- Unremembered Plots:Catachresis and Narrativity in Lucille Clifton’s “why some people be mad at me sometimes” and Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”
Introduction: The Substitution View of Memory
“There is this difference between a story and a poem,” Shelley writes in “A Defense of Poetry”: “a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect.” But a poem is “the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature” (485). Poetry, in other words, is a purer form of art than narrative because it abjures natural time. Poetry distills and amplifies what it represents, even as it elevates it to the stillness of the eternal.
Shelley’s definition, if not his hierarchy, accords closely with the contemporary operative distinction between narrative and poetry (or at least lyric). In a definition referenced by James Phelan to represent a consensus,1 Susan Stanford Friedman writes that while “Narrative is understood to be a mode that foregrounds a sequence [End Page 252] of events that move dynamically in space and time, Lyric is understood to be a mode that foregrounds a simultaneity, a cluster of feelings or ideas that projects a gestalt in stasis” (qtd. in Phelan 164). Like Shelley, Friedman distinguishes the two modes by their relationship to time. If narrative relies on the ability to piece together a set of continuous events that unfold in time, poetry, at least in the lyric mode, works by introducing breaks. As Brian McHale notes in “Beginning to Think about Narrative in Poetry,” the resistance to meaning is itself a part of poetry: “It is where meaning-making is interrupted or stalls out,” he writes, “where the text breaks off and a gap … opens up, that the reader’s meaning-making apparatus must gear up to bridge the gap and heal the breech” (16; emphasis original). “Segmentivity,” McHale argues, is the essential characteristic of poetry (14). What makes a poem a poem is that it incurs gaps.
But while Friedman and McHale speak as if narrative and lyric are on a spectrum, Shelley makes clear that he considers them antithetical in nature. For Shelley, the visionary experience in poetry signifies because it is disruptive. In Romantic Vision and the Novel, Jay Clayton contrasts Shelley’s account of the intersection of the visionary moment and narrative with Wordsworth’s account. While in The Prelude visionary moments represent momentary breaks in the action, after which “the narrative is resumed on a ‘higher’ level,” in Shelley the visionary moment completes or supplants the narrative: “Shelley does not envision a perfect balance between self and other so much as a loss of both” (19). For Shelley, the “gap” that McHale describes is not “healed,” but rather constitutes the effect and meaning of the poem.
The intent of this essay is to explore the intersection of story and the lyric mode, and so in rough terms the intersection of narrative and poetry, as disruption. In particular, I want to look at an instance where the story aspect of narrative is very powerfully present as an issue in the poems themselves. For examples I will use two poems by African American writers, Lucille Clifton’s “why some people be mad at me sometimes” (1987), and Countee Cullen’s “Heritage” (1925). Both of these poems hinge on questions of memory and how effectively memory can be used to define the self. On the one hand, Clifton’s poem seems to suggest that memory is a true story that needs to be recovered intact; on the other hand, in Cullen’s poem memory is, inevitably, a recreation. As I will suggest later, however, the gulf between the approaches of the two poems is not as wide as might initially appear.
Clifton’s “why some people be mad at me sometimes,” to start with, insists on a distinction between “their” memories and “mine.” The poem reads,
they ask me to rememberbut they want me to remembertheir memoriesand I keep on rememberingmine
The coercion and barely suppressed violence with which “they” press the speaker lend the poem an obvious political reading. The repetition of “they...