John C. Goodman: Beyond Narrative

by John C. Goodman

“I declare,” she sobbed, “I never was so cut up since your mama and my papa not Doyce and Clennam for this once but give the precious little thing a cup of tea and make her put it to her lips at least pray Arthur do, not even Mr F.’s last illness for that was of another kind and gout is not a child’s affection though very painful for all parties and Mr F. a martyr with his leg upon a rest and the wine trade in itself inflammatory for they will do it more or less among themselves and who can wonder, it seems like a dream I am sure to think of nothing at all this morning and now Mines of money is it really, but you must know my darling love because you never will be strong enough to tell him all about it upon teaspoons, mightn’t it be even best to try the directions of my own medical man for though the flavour is anything but agreeable still I force myself to do it as a prescription and find the benefit, you’d rather not why no my dear I’d rather not but still I do it as a duty, everybody will congratulate you some in earnest and some not and many will congratulate you with all their hearts but none more so I do assure you from the bottom of my own I do myself though sensible of blundering and being stupid, and will be judged by Arthur not Doyce and Clennam for this once so good-bye darling and God bless you and may you be very happy and excuse the liberty, vowing that the dress shall never be finished by anybody else but shall be laid by for a keepsake just as it is and called Little Dorrit though why that strangest of denominations at any time I never did myself and now I never shall!”[i]

For most of us, thoughts do not flow in a linear fashion, our awareness is much more diffuse. We are doomed to think rather like Flora in the excerpt above from Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Dickens was a noted mimic and often modeled characters in his novels on people he met, so it is likely that Flora is based on an actual person. This speech was written without any poetic theory or justification – it is a record of how people think and express themselves. And that is the basis of non-narrative writing: the way people think and talk, the natural workings of the mind.

Narrative, as we appreciate it today, is a fairly recent invention. To be able to arrange events into a coherent sequence and recount those events in a way that will engage an audience is a significant skill. If we go back to earlier poetic narrative forms, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, we will discover a very different approach to narrative full of extraneous material, superfluous characters, interpolations, redundant explanations and unnecessary asides. And if we go back to an even earlier narrative form, that of myths and legends told in tribal cultures (as recorded, not as edited by anthropologists) we find a dreamlike world of shifting events and changing personae.

The interesting thing about these different forms of narrative is that they are highly visual, describing events as they would be seen. Narrative, on the whole, tends to be primarily visual. Dreams as well tend to be predominantly visual. In dreams, the juxtaposition of unusual images where locales and incidents can change dramatically without warning is normal, expected and familiar.

In the early 20th century, this illogical dream imagery was used as the basis for an artistic movement: Surrealism. Max Ernst characterized Surrealist art as, “the systematic exploitation of the coincidental or artificially provoked encounter of two of more unrelated realities on an apparently inappropriate plane and the spark of poetry created by the proximity of these realities.”[ii] About the same time, Braque and Picasso began to experiment with snippets of random images pasted together and collage became recognized as a viable art form. When disparate pictorial images are presented together, the mind accepts them as visual experience. It is easy for us to perceive and accept random visual stimuli, as we do chaotic dream experience – not necessarily interpret or understand it, but accept it as given.

It’s not so easy with language. Visual stimuli can be simply perceived, but language, either heard or read, must be interpreted – the sounds heard or symbols read on the page must be associated with meanings and those meanings interrelated in order to make sense of the individual symbols or sounds. Visual perception and language are processed in different areas of the brain. While random visual stimulation, the “encounter of two of more unrelated realities,”[iii] can be interesting, even exciting, random language input is interpreted as nonsense.

It’s interesting that the first non-narrative poetry in English was in a highly visual form: Imagism. Imagism began in the early 20th century with a group of poets including Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Pound was impressed with oriental poetry and the way the written logograms conveyed the language in discrete units rather than in syntactical strings. H.D. had studied the Greek poet Sappho whose work survives only in scattered fragments. They melded these influences to formulate a poetry that relied heavily on classically-clean imagery expressed in precise language stripped of all unnecessary words.

If we look at Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro, we see that it is non-narrative, or non-linear, because it is disjunctive – the conjunction ‘like’ that would link the two images in normal narrative is missing. Pound doesn’t tell us that the faces in the crowd are like petals on a wet black bough, he simply presents two separate images. The effect of this disjunctive language is to leave the discovery of the relationship between the images to the reader. Instead of making the connection through language, the two incongruent pictures are presented side by side and we are left to make the association between them for ourselves. The connection between the parts of the poem is not dictated by the writer, but realized in the mind of the reader.

