As we began to assemble the poetry for this issue, we noticed a subtle affinity among many of the pieces we selected. Though the poems vary in style and theme, written by poets of different backgrounds and with a wide range of obsessions, many show a distinct interest in narrative. They want to tell us stories, rather than invite us to overhear the mind at work, as the lyric poem conventionally tends to do. The narratives propelling these poems may be orderly or disjointed, overt or deeply buried. What they share is a realism, a fidelity to empirical detail, historical fact, and sequentiality that we still tend to associate with prose genres like fiction, memoir, and documentary.
They are also, sometimes, a little flat in their affect—a little prosaic, embracing the kind of expository language Paul Valéry found arbitrary and deadening. (The novelist’s need to propel the plot, he complained, frequently resulted in such mundane sentences as “The Countess caught the 8 o’clock train.”) Yet the poems in this folio undermine Valéry’s division between narrative and poetic language, between flattening exposition and animating impression: they welcome the quotidian, the almost random detail, as a way of evoking the particular quality of being alive today.
Why, we wondered, has a kind of prosaic poetry suddenly become so appealing? And why does it feel somehow exciting and new—more experimental than conservative? Perhaps the reason is that (like the New Narrative poets before them) in moving away from lyric poetry’s abstract and ahistorical sense of time, these poems capture a contemporary unease about our relationship to history—an increasing uncertainty about how to locate ourselves narratively. Reality is always imposing itself on the imagination, of course, and poets have always had to live in a world “too much with us,” as Wordsworth put it. But this moment feels different, because it is so relentlessly mediated, our “experience of experience,” to use John Ashbery’s phrase, so incessantly punctuated by our attention to tweets and the CNN news scroll: “The News is Too Much with Us.” And so the speakers in these poems—who have metabolized Language poetry’s skepticism toward lyric subjectivity, and turned to a new set of problems—do not inhabit the kind of postmodern anxiety about the instability of the self that unsettled so many late-twentieth-century poets. Their concerns are at once vaster and more mundane.
Collectively, the poems implicitly ask, How do we live in a time of plenitude overshadowed by climate crisis, exhaustive connectivity, and populist tumult? How can poets currently account for the past as structures of historic inequality become ever more visible to those who benefited from their seeming invisibility? How can we reckon with the presence today of a past that some thought was past (a blindness itself conferred by privilege)—but turned out not to be? Perhaps the more our present takes on the contours of a historical inflection point, the more our lyric poems inhabit a historical present tense, documenting a speaker anchored in “ordinary” time, as in Margaret Ross and Sandra Lim’s work, for example, or seeking to build an intimate relationship to another key inflection point in American history, as in Sasha Debevec-McKenney’s.
We shared what we had noticed with the poets, and asked them to offer some thoughts on what drew them to narrative, fact, and reportage. Their answers illuminate the individual pieces and, perhaps, a broader swathe of today’s poetry.
I’ve always thought of form as an image of time, but I used to think that image was made only of what was visible and audible in a poem—syntax, lineation, rhyme, etc. Then I spent a year binge-reading short stories and came to think of narrative as a tactile aspect of the image, a phantom pressure that gives a bodily sense of history. I wanted the gut feel of sequence and intricate causality, and of time extending off the edges of a poem. So it seemed one way to write dread and longing and complicity.
I definitely feel as if there’s a strong narrative impulse in the poems I’ve been writing lately. Many poems contain “story” or the notion of “storytelling” as subject matter or motif. But more than this, these days the narrative impulse for me has something to do with breaking into the inner life in a more meandering, indirect way: meandering and more tolerant of, or alert to, self- contradictions that may arise (and surprise!) in the thinking-writing process.
Or sometimes it’s not the thoughts or feelings about this or that per se that I want as the lyric; it can be more the way one thought follows another, as in a story or an essay, that I want to highlight.
My poems about the Presidents work toward processing my own citizenship and power in contrast to theirs. The work would not have been written without Robert Caro’s epic Lyndon Johnson biographies or rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s super sexy, boastful language.
Like any good historian, I want my work to teach the reader as much about the subject as it does about themselves. I’ve been obsessed with presidents my whole life, and I love to share that obsession with people. Poetry allows me to complicate that obsession in ways that biographers aren’t necessarily “allowed” or willing to. It makes me feel a little more powerful to use their words and lives and bodies in my work like they’ve historically used mine. Black women have been telling the truth about American politics for as long as this country has existed, but white men often tell the official stories. I’ve been reading a lot lately about how history won’t be kind to our modern politicians, but it seems to me that it has always been kind to them. Armed with the same exact facts, I am trying to be much less kind.
On the level of “lived experience,” whatever that is, I think I can locate the moment when prose breaks into lyric roughly like this: when your dumb life at your dumb job dominated by your habitual, dumb thoughts gets ruptured by poetry—a moment that breaks through the aforementioned prosaic pattern (let’s call it enjambment); or maybe you suddenly feel a regular part of that pattern rhyme, out of nowhere, with something outside of yourself. Perhaps this is just a long-winded way of describing the uncanny, but what I’m trying to articulate is more of a shock to the system. Writing “The Hell Test,” knowing that the little tercet—a haiku, as it happens—was coming at the end, was liberating. It allowed a pressure to accumulate in material that I would have been too embarrassed to include otherwise. In writing it, I saw that the formal tension of toggling back and forth between lyric and narrative prose might mirror a central logistical tension in my own life—a struggle in which I don’t think I’m alone.
I always wanted to be a novelist, but I couldn’t make anything up and I couldn’t get past a page—I kept going back over it, trying to get it right. Prose never felt like enough; I wanted to use everything language had to offer to get at the whole human experience. But I like poems with people in them, where things happen, where the writer is really present—James Schuyler, Anne Carson, Bernadette Mayer, Rachel Zucker. And I still read much more fiction than poetry, though it’s usually highly-stylized, lyrical fiction—Good Morning, Midnight, Lucia Berlin, Mary Robison, Padgett Powell. I don’t care if anything at all happens in a novel or a poem, but I am interested in how people live, in the writer herself. So this is the kind of thing I tend to write, poems that investigate experience and feeling and how people act. I’m just remembering that when I was in college and really wanted to tell everyone I was a poet, inevitably some stranger would ask, “What kind of poetry do you write?” and I would say “lyric narrative poetry” because I thought that was a real thing people could say! And now here we are.
“For Alain” emerged from an experience of sudden remembering I had while sitting with a friend late at night on a lakefront beach in Chicago. In a matter of minutes, I relived parts of my childhood I hadn’t thought about in over a decade. The space of the prose poem—a block of un-enjambed text—is the closest textual representation I’ve found of memory, for the way it allows sequential, mundane, and factual information to be melded with surrealist, imaginative detail. In memory and in this poem, narrative tidbits (like the kind of candy I used to eat as a kid) hold as much weight as the more analytic moments, “in each music a trace.” My favorite kinds of narrative texts are the ones that allow you to decide what is most important to focus on, what details ultimately hold weight, and what will stand out in your memory in years to come.
The poem published here is an excerpt from a book-length poem in progress, Information Desk: An Epic, that is very much driven by my instinct to further open up my poetry to my documentary and narrative impulses. While writing the poem, I’ve been thinking about the inherent distinctions between singing and telling, especially as the poem gains momentum, duration, and breadth. I’ve been using the poem to wonder how formal structure and information—forming and informing—are related, and how soul-quest and intellectual query—searching and researching—can meet in a poem that has novelistic sweep, but is nevertheless factual, and without ever tipping the genre away from poetry.