English Narrative Poetry: A Babel of Voices.
It is impossible to disagree with Mark Currie who views humans as "narrative animals, as homo fabulans--the tellers and interpreters of narrative" (2). All performative acts of narrativization, prosaic or poetic, engaged by this particular species of homo fabulans are mediated through language which is never neutral or independent from the values embodied by the speaking subject. Narrative voice is thus more than a vehicle of mediation, and has a manipulating power and influence on the meanings derived from the symbolic universe interpreted, or authored in poststructuralist sense, by the reader.
Gorey's book, with the claim that poetry has remained a neglected genre in classical narratology, contributes to the extension of postclassical narratology which had long since moved beyond a generic focus on prose and begun to embrace diverse textual categories from cinematic narratives to painting. Central to Gorey's approach is her emphasis on focalization and focalizors, both of which are prone to the manipulation of voice. As defined by Mieke Bal, focalization refers to "the relation between 'who perceives' and what is perceived, [which] colors the story with subjectivity", and focalizors are "the subjects of perception and interpretation" (Bal 8, 12). Gorey employs these concepts as centipedal forces towards which her argument in each chapter is drawn. Concentrating on narrative perspective or point of view, she exposes the interdependence of the tropes of seeing and hearing, and vision and voice, in narrative poetry.
The book consists of ten chapters which cover a broad but focused survey of English narrative poetry, and zooms into a selection of narratives from the mainstream canon of Anglophone literature in chronological order, including Shakespeare, Marlowe, Alexander Pope, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats, Rossetti, Browning, Hilda Doolittle, Ted Hughes, Jackie Kay, and Bernandine Evaristo. In the comprehensive "Introduction" part, Gorey traces the major definitions, approaches, and fuzzy areas in the field of narratology, and narrows down her approach to the poetics and politics of "voice" and focalization in narrative. This overall scope is filtered in each chapter through a particular lens of discursive point, introducing the reader to a wide range of conceptual categories interrelated to the use of voice in given narratives.
The first three chapters are devoted to works which are, in one way or another, poetic reworkings of ancient or medieval narratives. The first chapter on Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and Marlowe's Hero and Leander traces the manipulative guiding voices of narrators which direct the reader's perspective in order to subvert the established hierarchal binary oppositions loaded with conventional codes of representation. The revoicing of the Ovidian material by the Renaissance poets and writers is shown to be more than a thematic revival of dusting off classical texts and making them new for the contemporary reader. Although Gorey never uses the words "adaptation" or "rewriting", her argument is in tune with the politics of rewriting that refocalizes representations through manipulative narrative voice and introduces new versions of received narratives to give voice to the unspoken or concealed element. In the second chapter devoted to Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, the writer follows a similar line of argument, elaborating on the manipulative omissions and additions in Shakespeare's version and exposing the shaping power of narrative voice on readers' perception in the production of meaning. The third chapter on Alexander Pope's heroic epistle, Eloise to Ebelard, explores the gender shift in narrative angle which is conveyed through the sympathetic lens of the male poet, who gives voice to the "pathos and frustration of his female protagonist" (159).
The following three chapters are devoted to works of Romantic poetry. Evincing how our definitions and conceptions of "normality" are shaped by narrativization, the fourth chapter discusses "The Idiot Boy" and "The Mad Mother" in Lyrical Ballads as manifestations of the "unspeakable" (53). Gorey's narratological analysis touches on the shaping influence of class on the reception and social accommodation of mentally retarded individuals, and introduces a psychoanalytical elucidation of the categories of "madness" and "motherhood". The fifth chapter on Lamia and Goblin Market focuses on the demonic, supernatural, grotesque, monstrous images and voices that embody "the ambiguity and contradiction of desire" (76). The sixth chapter on Browning's monumental The Ring and the Book introduces an equally gripping analytical perspective, and deciphers the working principles of irony in the poem which "[gives] the same story to the readers twelve times, from nine different voices" (79). As Gorey convincingly argues, various viewpoints and multiplicity of voices in the text not only problematize discrepancy between logos and truth, or language and meaning, but also undermine the rigid categorical distinction between the factual and fictional by unveiling the perspective-bound nature of all kinds of narrativization.
The last four chapters are reserved for the voices from the twentieth century. Chapter seven explores the "prophetic voices" in Hilda Doolittle's Trilogy penned down between the two world wars, in a troubled era marked by ruins, destruction, violence, and collapse, which are associated by the poet with patriarchal thought and divisions. Gorey reads H.D.'s Trilogy as "a critique of patriarchal myths, in particular the Greek myths", and shows how the poet "changes the focus of the traditional myths and sacred stories with the aim of giving voice to muted alternatives that have been presented as non-existent" (97). The prophetic voices in Trilogy, according to Gorey, form a "constant drift away from a male perspective and towards a female perspective" (112).
Chapter eight concentrates on Ted Hudges' Birthday Letters, a testimonial narrative of memoir through which the poet comes to terms with the spectral memories of his wife, Sylvia Plath. The dialogue between the male poet's speaking voice and the female poet's long gone, silenced voice is interpreted by Gorey as a partial manifestation of voices which gives the reader "a sense of listening it on one side of a telephone conversation" in which the male poet's voice "is the one audible to the reader" (116). In this mnemonic dialogue, the "elegiac voice of memory" in Hughes' volume is inferred as a narratological agent that challenges "Plath's mournful and violent poetry" (125).
The last two chapters address the multiplicity of voices with a central focus on the juxtaposition of race and femininity. Chapter nine on Jackie Kay's The Adoption Papers, argues that the three individual female voices in the text--the adopted daughter, birth mother, and adoptive mother--"merge into one consciousness at times to represent the ambivalence in the engagement with the maternal" and that "individual stories of loss, anxiety, and grief [...] contribute to a more general portrait of a particular community, that of the marginalized women" (132). The voices of three traumatic experiences that revolve around maternal concerns are shown to form a "communal narrative" of multiple voices that spell out a collective consciousness of marginality. Gorey's exploration of unity within multiplicity in this chapter is nicely contrasted to the next and last chapter's illustration of multiplicity of voices within a singular, individual consciousness. The last chapter on Evaristo's The Emperor's Babe takes the "engaging narrator/voice" as the condensing lens of analysis, and traces the protagonist's quest for a "true voice" in order to problematize the subaltern burden of not being able to speak in Spivak's terms. Gorey also shows how focalization is employed by Evaristo to provide readers with "unguarded" glimpses into the "dark corners of the protagonist's mind" (153,154).
Presenting a selected critical survey of English narrative poetry from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, namely from the onset of modernity to postmodernity, the book remarkably manifests how the Western historical and cultural process continued as a constant critical response to, and dialogue with, tradition or received narratological codes and strategies. With highlighted reference to "Babel", an ancient symbol of multiplicity, human will and anarchy, or crime and punishment, Gorey's book rereads mainstream texts as diaologic battlegrounds of manipulating and manipulated voices through a fresh lens of narratology. The book is furnished with a satisfactory bibliography, but lacks an index, which may be justifiable given that the author concentrates on close analytical readings of individual texts and is less interested in pursuing a conceptual debate on narratology on a theoretical scale. It is to Gorey's credit that she addresses the manipulative aspect of voice(s) in selected verse narratives through an outstanding diversity of themes and focal issues. On the whole, the rich and meticulous content of the book and the lucidity of style and language promise readers an intellectually satisfying and inspiring reading experience.
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2009.
Currie, Mark. Postmodern Narrative Theory. New York: Palgrave, 1998.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 10, 2018|
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