A few years later, Gertrude Stein published her major non-linear work, Tender Buttons. Gertrude Stein studied psychology with William James and was influenced by James’ work on perception – how the mind categorizes and interprets perceptions, how we add habitual associations, the relationship of emotion to perception, the relationship between consciousness and the senses, the way the individual perception works on the whole.

Tender Buttons presents us with an altered perspective on perceived objects, foods and spaces, a different way of relating to the world around us. Stein provides word collages that give new meanings to text the way visual collages give new meaning to images.

In a piece entitled A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass, we find the descriptor ‘blind’ applied to glass. By employing it, Stein is playing with language to shift the emphasis away from the physical entity and onto what the psyche brings to our perception of objects; she is describing objects, not in terms of their physical qualities, but with the inner senses of humour, beauty, joy, grief, love and anger.

The pieces of Tender Buttons are not meant for literal interpretation. Words are set free from their normal contexts or perceptual categories and allowed to express multiple meanings. The glass could be ‘blind’ because the red ‘hurt color’ wine inside makes it opaque; it could be that the carafe was blown into a blind, or mold, and is therefore made from blind glass as opposed to free-blown glass; it could be that the closed bottom of the carafe makes it blind, like a blind hole or blind alley; it could be that our attention is being called to the shape of the empty carafe waiting to be filled, like a blind pie crust; it could be the blind glass and the carafe are two separate perceptions, one of a carafe and one of a mirror, a glass or looking-glass, made blind by being turned to the wall or covered with a black ‘hurt color’ veil as was the custom during mourning – the one ‘glass’ a kind of ‘cousin’ to the other, the veiled mirror revealing the world as through a glass darkly; or perhaps Stein broke her glasses and the cousin of the glass carafe is the shattered, and so blind, ‘spectacle’ lens. In Tender Buttons all these meanings can exist at once – or at least they do not exclude one another. A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass can be made sense of equally well with any meaning, or none – one interpretation is as valid as any other. What it means depends on the emotional associations of the reader. For Gertrude Stein, the meaning is not literal, it is visceral. The title itself plays on word meanings, a tender button being in the same class of impossible objects as a lead balloon or a lead Zeppelin.

That doesn’t mean the pieces in Tender Buttons can mean whatever the reader wants them to mean. The intuitive interpretations are set up by Stein – not defined, but indicated by “an arrangement in a system to pointing.”[iv] The jumbled perceptions are “not unordered in not resembling”– just because they are not presented as narrative description does not mean that the text does not represent the object described. Stein uses emotionally weighted words to stir responses in the reader. In A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass the concentration of charged words like blind, nothing, strange, single, hurt, not, unordered and difference induce a sense of alienation, a sense of separation from the object, the carafe of the title, an object that can be known only through the filter of our perceptions, never known as a thing in itself. Our perceptions separate us from what is real. Alienation is our existential reality.

One essential thing to notice about Gertrude Stein is that she makes it clear she is working with text and not with visual images. Although she was associated with some of the most influential artists of the 20th century, rather than centering on images she concentrated on disrupting language to portray the disorienting effects of emotion on sense perceptions. She painted with language the way Picasso painted with oils. Tender Buttons shows the influence of Cubism, of showing many fragmented sides of an object at once rather than a flat representation.

Soon after the appearance of Tender Buttons, T.S. Eliot published a masterpiece of non-narrative poetry, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The poem is highly visual: a patient etherized upon a table, a pair of ragged claws, the yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle and licked its tongue. The visual imagery carries the intent rather than the narrative. It’s telling that Eliot’s first book was entitled, Prufrock and Other Observations – ‘observation’ having the dual meaning of commentary and things looked at.

Highly visual language arranged into unusual concatenations had been gaining momentum in France for some time. In the latter part of the 19th century, Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore-Lucien Ducasse) published his Les Chants de Maldoror, which contained the oft-quoted line, “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!”[v] The book became a favorite of the Surrealists.

It’s unlikely that Eliot was familiar with Les Chants de Maldoror, but he did spend a year in Paris studying at the Sorbonne and was subsequently influenced by the Symbolists and the curious imagery employed in French avant-garde poetry. The French poets, along with Dada and early Surrealist artists, explored the non-linear, impressionistic processes of the mind in contrast to the strict mechanistic rationalism that prevailed in the nineteenth century.

