While I love the lyric form that’s shorter, meditative, and often non-narrative, I’ve also found myself preoccupied with storytelling in poetry: reclaiming some of the narrative so often relegated to prose alone. This might come from a fascination with Ovid and Homer and their elaborate, mythic constructs in verse. It might have begun even earlier with my acquisitiveness: every Hardy Boys mystery; all the volumes of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Sherlock Holmes…or even the monthly installments of the several Marvel Comic series I collected. They all provided a set of characters to face the ongoing, unpredictable episodes of the present or the future.
This interest was certainly fomented during graduate school by reading prose writers such as Italo Calvino, where a character such as Marcovaldo or Mr. Palomar from those eponymous novels repeatedly assails the status quo, derives a greater perspective or perception of their world through successive bafflements. I often say that much of art is creating episodes or installments that, cumulatively, reveal more than their individual natures. A body of work, a book such as Running with Trains, can operate the way that tangents do: A circle can be described by straight lines intersecting to form its perimeter. Just so, viewers or readers can discern and gather impressions or images that intersect and eventually describe the subject.
While there is a linear progression through a school year, and while the lives of the characters in Running with Trains do advance, complicate, and eventually entwine, the dozens of paired poems do most of their storytelling by resonance and accretion. Perhaps the book is more like a roller coaster than a train in this regard: The initial ascent is slow, but at the crest of that first hill, it begins to build the momentum needed to carom through the subsequent twists and drops.
“Okay, everybody, hands in the air, and…scream!”
Maybe the geometry is even more basic: Steve’s poems are on the X axis. Perry’s poems are on the Y axis. And where these two meet in each pairing of poems another point on this figure, Running with Trains, is plotted.
I don’t mean that “figure” has anything to do with a solution or a final answer. Let’s switch the geometry metaphor for astronomy—or even astrology. Together, the poems create a constellation under which Steve and Perry find themselves.
Or we do, if we look up.
Other influences: The miniature stories in the novel Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell. The sequential of poems about a single character by William Meredith or Maxine Kumin. Dramatic monologues by Robert Frost or Richard Howard. All of these sustained characterizations enchanted and motivated. I was taught, and continue to teach, the idea of apprenticeship to great works, the idea of imitating what you love in other works. Many works. So that your voice becomes all the things you’ve mastered, as well as all those things you haven’t—call the latter your inadequacies or failings, or consider them an equally essential counterbalance.
A favorite quote from Paul Valery: “A lion is nothing more than well digested sheep.”
Another way of “rationalizing” my interest in longer forms of poetry might be to admit that I am comfortable with the fact (now, at least!) that I don’t “get things right” right off. My writing requires space, accumulation, multiple approaches. Revisions, responses from friends. I’m very much someone who has embraced Ruskin’s idea of mining and molding, an alternating process that’s the lub-dub of creative composition.
In Running with Trains, there were four areas for me to mine. A family farm in rural Ohio where I situated a nine-year-old boy. The circumstances of 13-year-old boy shuttling between cities on a train; his father missing in action; his sister estranged at college; his absent mother, a nursing student. Train travel as it declined at approach of the 1970s. And that tumultuous time period itself: Vietnam, civil rights rioting, famine in Africa, overpopulation and pollution, assassinations…
And then…the months of trying to mold these together.
I often think of this concept from physics: As I packed elements from each of those areas into this tightly closed vessel—this story, this book—the pressure continued to increase. The particles—issues, problems, events—got more excited. More energy was released. (My knowledge of pre-med physics is 35+ years old, so I’m playing this rather loosely.) And it’s then that all this energy converts, as I revise and revise the work, to create heat, or even better, light.
I had very little personal experience with, or even knowledge of, trains. This prompted a whole new arena in which to mine for things of interest. Was I drawn to details or bits of history that might fascinate an aficionado of trains? Unlikely. But I think my naiveté on the subject drew me toward those phenomenon and facts to which a young reader might gravitate.
Does writing for kids requires a bit of arrested development? A refusal to face everything as an adult?
What I can say is that I often experience something overwhelming or transfixing as an adult and think: If I were 14 instead of 44, if I were 7 instead of 57, how would I begin to appreciate and process the experience? And so a story is motivated, a first draft begun.
Moreover, I find that unfamiliar territory while daunting is also freeing. When I write about, say, rural Ohio, or dogs, or other topics that have been a familiar part of my personal life and my writing life, there are well worn paths I can follow—or avoid. The challenge is to stay insightful, attentive, nimble.
The difficulties are decidedly different when entering a foreign subject area. Yet, I frequently think of the poet James Merrill’s remark about how we only know our feelings when they’re mirrored back to us by things. We need that “reflection” because what we write, what we say—our very awareness of ourselves—is clouded or tarnished by the posturing of our egos, the protectiveness of our superegos.
(Okay, my pre-med psychology is equally as rusty.)
Or maybe writing is a chance to truly see ourselves in the circus funhouse mirror…exaggerations of one another aspect of our character. I’m suddenly the massive giant, the midget, the skinny man, the world’s fattest. Ah, but how to avoid the “sideshow” clichés, even as we writers draw undue attention to ourselves, barking, “Come see the show.”
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Michael J. Rosen is an award-winning writer, poet, and illustrator, with more than 80 works published to date. Rosen is the former Literary Director for Thurber House, where he edited several compilations of Thurber’s work and helped create the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Among the awards Rosen has received are the National Jewish Book Award, the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance Book Award, and several Ohioana Awards. He has been a fellow of both the Ohio Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.