Poetry and Prose in the Work of Bronwen Wallace
As some of you may know, my most recent publication was a novel, The Violin Lover, and I’ve since finished a second one and have started a third, though I’m still writing poems and still think of myself as a poet. So when I was asked to present a paper at this conference, I thought it would be fun to explore a topic that has a strong personal resonance for me: why Bronwen Wallace, a poet who repeatedly insisted that she had no interest in writing fiction, ultimately found herself doing so. Why did she have to repeat her lack of interest in fiction so often? Because everyone — including me — recognized her tremendous talent for storytelling: it was the most distinctive characteristic of her poetry. Why did she reject the prospect of fiction? Because she believed that she could do everything she wanted to do with language within the form of what she called “narrative” poems.
Now, traditionally, what the rest of us (or at least those of us formerly known as Professor Glickman) call “narrative” poetry has been something along the lines of the epic — a long poem recounting the exploits of a hero and how they affect the fate of a nation — or, if shorter, a ballad recounting a natural or supernatural adventure. Beowulf, the Odyssey, Sir Patrick Spens, Piers Plowman, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Hiawatha, The Last Spike: that sort of thing. In narrative poetry the protagonist is seen from the outside because there is a narrator telling us the story, a story which has been handed down as part of communal wisdom, and the sequence is linear, based on cause and effect, leading up to a climax. There’s a beginning, and a middle, and an end, unfolding through time.
But in a Bronwen Wallace poem the sequence is far from linear; we circle around a topic, flash back in memory, probe deeper to get at the meaning of experience. As Dennis Lee put it, in the obituary for Bron he published in the Globe and Mail on Saturday August 26, 1989:
It’s a loopy, lopey canter through domestic vignettes, childhood memories, snatches of yarning and yack with women friends, plus alternate takes and digressions all hop-scotching through lives and generations linked in a rich random tapestry, maybe punctuated by notions picked up from neurology or pre-history, with the whole lit up by passages of luminous musings on the workaday mystery of being human.
And just as there is no traditional narrative sequence in a Bronwen Wallace poem, there isn’t a traditional narrator either: that is to say, there isn’t anyonestanding outside the story telling it to us in a relatively detached way. Instead we have a persona, seen as a subject, from the inside, speaking in the first person. And even when that persona is telling us a story about something that happened to somebody else, which occurs frequently, she is much less interested in what happened than in why — and in how the events she is recounting make people, including her, feel.
Poetry written in the first person focusing on the thoughts, feelings, and memories of an individual has always been called “lyric” poetry. Even the Romantics, who wrote meditative odes in a conversational voice, never claimed that what they were writing was narrative just because it dealt with complex ideas in the voice — as Wordsworth put it — of “a man talking to men.” But what Bron was trying to reproduce was the voice of a woman talking to women and women, more often than men, use stories to explain why they think the way they do and to support their arguments. Women are less likely to speak in generalities and abstractions such as “The child is father to the man/ and so it was since time began”; they are more likely to focus on how the boy’s childhood habit of picking the chocolate chips out of his cookies and counting them to see what the average number was foretold his later adult career with Statistics Canada. And this model of storytelling is also the model for the typical Bronwen Wallace poem.
In fact, point of view and content are not the only aspects of Bronwen’s style that led her to call her poetry “narrative.” Whereas feminism, for many of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, strongly influenced the content of our poetry, it had a more radical effect on Bronwen Wallace: it was the source of her poetic form. Not only did she address the subject of women’s lives, she told it in women’s voices — and in the typical style of women’s conversations. This was obvious in the poems she published with Mary di Michele, in their joint first book from Oberon Press back in 1980. Both poets burst onto the scene as mature writers; both were committed feminists. And both had their own idiosyncratic voices, very distinct from each other. Mary’s half of the book, entitled Bread and Chocolate, sounds like this (“The Disgrace”):
A skinned rabbit sits in a bowl of blood.
In the foetal position, it dreams its own death.
I swell quietly by the warmth of the kitchen,
like the yolk that is the hidden sun of the egg.
