There. I said it. It’s been a long time coming, this confession. I guess some of you already knew it, but I have to announce it to the world.
Reasonably recently, I released a book called Virtue’s End, a 70,000 word epic poem written in iambic, taking influence from sources as diverse as Spenser’s 16th Century fantasy masterpiece The Faerie Queene, and T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Unlike the latter of these two sources, however, the poem is grounded in a story with lots of action, drive, even one or two twists, alongside the usual poetic fare of imagery, symbolism, and synaesthesia. I did this because, frankly, I had to. I experienced a mystical epiphany on a trip to Glastonbury, and the outcome of this experience was a transmission—what I believe might well have been a direct channeling of something beyond. I couldn’t not write the book. In many ways, the book was writing me.
But once this outpouring was over, I think a part of me believed I would go back to writing novels like a good little modern author. I’ve never exactly been a “commercial” writer. I write weird stuff for weird people who like multiverses and serial killers who go on fantasy adventures—oh, and telepathic crabs. But, obviously fantasy is a big genre and lots of people read it.
Less so for poetry.
But the thing is, the novels weren’t flowing like they used to. I had this block. Instead of prose, I wanted to write poetry, LOTS more of it. Dissenting voices in my head kept telling me that was dumb. I should stick to more commercial stuff. Hell, I should start writing thrillers and romances and really break into the big leagues…
But the Muse has to be respected, and the Muse cannot be compelled. Something was, and still is, telling me to write poetry.
And now I really am not certain I’m going to go back to novels…
There are many reasons, but perhaps the main one is I am falling in love with narrative poetry.
I love how it can cut to the heart of the matter. One is not burdened with describing every little detail, or making a scene feel grounded by drilling down to the boring mechanics and logistics.
In narrative poetry, you excavate the very core of the story. Who is saying what to whom? Who is feeling what? And what are we looking at? There’s no need for the fluff that pads so much of modern narrative—the epaulettes on a soldier’s pauldron or the exact mechanics of zero-g space-travel—because you’re driving to the centre of meaning, or as close as you can come without going mad. Faery tales and myths do the same thing. The greatest stories in the Bible and other spiritual texts are sometimes merely a few paragraphs of text, sometimes only a few lines.
And deeper than this, the condensed and distilled form of poetry means that the language—at least in good poetry—becomes loaded with associations, double or triple meanings, and symbolic power. Through this mechanism poetry reaches the Jungian realm of archetype.
It is also possible to blend and marry concepts that in a “realistic” prose novel simply cannot be married, because the laws of so-called reality restrain them. Even full-on bizarro novels must make their worlds obey the confines of linear reality, although the best of them at least comment on this fact, such as Alistair Rennie’s epic BleakWarrior.
But in poetry, all bets are off. So long as the feeling and the sense rings true and is comprehensible, then it works. Poems are like dreams in this respect. Upon emerging from their grasp, we recognise their weirdness, but in the throes of deep REM, we care not.
Environments and actors within these environments can be elided subtly by the choice placement of words. Images can ambiguously refer to multiple people or places. For a non-dualist, poetry is a paradise of synergy, a Hieros Gamos that allows us to synthesise wronger and wronged, righter and condemned, flame and burning spirit.
I think poetry, therefore, provides a new frontier for writers and readers alike. Especially poetry that uses form. For form creates beauty. And on the subject of "beauty", poetry is often considered snobby and intellectual, but the irony is that poetry—able to access the direct feeling state—is the exact opposite of intellectual. In many ways, it is pure feeling.
It is no surprise to me that some of my favourite books over the last two years have been narrative poems. The first of these is my father’s epic poem, HellWard, a masterful homage to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In this epic, my father describes his battle with cancer in Bournemouth Royal Hospital, which leads to a near death experience, and a descent into hell worthy of The Inferno.
A more playful—but still epic—narrative poem can be found in Andrew Benson Brown’s Legends of Liberty Vol. 1, which rewrites American history whilst, using fiendishly inventive language and imagery, making a satirical commentary on our present day.
Lastly, I had the pleasure to read Michael Pietrack’s upcoming fable, Legacy. This story seems like it’s written for children, but the honest truth is adults will have a lot to learn from it too, and the storytelling and imagination on display here are simply magnificent.
What are your favourite narrative poems? They can be as obvious as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or something completely obscure. Let me know!