In Eliot’s next great non-narrative work, The Waste Land, there is a movement away from the visual; the poem accentuates the auditory perception of the world. The emphasis on the hearing sense is enhanced by Eliot’s adaptation of musical theory to the written word. In the poem, Eliot quotes from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and models a section on the song of the Rhine Daughters from Das Rheingold. The poetic techniques in The Waste Land bear notable similarities to the musical techniques Wagner used in his operas, especially Tristan und Isolde. The opening of Tristan und Isolde is so striking that it is known as “The Tristan Chord,” signaling a move away from traditional harmonies to a more atonal composition – reminiscent of the dramatic “April is the cruellest month…” that begins The Waste Land.

Wagner also made extensive use of harmonic suspension, that is, beginning a theme only to interrupt it and bring it back to a resolution later on. Wagner often builds cadences, creating expectation in the audience, then deliberately introducing a discordance to destroy the anticipated completion. This technique of breaking something off and leaving the audience hanging only to resurrect it later in the poem is used by Eliot throughout The Waste Land.

Wagner made great advances in the use of counterpoint, the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm, but interdependent in harmony. Eliot, the dramatist, also weaves voices throughout The Waste Land. The poem is practically a play for voices – particularly evident in the section A Game of Chess, part of which is like sitting in a pub listening to the snippets of conversation floating around – a sort of sound collage. Indeed, the original title of The Waste Land was “He do the police in different voices,” a quote from Charles Dickens.

Eliot found his musical inspiration in Wagner, resulting in a fragmented, atonal collage of a poem. Using a fragmented structure to augment his written message about a fragmented world is the perfect union of form and content. And this is one of the most important aspects of non-narrative poetry: it shifts the burden of meaning from the content to the form. Understanding the work depends as much on appreciating the non-linear form as the non-narrative content.

In The Waste Land, Eliot breaks down tradition, chronology, and the expected associations of images and ideas. Events are re-ordered, not in the way they happened, but in the way they haphazardly relate to our current condition; not with a logical connection, but with a felt-sense that all these things, however disparate and strange, fit together into a unified whole. Our internal symbolic language becomes the glue that holds the world together; our inner sensibilities become the principles that connect scattered parts and make up our lives. Although non-narrative poetry can appear random, it is often highly structured, although more in the way of an assemblage than an architectural feature.

The Waste Land exemplifies a different approach to narrative: events as they occur in the mind, in a stream of consciousness rather like Flora’s rambling monologues in Little Dorrit, instead of in a structured story. And not just in the reasoning mind, but in the emotional awareness as well. Although the world is presented to us as narrative in fiction, non-fiction and journalism, and although we often reduce our own experiences to narrative in order to communicate them clearly to others, we do not actually experience the world in a linear fashion. We experience a chaos of sense perceptions and emotional impressions that our minds arrange into what we call reality and this is what is reflected in the poetry.

By the early 1920s, the major elements of non-narrative poetry were established: from Imagism we get disjunctive language and the engagement of the mind of the reader; from Gertrude Stein we get the freeing of language from traditional contexts, the abandonment of the need for literal meaning, the grounding of perception in language and the involvement of the reader’s inner senses; from T.S. Eliot we get structured fragmentation, the alignment of language to senses other than the visual and an awareness of the understanding of form as the key to apprehending the meaning of the content. These basics will recur in later manifestations of the non-narrative.

The non-linear approach of the Modernists was revolutionary in its day. The early 20th century was a time of great technological change; horses were being replaced by motorcars, electric lights were replacing gas lamps and candles, elegant sailing vessels were replaced by efficient steamships. The rise of the novel was concurrent with the industrial revolution. In the 19th century, with increased literacy, came a deluge of popular writing, the kind of sensational work found in the Penny Dreadfuls, targeted at shopgirls, clerks and factory workers. Mechanization, and the stream of cheap, poor quality products it produced, was in many ways dehumanizing: treating people as mere expendable cogs in the machine.

Narrative was part of that increased mechanization and regimentation, and thus a contributor to the dehumanization process. Everything that gave meaning to life was reduced to mass production. As Ezra Pound lamented in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), “The tea-rose tea-gown, etc. / Supplants the mousseline of Cos, / The pianola ‘replaces’ / Sappho’s barbitos.”[vi] By reinventing narrative as a less linear form, the Modernists were working against the dehumanizing effects of orderliness and towards a more humane world.