And Bronwen’s half, Marrying into the Family, sounds like this (“Grandma Wagar’s Double Bind”) :
The man she married
(against her father’s wishes)
was a good husband but
a poor farmer
when times got bad
he put a mortgage on the farm
by forging her signature
in 1927 they lost
Right from the start Bronwen’s poetic voice was a much closer imitation of ordinary speech than Mary’s — or any of the rest of us, for that matter. It was less textual, less overtly an aesthetic construct, less image-centered. It used colloquial language organized by ordinary syntax; it didn’t rely very much on figures of speech.
Though she was to become much more daring and adept as her career progressed, recognizing that she didn’t need to constrain her frame of reference, her language, or even her rhythms, to be faithful to her principles, the intimacy she created in “Marrying into the Family” by imitating the conversational ramblings of one person to another continued to be a defining characteristic of her style. This is true even of her posthumous collection, Keep That Candle Burning Bright, published in 1991, where we still hear that familiar voice in poems like “Driving” which begins:
I know someone who insists that Emmylou Harris saved her life the year she left her husband. It was all so crazy, the only thing my friend could stand to listen to was Pieces of the Sky and now, whenever I hear it, I see her driving, at night, the tape deck blaring, driving on and on.
side by side with the more ambitious rhetorical flourishes of something like “Rhythm and Genes”, that begins:
We all hear — though we may not be conscious of —the beat that thrums through every human conversation. Rhythmic synchrony it’s called, our sync sense, which, like the other five, conducts us through the worlds we make of each other, or in this case, sets us dancing in each other’s stops and starts, digressions, turns and leas of thought, hyperbole, lies, warning, lovers’ cries – we move to music, and the scientist who study this sort of thing (sociolinguistic microanalysts they call themselves) can clock the tempo with a metronome, and score it, too, each eighth note, triplet, rest and syncopation measured as a waltz or a square-dance.
This remained her territory: from “I know” in the first extract I just read you to “we all hear” in the second. She insisted on the commonalities, in the things that “we all” share. And this is also another reason she called her poetry “narrative.”
In an essay called “Why I Don’t Write Short Stories” first published in Quarry Magazine in 1988 and then modified two years later to become “Why I don’t (always) Write Short Stories,” Bronwen notes that the lyrical voice, “with its power for taking the reader on an inner journey, is a necessary part of what we are.” (Arguments with the World, 178) and then she distinguishes it from the “narrative” voice which includes the collective as well as the individual, placing the personal always in a particular place and time. Well, the people in a Bronwen Wallace poem are defined as much by their particular time and place as they are by their characters. The poems of Marrying into the Family, as the title emphasizes, show the speaker seeking to understand her place in the world by tracing her genealogy and geography, and Bronwen’s later work continued to draw heavily on anecdotes and incidents from the lives of friends and relatives. So when she calls her poems “narrative” she is really saying two things:
1) They are told in a conversational way and rely heavily on stories.
2) They are very specific as to time, place, and community.
Actually, I think that she was saying three things, but perhaps she assumed that the third was self-evident: that is, she mostly wrote poems that were longer than the conventional lyrics we were all used to in the late twentieth century, especially the tight little image-driven ones so typical of modernism. And length is, after all, one of the traditional characteristics of narrative poetry. Bron’s poems got long because she wanted to tease out all the nuances of a situation. This desire for amplification and multiple perspectives could even lead her, sometimes, to incorporating alternative points of view into poems such as “In My Mother’s Favourite Story” from Signs of the Former Tenant, which concludes
I would have her know
all streets are treacherous and even the best
loved children forget the rules
about crossing with the light
but perhaps she knows this anyway
it’s her story after all and she always
puts herself in alone in the house
her hand on the telephone
and her eyes on the scattered toys
so easily abandoned
on the empty porch
And I believe that it was this urge to accommodate many voices, this understanding that the truth is polyphonic and experiential rather than monophonic and absolute, that ultimately led her to experiment with fiction.
