Friday, July 14, 2006

Hucksters—One and All

The entire family of my wife, my dogs, and me is outside waiting for someone from the gas company to arrive. Today, Michelle detected the faintest of odors in the living room near the front door and window. Hopefully, it's nothing major, but everyone is healthy and the house has not blown up—even though I suspect the leak may have been present for more than just today.

Dixie—despite the tenderness of the incision on her belly—is meandering about, contemplating a gladiatorial confrontation with Archie. Of course, I have no doubt that she'd win, but on her vet's orders, she doesn't need to be engaged in such activity.

Within a few minutes someone from the gas company arrives. He walks around our house, from the basement to the garage and back to the living room, following the path of natural gas. He holds a little yellow device attached to a long snake-like tube. It takes samples from the air, checking for gas. He doesn't notice the smell. Even though Michelle and I both seemed convinced of that slightly noxious aroma they add to natural gas to make what normally is odorless become a lingering presence in the room.

But it was nothing. A false alarm. A trick, perhaps, of our combined imaginations. Or perhaps a plastic bought thoughtlessly at the local convenience store has slipped under the sofa. Or the scents from the storage room beneath the porch are seeping into the living room. I don't know. I only know I felt a bit foolish following the man around, surprised that there was nothing to find and thinking that it had been a waste of time.

Long, long ago in a state adjacent to the one I live in now, a fiction teacher told me that the stories that I'd been handing in for workshop weren't really stories. Nothing happened. There was conflict, I suppose, but no building action, no resolution.

I'd set up confrontations, but crawfish my way out of them. I'd describe an ominous setting, but take the reader to a party instead. I'd build characters on the precipice of irrationality and let the run away from conflict to cower in bathrooms. I think, even now, that life is like that. The potential for conflict is everywhere around us: honking horns and morning traffic, puppies with tender incision scars growling at a passing rottweiler, the scent of gas in your living room. Yet, for the most part, we manage to avoid confrontation. We seldom fling curses at the convenience store clerk who is in the back room smoking rather than fixing the nachos we thought we needed. We seldom succumb to our lizard-brain instincts to pummel the person who cuts in line in front of us at the gas station. We seldom let tense conversations with our significant others erupt into escalating brouhahas that end up in a division of mutual properties. Yet, isn't that the space that fiction (and to a large degree poetry) occupies?

Poetry, of course, has a long tradition of narration. And, to me, narrative poetry needs to follow many of the same strictures as fiction. You need to have a clear, consistent voice. There needs to be building action and a climax (or turn if you like). The characters need to be more than thin cutouts that would work for a booklet of paper dolls.

Why do we read such things? And why wouldn't we read a story about an average guy with an average life who consistently hovers around conflict?

Think about it—which poem would you rather read—the poem where I phone the gas company and sit outside waiting for half an hour or the poem where I phone the gas company, head outside, when my cell phone rings, and I answer it, not thinking about the potential for a spark until after that potential is realized?

If this were a story, which would you rather read? Why?


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