Up the block, the L passes over our street and, if you’re talking when the train arrives, noise obliterates any conversation. In my family, whoever is speaking gets to supply a concluding statement when the roar evaporates…
… and that’s why lettuce makes a poor undergarment.
… so Grandmother didn’t even need to swallow one goldfish, much less twenty.
… the moral of the story is, don’t let infants paint.
… then I decided “Chuckles” wasn’t a good wrestling name, after all.
My daughter says we could turn these statements into real fiction, but, as stories go, they seem flawed—all telling (no showing) and too easy because the teller never has to do the work of reaching that moment.
These endings, however, do spur me to think. What transforms observations or moments into a story? What makes a narrative?
The difference between narrative and lyrical poems seems helpful here. A lyrical poem is emotional. As the term suggests, its underlying tone—its music, if you like—organizes its contents. In contrast, while narrative poems have tone, sequence controls them. Put simply, one event leads to the next.
But the difference seems more complicated. What’s an event? What do you do with information like description or dialogue? If you think of reading psychologically, every sort of information spurs the mind to search, looking for connections or leading to conjectures about anything that may prove important. Where is the narrative then, in the writing or in the reader’s mind?
As demonstration, consider this lyrical poem by William Carlos Williams, “Nantucket”:
Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow
changed by white curtains—
Smell of cleanliness—
Sunshine of late afternoon—
On the glass tray
a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which
a key is lying— And the
immaculate white bed
The poem sidesteps events altogether, appearing to be pure description. It contains no real verbs, only participles functioning as adjectives—the flowers can be described as “changed” by the curtain, the tumbler can be described as “turned down,” and the key can be described as “lying” next to the bed, but they don’t do anything. Initially, the objects don’t even seem particularly interesting. Flowers, curtains, a clean smell, a glass try and pitcher, some glasses turned over, and a key beside a bed. A pretty still life, but still.
Yet my mind makes these details into a story. Nothing in the poem directly tells me so, but the key, the flowers, and the glasses turned over suggest a Nantucket hotel room. I think of Nantucket as a place for visiting rather than residing, and those usually familiar flowers are “changed” here along with everything else. These simple things cry for explanation. I know the poet has used “glass” twice, but why substitute “tumbler” for an object containing liquid—why not “goblet”? And what should I do with the secondary meaning of words like “tumbler,” which is also someone who performs athletic leaps, rolls, and somersaults… or the workings of a lock? What about “immaculate,” which is not only absolutely clean but also Mary’s sexless conception? Out of context, the word “lying” suggests something false or misleading. Is that important?
And there’s also Williams’ characteristic voyeurism. Is he outside the room or inside it? If he is outside looking through those curtains, how does he smell cleanliness or see any detail beyond the flowers? Which is imagined—how someone outside the room might envision it or how someone in the room might see all the particulars described?
I have a way to answer these questions—this poem is about an affair. The room is a getaway. The key is phallic. That immaculate white bed awaits tumbling. And though no one outside that window could imagine the lie, what happens when afternoon wanes changes everything, unlocking an entirely new life.
So I’m left with a big question—does the poem tell this story or do I?
Visiting Bloglily this week, I encountered her questions about flash fiction, stories that use 500 words or less, and I began to think how few words a story might require. With the right words and an active imagination, could three words be a story—could one word? I’m not suggesting we replace art galleries with index cards reading, “A man on a horse in the Alps” or “A block of blue in a field of black,” but what’s more important, the thing or our mind’s reading of it?
Put another way, what are we doing when we listen to music, hearing the notes or making the connections between them?
My family’s silly statements in the wake of the L are only stories if listeners supply what’s missing. Authors deserve credit for coming up with evocative detail—that’s their art—but perhaps they deserve more credit for what they omit.