Are All Poems Narratives?

In class today, Lytton quoted Aristotle and his views on what makes a narrative and whether or not Myung Mi Kim’s Dura fits this definition or not. Kim defends the collection and says that it has a clear narrative while many of us wholeheartedly disagree. By Aristotle’s standards, is all poetry narrative? If all lines in a poem (beginning, middle, and end) are in conversation with each other and thus causally relate to each other, is the poem a narrative? Is Dura a narrative? 

There are poetry collections that have clear narrative arcs–take for instance Lauren Berry’s The Lifting Dress. It begins with the speaker after she was assaulted and follows her growth but transitions back and forth between these flashbacks and then the current day. Each poem in the collection is the same speaker which I always found remarkable. But I also thought that Dura similarly employed this method even though it was not as straightforward. The collection begins on a grand scale with the “Cosmography” section and then narrows down in focus until the last section, “Hummingbird.” In the meanwhile, Dura focuses on language, immigration, post-colonial politics and one Korean girl’s life immigrating to America.

Although the collection jumps from subject to subject that may not directly relate to the speaker’s life (ie. LA riots, African slave trade, etc.), they still are a piece of the plot of the collection. Without these sections or ideas, what is the purpose of the collection then? These experiences complement the speaker’s journey and maturation in a foreign place. The subject areas that do not directly relate to the speaker’s life are still causally related. For instance, the LA riots that displayed racial tension against foreigners (especially Koreans) sets the stage for any type of discrimination the Korean speaker will face in the US. Towards the end of the collection, when Kim writes, “9.8       One of the first words understood in English: stupid” it’s implied that this negative word is frequently heard by the young speaker in her new setting. By knowing “stupid” first, it displays the racial tension and dismay for immigrants that the LA riots and African slave trade displayed (even if it’s not as violent).

Dura, if it’s a narrative, is set up anachronistically but it still has a clear beginning, middle, and end that relate to each other. Even if the events of the collection are murky because of the collection’s experimental quality, I have to agree with Kim that it is a narrative.

Then moving from the macro scale of a poetry collection to a smaller scale of a poem or even an individual line, are these narratives too? In a poem, the lines are related to each other directly or indirectly. As the poem progresses, the reader learns more about the narrative of the poem. I think that even poems that belong to the imagist category still fall under Aristotle’s definition of a narrative. Ezra Pound defined the tenets of imagist poetry as:

“I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome” (http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-imagism).

If every word in imagist poems are crucial to the poem, then each line would also be crucial and important to the message of the poem–thus causally related. Even poems that seemed to be images stacked upon other images still have a narrative quality to it: there’s a beginning, middle, and end that are related to each other.

Break the poem down even further into a line and each line has a beginning, middle, and end part to it. This idea works really well until you find short-lined poems comprising of maybe one or two words. What do you do then? Can these words function as more than one of those narrative elements? Perhaps they can but I’m unsure.

By Aristotle’s standards, I think that all poetry could be considered a narrative. Do you think that argument works? If not, explain below. I don’t think that this blog post is comprehensive of all types of poetry but I was just thinking about this on my walk home.

One Reply to “Are All Poems Narratives?”

  1. Fascinating thoughts, Christina, and great to see The Lifting Dress referenced here, too.

    I love how you’re pushing on Aristotle and the sense of poetic narrative – a lot here feels really germinative and productive. Aristotle’s interest is in causality, rather than in, say, form, and yet that seems to work with Imagism, too: I’m now wondering about the two lines of ‘In a Station of the Metro’ as causally related, and they are, of course.

    What then, is outside narrative? For narrative to exist, there must be something that isn’t narrative. Anyone?

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