Apart from a few poems I’ve written, and poems written by people I’ve known, I’ve never felt an intimate connection with poetry. Where most stories pull me in to one degree or another, I tend to connect with poetry on an intellectual level. And I’m not talking about the whole question of poetic analysis, which I have no interest in. I’m talking about how poetry affects me emotionally — or rather doesn’t affect me.
I respect good art of all types, including poetry, but stories somehow transcend. A painting, a sculpture, a poem — all of these things can be wonderful, but for me a narrative has an extra dimension. Were I compelled to define that dimension I would point to suspension of disbelief. (More on suspension of disbelief here and here.)
I can appreciate and understand poetry as lyric, as image, as expression. I can understand the point of a poem, intuit the author’s perspective, and even chase allusions and literary references if the mood suits me, which it almost never does. (I seem to have sated the desire to play find-the-hidden object as a child, while reading Highlights in my dentist’s waiting room.)
What I’ve wanted from poetry — and again, I admit this is my bias — is to be involved emotionally. Not to the exclusion of reason or art, not simply as an excuse for drama, but as a foundation. I’ve wanted to feel myself merge with a poem, but over time I came to believe I never would. And then, one day, I came across a short, fourteen-line poem by Robert Frost, called Once By The Pacific. The full poem still fails to sustain a connection with me: I understand the point of it, but by the end I’m reading it, not living it. Four of the first six lines, however, not only changed my mind about what poetry can be, they brought into focus a craft issue that I had never heard anyone talk about before.
Here are the first six lines of Once By The Pacific:
The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
Now here’s my line-by-line response to those same six lines:
The shattered water made a misty din. ~ wow
Great waves looked over others coming in, ~ WOW!
And thought of doing something to the shore ~ mm-hm
That water never did to land before. ~ mm-hm
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies, ~ wow
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes. ~ WOW!
So that’s two wow‘s and two WOW!‘s. In the former lines (1 and 5) I was reacting to the force of Frost’s language. In the latter lines (2 and 6) I suddenly felt transported by the point of view implicit in Frost’s words.
Going deeper, here’s what I felt as I read those lines:
The shattered water made a misty din. ~ wow, that’s really evocative….
Great waves looked over others coming in, ~ WOW! All of a sudden I’m with the waves, out among them — I’m a great wave, looking over others…but I’m not rolling in, or going in…I’m coming in, which means all of a sudden I’m back on the shore. How did Frost do that? How did I go from shore to ocean to shore in seven words?
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies, ~ wow, that’s really evocative….
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes. ~ WOW! In the first four words I’m seeing the hair, feeling the movement, and then somehow, in the next five words, I’m not only seeing the eyes I am the eyes, seeing my own hair being blown forward.
The first time I read lines 2 and 6 I could literally feel point of view taking me somewhere. I’m not claiming Frost intended that movement, but I did feel it. Even today, when I read those lines, I can feel myself being moved from place to place. I’m not just seeing what Frost describes, I’m living it.
The clarity and force of that experience made me realize that I had never heard anyone talk about point of view in poetry. I’m not saying it’s never done, but relative to conversations about point of view in fiction it’s clearly not a common topic. Even the article I linked to above about poetic analysis includes the term point of view only once, and then in an editorial context.
Until I read Frost’s poem I assumed the difference between poetry and fiction was the idea of narrative itself. Fiction has a causal plot and characters that live through those events, while modern poetry is generally non-narrative. (I know narrative poetry exists, and that it existed before literature took hold, but I also know that modern poetry has thrown off the shackles of narrative and moved beyond such constraints. The modern poet is much more likely to write about an object or fleeting moment than anything overtly causal, let alone related to a fictional character.)
What I didn’t realize until I read Frost’s poem was that a great deal of narrative power comes, inherently, from point of view. And while poetry may not flex that muscle very often, it’s not precluded from doing so, nor is it obligated to present a narrative in order to do so.
There’s no plot or story to Line 2. At the end of Line 1 I’m on the shore. At the beginning of Line 2 I’m out in the water. At the end of Line 2 I’m back on the shore. And even if I’m wrong about what Frost intended — even if great poets converge on this post and patiently prove my idiocy — I still feel that movement. Frost presents me with the point of view of a wave and for a moment I feel like a great wave.
As an author of longer works you can adhere to strict maintenance of point of view if you want, but you’re not required to do so. If you prefer to wander a bit, to drift or shift or bounce back and forth, you can do all that, and powerfully so. There’s a chance you might make a mistake or confuse your audience, but with so much power in point of view I think it’s worth the risk. And besides, that’s what trusted readers are for.
– Mark Barrett