4 minutes reading time (835 words)

SO WHO WROTE ‘FERISHTAH’S FANCIES’?

Nearly all the poetry I read these days is based on the poet's personal experience. I know we're not supposed to assume that 'I' is 'me', but mostly, actually, it is.

So much so, that one could conclude the main purpose of poetry is, and has always been, to share personal experience, mend the heart, shed the anguish, spill the beans.

Except it isn't. For most of history, poetry was much more likely to be fiction or historical non-fiction. Yes, there were short lyric pieces – songs and sonnets – which might be personal. But the long ones, which represented the more ambitious work, told (and re-told) fictional or historical stories.

Chaucer took Troilus and Criseyde, as well as the linked narratives of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

Shakespeare (forget the sonnets) did plays in iambic pentameter, and Venus and Adonis.

Edmund Spenser spent more than six years of his life failing to finish The Faerie Queene.

Milton? Paradise Lost,of course (recently adapted for Radio 4 by Michael Symmons Roberts). He also tackled Paradise Regained (I dare to suggest this will never be adapted for radio).

Longfellow? Hiawatha, of course.

Keats (forget the odes) wrote elaborate narratives – Endymion, Hyperion, The Eve of St Agnes.

Shelley did the same (The Revolt of Islam, The Witch of Atlas), as well as entire plays in verse. Who reads The Cenci now?

Byron? Don Juan.The Siege of Abydos. The Bride of Corinth.

Browning (not Elizabeth, Robert) wrote one verse novel after another (The Ring and the Book), as well as the shorter narratives (My Last Duchess) that school students still study. 

Coleridge? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Tennyson? The Lady of Shalott and Ulysses.

Wordsworth was the odd one out with The Prelude, which was indeed about his own life, but don't forget The White Doe of Rylstone (subtitled, irresistibly) The Fate of the Nortons).

Even Christina Rossetti had Goblin Market, allegedly for children.

Then we get into the twentieth century and the age of the lyric anthology, and suddenly it seems almost everything's personal and mostly no longer than a page. Magazines feature short poems in verse and short stories in prose. We have forgotten now that T S Eliot wrote no fewer than seven verse plays (The Elder Statesman was published as late as 1959).

Okay – there are, even now, exceptions. Occasionally lengthy fictional verse narratives do pop up, even if they don't win the T S Eliot prize. This is the territory of J.O. Morgan (At Maldon and In Casting Off). And even novelists occasionally tiptoe into narrative poems: Vikram Seth (The Golden Gate), Anthony Burgess (Byrne).

(I am struggling to think of female authors of long narrative poems. Is there a gender issue here? Suggestions, please, in the comments boxes below.)

Anyway, let me get back to where I started. During the reading 'windows' that I manage in July and December, I suggest poets don't send more than 6 poems. This, of course, assumes they are not writing the equivalent of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (though if they were, they could send 6 pages).

The poems that arrive usually sit somewhere near the middle of a page, surrounded by white space. Often people feel obliged to include a prose poem (square boxes surrounded by a similar amount of space). The white space these days is creeping into the poem itself, so it may spread out like a wide paper hanky with holes. Either way, 98% of the poems are short. If I get one that's three pages long, to tell the truth, I take a deep breath and sigh.

Except last year something different happened (yes, my entire blog has been building to this point, and I'm grateful if you made it this far).

Joan Lennon, best known for her children's fiction but also a true poet, sent me some verse narratives, of varying lengths. Stories. Some were biblical, some were classical. One was just slightly futuristic.... I found them fascinating, beautifully made, and unusually pleasurable to read.

Then in the December window, one Michael Grieve (whose name was entirely unfamiliar to me) apologised for sending a longer poem. I took a deep breath, began to read and did not look up until I finished, at which point I did – yes – sigh. A sigh of satisfaction.

It suddenly occurred to me I had been reading fictions. Short stories in verse form, beautifully executed. Such a lovely change from the personal piece (which I do not wish to rubbish: it is my bread and butter).

So I asked permission to publish one of Joan's story-poems, and I asked Michael for his (it turns out to be a debut publication in his case). They have materialised: Granny Garbage and Luck.

