Applying some narrative theory to poetry
I took a class in graduate school that applied narrative theory to poetry, how we can apply the study of how stories are told to how we convey stories in our poetry. One term I still remember vividly is called “geographic syllepsis,” which means that a character pauses in the plot to focus in on objects spatially near that character. This would be the equivalent of walking around a room and describing all of the objects in that room and their emotional stories. A writer could choose just to mention the objects and let whatever they are carry the power themselves.
Every object in my living room has a story, and I imagine most people have homes like this, so why not include one for a character in a poem or a story? There are books on my mantle separated by a bowling pin. The books I used as centerpieces in my wedding, each one chosen personally from books I love; the bowling pin I bought at an antique store to represent how I really met my husband and got to know him: we met through mutual friends at a bowling alley and we continued to bowl in a group of friends for months before we got to know each other more and started to like one another. On one of our end tables are two wooden puppets, which we bought together on our honeymoon in Greece.
While I didn’t openly decide to write a poem using the above technique, it came out that way.
Several weeks ago, I started writing a poem about a packrat, a woman whose husband had passed away and she started storing everything that made her think of him in her attic. After a couple of lines, it really wasn’t going anywhere because I was focusing too much on her. This time, I really took her out of the picture and instead focused on each of the objects one could find in her attic and I chose some emotionally resonant ones (like a never used cradle) along with ones that fell short of that (like an American flag), but I wanted to really build a picture of the life this couple had together so each item would build on the last.
My best intentions usually evaporate when I actually start writing, but I completed the draft doing what I intended to: choosing objects that would all together form a picture. Here’s to seeing if it carries out through the edits.
Go ahead! Try your hand at some geographic syllepsis. Feel special because you now have a big technical word for it.
Tara Mae Mulroy is currently the Managing Editor of the award-winning literary journal, The Pinch. She has also served as Senior Poetry Editor and is currently an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Memphis. You can find her blog at taramaemulroy.wordpress.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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