Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Have You Heard The One About Bishop, Marquez and the Whale

I have been busy researching in preparation for the series of workshops I am running for The Poetry School with Jane Monson. It is exploring the concept and practice of narrative in the poem. This subject has always fascinated me as the story is something that has been with mankind for as long as we have used language. I am sure the story was part of Neolithic man’s life. Cave paintings suggest that man understood the power of the imagination wrapped as it was in concepts of sympathetic magic. Perhaps all stories are forms of sympathetic magic a conjuring of the ‘what if’ for us to try on for size. Stories do have a purpose not necessarily as in a moral as such but as a playing out of scenarios. Are stories sometimes our way of being the kittens swiping away and a dangled piece of string in order to hone the skills of catching our prey? Do we unconsciously rehearse our own reactions to situations through the medium of a story? How would we cope with that eventuality, why is someone behaving in a particular way, do we think he or she should have done that. Of course the old great stories, the ballads pin us to our history, to where we have come from, what we owe, what we admire in ourselves and others. Beowulf told tales of monsters, what hides in the dark , what we fear and what we can aspire to in courage, how we can overcome fear. Such things were important in times when fear and death were constant companions. Fairy tales, even putting aside Jungian interpretations, hold universal themes, a certain kind of rough mirror up to our sophisticated faces.
Exploring poems for their narrative always seems to tempt me, what story do we create from the best of words in the very best place? I do not of course suggest that poems are always stories dressed up or cloaked from the reader but it is surprising how we cannot help but join up the dots sometimes; create a whole from the sum of the parts. There can be a ghost narrator in the machine now and then. I know a couple of well known poets who often speak about listening to what the poem has to tell them, sometimes that may be a story.

Here is a sestina by Elizabeth Bishop that manages to make that often difficult and boring form play to the strengths of what a story might demand; a series of events, a tantalising suggestion of who the ‘we’ might be, a switch of perspective from we to I and back, a beautifully described clear setting but with a surreal quality to it, gestures towards another story ( The Sermon on the Mount), the back history, if you care to investigate, of it having been written during the depression. What also sets this poem apart is that the sestina form can often just whirl around like an interminable carousel; this word, that word and here they come again, which can play against any sense of linear advance.

A Miracle at Breakfast

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
--like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds--along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
--I saw it with one eye close to the crumb--

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

This poem has always reminded me of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story. One of his quotes I have had in my journal for years is, “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” He also very famously remarked that fiction was invented the day Jonah got home and explained his lateness to his wife by saying he was swallowed by a whale.

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