures. If few others can even see, much less understand, such beauty, what of it? Narrative poetry is unlikely to command more attention than flashing screens and pulsating speakers, but why should that deter a poet, especially a poet working heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men?
So, what makes narrative poetry a worthy pursuit for poets of any era? Setting aside the much bigger question of what makes poetry in general a worthy pursuit, my argument is, first, that narrative poetry allows a poet to do things that cannot be done as well, or at all, in other poetic modes; and, second, that narrative poetry offers the reader certain pleasures not present to the same degree, or at all, in other poetic modes.
I begin with a simple observation: narrative poetry permits the poet to tell stories. This is far more important than it initially sounds. For all poets want to tell stories—not because they are poets, but because they are humans. We are storytellers by nature. As Aristotle taught, a story is essentially teleological, progressing from beginning to middle to end, moving from αρχη to τελος. Stories thus enable us to discover the meaning latent in the world. Stories do not create meaning—rather, all things are inherently meaningful by virtue of their creation by God and their coherence in Christ, in whom all things hold together. Nevertheless, meaning can be slippery, and stories help us to grasp it firmly. By ordering events and details in a progression from beginning to end, stories elevate some things, diminish others, and perceive the meaning latent in that which leads to a fitting conclusion. By telling stories about our lives, we find meaning in quotidian activities. By making good stories, we connect ourselves, if only for a moment, with what is true, good, and beautiful.
None of this is new; many better thinkers than I have been exploring the power of stories in recent decades. But it certainly applies to poetry: if we are indeed homo narrator, then much of our art will inevitably possess a narrative dimension. Many symphonies, sculptures, and paintings tell stories—how much more should poetry? There are, of course, other ways to deploy words poetically—but there can be no absolute a priori reason to disparage narrative poetry, only reasons of taste, fashion, and preference. It’s wiser to join Chesterton’s ‘democracy of the dead’ in bestowing laurels upon the epic poet than to sneer, bubbling over with chronological snobbery, ‘There’s no poetry in it’.
A paradoxical side-effect of the postmodern deconstruction of metanarratives is renewed attention to narrative in general. It seems that everyone is into narrative these days, though rarely for altruistic reasons. Many want to set, to capture, to control the narrative, instrumentalizing it in pursuit of political power or economic gain. That is the trouble with detaching smaller stories from a great, overarching story—if coherence is not conferred by a metanarrative, then those who construct their own mininarratives almost invariably serve their peculiar interests. Without a transcending storyline, we are left with hordes of displaced, disaffected little stories warring like anxious warlords caught in the desperate struggle of all against all. On the other hand, if there is a metanarrative trajectory, with a clear αρχη (origin) and τελος (destination), capacious enough to encompass and orientate all human endeavour, then minor stories about cities, kings, philosophers, and lovers have a place, a meaning, and a means by which to be evaluated and assessed.
For many people, and for Western culture at large, metanarrative is dead, and we have killed it. Consequently, little stories (idiosyncratic or, more often, tribal) are laden with more far weight than they can truly bear. That, in my estimation, is why nationalism, identity politics, social media, scientism (as distinct from science proper), and high culture, have accrued such perceived importance. These and other mininarratives assert that meaning is to be constructed rather than discovered, and that the most muscular story, shouted by the loudest narrator, invariably wins. Thus they can become incredibly virulent when they collide, locked as they are in a complex struggle where alliances and boundary lines shift under every narrative alteration. Behind all of this, as the Apostle Paul asserts, is the deliberate suppression of the knowledge of an eternal, creating God. Whether or not today’s narrators acknowledge this, they still bear the deep and anxious knowledge that their mininarratives fail to confer meaningful dignity upon all humanity precisely because each one lacks an august αρχη heading towards a desirable and achievable τελος.
I do not wish to suggest that poetry can provide an adequate metanarrative. Far from it: the claims Arnoldian humanism, starring the poet as priest and culture as true religion, proved spectacularly wrong. I have heard a venerable and nostalgic old poet (an Arnoldian to the bone) preening himself on poetry’s essential role in preserving civilization—but I am surely not the only sceptic to question the empirical basis of his claims in a culture where abortion, euthanasia, and pornography are routinely touted as public goods.
