The New Narrative

John Kerrigan

  • The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse edited by Iona Opie and Peter Opie
    Oxford, 407 pp, £8.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 19 214131 7
  • Time’s Oriel by Kevin Crossley-Holland
    Hutchinson, 61 pp, £4.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 09 153291 4
  • On Gender and Writing edited by Michelene Wandor
    Pandora, 166 pp, £3.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 86358 021 1
  • Stone, Paper, Knife by Marge Piercy
    Pandora, 144 pp, £3.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 86358 022 X
  • The Achievement of Ted Hughes edited by Keith Sagar
    Manchester, 377 pp, £27.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 7190 0939 1
  • Ted Hughes and Paul Muldoon
    Faber, £6.95, June 1983
  • River by Ted Hughes and Peter Keen
    Faber, 128 pp, £10.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 571 13088 7
  • Quoof by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 64 pp, £4.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 571 13117 4

‘When We talk of narrative poetry today,’ James Fenton asks in the September issue of Poetry Review, ‘are we referring to the kind of story in which, you want to know what happens next? I think not. I think that kind of story is deliberately excluded from consideration.’ It’s a well-timed question, with Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s advocacy of narrative in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry being so widely and respectfully read, and well-directed too, since it clarifies what’s confused in the Penguin introduction by the editors’ simultaneous recommendation of Post-Modernist ‘secrecy’ and the Keatsian ‘long poem’. The kind of story which flows from A to Z is clearly not what young poets have in mind when they speak of ‘a renewed interest in narrative’. Endymion is not the ‘Polar Star’ of their poetry, though Fenton’s minor masterpiece ‘A Vacant Possession’ may, and conceivably should, be what they strive to match. Reflexive, aleatory and cornucopian, the New Narrative deploys its fragmented and ramifying fictions to image the unpredictability of life, and its continuous shadowing by What Might Be. It seems, in short, no accident that Paul Muldoon – whose brilliant new book Quoof gives support to most of the claims being made for ‘narrative poetry today’ – should have told John Haffenden in an interview for Viewpoints that he found Robert Frost’s fable of imagined unlived lives, ‘The Road Not Taken’, exemplary.

If Fenton’s distinction between the narrative kinds is just, so is the note of regret and rebellion that he strikes in the phrase ‘deliberately excluded from consideration’. In art, nothing should be so excluded: and it’s possible to feel in any case that, by seeking narrative involution, young poets are in some danger of neglecting an essential resource of the Story. Certainly, to read a collection like The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, newly-edited by Iona and Peter Opie, is to be reminded of the powerful appeal that’s made in poetry by ‘the kind of story in which, you want to know what happens next’. The Opies’ choice is often cautious and occasionally perverse. In some respects, moreover, their book belongs – with its ‘Babes in the Wood’, ‘Pied Piper’ and ‘Goblin Market’ – on the nursery shelf, beside their anthologies of children’s rhyme and fairy-tales. Here are the poems one grew up on, or imagines one did: Alfred Noyes’s ‘The Highwayman’, Poe’s ‘The Raven’, Kipling’s ‘East and West’. And here are the texts one’s governess would have liked, had one had a governess: Auden’s ‘Ballad of Barnaby’, about a tumbler coming to God, Longfellow’s ‘Wreck of the Hesperus’, and, far from anything so arcane as ‘The Road Not Taken’, an improving Frost poem about treating farm-workers right, ‘The Code’. Yet, for all its quirks of selection and moralistic bias, the Opies’ book is invaluable, and its place on the bedside table secure; it witnesses irresistibly to the excitement and reassurance provided by ‘poems that tell’, in the editors’ words, ‘a straightforward and complete story’.

Are these the satisfactions of ‘subject-matter’, or of form? When Fenton writes in Poetry Review about a ‘poetry of intrinsic interest’, gesturing towards ‘the possibility of an intrinsically interesting story’, he probably is describing the kind of work which would unfold most freely in a ‘straightforward and complete’ narrative: yet the sheer compulsion of ‘what happens next’ registers regardless of ‘intrinsic interest’. One of the most successful texts in the Oxford Book – Cowper’s ballad of ‘John Gilpin’ – simply tells how this citizen rode, or was carried, from Cheapside to Ware and back again: but, nugatory in content, the poem is substantial in achievement. Narrative defines itself here as that which has the power to make matter without consequence ‘consequential’; and ‘intrinsic interest’ slips into a secondary role.

From Chaucer to Auden, Henryson to Frost, the Oxford Book steers a steady course: but that course is hardly inevitable, and one Road Not Taken by the Opies, arguably as enticing as the path they do pursue, makes the New Narrative look, if not reçu, then at least less novel. For, contrary to the current wisdom, there have always been ‘secret narratives’ of some sort in the English tradition: refractory anecdotes, oracular pronouncements, dark allegories and curious conceits. In Time’s Oriel, indeed, Kevin Crossley-Holland reaches back to Anglo-Saxon to find at the springs of our tradition an enigmatic story-poem called ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’. A woman speaks; she is angry but indirect; living with one man, she loves another; there’s a hinted tale of rape and raiding; the helpless observer of her own predicament, the woman threatens, laments and sings until her love for Wulf is inextricable from the texture of her song:

Can you hear, Eadwacer? Wulf will spirit
our pitiful whelp to the woods.
Men easily savage what was never secure,
our song together.

The emotional impact of that last reflexive turn is beautifully conveyed in Crossley-Holland’s translation. Though his style lacks real vehemence and a density adequate to render an inflected language, it communicates everything elegiac in ‘Wulf’ with exactitude and elegance. In this haunting text, where the ingrained litotes of Old English poetry accords with a human situation, where obliquity and understatement are at once expressive and essential to the story, Crossley-Holland seems to find a natural subject. His own poetry is most moving when it copes with loss and adumbrates events. Elegies and snatches of story, a poem in memory of his grandmother and a miniature tale of unrest in India: these are among the best things in Time’s Oriel; and, with those instances to hand, it’s neither surprising to find ‘Wulf’ so sympathetically translated nor disconcerting to hear that woman’s voice, with its Old English accent, accompany the poet’s ‘Bavarian Miscellany’ or his Motionish tales from Empire, ‘Postcards from Kodai’ and ‘South-West Monsoon’.

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[*] Women’s Press, 177 pp., £3.50, April 1983, 0 7043 3903 X.

[†] Oxford, 63 pp., £4, 18 November 1982, 0 19 211953 2.