It has often puzzled me that the things poets and fiction writers talk about seem to differ quite a bit. Poets spend a lot of time talking about images and metaphors while fiction writers focus on character and structure. Yet for me, fiction and poetry aren’t really that different, and it’s just as useful to to think about something like structure in poetry as it is important to think about images in stories.
In any work of fiction (poetry or prose) I think that structure occurs on several levels. On one level there is the the relationship between the sequence of events as they happened (within the fictional world) and how the events are told in the narrative, eg whether the narrative is told fairy-tale like from first event to last event or like modern narratives where the order of events is jumbled up through the use of memory, flashbacks or simply by cutting up and rearranging the sequence, as in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
At another level is the work’s ‘structural grammar’. Often this structure is a narrative – i.e. a sequence of events. Sometimes the structural grammar is an argument. For example, Keith Douglas’s poem ‘Time Eating’ is structured as an argument, with a premise – time is like an animal that eats things but can then remake them – and a refutation, that being able to remake things in general (new flowers appear next year after the old ones have died down) doesn’t mean time can remake a specific instance of something (creating new people in general doesn’t remake any one individual who others, in this case the poet, have loved).
Underlying this level of structure is the deepest level of structure, which is that of the processed narrative, in other words fiction concerns sequences of events that the writer has made sense of. This is not to say that the writer has consciously made sense of them, the process of writing and the writing itself are two different things. It is that the finished piece is structured in a way that reflects a meaning or interpretation of the narrative, and this is what determines the way in which the story is presented.
So underlying Douglas’s Time Eating is a story of loss and grief, and the poem in argument form is telling this story in a meaningful way, that the poet is inconsolable because the loved one cannot be replaced. In contrast Ted Hughe’s poem View of a Pig appears to present a straightforward narrative, but on reflection one can see how the narrative has been structured in a way that makes sense of the poet’s encounter with the dead animal.
The sequence of events the poem narrates is this: when the poet was young he played a game at a fair when you had to catch a piglet and at this time, or shortly afterwards, the poet was bitten by a pig, which was very painful. Years later the poet comes across the body of a dead pig in a barrow and he examines it. The people with the pig tell the poet that they are going to skin it by pouring boiling water over it.
The poet’s interpretation of this series of events is something like, ‘isn’t it strange that living creatures such as pigs and humans, can be alive and be so full of life, but then be dead and be like inanimate objects as if they never were alive, and what does that tells us about the nature of life within the universe and the existence of anything beyond the matter-of-fact day-to-day life we see around us’.
The narrative is then structured to explore and illustrate this interpretation.The opening is very simple, ‘The pig lay on a barrow dead’, but represents a choice from among a number of possible openings. Hughes could, for instance, have started with the earliest event in the narrative (trying to catch a pig at a fair), or he could have described the circumstances of coming upon the pig in the barrow, where he was going to and why, or he could have described the people with the pig. But those openings wouldn’t have been as effective in supporting the interpretation that the poem is presenting. The opening he chose gets to the heart of the issue straight away.
The narrative then proceeds through a series of linked ideas, what the pig looked liked and how it made Hughes feel, what he did (he thumped it), what that made him think. Then he contrasts the lifeless animal with what it must have been like when it was alive by recounting the incident of trying to catch a pig at a fair and the fact that pigs have surprisingly strong bites. The poem finishes with Hughes reflecting on the dead pig and saying what was going to happen to it, with the final powerful image summing up the ‘objectness’ of the animal through the action (it was going to have boiled water poured on it, which it wouldn’t feel because it was dead) and through the comparison of it to a stone step, stone being as un-life-like as something can be (cold, hard, dense), and its shape (an oblong) being very object-like, but also paradoxically bearing a similarity to the shape of a pig.
As I said earlier, this does not necessarily describe how Hughes wrote the poem. He didn’t necessarily think about his interpretation of the story and then consciously decide how to illustrate that interpretation. He may instead have set down some ideas and images and gone about editing it all until it ‘felt right’. But I would argue that it felt right because the arrangement illustrated a strong underlying interpretation and as readers we feel this sense of coherence even before we can consciously articulate it.
Writing exercise: This exercise won’t necessarily end up producing a good piece of writing, but I think the process will help your writing brain start to think in the right kind of way, which may help other bits of writing. The exercise is to think of an incident or story idea and to write down in a rough way what it means to you, why you think it is interesting and important. In other words, your interpretation of the incident. Then try and plan a poem or story that’s aimed at illustrating that interpretation. Think about how you’d want to build up the argument, and then what images or elements of narrative would be best at illustrating each element of the argument. Finally, try and link those images and elements of narrative in a coherent whole, with a beginning, middle and end.