I do wish to suggest, however, that homo narrator needs metanarratives as much as oxygen. We haven’t killed our metanarrative instinct any more than we’ve killed God; mere words cannot expunge spiritual needs or realities. Those who lack the authorised version inevitably jerry-rig one using whatever disparate materials they have on hand. Some results are mendacious, like the Augustan cosmology which sustained, and was sustained by Virgil’s Aeneid. This is because not all overarching stories are accurate reflections of reality. Although, as the Aeneid shows, a metanarrative needn’t be true to produce good poetry, it’s predictable that much of the best narrative poetry explicitly draws on and communicates the Bible’s uniquely true grand story (which itself is largely told in verse). Narrative poetry connects us to metanarrative in ways that no other poetic mode can.
When a poet, immersed in an overarching storyline, paws through the mental drawer containing a hotch-potch of poetic modes and genres, and selects one of the narrative forms, many aesthetic occurrences become possible that would not have if some other form been selected.
Perhaps the most obvious is that narrative poems are generally longer than lyric poems. Few lyrics occupy more than a few pages; few stories occupy less. A narrative poet can therefore do countless things with words that a lyric poet cannot. The lyric mode requires compression, brevity, terseness, fleetingness: but these obviously invalidate many time-honoured rhetorical strategies, such as copiousness, digression, capricious rhyming, and the magnificent ‘set pieces’ with which medieval narrative abounds. Chaucer would never have cut it as a lyric poet: but the couplet in the General Prologue:
‘This is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre.
But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oystre’
has brought me as much delight as any other passage I can recall. Strictly speaking, the couplet is redundant, making precisely the same point as the preceding couplet: it’s there for the sheer, ridiculous joy of the rhyme.
Similarly loquacious features are catalogues (e.g., Homer’s list of ships or Spenser’s of rivers), emblems (Achilles’ and Aeneas’ shields), personifications (Daungier in The Romance of the Rose), monologues (the confessions of the damned in Dante), and extended descriptions (the temples of Mars and Venus in The Knight’s Tale). These set pieces, like fragrant vines of jasmine, require a sturdy superstructure; but once they have it, flourish and release their pleasing aromas. They are all made possible by extended narrative poems—and there is no to treat them as fossils to be tucked away in museums and forensically examined. Far better to let them roam about, begetting noble offspring in the notebooks and laptops of working poets. They are, no doubt, endangered species whose future survival requires the passionate efforts of committed conservationists.
Long poems enable more than tropes and schemes—they also provide a poet with the wordcount necessary for various forms of discursive reasoning. John Milton and Lucy Hutchinson, for example, devote much of their respective narrations of the Book of Genesis to theological musings and biblical exegesis. Shakespeare (whose plays are dramatic instances of narrative poetry) devoted many lines to ethical reasoning—Hamlet on suicide, Falstaff on honour, Shylock on human nature, and so on. Chaucer engages with Boethius, Dante with Aristotle and Aquinas, Virgil with the Stoics. While brief lyrics can hint, demur, or intimate, a wide-ranging narrator can delve, linger, or expatiate. Narrative poetry can also, as it were, submit moral theories to practical examination. Falstaff, having dismissed honour, gravely dishonours himself in battle: his theory, having been tried, came up wanting. Similarly, Milton subjects ideas to narrative examination in what he calls ‘trial by what is contrary’. Such slow, deliberate work through important ideas can only happen in narrative, and lengthy narrative at that.
The narrative mode can accomplish something else to a higher degree than any other poetic mode: the creation of pictures memorable not just for their imagistic quality or the verbal dexterity with which they are delivered, but also for their significant relation to a broader context. All poetry, ideally, conveys striking imagery, but narrative can amplify the force of an image through external means, as it were. I am speaking of something related to, inclusive of, yet not limited to what Sir Philip Sidney called ‘speaking pictures’. Sidney meant that poetry has power, through imitation, to say with pictures what philosophers say in abstraction; poetry has power to present virtue in all its resplendent glory. Narrative poetry does that better than other forms of poetry, because virtue appears to greatest advantage in story. But I mean something broader: the sheer pleasure one derives from a vivid scene, which adds sensory imagery and human action into a thickening plot, stirs in a few shakes of irony or thematic resonance, and serves up a splendid dish: one of those priceless moments that keep readers coming back again and again. They can consist of madcap comedy, as when Nicolas in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ shouts ‘fire!’ and pandemonium ensues; or of supreme tragedy, as when Achilles’ chariot drags Hector’s corpse across the plain of Troy; or high deeds, as when Sir Roland battles the Saracens; or poignant romance, as with Paolo and Francesca; or serious theological intent, as when God summons Adam and Eve to the bar in Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder. But they can be found nowhere except in narrative poetry, for they rely on highly structured poetic forms as much as they do on the power of story.