In “Why I don’t (always) Write Short Stories,” Bron confesses that she had to change the title of her essay and reconsider her early remarks because:
I am, now, writing short stories, but not because I think they are the same as, or even the next logical step after, narrative poems. I am writing short stories right now because that’s what I have been given to write. Or rather, that’s what I’ve chosen to do with what I’ve been given. These women just started talking in my head; I chose to listen and to see where it would take me … I suspect that it has something to do with what Flannery O’Connor calls “the mystery of personality.” (Arguments with the World, 178)
“These women just started talking in my head” she says. Voice again — or rather, voices, plural. And here’s the other part of the key, I believe, to the implicit question of what it was Bronwen discovered that fiction could do that poetry couldn’t: it could give us dialogue. And for my chatty friend Bronwen Wallace, as for the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bahktin, dialogue is not merely an aesthetic representation of characters interacting and ideas colliding but an ethical imperative — because truth itself is multivalent and can only be understood gradually, contextually, through the free exchange of ideas.
Forgive me for taking a little detour through literary theory, but quoting Bakhtin when discussing Bronwen Wallace is irresistible. Bakhtin, like Bronwen, came from a left wing political background. Having grown up with Stalin, he became disenchanted with the binary model of dialectics as a power struggle between classes or different points of view, because this view assumed a hierarchy of values and posited an ultimate truth to be reached at the end of the struggle. He argued that democracy in literature, as in life, could only arise from what he called polyphony: the sound of many different voices arguing.
This is exactly the model of relationship we find around the table in the title story of Bronwen’s only collection of fiction, People You’d Trust Your Life To, where four women have continued their monthly dinners for many years. The women actually have very little in common except what they’ve shared, but what they share, besides continuity, is joy and affection, and a safe place to talk about things. Their group seems rather arbitrary and ,precisely because of that arbitrariness, provides a spectacular definition of the “trust” mentioned in the story’s title. After all, it’s easy to be supportive of those who are like you, but more difficult when you are Gail the single mother fleeing abuse, and Nina the pampered doctor’s wife, and Selena, the blue-haired lesbian artist.
Bakhtin found the possibility for this kind of tolerance best embodied in novels because the novelist has much less control over her characters than other writers and therefore is less of a dictator. Indeed, if she has too fixed a world view or “message” and manipulates her characters too clearly in order to express it, the novel will not be convincing. He argued that the evolution of the novel was both representative of a change in social awareness from a closed authoritarian society to a more open and skeptical one, and also a model of such change for other literary genres. He even spoke of the lyric poem becoming “novelized” as it accommodated different voices, self-parody, and layers of reality. To quote directly:
In many respects the novel has anticipated, and continues to anticipate, the future development of literature as a whole. In the process of becoming the dominant genre, the novel sparks the renovation of all other genres, it infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness. It draws them ineluctably into its orbit precisely because this orbit coincides with the basic direction of the development of literature as a whole (The Dialogic Imagination, 7).
Now, being a poet myself, I disagree with him to some extent — I think that good poems have always had the ability to be paradoxical and hold different ideas in tension. (Think, for example of Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”, with their tremendous intellectual pressure of faith and doubt in collision with each other, or, just to stick with sonnets, how about Shakespeare’s, with their dizzying combination of lust, disgust, and the worship of beauty?) But I do agree that such complexity is something that good poetry and fiction have in common, and that poets who are interested in exploring it further may find themselves drawn to writing fiction as well because of the way it allows them to embody this polyphony, this conflict of ideas and voices, in real three-dimensional characters who interact with, and influence, each other.
Trying to understand the difference between poetry and fiction in her own essay, Bronwen quotes John Berger, who argues that:
Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat Everything moves toward the end, when the outcome will be known.
Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful.They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
Poems are nearer to prayers than to stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to. It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge. (Arguments, 177)
Bronwen liked this analysis so much that she used the phrase “Nearer to prayers than stories” as the title for the concluding section of The Stubborn Particulars of Grace, which includes wonderful poems like “Koko” and “Things,” poems that confront the question of how we embody experience in language. And though she admits to unease with Berger’s macho battlefield analogy, she acknowledges the truth that unlike poems, most stories end in victory or defeat — the “agon” or conflict noted by Aristotle, the very first literary critic whose writings have been preserved, and considered by him the chief necessity of plot.
