Illustration by Hillary Watson

What's in a Story #13


November 25, 2020

If poetry can teach you one thing about storytelling, it’s the art of interruption.

In journalism, there is one golden rule about writing a good news story: don’t bury the lede. A lede is jargon for the essence of the story. What, when, where. Tell it all to the reader by the first paragraph. Tell it how you would tell it to a friend.

Poetry is different. For me, journalism is breathlessly concise, but poetry takes its time. So what makes for a good story in poetry?

In the Primer for Readers and Writers of Poetry, Gregory Orr compares narrative poems with lyrics. Orr says that lyrics do not focus on a narrative. Instead, they are guided by imagery and evocative language, with the plot appearing as a “ghost narrative” – a background character, if you will.

Can a story be more than its narrative, the set of actions which unfold? I believe so.

In fact, I derive a thrill from writing poetry which is missing in any other genre. Here I turn to the Romantics, and their insistence on emotions over thought.

A story isn’t just its narrative. A story is more than thoughts organized by an ego.

A story is more than what happened, or what we thought of it.

Instead, a story shows how what happened changes the characters, and elaborates on why these changes are worth acknowledging at all.

In telling stories through poetry, the writer arguably has a freedom unique to the genre. A poem is not bound to the action of the verb: what happened, when it happened, how it happened (if anything).

What is the truth value of a poem? Can a poem be false?

I know these questions may seem strange. Unfamiliar.

It’s like drawing a circle, and then asking: what is the truth value of the center? Can a center be false?

The more you lean into this kind of questioning, the more you realize the abstractness of the poetic form.

In poetry, you are not bound to truth, nor are you born to any truth. I would argue that poets often waive the right to fictionality (though a niche genre of sci-fi poetry continues to exist). I would argue that stories, as found in poems, are a-fictional, even those with a clear plot.

Because the essence of a poem involves a transformation, and it is the writer’s responsibility to carve the space for such a transformation from the abstract space of unthought thoughts.

And all good stories involve tangents. But these tangents tend to complement the emotional center which the poem aches for. As the author, you have to sometimes pretend to lose track of your thoughts. Like a wise teacher, you have to feign unfamiliarity, put on the fresh eyes of your students.

A strong example of feigning naivety is Maggie Smith’s poem Good Bones, first published in Waxwing Quarterly.

The narrative is clear: a mother says she hides the shortness of life from her children.

But the story is a combination of opposites. Tit for tat: “for every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.” The imagery becomes more graphic, but still proceeds in a set of opposites: “for every loved child, a child broken, bagged, / sunk in a lake.”

If we think of the poem as a set of oppositions, next we need to know – how does Smith’s speaker feel about these opposing realities? Why are these realities being pointed out, instead of others?

Smith’s speaker is, well, ambivalent about the world. She is lecturing about its harms, but only in her mind. She is frightened for her children, yet she is “trying to sell [them] the world.”

In Good Bones, Smith doesn’t simply just add up a list of co-existing facts about the world. She focuses in on the dualities most sensitive to a speaker with maternal responsibilities.

Why does it matter? A mother is concerned for her children – the world is full of them. What makes the reader shift?

I would argue it is the startling comparison which concludes the poem, when the maternal figure is likened to a decent realtor:

Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

In these lines, Smith makes a comparison so unusual, so profane, the reader’s expectations are interrupted.

The interruption is the site of transformation: the mother is no longer cooing her children, too cowardly to speak the truth. In fact, she is tired – and just doing her job.

If poetry can teach you one thing about story-telling, it’s the art of interruption.

Each reader has an ego. Each reader has an inner narrative.

A good story interrupts.


Mirabel is Avleen Kaur Mokha, a Montreal-based poet who grew up in Mumbai, India. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and Linguistics from McGill University, and was the 2019 winner of McGill’s Peterson Memorial Prize for Creative Writing. Presently, Avleen edits poetry and prose for Persephone’s Daughters, a literary magazine dedicated to survivors of abuse. Avleen’s poems have appeared in Déraciné Magazine, Dream Pop, and Siblini among others. Her chapbook DREAM FRAGMENTS was published October 2020 by Montreal’s very own Cactus Press. 

DREAM FRAGMENTS is available online now. Find more from Mirabel on Twitter.

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