Unfortunately, this phase of Modernism contained the seeds of its own demise. The world Modernism came to support was not for the good of the common man, but for a cultured elite. Rather than evolve a more humane literature, and world, Modernism simply came to replace one order with another. In a 1919 essay, Eliot declared his aim as “the assertion of order and discipline in literary taste.”[vii] Both Eliot and Pound wrote derogatory verses about those they considered uncultured. Pound eventually embraced fascism and Gertrude Stein worked with the Vichy regime in France.

In Britain, after the first exciting flush of Modernism, non-narrative poetry was muscled out of the mainstream and went underground. The detached, emotionally remote Thirties Poets huddled around W.H. Auden, and a few years later The Movement with Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn promoted writers who sought a return to rationalism, conservatism and formalism in poetry.

The narrative poets, however, did learn a lot from the non-narrative practitioners as they adopted unusual modifiers and startling imagery. “And I eat men like air,”[viii] confessed Sylvia Plath, a writer who daringly trod the boundary between the narrative and the non.

Non-linear poetry fared better in America where E.E. Cummings shredded traditional forms; Objectivists, such as Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, pushed narrative to its limits; and the Black Mountain poets under Charles Olson promoted Projective Verse. John Ashbery and the New York School also helped keep the non-linear alive by mixing narrative and non-narrative aspects, although their work tended to be more content-centered than formally experimental. The main track of poetry continued to be narrative, with even iconoclastic poets like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski writing in a predominantly narrative vein.

What Charles Olson contributed with Projective Verse was a rationale for non-linear forms. In a manifesto-type essay he outlined the principles of Projective Verse, placing the emphasis firmly on composition by field and the open form – or rather the symbiotic relationship between the open form and the content – as well as on the ear, the breath and the relentless stream of perceptions following one upon the other. Although a narrative thread can be discerned in some of Olson’s poetry, the meaning of a piece isn’t so much in the content, or even in the form, but in the theory behind the form. Poetry became less about clever language and more about clever ideas.

Although narrative continued to dominate poetry, non-narrative emerged in other ways that further reduced the importance of meaningful textual content and promoted understanding of the rationale behind the work, such as Sound Poetry, in which words are replaced by or mixed with spoken or sung vocalizations, and Concrete Poetry, a type of writing in which the shape and arrangement of the words and letters conveys the message. Concrete poetry involves typographical experiments, often with mixed typefaces and letterforms, sometimes using only glyphs or letters instead of complete words to form the poem – words and letters are regarded as concrete signs rather than units of meaning. Eventually this path led to Visual Poetry, which combines visual images or picture collages with text phrases, words, letters and glyphs.

In the latter half of the 20th century came Postmodernism with its difficult step-children Language Poetry and Conceptual Poetry. In the early 1920s, Dada artist Tristan Tzara made an important discovery about text. If you cut it up and rearrange the fragments you can make it mean something different from what was originally intended. This technique was later refined and used by William S. Burroughs.

Language Poetry abandons the need for meaning and narrative structure, using disjunctive fragments, similar to Tzara’s cut-ups, as scattered matter to be reconstituted into evocative content in the mind of the reader. Language is stretched, twisted, wrenched and contorted to wring all possible meanings from it. Although often appearing to be random, the fragments may be highly structured in accordance with some schema of the writer. Conceptual Poetry often uses found texts or random material to embody a theory of language and meaning – the text is largely meaningless except as an illustration of the idea.

The non-narrative approach of late 20th century Postmodernism is different from that of Modernism. Postmodernism brought a host of new non-linear techniques, such as, cut-ups, erasures, assemblages, reworked found texts, strikeouts, randomizations, symbols and punctuation marks instead of words, phrases and words interrupted by brackets and asterisks, invented languages, contrived constraints, and aleatory groupings.

While Modernism was in part a reaction against the dehumanizing effect of mechanization, Postmodernism bloomed in an age, not just of production, but of overproduction. Postmodernism is the literature of the homogenizing effect of mass culture, the world of suburban malls, Wal-Mart and McDonalds, the oppressive sameness that diminishes our individuality and makes us less than human. Found texts and randomization don’t simply rearrange language, they rearrange the very generic culture that produced the texts in the first place.

