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Poetry and the Anxieties of the Narrative

Martin Langford 16 February 2017

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One way of thinking of the material of the poem – and I’m being a little idiosyncratic here, so I don’t want to accuse the other editors of holding these opinions – is that it is what you have when you look around at the end of a story. A story – particularly, but not solely, the migratory narratives of contemporary life – begins with an anxiety, and follows that anxiety towards an ending by which it is resolved: a girl wonders who her partner is going to be; a detective must solve the case before the serial killer strikes again; the troubled student cannot imagine how he or she will ever be a success. Since everything is defined in terms of the anxiety, there is a sense in which nothing exists once the resolution has occurred. Whereas one can dwell in the mood of a poem, or the play and weight of its meanings, once the story’s anxiety has been healed, one rarely spends time wondering how things are now that everything’s been fixed up. Storytellers are experts at making us identify with the anxiety, and readers develop the sharpest of capacities for locating it: sometimes, it seems that the true medium of narrative is not language, but fear.

Poetry, on the other hand, is rarely built around the tracking of an anxiety towards its dissolution. It can be sourced in a range of subject-anxieties which are the same as those that drive the narrative – everything from fear to triumphalism – but as an art-form, it has drifted away from doing so. Historically, there have been battle poems, praise poems and anxiety-about-love poems. But much of the narrative work poetry once did has been taken over, first by the novel, and then by films and T.V. In a different raid on its traditional territory, much of the direct expression of desire or loss is now performed by the popular song. I don’t want to suggest that people don’t still, say, write love poems – and very good ones. But my own reading is that rather than focusing on the anxieties of the subject, poetry has turned its attention to being exploratory – to exploring a moment, a situation, an understanding – precisely because that is something it still does uniquely well. In so doing, the sources of the poem have changed from anxiety to wonder. The last poetry that consistently worked the same material as the narrative were the old recital poems – ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ and ‘Barbara Freitchie’  –poems from when poetry still shared the same imaginary as the general public. Since then, it has concentrated on working the various frontiers of our understandings. My own feeling is that the poetry of this ‘age of exploration’ is stronger – perhaps a lot stronger – than when much of its function was tied up with telling people what they already knew. But the exploratory impulse has had an effect on the size of its audience: the sad truth is that any activity in which curiosity plays a central role will only ever speak only to a minority of the population – mostly, people see the world through the lenses of their anxieties, and they are reluctant to let the difficult work of wonder interfere with the ameliorations or advantages they are pursuing. One of the reasons  people have trouble reading poetry is that they have become so attuned to reading for the anxiety in a text – as the key, practised step towards engagement – that they do not know how to respond when they do not find it, and simply turn away, defeated: after all, anxiety can read a text for one, without one ever having to be conscious; compared to that, it is an unpleasant feeling – something to be resisted – if one has to think something through, and pay attention – even if the rewards are as great as they can be with good verse.

I am not suggesting that there isn’t a great deal of narrative in every art-form – including verse. Story-writers, moreover, can use all sorts of ways to introduce wonder and thoughtfulness into their treatment of story. Finally, there is the way that good work in any genre shifts the reader’s position away from an uncritical identification with the anxiety towards a qualified and conscious engagement. In doing so, the momentum of thoughtfulness – that need to create consistency across one’s understandings – starts to replace the more visceral engines of narrative, and the reader enters that shifting ground of being variously ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the emotion (both ‘captive’ and ‘non-captive’, as Bernstein would say) – which is similar to the way language works within the poem.

Overall, however, poetry suffers because the point from which it is read is not continuous, in an uncomplicated way, with the anxieties that people search for in their texts. But then, that is precisely why one goes to poetry – because after a while, you figure out how the anxieties work; because one grows tired of the same old anxieties just repeating themselves, and of the questions still being the same, on arrival, as they were on setting out. Because the poem looks outward, into the moment, and not onwards, pointlessly, to its own disappearance. 

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