In Fragile Things, a collection of short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, there is a wonderful poem called “Instructions.” As Gaiman says in the introduction this poem is “Quite literally, a set of instructions for what to do when you find yourself in a fairy tale.” While he might not come out and say so, I say that the poem is also a pretty clear set of instructions for what to do in life as well.
It is also a mini-story. Even though the main character is ‘you,’ there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you follow the advice throughout the poem, you will arrive safely at the end…just like a character growing through a novel.
Reading this poem got me thinking about the disconnect I sense between ‘poetry’ and ‘story’ in today’s poetry. I’m no professional poet, I haven’t had poems published in any big name magazines, and I’ve only had a couple workshops but I am a reader. I love to read poetry and short stories and plays and novels. You name it, I’ll read it. (Or at least give it a good shot.) And what I’ve noticed in a lot (not all! there are exceptions everywhere) of contemporary poetry – which I’ll call poetry after the 1920s – is that there is a horrid tendency toward, um, navel gazing.
Oh yeah, I said it.
A huge amount of the poetry I have read made me go: so what? (Again, not all! No need to list ad nauseum the exceptions – if it made you feel something, then it wasn’t a poem of the navel gazing variety, agreed?) The poet shot a deer. Big whoop. The poet watched a baby being born. Sweet, sure, but millions of women have babies every day. Again, I say big whoop. My reaction has run the gamut between “huh, that’s okay” to “why did the poet just waste two minutes of my life with his self-satisfied, political whack job view on a subject I care nothing about?”
Then I read Neil Gaiman’s “Instructions.” My initial reaction was of the elitist, poetry workshop variety. Enter Snooty Jenny: these line breaks are sloppy, there’s not a high level of ‘telling detail,’ and so on.
But, ya know. I liked it. A lot. And I told my snooty self to shut up and re-read the poem again.
And I thought of something. Contemporary poetry, in my general unscientifically-polled opinion, does not embrace story. Sure, something generally happens – a deer gets shot or a baby gets born or whatever. But there’s not a story within it. There is no beginning, middle, or end supported by the things that make poetry work: line breaks, stanzas, meter, rhyme. The genres of fiction and poetry have gone their separate ways and it seems like it'll take a miracle to mush them back together.
It wasn’t always this way. Poetry used to be The Method for story, political essays and commentary, and a whole host of communications. Part of that is because meter and rhyme make stories, commentaries, etc., easy to memorize and repeat. (Thus easier to ‘go viral’ back in the day.)
While by no means an absolute certainty of the future of meshing the two, there are signs that story is returning to poetry with really incredible popular results – especially in the YA field. Ellen Hopkins, for example, with Crank, Impulse, and her new adult release, Triangles. Karen Hesse with Out of the Dust. What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones. And the list is growing.
I think that’s good news. What do you guys think about poetry, just in general? Do you enjoy reading it or hearing it? If not, why not? Inquiring minds want to know.
Have you read any good poems that tell a story?
And now, here’s Neil Gaiman reading “Instructions” at Cody Books (Pay attention to the intro, the crowd’s reaction, and Gaiman’s questions – what do you think about that?)