These are slender one-poem pamphlets. They are utterly readable and great fun. I can't tell you much about them without giving away detail that you need to find out for yourself. I suggest you buy them (they cost very little), read them, and then give them to a friend, someone you can talk to about what happens in the end....

ps I forgot to tell you who wrote Ferishtah's Fancies. Robert Browning, of course. Don't tell me you haven't read it....

SMALL POEMS FOR WASHING UP WITH
THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING
 

Comments 21

Guest - Davina on Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:06

Kate Tempest? And what about Carole Coates' Jacob? OK, it's in sections but it's really one long biographical poem.

Kate Tempest? And what about Carole Coates' Jacob? OK, it's in sections but it's really one long biographical poem.
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:10

Kate Tempest. Yes -- oral tradition -- and maybe some of the ballads singers (more fictional/historical narratives) were female. We will never know. And Carole's Jacob certainly counts. Any more? Any nineteenth century ones? Or were they all writing the novels? George Eliot and Emily Bronte wrote lyric poems but prose narratives....

Kate Tempest. Yes -- oral tradition -- and maybe some of the ballads singers (more fictional/historical narratives) were female. We will never know. And Carole's Jacob certainly counts. Any more? Any nineteenth century ones? Or were they all writing the novels? George Eliot and Emily Bronte wrote lyric poems but prose narratives....
Guest - Linda Goulden on Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:46

I suppose Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s are more historical polemical than fictional? And Charlotte Mew’s ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ too short?

I suppose Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s are more historical polemical than fictional? And Charlotte Mew’s ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ too short?
Guest - Davina on Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:56

Felicia Hemans wrote a few, including 'The Abencerrage' in 1819. In my undated copy of her poems - though printed before July 1919, because that's when Sallie inscribed it and gave it to Frank, and long before I spent 35p on it - the poem runs to twenty pages, small type in double columns. rhyming couplets throughout. I wonder how many people have read this? There are other narrative but none as long as this one.

Felicia Hemans wrote a few, including 'The Abencerrage' in 1819. In my undated copy of her poems - though printed before July 1919, because that's when Sallie inscribed it and gave it to Frank, and long before I spent 35p on it - the poem runs to twenty pages, small type in double columns. rhyming couplets throughout. I wonder how many people have read this? There are other narrative but none as long as this one.
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:56

Oh YES -- had forgotten Barrett Browning's The Battle of Marathon and Aurora Leigh. Good point! And The Farmer's Bride (which I love) a welcome addition, though on the short side, yes. Thank you, Linda!

Oh YES -- had forgotten Barrett Browning's The Battle of Marathon and Aurora Leigh. Good point! And The Farmer's Bride (which I love) a welcome addition, though on the short side, yes. Thank you, Linda!
Guest - Davina on Sunday, 15 April 2018 14:00

Wendy Cope's book-length poemThe River Girl has just fallen out of the bookcase ...

Wendy Cope's book-length poemThe River Girl has just fallen out of the bookcase ...
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 14:03

And oh YES, the-boy-stood-on-the-burning-deck Felicia Hemans! I wonder what an 'abencerrage' could possibly be? It's really impressive that you possess it, Davina, and I'm sure you've read all twenty pages....

And oh YES, the-boy-stood-on-the-burning-deck Felicia Hemans! I wonder what an 'abencerrage' could possibly be? It's really impressive that you possess it, Davina, and I'm sure you've read all twenty pages....
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 14:05

Here is the first canto of The Abencerrage, for serious poetasters -- it namechecks the Alhambra, a well known theatre/cinema in Dunfermline....
https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-abencerrage-canto-i/

Here is the first canto of The Abencerrage, for serious poetasters -- it namechecks the Alhambra, a well known theatre/cinema in Dunfermline.... https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-abencerrage-canto-i/
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 14:16

O tempora! O mores! My confession for the day is that I didn't even KNOW The River Girl existed. Oh dear.

O tempora! O mores! My confession for the day is that I didn't even KNOW The River Girl existed. Oh dear.
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 14:18

On the other hand, nobody has mentioned Alice Oswald yet, and she has to be the leading contemporary female verse narrative producer.... I really should have mentioned her earlier.

