Storytelling line by line

‘Flash fiction’ has become a popular label for very brief written stories. Sometimes these have a compressed intensity that makes them indistinguishable from ‘prose poems.’ Anyhow, it’s generally assumed that their proper medium is prose. But what might flash fiction look like in verse form, where the line-breaks can create rhythmic patterns and nuances of emphasis? I have an example in mind – but first, let me put it in context.

In modern times the most popular vehicle for telling tales (as distinct from performing them on stage or screen) has been prose fiction. So we tend to think of novels or short stories, or short-short flash fiction, as the most natural ways to recount a story in words. Yet those prose literary genres are quite recent inventions. The oldest narrative forms are shaped by poetic rhythms: they are folk ballads and heroic epics.

Epic poetry goes far back into oral traditions that derive ultimately from prehistoric cultural practices. Bards chanted stories whose meaning emerged in the context of myth and ritual.

Ballads, too, were transmitted for centuries before printed versions appeared. The best-known published collections of traditional ballads in English are by Bishop Percy in the 18th century and Francis Child in the 19th. By then, Romantic poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats were inventing ballads that imitated the traditional forms, with a strong metrical beat and rhyming structure, while Australia produced anonymous bush ballads such as ‘The Wild Colonial Boy,’ emulated by poets like Banjo Paterson (e.g. ‘How Gilbert Died’).

But a different kind of narrative poetry emerged a couple of centuries ago with Wordsworth’s autobiographical work ‘The Prelude.’ Although it’s a very long composition, it contains numerous passages that can stand on their own as accounts of formative childhood experiences – ‘spots of time,’ he called them: moment of insight, epiphanies, traumatic episodes.

A recently published poem of mine is thematically similar to those Wordsworthian ‘spots of time,’ though I haven’t adopted his 1st-person point of view; the experiences undergone by the boy in this poem may have parallels within my own childhood but a 3rd-person point of view shifts the focus away from the purely personal. Nor have I reproduced Wordsworth’s ‘blank verse’ iambic pentameter. My three-line stanza form is loosely based on the traditional ‘terza rima,’ but with a less regular metrical beat and rhyming pattern: it uses half-rhymes and assonance, deployed in various combinations instead of a formal interlocking chain.

My poem, ‘Going Under,’ appears in the latest issue of StylusLit, a bi-annual online journal, where it’s in good company. You can access it here.


6 thoughts on “Storytelling line by line

  1. Hi Ian
    I really liked the poem ‘Going Under’. The best writing seems to be able to use the smallest details of the everyday to open a window onto something that has a larger relevance. This one is particularly timely given the frightening politics of bullying and intolerance that we are witnessing in too many places around the world at the moment. There seems to be something about the freedom and discipline of the poetic form that facilitates deep contemplation of personal as political. Thank you for sharing the link.

  2. Thank you, Iris. I’m so glad that the poem appeals to you – and that, in particular, it suggests something beyond the merely personal. Using everyday details as a window onto larger issues is something you do well in your novel Elsewhere in Success. I hope your writing continues to thrive.

  3. I had a nasty swimming instructor when I was little, too. I can’t smell a chlorinated indoor swimming pool without remembering it. It was like the stench of death, for a while.

    Yes, I like this poem. Brutal practices have a way of cropping in history, don’t they? And they’re often perpetrated in the name of kindness. Or at least that’s how they’re supposedly justified. Thanks for sharing. And thanks also for alerting me to Stylus. I’d not heard of them before. Looks very interesting.

  4. Perhaps many writers have had a close early encounter with some kind of drowning? (At least a metaphorical submersion?) It’s certainly a recurrent literary motif. There’s the ‘Death by Water’ section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the drowned man episode in Wordsworth’s Prelude, Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving But Drowning,’ and so on… And lots of poets have perished that way – Hart Crane, P.B. Shelley… Hmmm

  5. Thanks Ian. Not sure about thriving, but I continue to write. I’m working on short stories at the moment.

    It was good to get back to reading thought-provoking poetry, and like Glen, I was happy to be introduced to Stylus.

    Was that you I saw at FAC a few weeks ago? I couldn’t be sure (blind as a bat:) Apologies for not saying hello, if so.

  6. Thanks again, Iris. I look forward to reading your short stories when they’re in circulation. The ss form has always interested me. You could have seen me at FAC; I’ve been there a couple of times in recent months – for a talk by Amanda Curtin about her new book, and for some research on the layout of rooms in the building’s days as an Asylum (for a novel I’ve just finished). Sorry if I failed to see you there.

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