Robert McDowell's The Diviners
Introduction by Dana Gioia
One of the most interesting things happening in American literature at present is the revival of narrative poetry. This broadscale movement, which cuts across several schools of poetry, attempts to regain some of the imaginative ground that eighty years ago Modernist verse ceded to prose. There have been a few genuine successes—Sydney Lea's "The Feud" and Charles Martin's "Passages from Friday," for instance—but generally this new direction in poetry has been more notable for its experiments than its unqualified achievements. It is no easy thing to reinvent a forsaken poetic mode.
The central difficulty of writing the new narrative poetry is easy to summarize—how does one create a compelling and credible story in verse without becoming prosaic? Modernism may be exhausted as a vital literary movement, but it permanently changed the contemporary sensibility. The transformation of poetic taste is nowhere more evident than in the almost impossibly high expectations now placed on narrative poetry. The evocative compression and lyric integrity of Modernist poetry left most readers impatient with the loose, expansive style of traditional narrative verse. The new narrative must tell a memorable story in language that constantly delivers a lyric frisson.
Contemporary narrative poets not only have the challenge of creating lyric stories; they must also invent cogent forms and intrinsically heightened styles in which to tell them. But what are those forms and styles? Modernism had so completely repudiated the narrative mode that by 1970 there was no available tradition. Young writers had to explore the past for useful precedents—not styles but starting points. Three neglected American masters provided the best examples—Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, and Robinson Jeffers. Of these sources Robinson was probably the least immediately useful. His influence may momentarily surface in a poet like Jared Carter or R. S. Gwynn, but his importance has been mainly to reinforce the general virtues of compression, irony, and indirection in verse storytelling. Jeffers's legacy has been equally problematic. His tragic themes and sublime manner are not easily adapted by other writers. With the exception of Mark Jarman's extraordinary hommage, the book-length IRIS (1992), Jeffers's influence has also been mostly general. His work reminds contemporary poets how much the narrative mode gains from deep psychology, mythic subtext, and philosophical seriousness.
The quieter example of Frost, however, proved more widely useful. Frost's radical reinvention of the mid-length narrative poem in North of Boston (1914), Mountain Interval (1916), and New Hampshire (1923) may have gone unexploited by mid-century poets and mostly unnoticed by subsequent critics, but it suggested the most compelling possibilities for the contemporary poetic narrative—dark and passionate human stories told elliptically in evocative but understated language. Over the past decade he has emerged as the dominant influence on the New Narrative. Contemporary poets as dissimilar as David Mason, Julia Alvarez, Sydney Lea, Mary Jo Salter, Jared Carter and Robert McDowell have all been strongly influencedthough not restrained—by Frostian models. He has been a common departure point, though rarely a common destination.
Among these New Narrative poems, Robert McDowell's The Diviners is notable for its stylistic assurance and structural originality. Whatever influences it bears from Robinson, Frost, and Jeffers—nd McDowell has scrupulously studied all three masters—have been completely assimilated into a forceful style unlike any other contemporary book-length poem. By making the sharp transitions between episodes both an expressive device and the means by which he establishes an overall narrative rhythm, McDowell has boldly reinvented the structural dynamics of the long poem. He has not repeated the habitual Modernist mistake of recasting narrative material in a lyric mode and thereby preventing the larger work from building narrative energy. Instead, learning from the miscalculations of the Modernist epic (which even in the masterful hands of Pound, Crane, H. D., and Williams, could not satisfactorily cohere), McDowell has developed ways to compress the actionnot only by compressing narrative description within each episode, but by eliminating the prosaic material of transitions. There is something essentially poetic about the way McDowell pointedly moves from scene to scene with Imagist rapidity. Reading contemporary narrative poems, one often feels an enervating awkwardness and verbosity of their exposition; The Diviners, however, unfolds with narrative speed and assurance. This is the way, one instinctively feels, that a long narrative poem should move after a century of both movies and Modernism.
McDowell has handled another aspect of the long poem differently from most modern American writers. He lets his plot stretch across time. The Twentieth-century narrative poem has generally built it plot around either a single lyric moment or a closely related group of lyric moments. Such narrative poems might be described as verticalthe weight of the story rests on a focused temporal point. The plot of Jeffers's "Roan Stallion," for instance, focuses mostly on the violent events of a single night. Most of Frost's mid-length narratives unfold in a single episode even if they frequently allude to earlier events. The Diviners works in a radically different way. Its narrative design is horizontal; the plot spans five decades and encompasses two generations. The narrative material is not fussy, refined, or conventionally poetic; rather it is sprawling, ambitious, and unembarrassed by the often vulgar concerns of its characters. How refreshing it is to read a narrative poem that doesn't apologize for telling a story but trusts its own substance to command our attention. The sheer momentum of the story carries readers over rough spots that might upset a less dynamic narrative. The Diviners operates in a genre that today one associates almost entirely with prose or filmthe family saga. It resembles works like The Wapshot Chronicle, The Custom of the Country, The Magnificent Ambersons, or Padre Padrone more closely than culture epics like A, Gunslinger, Paterson or The Cantos. In this way McDowell unabashedly reappropriates the basic privilege of the novelistto tell the human stories of his time and place. Yet for all its narrative thrust, The Diviners remains palpably poetic, even if its lyric turns as often come in the evocative juxtapositions between scenes as in the scenes themselves.
McDowell has a sure sense of setting up a scene or character with a few quick strokes. Once you have read the opening section, reread the first page, which successfully introduces four characters in a little over thirty lines. McDowell has mastered Hemingway's trick of providing no more than the few details necessary to evoke a character. The son, for example, is described initially only in a handful of scattered comments by his mother. Her remarkshalf worries, half complaints tell us both about his brainy isolation and her disregard for his peculiar gifts. McDowell's descriptions often cut both waysskewering two characters at once. His technique is noticeably cinematic, but it compresses action more radically than a film would. I have never seen a narrative poem move the way The Diviners does; it is quick, assured, and effective. Reinventing the rules of the form, McDowell has found an arresting and innovative way to sustain a book-length poem. As a poet, I could not resist making careful notes on McDowell's narrative technique, and I suspect The Diviners will prove influential among young writers for its surprising solutions to the problems of the long poem.
A certain type of literary reader may criticize The Diviners because it matter-of-factly presents middle class characters caught in the crises of domestic existence. What could be more unredeemably mundane than "Boss," the father, who is so lost in his own career that he can only offer his family money in place of love and attention? What setting could be less overtly evocative than a nameless white-collar suburb of Los Angeles in the calm 1950s? McDowell willfully ignores the genteel conventions of contemporary long poems not only by exploring the lives of quotidian individuals but also by discovering genuine passion and pathos in their lives. The cast of The Diviners are not characters one meets in a poem by James Merrill or Richard Howard, but they are people one encounters every day in jobs, schools, and neighborhoods. Their lives represent an unexplored region of contemporary poetry, and it is fascinating to see what McDowell makes of them. He is both compassionate and merciless. He takes his characters seriously enough to explore their troubled lives without reaching for easy resolutions. He bears the uncomfortable knowledge that most unhappiness and failure cannot be correctedan uneasy insight that is an anathema to our sentimental, upbeat age. He understands the contradictory impulses at the center of the human heart. Most important, he never condescends to his characters, even those he dislikes. He has developed the novelist's skill of portraying characters sympathetically without forgiving them their trespasses. Ambitious, unconventional, and intentionally disquieting, The Diviners is one of the most absorbing and original long poems of recent years.