Perhaps this is yet another clue as to what lured her, despite her initial skepticism, into writing fiction: plot, the unfolding of action through time, is what stories can present significantly better than poems, even narrative poems, because they have much more space to do so. In fiction as in physics, space and time are one continuum. A poem can, at best, recount the highlights of a story or sum it up, in order to examine those events, themes or images that resonate most for the speaker. But fiction can enact the whole sequence of events, examine cause and effect, explore the minds and actions and speech of all the participants, and this, of course, is its great appeal to anyone as curious about people as Bronwen Wallace was.The felt reality of lives lived through time affecting each other, of different people with different histories, agendas, feelings, and needs accommodating each other, is something that fiction can achieve more easily than poetry.
So although she insists that she did not turn to writing stories because they were the next logical step after her narrative poems, I believe that she did. She heard too many voices to fit them all into a single poem or even a long poetic sequence; she needed space and time to develop their implications and explore them fully without the sense of formal constraint that is the challenge and glory of poetry and the lack of which makes fiction more capacious and flexible but often less satisfying to write. And now I should admit that I’m speaking from personal experience. But what I’ve learned from writing both poetry and fiction is that they are not opposites; each genre has the same ingredients. Sound and sense and rhythm. Place and time and people. Ideas and images. The difference is really just one of proportion.
Hence the title of this essay, “Angels, not Polarities,” taken from another of Bronwen’s epigraphs, epigraphs which were signposts to her own thinking, as well as a way of bringing even more voices into the conversation. This particular epigraph introduced her only book of short stories, People You’d Trust Your Life To, and therefore should be a reliable guide to how she wanted us to understand her project in writing them. It comes from a poem by Adrienne Rich called “Integrity” and reads as follows: “Anger and tenderness: my selves. / And now I can believe they breathe in me/ as angels, not polarities.”
There’s an oblique link to the epigraph in the book itself at the end of a story called “An Easy Life,” which goes back and forth between two characters: a guidance counselor, and a girl who is trying to decide whether to break up with her boyfriend and go to college instead of getting pregnant while still a teenager like her both her alcoholic mother and her alcoholic grandmother did before her. The older woman is reflecting on her own life while cleaning house and listening to music when suddenly she recalls the feeling of the younger girl’s fingers on her face, applying makeup a little too roughly: “Anger and tenderness. From nowhere, Marion feels the tears start. On the Walkman Patsy Cline is singing those songs that someone sings when they’ve been ditched, trying to cram a lifetime of pain into every note” (People, 123).
Anger and tenderness are “angels, not polarities” because the same fingers convey the double message at the same time. Because we are all full of contradictions, and any literature faithful to our complex human experience, whether it is poetry or fiction, must be able to encompass all our contradictory feelings, and all the many voices that articulate our world.
I started out with different theories, more akin to those John Berger suggests in the piece Bron herself quotes: that poems are timeless and fiction time-bound, that poems are about language and fiction about plot, or as she put it herself in a brief suggestive comment in an interview with Janice Williamson, that poems are not about what happens but about what is discovered. (Arguments, 210) But a simple question from a student at Queen’s last month when I was doing my own reading here challenged my thinking. He asked me what the difference was for me between writing prose and writing poetry and I found myself replying, quite unexpectedly, that it was dialogue, because both prose and poetry are otherwise primarily textual. When I returned to Bronwen Wallace’s work after that insight I saw how hard she had tried not to appear textual, to always give the illusion of a speaking voice. And suddenly I began hearing her voice very clearly in my head, as I had not done for some time, and whether it was an auditory hallucination or a ghostly visitation I don’t know, but I welcomed it. And then after rereading her stories, and writing the first draft of this paper, I went back to Arguments with the World and found her saying this, the February before she died: “I feel very strongly that my voice is only one voice in a huge community. It’s very important to remember that this community includes the dead as well as the living.”(Arguments, 211)
I am very glad that our conversation with Bronwen Wallace continues.
– copyright Susan Glickman, 2010