Monday, November 07, 2005

Lyric vs. narrative

The lyric mode, which is most associated with poetry, as we associate the narrative mode with fiction, can occur in any genre. Poems, plays, essays, stories, employ a variety of modes other than what might be thought of as their signature mode -- in other words, poetry isn't always in a lyric mode, or fiction in a narrative mode, nonfiction in an expository mode. You can define the lyric by comparing it to the narrative. The narrative mode is linear, chronological, and because of chronology -- the old first this happened, then that happened -- it implies cause and effect. The lyrical, by contrast, is the mode of dreams: associative both in terms of image and sound, so that we can get from one idea to another via assonance, alliteration, rhyme. Time in the lyric is subjective: you can speed it up, slow-mo it, flash forward. Often in stories what is called the epiphany is actually a switch from the narrative to the lyric mode. Joyce's "The Dead" offers a classic example of this: the story is in the narrative and dramatic mode for most of its length, but at the very end, closure involves a leap into the lyric complete with images of falling snow and the f-sounds Joyce employs.

[from an interview with Stuart Dybek by Jeanie Chung, AWP Chronicle, Oct/Nov 2005]

This was in response to a question about "lyric fiction," but I think it's a decent definition of "lyric" and "narrative" in general, and I like what he says about switching from one mode to the other. Since M. writes some fiction as well as poetry, I think this might be a particularly useful discussion for her -- and for me, too (ooh, selfish tutor, talking about stuff that's useful to me *grin*). I also like that he parallels "assonance, alliteration, rhyme"-- and the associative in general -- in the lyric with chronology in the narrative, as ways of getting from one place to another. That just kind of makes a little light bulb go on for me. Even though it's pretty basic stuff, I hadn't seen it quite this clearly before.

8 comments:

Robert said...

Hey, I was going to blog on that exact same quote from the Dybek interview but you beat me to it! I love his statement that "Often in stories what is called the epiphany is actually a switch from the narrative to the lyric mode."

Robert said...

P.S. One reason I love it is because it gets beyond the notion that an "epiphany" is just some sort of shallow inspirational insight where you see autumn leaves and realize that life is short.

Diane K. Martin said...

Right, it's not a new thought, it's a different way of seeing. Which is why it's hard to translate or paraphrase though English teachers are found of doing so--or used to be.

My word verification here looks like Welsh...

Anne said...

Robert, great minds think alike, I guess. :) I was struck by the comment about epiphany, too -- I seldom write fiction, so hadn't really thought about the mechanics of how one goes about writing that kind of thing. But more than that, I think what Dybek is doing here is *exactly* what we mean when we talk about "reading as a writer" -- looking at the architecture, the physical construction of a piece of writing -- and how what you're writing about is inextricably bound with *how* you write about it. Again, nothing new here, nothing you don't get in your basic Creative Writing 101 class -- but I'm finding it useful to revisit basic stuff now and then.

I also (so sue me) never thought of moving back and forth between narrative and lyric before. I wonder if there are any well-known poems that do this? Hmmm.

Diane K. Martin said...

Hmm. I feel like I'm kinda repeating myself, because the topic over in our blog is similar... or maybe it's my head that says so. But anyway, T.S. Eliot moves back and forth from lyric to narrative in both The Wasteland and Four Quartets.

BTW, Stuart Dybek is great. At Napa one year (he was there for fiction of course) during his reading he started with a poem and segued right into his story. It was seamless.

Anne said...

Diane, thank you-- Eliot, of course! I will have to go back and reread him. (I'm beginning to have some ideas about the loooong poem I'm working on, which is largely narrative but, I think, needs to break into the lyric here and there.)

I envy people who can write both poetry & fiction well (I've written maybe two short stories I've been happy with, ever). Seems like writers are pushed into one or the other, and I think that's unfortunate. That's another rant for another time, though.

Lyle Daggett said...

A lot of the early English and Scottish ballads handle narrative in a interesting way, and -- also -- seem to move easily between lyric and narrative, or do both at once.

They seem to do it by highlighting the points of greatest tension in the narrative (skipping the "dull" parts, the explanatory stuff). At least that's how it seems to me.

Another interesting example is the "Gypsy Ballads" of Lorca, though it's complicated by having to find a good translation. The Lorca Gypsy Ballads move by a series of rich resonant images, one after another, telling a story by setting scenes.

The best Lorca translations I've seen were done by Langston Hughes -- it will take some work to track them down. (I realize I'm talking to a librarian here.) The translation I like best that is readily available is still the Selected Poems published by New Directions originally back in the '50's (the poems translated by a variety of translators), edited by Donald Allen and Francisco Garcia Lorca (poet Federico's brother).

Robert said...

I love Lorca's gypsy ballads. They were some of the first poems I read that got me to love poetry, as a college student fulfilling a language requirement in a class that luckily had a teacher who had a thing for Lorca. I don't remember what translations we read. Maybe none, as the assignment was to translate the poems ourselves. Fortunately my own efforts have not survived.