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Veiling the Narrative

Stories are one of the ways we have to make sense of the world.  I’m interested not just in telling stories with poetry, but also how we tell stories, what happens in the act of telling a story in a poem.  There are many different ways of doing this – using different viewpoints, employing repetition or fragmentation to name a few.

Have a look (and a listen) at Dannie Abse’s poem In the Theatre  over at The Poetry Archive.  This seemingly straightforward poem relates a disturbing and haunting story.  It is also not as simple and straightforward as it first appears.

First of all, this is not a first-hand narrative.  According to the poet’s own introduction, this is a story he was told by his brother, which he later wrote down and crafted into a poem.  The voice of the poem though, sounds as if the speaker was actually there.  It feels like a first-hand experience, although the introduction makes it clear that it isn’t.  Secondly, the poet wants us to know that this is a ‘true incident’.  It certainly feels true to me when I read it, but there are always problems around truth.  Each person that features in this poem will have their own version of the truth – and like a game of Chinese Whispers – truth can be changed, exaggerated or diminished in the re-telling.

When we tell a story that someone else has told us, there will always be a gap between truth and the telling, between the story and real life.  When we choose to transform somebody’s story into poetry, it raises important questions about responsibility and truth, about who gets to speak out and who is silenced.  It forces us to consider what our intent is behind telling this story, and who we are telling it for.  These are essential and important questions that poetry can grapple with.

Putting these larger questions aside for now, I’d like you to think of a story that someone else has told you that has stayed with you.  Maybe you have carried this story with you for years, and you don’t even know why you remembered it.  Maybe it is a family story that has been passed down from generation to generation.  It could be a story a stranger told you on a bus, or a story a friend told you that you’ve never forgotten.  Write a poem with this story at the heart of it, but make sure that you are clear in the poem that this is not your story – so no first-person narratives!

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