Samuel Caleb Wee (Vancouver)
“Narrative v(erse)s. Poeticity? Rethinking the Threshold in Contemporary Narrative Theory”
This presentation was given as part of the "Beyond Narrative" conference on October 12, 2019.
Abstract: In 2009, Brian McHale observed that “contemporary narrative theory is almost silent about poetry”, despite the long tradition of narrative poetry throughout the Western canon. Even when narratologists such as Peter Huhn, Jens Kiefer, and James Phelan have acknowledged instances of narrative poetry, McHale insists that their analyses turn the poems into “honorary short stories” instead of accounting for the “poeticity [...] the differentia specifica” of poetry. In my paper, I intend to argue that the problem McHale diagnoses stems from an common assumption among narrative theorists that poeticity functions as an antonym to narrativity. For instance, Monika Fludernik positions narrativity and poeticity as mutually exclusive by marking the point where “narrativity can no longer be recuperated by any means” as the border where “the narrative genre merges with poetry.” (26) Similarly, despite rejecting Fludernik’s equation of human experientiality with narrativity, Alber also predicates his argument upon the notion that narrativity must be constructed through the marginalisation of poetry in his charge that her definition makes it “impossible to distinguish between narrative and lyrical texts” and allows “almost every poem [to qualify] as a narrative.” (69) One might thus observe that this prioritisation of poetry as a fundamentally anti-narrative signifier stems from the enduring persistence of the structuralist binary opposition as a fundamental organiser of thought in narrative theory. Against this trend, I propose that instead of reading poeticity and narrativity as two polar opposites along a spectrum, we reconceptualise them as two axes upon which literature might be iterated instead, with varying degrees of poeticity and narrativity present in any given text at any one time. I thus argue that this maneuver allows for experimental literary works to be read as both poetic and narrative, and close by demonstrating the implementation of such a hermeneutics of liminality upon poems by John Ashbery and Derek Mahon.