Turns in Narrative

The Emblem structure brings to my mind the idea of Genre in fiction writing — we tend to see genre for what it often is: writing within a set of constraints which can, if poorly used or misunderstood, severely limit the possibility and quality of a piece of writing. For example, a writer might hear the word “fantasy” and immediately imagine images from what famous authors have already accomplished – dwarves, elves, dragons – instead of seeing the genre for what it really, in my opinion, ought to  be – a removal of the limitations of reality from a narrative. But this is such a broad and almost infinitely vast concept that one automatically drifts to what others have already done with it.

In the same way, the Emblem structure, as a shift from observation to meditation, invites the gravitation toward philosophical or religious musings, when “meditation” or “reflection” are far less limiting terms. The turn in an Emblem poem need not include grandeur. Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” follows the Emblem structure without ever introducing the monumental absractions one might expect. She tells the poem in pure narrative description, like the best of short stories, relying solely on the details to explain to us what larger meaning is present – “He didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all.” She describes the event of catching the fish, then dips into lentghy and complex imagery to set not only the scene, but tell the story of the fish’s life before it found itself caught. The poem turns here, as the narrator sees “that from his lower lip–if you could call it a lip–grip, wet, and weaponlike, hung five old pieces of fish-line…with all their five big hooks grown firmly in his mouth.” After further exploration, the narrator “stared and stared,” another turn, as we come to understand something about how this person feels upon noticing these details. Following this is the one shift into abraction: “and victory filled up the little rented boat,” signaling a change in mood as the person makes a decision that reflects a significant amount of meditation, with the final line, “And I let the fish go.” In this way, the observation and meditation take place inside the mind of a character in the poem, and in such a way that we do not directly witness the reflection, but instead deduce it through the subsequent action. This exemplifies that the observation-meditation shift need not even be visible in the poem itself, and that such a turn is possible also through imagery and narrative, making the Emblem structure an option for poets that is more of an environment to work inside rather a strict rule about content.

3 Responses to “Turns in Narrative”

  1. I like your understanding of the emblem structure as “environment” rather than “rule,” as well as the likening of structure to genre. If we think of the structure as an environment within which to work, rather than a strict path to follow, structure can be a lucrative tool, limiting not what we say, or even really how we say it, but rather defining the bounds within which we deliver our content. I don’t feel pressured to explore lofty religious/philosophical ideas within these bounds at all for these reasons. There is something liberating about the emblem’s limitations, requiring us to shift perception in some way, but leaving us to determine the appropriate path, perhaps through imagery and narrative, as you suggest.

  2. stephroush Says:

    I agree with Billie about your comment on environment versus rule. It fits into other posts and the feeling that I “have” to follow this or that rule. Looking at the emblem as environment as you suggest connects to the possibilities that Michael Theune presents in the emblem chapter. Billie even suggests that “there is something liberating about the emblem’s limitations” which I also find refreshing. I would go on to say that even the pressure of the structure’s possibilities is liberating and I enjoy reevaluating objects/relationships in this form.

  3. “In this way, the observation and meditation take place inside the mind of a character in the poem, and in such a way that we do not directly witness the reflection, but instead deduce it through the subsequent action.”

    ^^This made me very curious. I had been thinking of emblemic turns in a stricter way, expecting them to be more overt, but I think as we have updated the sonnet, this is a great new way of understanding emblem structure.

    And in agreement with Billie and Steph, I thought the comparison of structure to an “environment” was spot-on. An environment is a landscape, with depth and things beyond our eyes, and a structure should be something that allows erratic (word choice?) movement within a poem. Who wants to follow a straight, predictable path?

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