When poets exercise these capabilities by writing stories, readers benefit. Because narrative poems give poets unique capabilities, they provide readers with peculiar forms of enjoyment. Good poets write for many reasons, but primarily to bring readers joy.
I write narrative poetry primarily because I love to read it. When I was attempting to master lyric poetry in a Creative Writing Programme, I spent my afternoons reading The Canterbury Tales and The Divine Comedy. A year or two after I completed the Creative Writing Programme, I encountered C.S. Lewis’ comment:
I wrote the books I should have liked to read. That’s always been my reason for writing. People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself.[v]
Lewis’ words engendered one of those rare moments of recognition, where one sees with perfect clarity that one’s path is leading in quite the wrong direction. A sharp turning was the only reasonable and expedient course of action. I had been writing the sort of poetry that I scarcely read. I loved writing poetry, indeed I could hardly help myself, but I had been taught to avoid writing the poetry I loved to read. So, having recognized that, I began imitating Chaucer rather than Heaney and Longley.
My reading habits are undoubtedly unusual—but not unique. There are enough medievalists, classicists, and literature teachers in this world to supply a handful who might enjoy a newly-forged dream vision or fabliaux. There must be readers, raised on a similar literary diet to my own, who like the sorts of books I like and therefore are predisposed to enjoy the sorts of poems I write; they may even be willing to tolerate my authorial shortcomings. I write in hope that at least a few people have the same itch that I am attempting to scratch with these long narratives.
There is one pleasure which metrical, rhymed, narrative poetry provides better than any other literary form. Rhyming stories are, above all, an audible art, best suited to being read aloud. They delight the ear, grip the attention, fill the mind with action and imagery, and, like a good pint, provide slowly imbibed enjoyment. Forget Milton’s irrational, contagious, pestiferous note on verse in Paradise Lost, where he derided rhyme as ‘the Invention of a barbarous Age’, ‘trivieal and of no true musical delight’ and ‘the troublesom and modern bondage’ from which he, Milton the Great Poet, would free the captive Heroic Epic. One hesitates to challenge Milton: but on this point he was wrong. Though he was no doubt justified in complaining how some poet handle rhyme, abusus non tollit usum. I will weary neither myself nor my audience by summoning expert witnesses, among them Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, to counter Milton’s insidious, injurious claims. Written and read rightly, rhyme brings much true musical delight to a gathered audience. Narrative poetry, by fusing the interest inherent in story to the aural delight inherent in verse, provides this specific pleasure better than any other art form.
No doubt many poets and critics today (should they read this encomium) will characterize my approach as idiosyncratic and outmoded. I will now, like a good rhetorician, get in my defence ahead of time, for I vigorously protest that my argument is neither idiosyncratic nor outmoded.
True, it is not in sync with today’s fashionable poetry. Those who obsess over current fashion will merely see that I dress my poems rather differently, with a top hat and spats rather than industrially distressed jeans and baseball cap. If their appreciation of the past is so impoverished that they cannot see that I stand, broadly speaking, in continuity with the entire Western poetic tradition, including but not limited to such luminaries as I mentioned above, then perhaps one might justly suggest that they, not I, are walking alone.
As to outmoded: that remains to be seen. It could be that my feeble efforts are the last flick of a dying lizard’s tail, the last twinge of a dying form in its death throes, after which the long tradition of narrative poetry will be no more. It could be, however, that this essay (combined, no doubt, with better efforts from more capable poets) comes like an electric shock revivifying a dying patient, a defibrillator shocking back to life a heart that had nearly stopped beating. Perhaps there is, unbeknownst to me, a remnant—an audience, fit though few, busy reading epics with their children and students; a tiny handful of poets cheerfully composing narrative poems bursting with intricate characters, robust plots, and expert crafting. The future, of course, is unknowable, so until it arrives, I will do my best to write the sorts of poems that I love to read. Go thou and do likewise.
[i] Being unable to access a decent public library or an online university library, I lack the means of tracking down Eliot’s putative statement.
[ii] Throughout this essay, I employ an old scholarly convention known as allusion, by which a scholar refers briefly to names or events, thus complimenting the audience on their ability to recognize what is under discussion. Readers who fail to recognize an allusion are directed to fallible, superficial, but nonetheless useful resources such as dictionaries, encyclopaedias, or even the internet.
[iii] This trend has enough causes and results to justify a series of explanatory monographs.
[iv] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/seamus-heaney. Accessed 7 June 2022.
[v] Qtd. in Walter Hoper and Roger Lancelyn Greene, C.S. Lewis: a biography, Harper Collins, 1963.