writers, narrators, realism and reality

I’m a firm believer that poetry isn’t all about sunny situations and pleasant people, which is one reason why it’s particularly important to separate what’s said in the poem from the person who wrote it.

It is, however, often difficult to show a narrator’s inadequacies without the writer coming across as inadequate as a poet or as a person: if you create a convincingly weak character in your writing, it isn’t always clear that the weakness is intentional.

In my poem Packing, I have a narrator who is so stressed out and exasperated with her cats that she threatens to leave them behind when she moves house. Most readers will realise that I really wasn’t advocating that as a desirable course of action, but, as I said when I posted it, some people have had a problem with it.

I’m convinced that it has to be ok for the poet to write about what people really say and do, whether or not their actions and speech are reasonable, desirable, or high-class literature. If we can’t write about real people – who can be nasty, cruel and semi-literate – what are we supposed to write about?

As poets, we are warned to avoid clichés, but people use them all the time when they talk. I’ve written a number of poems where the narrator or principle character – not me, of course! – is a love-sick female whose ideas are really quite trite. I know the clichés are there, but they belong to the voice of the character I’ve created and are, I think, necessary to define that character. The narrator of yesterday’s love poem is one of those lovelorn women, and some of her thoughts are, to say the least, unoriginal.

However, if a poem works technically, and the characters are drawn well, I don’t think it matters if a reader finds them unreasonable/weak/unlikeable etc. If readers find the people in my poems realistically human I’ll be content that I’ve done what I set out to do.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

9 thoughts on “writers, narrators, realism and reality”

  1. If a character can’t be represented without resorting to clichés, I don’t think the character is worth representing at all.

    Most people are boring, but poems should be [i]interesting[/i].

    Poets have power over language, and should use their power responsibly, rather than taking refuge in such excuses as “but most people really speak like that”.

    “donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu”
    “to purify the dialect of the tribe”

    Once you abandon the aims of Mallarmé and Eliot (which seem to me to have been among the aims, conscious or not, of all serious poets from Homer onwards), your writing becomes light verse, not poetry.


    1. I’ve suddenly realised that the pieces of mine that you have most problems with (because I am content to leave the speaker’s clichés in there) are often what I think of as monologues. Maybe they aren’t poetry at all.

      But in the same way that I tag some of my blog posts ‘haiku’ – because although I know I don’t think the piece counts as such, it inclines that way, and some other people might class it as a ‘ku – I think I shall have to go on labelling my monologues as poems.


      1. There’s a place for clichés in dramatic monologues, and indeed in drama – without clichés, Shakespeare’s Polonius would be almost completely silent – but they have to be framed, either explicitly or implicitly. So either you have a narrator quoting what an unintelligent person said, or the existence of such a meta-narrator can be inferred.

        Two examples: The Ring and the Book and Prufrock.

        Browning offers us a succession of wonderfully flawed narrators (all of them flawed morally or intellectually or both), while Eliot offers only one (but a corker!), but neither of them finds it necessary to debase the English language to the level of the launderette or the levée in order to demonstrate that the author and the narrator aren’t the same person.


  2. I don’t’ believe that poets, “if there is such a thing,” have power over language. Furthermore, I find the more someone places their standards or the standards of old on writing or any form of writing, simply cycles through starting the process of limiting the potential and the influx of new ways to write and express. If poetry is the living word of a thought process than it is ever changing and developing much like the person. To consider something stationary in meaning is to fall under a standard, – that is of oppression and the rules of someone else.


    1. Sometimes poets should conserve language, sometimes they should revolutionise it. Do you really think that poets should ever merely reproduce the uninteresting words and phrases that they hear and read in daily life?


    1. I think there’s a problem of saying “poets must never…” or “poets must always…”
      But in general, I think I’d agree with building on the standards already laid down, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. And knowing what those standards are allows you (generic you) to know just exactly where you’re ‘breaking rules’ or challenging limits and to do it consciously and as well as you can.

      This discussion is interesting and it’s making me reconsider some of my writing. I already recognised subconsciously that there are pieces I want to polish to perfection and others that I am happy to settle for ‘good enough to go’. I’m going to go and think about which is which and why that may be. It may be the difference Peter suggests between poetry and light verse.


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