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Essay

Luke Hathaway on Richard Outram’s "Story"

(How Poems Work, September 2005)
“[P]oets are like great chessplayers with language,” Don Paterson says; “they look less at the next move, or the next ten moves, than at a Gestalt, at a system of relations.” A short poem offers us a prime opportunity to study this ‘gestalt,’ for just as every ‘move’ takes place within the larger system of the language, it takes place within the smaller system of the poem: each word in a poem is related to each of the others. These relations may be aural, grammatical, semantic, or spatial; they may be consonant or dissonant. They overlay the straightforward progression of the poem, so that the best poems–particularly once learned by heart–take on, for me, a quality of ‘thingness,’ of substantive existence that transcends their linear construction.
Richard Outram’s poem “Story” comprises a single sentence, twenty-six words in length. It is divided into two three-line stanzas. (The break, appropriately, comes after the word ‘breath.’) The first line of each stanza has three strong stresses; the second and third lines have two stresses each, though the metrical distribution of these stresses varies. The rhyme scheme unites the stanzas: aba cbc–or, if we count the slant-rhyme, aba aba….

“[P]oets are like great chessplayers with language,” Don Paterson says; “they look less at the next move, or the next ten moves, than at a Gestalt, at a system of relations.” A short poem offers us a prime opportunity to study this ‘gestalt,’ for just as every ‘move’ takes place within the larger system of the language, it takes place within the smaller system of the poem: each word in a poem is related to each of the others. These relations may be aural, grammatical, semantic, or spatial; they may be consonant or dissonant. They overlay the straightforward progression of the poem, so that the best poems–particularly once learned by heart–take on, for me, a quality of ‘thingness,’ of substantive existence that transcends their linear construction.

Richard Outram’s poem “Story” comprises a single sentence, twenty-six words in length. It is divided into two three-line stanzas. (The break, appropriately, comes after the word ‘breath.’) The first line of each stanza has three strong stresses; the second and third lines have two stresses each, though the metrical distribution of these stresses varies. The rhyme scheme unites the stanzas: [_aba cbc_]–or, if we count the slant-rhyme, [_aba aba_].


“[P]oets are like great chessplayers with language,” Don Paterson says; “they look less at the next move, or the next ten moves, than at a Gestalt, at a system of relations.” A short poem offers us a prime opportunity to study this ‘gestalt,’ for just as every ‘move’ takes place within the larger system of the language, it takes place within the smaller system of the poem: each word in a poem is related to each of the others. These relations may be aural, grammatical, semantic, or spatial; they may be consonant or dissonant. They overlay the straightforward progression of the poem, so that the best poems–particularly once learned by heart–take on, for me, a quality of ‘thingness,’ of substantive existence that transcends their linear construction.

Richard Outram’s poem “Story” comprises a single sentence, twenty-six words in length. It is divided into two three-line stanzas. (The break, appropriately, comes after the word ‘breath.’) The first line of each stanza has three strong stresses; the second and third lines have two stresses each, though the metrical distribution of these stresses varies. The rhyme scheme unites the stanzas: [_aba cbc_]–or, if we count the slant-rhyme, [_aba aba_].

Let us begin, as the poem does, with Death. Aurally, ‘Death’ is most closely related to ‘breath,’ with which it is a perfect end-rhyme. It is also related, by slant-rhyme, to ‘worth’ and ‘Birth,’ and by assonance to ‘Let’ and to ‘End’; its initial ‘d’ is overheard in ‘End’ as well, and in ‘Overheard.’ Semantically, ‘Death’ is related to ‘End’ (as synonym)–and to ‘First,’ ‘begin,’ and ‘birth’ (as antonym). It is related by connotation to ‘cry’ and ‘breath.’ Grammatically, it is closely connected to ‘overheard,’ which modifies it, and to ‘begin,’ of which it is the indirect object. Spatially, it has a relationship with ‘Birth,’ which ends the poem’s last line, just as ‘Death’ ends the poem’s first line.

The mathematics of graph theory might help us to envision this system: each word in the poem becomes a node; the relationships between the words are drawn in as ‘edges,’ which may then be qualified in various ways. If this introduction of mathematics seems superfluous, let us remember that ‘Story’ is phrased like a mathematical proposition: “Let _x_ be the case, that _y_ may be the case.” The phrasing also recalls biblical supplication, however: “Let thy tender mercies come unto me, that I may live.” The poem establishes its stylistic authority through this simultaneous evocation of the religious and the secular. Its content also partakes of these two realms.

If we accept the title’s cue, the poem is a story. It is also _about_ story–that which has a beginning and an end. The most celebrated beginning in western literature is “In the beginning…”: the biblical stories are thus amongst those at issue here. As Northrop Frye reminds us, however, our sense of the importance of endings and beginnings comes not from nature but from human life. That is to say, the natural world does not begin and end, but we do–and we like our stories to do the same. There is an analogy at work in this poem, then. Life is metaphorically identified with story. But notice that the two parts of the analogy are laid head to foot: death alongside beginning, birth alongside end. Birth and death are thus, momentarily, confused–and, by the mechanism of the poem, momentarily transcended.