...as I try to figure out where I'm going with this Siena poem, I keep thinking of the fact that most of the famous long poems - whether verse dramas or narratives - are stories (or groups of stories). & since Don Quixote at least, poetry has faced a big rival in the novel.

Long narrative poems continued to be written through the 19th century. Thomas Hardy was maybe the last of that line, with his King Arthur verse novels (though there have always been a few verse epics & novels here & there - Archibald MacLeish wrote one, I think; Stephen Vincent Benet...). Frost wrote little verse short stories, and others imitated him.

In an essay over yonder I wrote about the theories of some of the Chicago Critics - in which they offer a sense of "form and content" almost diametrically opposed to the received 20th-cent. notions. With them, the verbal surface (the diction, style, figuration, verbal texture etc.) is, paradoxically, the content (the material out of which the poem is made). A poem's form is the complex intellectual-emotive gesture or shape which emerges from the combination of theme (argument) and plot. In this sense, an achieved poem's form is unique and inimitable.

What I'm thinking (tentatively) of doing with this Siena obsession is constructing a sort of altarpiece. Sienese pre-Renaissance art is well-known for multiple narrative perspectives. They will have a set of small pictures showing vignettes from a saint's life - or even cartoon-like action sequences, showing different stages in a single dramatic event. These little pictures will surround the large group image (Madonna & Child often involved); then there will be another whole set of images on the reverse side of the altar.

So the idea is to present a mosaic of lots of different small insights or perspectives, leading toward a larger, enfolding set of themes or design. What that design is I am not at liberty to expatiate on at this time.

The difficulty here is that this kind of long poem seems to lack narrative drive. Or it takes a heck of a long time to get the momentum going in that direction. This is an example of a problem with current poetry generally. It's like an art form which has had its top layer taken off (& shunted over to fiction). What poetry is left with is primarily anecdotes. Diaristic, essayistic responses to actual events in the real world. The similarity between much contemporary poetry and private journal-keeping - or journalism per se - is perhaps something poets tend to avoid thinking about. What myth-making and fiction used to do, was establish an imaginary surround - within which the elaborate thematic and allusive powers of the poet could flourish & play. I don't want to suggest that contemporary poets lack the wit and imagination to re-work the real world in very playful and effective ways... in fact, the opposite may be the case. Necessity is the mammy of invention : in the desert of the (un-fictional) real, poets have to play even harder.

What "Siena" might do for me (I fervently hope) is offer sort of a parallel, indirect version of that "imaginary surround" which a straightforward narrative plot provides for fiction.

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