- Narrative Poetry and Narrative Medicine Rounds1
Sharon Olds: Thank you so much. For those generous welcoming words, for your invitation. I thought that we could have a conversation as well as a reading and a bit of description. So I’m going to stop a few times and ask if there’s anything that you’d like to talk about that’s come up because of something that I’ve read.
I think it would be a cool idea for you to have a poet here who is also a scholar, who would be able to talk about the history of the narrative in poetry. What I would have liked to be able to do is read examples, over time, as the element of narrative in poetry has changed. If and when that person comes here, I want to come and hear that person speak! I’ll start with this poem.
Diagnosis By the time I was six months old, she knew something was wrong with me. I got looks on my face she had not seen on any child in the family, or the extended family, or the neighborhood. My mother took me in to the pediatrician with the kind hands, a doctor with a name like a suit size for a wheel: Hub Long. My mom did not tell him what she thought in truth, that I was Possessed. It was just these strange looks on my face— he held me, and conversed with me, chatting as one does with a baby, and my mother said, She’s doing it now! Look! She’s doing it now! and the doctor said, What your daughter has is called a sense of humor. Ohhh, she said, and took me [End Page 227] back to the house where that sense would be tested and found to be incurable.
And I’ll read this one.
Everything Most of us are never conceived. Many of us are never born— we live in a private ocean for hours, weeks, with our extra or missing limbs, or holding our poor second head, growing from our chest, in our arms. And many of us, sea-fruit on its stem, dreaming kelp and whelk, are culled in our early months. And some who are born live only for minutes, others for two, or for three, summers, or four, and when they go, everything goes—the earth, the firmament— and love stays, where nothing is, and seeks.
I know I would never have written that poem if my little godson had not died when he was six and a half; he had been very sick since he was born. It was maybe sixteen years after that that this poem came to me. Unusual for me to think I can speak for other people: “many of us are never conceived.” I’m happy to have that, that inclusiveness in the poem. Though we know how hard it is to speak for anyone, even ourselves, with any accuracy.
I’ve been thinking—because I was going to be here with you—what is this “narrative poetry”? What is it to be a narrative poet, a narrative autobiographical poet? Is it narcissism? Is it exhibitionism? Is it the wish to describe from within what it is like to perceive this earth and this life? Is it the wish to describe what it’s like as, in my case, a woman? And I decided yes, it’s those four mostly.
Life with Sick Kids One child coughs once and is sick for eight weeks, then the other child coughs so hard he nearly vomits, three weeks, and then stops and then the first child coughs a first cough, and then the other delicately and dryly begins to cough, [End Page 228] illness taking them up and shaking them as kids shake boxes at Christmas. So in bed on the third day of the blood when it would be almost safe to use nothing, just a tiny door left open for a resourceful child, I cannot see or feel or smell you, I keep thinking I hear the unconceived one cough a little introductory cough.[Quiet Laughter]