While Modernism was concerned with re-shaping values, there was still a sense that it was searching for absolutes, for the defining principles, for the elusive thing-in-itself, for the indubitable knowledge of Russell and Whitehead. Contemporary Postmodernism is much more relativist. There is no indubitable knowledge. There is no thing in itself, only the thing compiled. Meaning comes, not from definition, but from context. Postmodernism addresses the absurdity at the heart of things rather than the truth; it describes how mass culture has reduced our world to the lowest common denominator.

Narrative provides a way of controlling the underlying chaos of existence, of making it orderly and meaningful; we have been conditioned to expect narrative in poetry and prose. Non-narrative literature takes us beyond our conditioning. It reminds us that the reality we know is a construct that can be deconstructed, rearranged, realigned – it allows us to see through the veil of perception, shows us the cracks in the edifice, the vapid boredom behind the glitter and dazzle of our consumer culture. In this way, non-narrative works investigate what it means to be human in a dehumanized world.

One thing that all non-narrative poetics rely on is the psyche of the reader – the reader is more than simply audience, the reader is a participant in the creation of the work, the work is not complete until it is read and processed through the reader’s intellect, emotions and sensibilities. And that is where we come to with non-narrative poetry – it is poetry as process rather than as didactic text; it means nothing until engaged by the mind. Although non-linear poetry is much more diverse and complex than this, an approach to appreciation is to read it as if it is the interpretive process that is important, not the final definitive meaning, not the text, not the narrative, not the completion, but the process. Non-narrative poetry shows us the mind at work, the mind creating a meaningful world from chaotic sensory input. In non-narrative poetry we are merely doing what our minds do continually: making sense of the chaos.

By disrupting the narrative tradition and the associated technological, rational, organizational, mechanical, industrial, logistical, robotic, capitalist and computerized advances that go with it, non-linear writers are creating a more natural, more human form of story-telling. As Surrealism was a return to the natural dream language of the psyche and Modernism was a reflection of the natural stream of consciousness, so contemporary Postmodernism shows us the mind as process, the mind as an organ of perception rather than one of logic. Non-narrative poetry is an expression of our inherent diffuse awareness. Since the import of the text depends on the mind of the reader, and each person’s thought process is different, non-linear writing becomes an assertion of our essential individuality. As Flora would sum it up,

“The withered chaplet my dear,” said Flora, with great enjoyment, “is then perished the column is crumbled and the pyramid is standing upside down upon its what’s-his-name call it not giddiness call it not weakness call it not folly I must now retire into privacy and look upon the ashes of departed joys no more but taking a further liberty of paying for the pastry which has formed the humble pretext of our interview will forever say Adieu!”[ix]


John C. Goodman has published two collections of poetry, Naked Beauty (Blue & Yellow Dog Press) and The Shepherd’s Elegy (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press); as well as a novel, Talking to Wendigo (Turnstone Press) which was short-listed for an Arthur Ellis Award. He also authored the non-fiction work Poetry: Tools & Techniques (Gneiss Press). He currently lives in the Gulf Islands, British Columbia, Canada where he is the editor of ditch, (, an online magazine of experimental poetry.


[i] Dickens, Charles, Little Dorrit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). Chapter 35. Originally published in serial form 1855-57.

[ii] Ernst, Max. Quoted in Walther, Ingo F., & Suckale, Robert. Masterpieces Of Western Art: A History Of Art In 900 Individual Studies From The Gothic To The Present Day (Los Angeles: Taschen, 2002). p. 608.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Stein, Gertrude. A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass in Tender Buttons (Toronto: General Publishing, 1997). pg 3. First published (New York: Claire Marie, 1914).

[v]Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore-Lucien Ducasse), Les Chants de Maldoror (1869), quoted in Greene, Roland, et al, eds, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics, Fourth Edition (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2012). pg 1378.

[vi] Pound, Ezra, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) in Allison, Alexander W. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Third Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983). pg 965.

[vii] Eliot, T.S. From a leaflet inserted in The Criterion, July, 1923. Quoted in Kirk, Russel, Eliot and His Age. (New York: Random House, 1971). pg 98.

[viii] Plath, Sylvia, Lady Lazarus in Allison, Alexander W. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Third Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983). pg 1356.

[ix] Dickens, Charles, Little Dorrit (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1979) Chapter 34. Originally published in serial form 1855-57.