Memoir & the lyrical narrative

I have decided to devote two class periods to exploring the lyrical narrative with my students. The reason evolved from, not exactly a revelation, but a dawning awareness that this particular mode of poetry connects more easily with students than other modes.

Popular music, of course, sets the contextual stage here. American country music fills the nation’s highways and airwaves with lyrical narratives and modern-day ballads. The story-song appears in a wide range of musical genres from rock to rap, born from simple blues narratives and Appalachian ballads and from John Henry and Casey Jones to glam-rock “epic rock ballads,” new wave, Motown, British invasion (think “A Day in the Life”) and quirky indie lyrics–not to mention huge hits like “Lying Eyes” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” or oft-played 70s narrative songs like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” These tunes are all before my students’ time, but they have their own lyrical narrative popular songs; they “get it.”

Bruce Springsteen: lyricsThunder Road

Bruce Springsteen: lyrics
Thunder Road

Narrative lyrical poems hook readers who might not otherwise spend much time closely reading a poem because of those critically important pronouns “I” and “you” and because there’s a human impulse to stick with a story. We want to know how it ends; and we want to figure it out in our own subjective ways, to put the speaker/writer’s experience into our own (or vice versa) and interpret the narrative on our own terms. We also like to be a little surprised.


I’ve touched on the topic of the cognitive need for narrative in a previous post, and on Boyd’s story-telling impulse research (here), and now–in light of reading the lyrical narrative poem–I want to offer an excerpt from Oliver Sacks. In an excerpt from Speak, Memory, Sacks writes:

“There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected…Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves… Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable. We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity.”

How can we honestly interpret a poem without acknowledging immediately that our brains are highly subjective processing organs that inherently interpret and experience input differently? Our personal narratives, our memories and recollections, limit, expand upon, and influence our interpretations. That is why I insist that my students accept all “expert interpretations” of famous works with a grain of salt. Every human brain re-creates based upon subjective, unique processing; the fact need not keep us from admitting of rational thinking, but it must affect human interpretations of phenomena. Especially subjective phenomena such as art.

This is also the reason I warn my students not to assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet himself or herself. Poets invent, and they can invent personas. Furthermore, in their efforts to write truths–emotional truths, lasting truths–they may alter physical, actual, memory-based “truth.” In other words, maybe the story happened just that way. Or didn’t. Though “for the most part our memories are relatively stable and solid,” the paradox of art is that altering the facts can lead to deeper truths. Sometimes the facts seem altered from one perspective but not from another. Other times…well, I confess, I myself have changed some facts in poems in order to make the poem better. In such cases, craft supersedes the need for stony factuality. I guarantee I am not the only writer who employs this strategy.

Whose life is it anyway? And whose art? Sacks reminds us of the loosey-goosey aspects of recollection: “The neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman often speaks of perceiving as ‘creating,’ and remembering as ‘recreating’ or ‘recategorizing.’” Thus, the lyrical narrative is a form of memoir, created through individual perception and recreated through the process of memory itself. Which, all of us being human and therefore fallible or otherwise liable to err, and subconsciously quite able to lie to ourselves, means that the lyrical narrative could end up as mythical as the stories of Mount Olympus.

And just as compelling to generations of human listeners or readers.

A voyeur’s fascination that the reader may be witness to the human-talking-to-human in the framework of a storyline is a significant part of what engages audiences. This poem might be memoir! It may be true. It may be genuine experience, something to which I can relate. There’s emotional frisson, or thrilling curiosity, or the dread of knowing it will all end badly. But I must know; and I want to believe it might be true. Tell me sweet lies, oh troubadour!


*Note: the image above is not Bruce Springsteen’s handwriting. He prints. An example of his actual lyric drafts is here.

10 comments on “Memoir & the lyrical narrative

  1. What you’ve written here is, I think, an outstanding defense of the humanities in general. Art may not always have a scientific or measurable application, but that doesn’t mean its meaningless or pointless. It is, as you allude to here, a vital means for us to conceive of the abstract and subjective, which is where most of life exists.

    Very nice.


    • I’m a strong believer in the value of the arts. I love the sciences, but I would not love them so well if I hadn’t had such a strong background in all that is aesthetic, wild, inexplicable, associative, and essentially human.

      Thanks for your kind words!


  2. coffeehousejunkie says:

    Really enjoy this post on narrative poetry. Especially, admonishing students not to “assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet himself or herself.” For people who don’t know they like poetry, I try to introduce them to narrative, lyrical poems. I am interested in your thoughts on persona poems.


    • I love persona poems when they are done well, and I have written more than a few myself. Also, there are those poems that begin with me as the speaker but, through revision, get altered considerably–to the point where the speaker is more of a persona of myself (or someone like me) than personal. I’ve talked with several poets about this revised-self process, and I think it is actually fairly common. I’m trying to recall if I’ve read any essays about it, though. Maybe Daisy Fried addresses the idea in one or two of her blogs on Harriet (Poetry Foundation)?? If you can suggest a poetics essay about the melding of personal and persona, let me know.


      • coffeehousejunkie says:

        I know exactly what you mean. Presently, I’m digging into the craft and theory of poetics and trying to figure out the nature of “I” in a lyrical, narrative poem. Specifically, how the “I” references me, the author, in one poem, but the “I” may be a person or character I’m exploring (in first person) in another poem and how sometimes the reality of one mingles with the mythos of the other.

        Haven’t read Daisy Fried’s work. When I asked poets smarter and wiser than me, they suggested France Mayes. Specifically her book Discovery of Poetry. Another poet suggested Greg Orr’s essays in Poetry as Survival. One reads: “But that small word ‘I’ is like the narrow passage for sand in an hourglass: on the far side of it there is an opening up to the marvelous richness of consciousness.” A former professor of Virginia Tech advised me to read the work of Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg. Looks like I have a growing required reading list on the subject.

        A few years ago I read something in a literary journal by Li-Young Lee where he discussed the idea of “I” in a poem. But I can’t recall which journal it was published in.


  3. KM Huber says:

    Wonderful post, Ann, and again, your students are so lucky to have you.

    The voice in any of my fiction manuscripts always begins as some aspect of me but never stays, sometimes for craft reasons and other times because another persona emerges. My current manuscript is really challenging me in this regard so your post is quite timely and extremely helpful. Sometime ago, I also began working on a manuscript loosely labeled memoir, which now has a life of its own but its belief system feeds my fiction manuscript. It’s a new one for me.

    Thanks for another fine post.


    • Life’s got me a bit overwhelmed the past 2 weeks, Karen–but I wanted to reply. It fascinates me the many ways memory influences persona (how could it not?) and how there’s an interplay between fictional characters and the writer that is so much more than just roman a clef. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with roman a clef! But I think the aspect may be voice, rather than experience or personality traits or motivation or those things we can more easily ascribe to either influence or imagination. I’m working along this edge lately, too, as I mentioned.

      So, do you have two manuscripts going simultaneously? Or more than two? Or do you take up with one or the other as the spirit moves?


      • KM Huber says:

        Essentially, I am working on two manuscripts simultaneously, which is a new experience but to be frank, both manuscripts began as one that split rather abruptly for myriad reasons. Yet, to read them, one would not see the connection or at least I don’t.

        My working on them is rather precise, at least for me. In the mornings, it is the memoir, and in the afternoon, it is the novel, and it is no good reversing the order or skipping one or the other. I am really having a lot of fun with both but it is quite a workload. As a writer, my morning voice is critical and the afternoon voice allows me to ramble, which has always been true of me as a writer. Thanks for asking and for responding!



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