The Old Trick

It happened once that a woman who couldn't conceive Paradise without her adopted daughter, And the natural mother who all her life held out Hope for a celestial reunion, approached

The wise judge, prepared to yield custody At the sight of a sword. Beyond Solomon A girl scaled the pearly gates like an acrobat. "Hi, mommy!" she called, and both women waved.

That didn't work. So Solomon heard the arguments, How the natural mother labored while the other Simply waited, and how the adoptive mother Forsook career while the other followed her fancy.

Neither gave an inch. Then be it decreed, Said Solomon, that the natural mother keep The child for the nine months she carried it, And the adoptive mother keep it for the time

She lived on earth. Then what? they wanted to know. This was paradise and supposedly eternal. Who got the child next? Solomon shrugged. Depends, he said, and noted how heaven was

That-a-way, through the gates the girl played upon But hadn't quite entered, if they got his drift. The women beheld each other in new light. "You're very beautiful," the natural mother said.

"She has your eyes, you know," said the adoptive mother. They embraced. Then Solomon sang hallelujah, And the girl did a triple toe-loop on the highest bar, And the women strolled toward the gates, arm in arm.

The tones in this poem —official ("It happened once"), conversational ("That didn't work") and humorous ("heaven was/That-a-way")—don't belong to any of the four characters mentioned in the poem: the two mothers, the girl and Solomon. They depict an unseen character, the storyteller, who filters what we see and hear in the poem (unlike in the Kinsley example). Furthermore, although Solomon is the main character, we never hear the voice of the wise judge or hear him sing hallelujah. Again the persona filters these sounds. By doing so, the storyteller adds another level of narration. Not only are we told a story, we hear it from the voice of a storyteller who puts us in the right mood for the epiphany at the end.

A common mistake with storytelling poems is employing an unseen character who never comments on action in a narrative —as was the case in the second "Twister" poem earlier.

To illustrate, analyze a version of my poem "The Old Trick" without any comment from the storyteller:

A woman couldn't conceive paradise without Her adopted daughter, and the natural mother Held out hope for a celestial reunion.

They approached the wise judge. Beyond Solomon

A girl scaled the gates like an acrobat.

"Hi, mommy!" she called, and both women waved.

Solomon heard the arguments. The natural mother Said she labored while the other simply waited, And the adoptive mother said she gave up her

Career while the other pursued hers.

Then Solomon decreed that the natural mother

Could keep the child for the nine months

She carried it, and the adoptive mother Could keep it for the time she lived on earth. They wanted to know what would happen next.

Solomon shrugged and pointed at the gates. "You're very beautiful," the natural mother said. "She has your eyes," said the adoptive mother.

They embraced. Solomon sang hallelujah,

And the girl did a triple toe-loop on the highest bar,

And the women strolled toward the gates, arm in arm.

The second version is weaker because the storyteller is no longer filtering events with his comments.

General Rule: After you have aligned the topic with theme and have decided whether to employ a narrator or storyteller, make sure that (a) your narrator has a role and that voice tones reveal his or her personality or (b) your storyteller filters events and that voice tones reveal his unseen personality.

Viewpoint: Each person or character who could convey the drama or conflict in a narrative does so from a different viewpoint. Use the viewpoint that will have the maximum impact. That is not necessarily yours. If it is yours, employ a narrator. If it isn't, employ a storyteller and relate the tale through another character's eyes. (The storyteller is not that character but remains unseen and simply knows the character well enough to tell his or her tale, coloring it with comments as explained previously.)

Ask yourself: "From whose eyes is the story best depicted?" To answer that question, consider each of the characters in your poem and imagine how events in your story would affect them.

Clearly, in Kinsley's "The Universe Exploding," the narrator's viewpoint is the correct one. The wife is absent and the son is too young to interpret the spiel. The salesman's viewpoint would result in an entirely different poem, because we wouldn't have the added sense of irony at the end of the salesman's pitch. Such a version might begin:

Another sucker. Look at him with his son: sensitive. Caring. Let me teach him a thing or two. "Hey buddy," I call, "this is the one ya want to buy," etc.

Obviously, Kinsley knew that such a viewpoint would yield a static poem depicting a shallow, cynical sales pitch at the mall, and so he avoided it.

In my poem, "The Old Trick," the right viewpoint is equally as obvious. The girl is too young to be wise, and each of the mothers has a special interest in the outcome before the judge. To promote one mother's viewpoint is to downplay the other's, when both are so powerfully strong that the wisdom of Solomon is needed to decide the case. Thus, we are privy to the various "tests" through which Solomon puts the mothers. In the end, his viewpoint is the one through which this story is best depicted.

General Rule: If you cannot decide which character best depicts the drama or conflict in a narrative, write a poem from each perspective and compare.

Moment: A poet must choose the point in time to relate events in a story. There are three possibilities:

1. Close to when an event happened, so the details and scenes are fresh and unravel as if we are there.

2. Relatively close to when an event happened, so we have some perspective about the meaning of those details and scenes.

3. Removed from when an event happened, so our perspective is more important than the details or scenes of the story.

Keep in mind that the moment of a narrative poem is not the time element: the date something happened. Neither is it grammatical, entailing the use of the past, present or future verb tenses. It is that moment the reader is allowed to enter the story — as it happens, near to when it happened, or removed from it.