On the other hand, nobody has mentioned Alice Oswald yet, and she has to be the leading contemporary female verse narrative producer.... I really should have mentioned her earlier.
Marcia Menter on Sunday, 15 April 2018 14:24

H.D.’s ‘Helen In Egypt’ (Never read it, but think it fits the bill)

H.D.’s ‘Helen In Egypt’ (Never read it, but think it fits the bill)
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 14:30

Lord! 'Helen in Egypt'! I have never even heard of it! Hardly imagist. I wonder if it has cantos....
Thank you, Marcia!

Lord! 'Helen in Egypt'! I have never even heard of it! Hardly imagist. I wonder if it has cantos.... Thank you, Marcia!
Guest - Charlotte Gann on Sunday, 15 April 2018 16:26

Elizabeth Bishop? Though hers are narratives that touch her (life), I suppose...

Elizabeth Bishop? Though hers are narratives that touch her (life), I suppose...
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 16:33

'The Moose' might count....

'The Moose' might count....
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 16:34

And Robert Frost has quite a few narrative poems. I didn't mention those....

And Robert Frost has quite a few narrative poems. I didn't mention those....
Guest - Charlotte Gann on Sunday, 15 April 2018 16:38

...Though he's not strictly a woman ;-)

...Though he's not strictly a woman ;-)
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 15 April 2018 16:43

Oh, no more he is. Bum.

Oh, no more he is. Bum.
Guest - Alex Josephy on Sunday, 15 April 2018 20:12

What about Anne Carson's verse novel 'Autobiography of Red'?
And one I love, 'Make Lemonade', a young adult verse novel by Virginia Euwer Wolff, written in ottava rima.


What about Anne Carson's verse novel 'Autobiography of Red'? And one I love, 'Make Lemonade', a young adult verse novel by Virginia Euwer Wolff, written in ottava rima.
Thomas Jardine on Sunday, 15 April 2018 21:49

Interesting. I've long said that if writing a poem the poet should not write about their own self -- all the time.
And the longer poem issue. I've long been irritated by endlessly short poems endlessly droning about vague things.
I too am just finishing a 3,800 line narrative pastoral, which has take two years of five hours a day.
Of course, I don't know what to do with it now. My other question is why do so many poets write exactly like each other in the exact same style -- do they do it purpose, or is it a trend, or what? Is originality forbidden?

Interesting. I've long said that if writing a poem the poet should not write about their own self -- all the time. And the longer poem issue. I've long been irritated by endlessly short poems endlessly droning about vague things. I too am just finishing a 3,800 line narrative pastoral, which has take two years of five hours a day. Of course, I don't know what to do with it now. My other question is why do so many poets write exactly like each other in the exact same style -- do they do it purpose, or is it a trend, or what? Is originality forbidden?
Helena Nelson on Monday, 16 April 2018 08:41

Yes, of course to Anne Carson, Alex -- though a very odd sort of narrative. I don't know (but am glad to learn of) the Virginia Euwer Wolff.

Thomas, your 3,800 line narrative pastoral sounds, to put it mildly, an off the wall creation, which won't lend itself to an enthusiastic readership in an age of soundbites and short paragraphs. What on earth are you going to do with the five hours a day you are not NOT spending on it? This is a cheeky question, so please don't feel required to answer.

Those poets who seem to you to write in the exact same style do not feel they are writing in the exact same style. Each of them feels very different from the next, which is in the nature of individuality and differentiation. If you pick up a poetry magazine from the 1930s, you will have exactly the same impression about the poetry contents, though if you look hard you will start to see differences. .After all, most novels, even today, LOOK very similar....

Yes, of course to Anne Carson, Alex -- though a very odd sort of narrative. I don't know (but am glad to learn of) the Virginia Euwer Wolff. Thomas, your 3,800 line narrative pastoral sounds, to put it mildly, an off the wall creation, which won't lend itself to an enthusiastic readership in an age of soundbites and short paragraphs. What on earth are you going to do with the five hours a day you are not NOT spending on it? This is a cheeky question, so please don't feel required to answer. Those poets who seem to you to write in the exact same style do not feel they are writing in the exact same style. Each of them feels very different from the next, which is in the nature of individuality and differentiation. If you pick up a poetry magazine from the 1930s, you will have exactly the same impression about the poetry contents, though if you look hard you will start to see differences. .After all, most novels, even today, LOOK very similar....
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Wednesday, 25 April 2018