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  • Narrative in Poetry:A Problem of Narrative Theory
  • Bruce Heiden (bio)

In “Beginning to Think about Narrative in Poetry” Brian McHale has proposed correcting contemporary narrative theory’s near-silence about poetry with a research program aimed at a comprehensive theory of poetic narrative. Accepting narratology’s theoretical understanding of “narrativity” as his starting point, and conceptualizing “narrative in poetry” as a combination of pure narrativity (narrative-without-poetry) and pure “poeticity” (poetry-without-narrative), McHale seeks out a theory of “poeticity” to complement “narrativity,” and finds it in Rachel DuPlessis’s idea that the constitutively dominant feature of poetry is “segmentivity”: “[Poetry] is the kind of writing that is articulated in sequenced, gapped lines and whose meanings are created by occurring in bounded units … operating in relation to … pause or silence” (DuPlessis 51; McHale 14–15). Segmentivity stands in sharp contrast to the progressive sequencing that is supposedly the dominant feature of narrative, and McHale proposes that when poetry and narrative combine in “narrative in poetry,” meaning is generated by the need to bridge the interruptions of narrative continuity imposed by poetic form (McHale 16–18). [End Page 269]

McHale’s ambitious paradigm deserves skeptical examination. In proposing “segmentivity” as the dominant feature of poetry, McHale identifies poetry with verse, and like DuPlessis he derives the characteristics of verse from its appearance on the printed page. A valid theory of poetry would have to avoid unwarranted identifications of poetry with either verse or its typographical representation. Of course investigations of poetry must account for the contribution of verse; but the concept of “segmentivity” is unhelpful, because (as can easily be demonstrated) verse-measures are not interruptions and they typically reinforce syntax. The axiom that “narrative” and “poetry” are distinct essences that produce narrative poetry by combination brings deeper problems into view. Narrative poetry is a very old and widespread phenomenon that until recently was never thought to be a compound of alien elements. The strange idea of “narrative-in-poetry” derives from narratology, which defines its own program by identifying “narrative” as a distinct and coherent entity. It is precisely the conceptualization of narrative-without-poetry that marginalizes narrative poetry and invites conceptualization of poetry as a pure form analogous to narrative. But since narrative poetry has existed since time immemorial—i.e., the class of actual narratives has always included narrative poetry—the abstraction of narrative-without-poetry cannot be typical. Narratology’s neglect of narrative poetry is symptomatic of a flaw in its account of narrative, one more likely aggravated than remedied by extending the same theory’s scope.

An approach to poetry through the lens of narratology confronts an array of misconceptions that block and distort one’s view of poetry and of narrative as well. The root of these misconceptions is the fundamental premise that narrative is a linguistic object wholly open to empirical analysis and scientific generalization.

Linguistics, Narratology, Fiction

Narratology originated as an adaptation of structural linguistics, an empirical science that analyzes the phenomenon of language in two dimensions, the phonic material and the structural relationships that putatively account for meaning. Although this paradigm has clarified certain features of the linguistic medium, as a comprehensive explanation of language it is seriously misleading, because it neglects the vast amount and complexity of extemporaneous mental work that human beings perform whenever they actually put language to use (Harris). For this reason a valid understanding of language cannot be based on the linguistic medium, i.e., on the scanty and impersonal system of verbal signifiers. Its primary object would have to be the extemporaneous and personal cognitive work that makes so much out of so little. The axiom of descriptive and structural linguistics that meaning is a function of the language medium itself effectively occludes the vast, indispensable, and decisive role of human agency.

In classical narratology the structural analysis of sentence-syntax is extended to the multi-sentence entity of narrative. Narratology adapts the distinction between semantic content and linguistic form by conceptualizing “narrative” as a compound [End Page 270] of two elements: (1) primary material, consisting of incidents, and (2) a verbal message (text) that re-presents the incidents in a meaningfully organized sequence...