Ask yourself: "When is the best moment to enter the story: one in which the drama or conflict can speak for itself, one in which some comment is needed to put the drama or conflict into perspective, or one in which comment is most crucial?"

For purposes here, let's label each of the three moments:

1. Now, for a moment close to when an event happened (as in the story is happening now) so the narrator seems to be reliving the action or the storyteller transfers the reader to the scene where action occurs.

2. Now and Then, for a moment relatively close to when an event happened (as in the story happens now and then) so the narrator or storyteller relates action in some parts of the poem and comments on it in other parts.

3. Then, for a moment removed from when an event occurred (as in the story happened then) so the narrator or storyteller comments on or filters events, putting them into perspective.

When you tell a story in the Now, you simply relate what happens; you cannot comment on the events. When you tell a story in the Now and Then, you relate and comment on the events. When you tell a story in the Then, you simply comment on events without putting the reader at the original scene.

Let's illustrate each concept with poems by R. Nikolas Macioci:


Wrinkled voices of grown-ups unfurrow like smoke toward the ceiling light.

Someone hands me a Seven-Up and blows a wheezing beer-kiss against my arm.

My aunt tops a Queen of Hearts with a King of Diamonds.

Another heaves up an Ace and smothers the pile with success.

Beside the cocker spaniel, with clock-life hugging midnight,

I settle beneath the table.

Through eyes opening to stars and music,

I, in a smudged sailor suit, disappear into sun-white sleep as soft as rainbows.

(Now and Then)


Bad sleep breaks, and I become alert again to childhood's ongoing abuse, remembered images of his overt violence alive in my mind, diffuse as pain: He pulls my hands behind me, ties them to the back of a kitchen chair, bends over me with fists full of meat, and tries to force it down my throat. Our struggle ends like a weary dance, his pulling away bringing only momentary escape from bonds of homemade torment on that day.

Now, prods of sleeplessness assume his shape.

In dreams I wait for his apology;

his head bends down but never weeps for me.

(Then) KNIFE

The point of my father's knife thunked into the arm of the rocker in which my mother held me, exposing tiny tendrils of wood less than an inch from my infant head.

My mother's eyes had tried to freeze the knife's motion, reverse it to the hand from which it had flown.

The first time I heard the story

I went immediately to the rocking chair to find the scar, the steel claw mark of what could have killed me. I

scrutinized the wood, ran a hand over the arm. I asked my mother if she was sure it had ever happened. She too ran her hand over the worn pine, discovering nothing but the blood-sticky residue of furniture polish. She seemed amazed that something so cruel could have vanished so completely. Eventually the rocker disappeared, but not the habit of feeling chair arms for the knife cut, for the sudden change in grain from smooth surface to raw edge, the smallest rip in the wood a sliver of surviving proof.

Now let's discuss each poem briefly, with regard to the moment: In "The 1945 Poker Game Transcendence," the reader is put at the scene of the story and allowed to hear, feel and experience what the narrator did at age five under the table. The Now adds tension, especially when coupled with a child's viewpoint. But the poet cannot comment about the adults playing poker above him. We do not know their nature; neither does it seem important, as the word transcendence in the title implies.

In "Forty Years Later, the Father's Remaining Debt," the reader is at times kept from the original scene and then placed in it. The Now and Then moment adds perspective and tension. On the one hand, we see the results of abuse in the adult narrator and then experience the abuse as a child, building to the epiphany at the end of the poem.

In "Knife," we never get to experience what the infant or mother did at the precise moment when the father thunked the knife into the arm of the chair. What we lose in tension —the witnessing of such horror — we gain in perspective, as the final lines of his poem skillfully articulate.

General Rule'. If you use a moment close to the Now, be sure the reader will understand all aspects of the drama or conflict in question

(without your explanation or comment). If you use the Now and Then, be sure your comment is needed. If you use the Then, be sure you are still telling a story— secondhand, perhaps —or your poem will be lyrical.

Ending: As we learned in the chapter on occasional verse, there are two basic ways to convey this:

1. Open Ending: The conclusion is not spelled out or explained but illustrated with an image or scene that implies it.

2. Closed Ending: The conclusion is stated, wrapping up loose ends.

Ask yourself: "What do I want to leave my reader with — a lingering presence, image or feeling, or a sense of satisfaction or resolution?"

An open ending features a final scene that implies an outcome or establishes a milieu. It results in that lingering presence in the reader's mind. Nothing may be resolved, but feelings are evoked. A closed ending, in which the outcome is final, satisfies the reader. Questions are answered. Everything is resolved.

To illustrate the two types, look again at two of R. Nikolas Macioci's poems: "The 1945 Poker Game Transcendence" and "Forty Years Later, the Father's Remaining Debt." In the first poem, he employs an open ending —"I, in a smudged sailor suit,/disappear into sun-white sleep/as soft as rainbows" —evoking a feeling with images and leaving the reader with a milieu. In the second poem, loose ends are tied in the ending —"In dreams I wait for his apology;/his head bends down but never weeps for me" — resolving the matter.

General Rule: If you decide your ending should be open, but are worried it might be too obscure, try a closed ending. If you decide your ending should be closed, but are worried it might sound forced or too pat, try an open one.

Once you know the basic elements of narrative verse, you should align them in a brief outline so you can envision your story and compose it.

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