'When We talk of narrative poetry today,' James Fenton asks in the September issue of Poetry Review, 'are we referring to the kind of story in which, you want to know what happens next? I think not. I think that kind of story is deliberately excluded from consideration.' It's a well-timed question, with Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion's advocacy of narrative in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry being so widely and respectfully read, and well-directed too, since it clarifies what's confused in the Penguin introduction by the editors' simultaneous recommendation of Post-Modernist 'secrecy' and the Keatsian 'long poem'. The kind of story which flows from A to Z is clearly not what young poets have in mind when they speak of 'a renewed interest in narrative'. Endymion is not the 'Polar Star' of their poetry, though Fenton's minor masterpiece 'A Vacant Possession' may, and conceivably should, be what they strive to match. Reflexive, aleatory and cornucopian, the New Narrative deploys its fragmented and ramifying fictions to image the unpredictability of life, and its continuous shadowing by What Might Be. It seems, in short, no accident that Paul Muldoon - whose brilliant new book Quoof gives support to most of the claims being made for 'narrative poetry today' - should have told John Haffenden in an interview for Viewpoints that he found Robert Frost's fable of imagined unlived lives, 'The Road Not Taken', exemplary.
LRB 16 February 1984 | PDF Download