Form follows function. Just what that axiom means, applied to journalism, was revealed to me by a man named Carl Newton, city editor of The Atlanta Journal when I arrived for my first newspaper job in 1971. Newton was a chain-smoking former ball-turret gunner, who, perhaps as a consequence of his World War II service, was adept at both offense and defense.
His top desk drawer held a .38 caliber revolver, which he signed out to reporters heading into unpredictable interviews. In the newsroom, he was militant protector of the stylebook against any intrusion of ostentatious erudition. I witnessed him shame a reporter for trying to slip the word “apotheosis” into a family newspaper, and (another time) hurl across the room a Faulkner novel he was reading between deadlines when he encountered the abomination of a sentence longer than a page. He introduced me to the divided soul of journalists.
As invasive as we are in our reporting, as much as we live by the ethic of incursion and trespass, the bursting of conventions and shibboleths, in our writing we are by tradition hidebound conservatives, guardians of the temple of fact. Our marauding and defending sides are integral: Breaking down walls requires an unbreakable hammer, and the reporter’s hammer of choice is the rigor of literal accounting, uncorrupted by emotion, bias, assumption or fancy language. Our liberties on the field are redeemed by our restraint on the page.
All this begs the question, in my own current project, “Between Lilac and Witch Hazel,” of why I feel compelled to tell a reported news story in the form of an epic free-verse poem. I have little doubt Carl Newton, did he know, would toss me out a window.
The story I’m composing is a staple of traditional news journalism, a murder mixed with a scandal. I stumbled on the tale in the fall of 1993 at a reception in an upstairs room in Den Gyldene Freden, a restaurant in the old city of Stockholm, where a woman described to me an event that had blossomed from a crime into a national identity crisis. A prostitute had been killed, and her dismembered body discovered in trash bags dispersed around the city. Such a murder would disturb any society hoping to call itself healthy, and Sweden, where such gruesome events are not daily fare, was troubled all the more, especially after two prominent physicians were arrested for the crime.
In Sweden’s national mythology, doctors exemplify the scientific caring the virtuous state might offer to its citizens. That these paragons of rationality could be the culprits rocked the foundations of society. They were acquitted of the murder, but then a graduate student (as it turns out, the woman I met in Den Gyldene Freden) doing research among Stockholm’s prostitutes produced more evidence, and the doctors were arrested again. They couldn’t be retried for murder, but they were charged with the dismemberment, and, this time, convicted.
So, a good story: Sordid crime that shakes a society, mystery solved by a crusading outsider. And more: Since the society in question was committed to the idea that a well-run country could eradicate evil in its midst and offer to an imperiled world the model of a virtuous state, the case became a referendum on the fate of nations. A line of implication could be drawn from sexual violence to nuclear Armageddon; that is, if I were smart enough to draw it.
I wasn’t. I did my reporting, interviewed prosecutors, police, and other major players, and then went home and sat. I picked up the project, put it down, wrote some, tore my writing up. The story was a good one; it just wouldn’t find its form. The causal links I felt to be so strong, between a woman’s murder and the wounded soul of a nation, between private evil and the sweep of history, crumbled on the page like cookie dough when you forget to put the butter in.
A Short History of Long Poems
Early epic poems, which typically focused on the exploits of great warriors, were intended to be read or sung aloud. More recently, writers have adapted the form for memoir, verse novels, and narrative nonfiction.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The king of Uruk searches for immortality
Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey
Greeks sack Troy by means of a wooden horse
Factions of an Indian clan go to war, with divine help
Virgil’s The Aeneid
Aeneas escapes Troy, founds Rome
A Scandinavian warrior fights a monster and its mother
The Song of Roland
Charlemagne’s army battles Muslims in Spain
The Tale of the Heike
Samurai clans vie for control of Japan
Tomas Tranströmer’s Baltics
Autobiographical exploration of one family’s troubled history
James McMichael’s Four Good Things
Coming of age in post-war America
Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate
Love and technology in San Francisco, circa 1980
W.G. Sebald’s After Nature
The biographical links among a medieval painter, an 18th-century explorer and the author
An earlier version of this sidebar omitted “The Odyssey.”
Form follows function, and every story has its rightful shape. I knew a few shapes by that point in my writing career, which had evolved from news reporting to long-form magazine writing to longer-form nonfiction books and, finally, a novel. When it came to the Sweden story, though, even fiction’s liberties didn’t avail me. Mysteriously, the usual expository buttressing—argument, background and explanation—only made the story sound less plausible. The task required a different logic than any I’d ever employed. I wished I could push through my constraints, wished that some editor could arm me with a pistol of appropriate caliber to embolden me in an unpredictable writing situation. But there was no such protection, and I put the project down, until two decades later when I realized I might tell the tale in an entirely different way.
I generally know that a story is taking shape when it starts to speak, and dissociated (even nonsense) words and phrases begin compiling themselves in my mind. With “Between Lilac and Witch Hazel,” the early phrases floating past were not just words, but rhythms, cadences. The clue to an approach was there from the start. If it took me a while to accept the invitation, I had reason. Poetry is no place to enter undefended.
Some years ago, I was inspired to pen a thank-you note to a friend of mine in rhyming tercets. My exertions earned plaudits from my friend, but a caution from his wife, a nationally prominent poet. “Don’t think this is easy,” she growled, a warning reinforced by all the poetry critics and reviewers I’ve ever read. Some of those critics reserve particular opprobrium for free verse, the style of poetry I picked to tell my story, especially when (as often) it’s done wrong. Actor (and confessed private poet) Stephen Fry nicely called the combination of amateur zeal and undisciplined verse “worthless arse drivel.”
Free verse was suggested to me partly by those early half-heard cadences, and partly, I confess, by pride: It may not be the easiest poetical form, but at least it’s not as easy to critique as more formal, codified styles. There’s no place to hide in a villanelle. Free verse also allowed me the rhetorical leeway to keep my poem enslaved to brute facts. I wanted a reported piece, with quotes and attributions. In this I didn’t have models, exactly, but I have found enablers, empyrean examples of the form I wish to attempt. W.G. Sebald’s “After Nature,” James McMichael’s “Four Good Things,” Tomas Tranströmer’s “Baltics”—not reported, not quote heavy, but long, beautiful, profound re-livings of actual events. With their encouragement, I set to work at the beginning, and quickly began to comprehend the benefits of the genre.
For one thing, the beginning didn’t begin where I thought it would, in Sweden in 1990, but 20 years earlier and half a world away, during a violence-plagued season in my own life, when I resided in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s a commonplace of writing that, in some observed stories, the facts are incomplete without the fact of the observer. I’d been aware, in past projects, that I hadn’t cracked the assignment until I’d confronted my own investment in the tale. Even when the lives of my earlier books’ protagonists (a wealthy black patriarch in the Jim Crow South, a girl raised without language imprisoned in a suburban Los Angeles bedroom) seemed distant from my own, I’d always found the empathetic bridge.
If it took me a while to accept the invitation, I had reason. Poetry is no place to enter undefended
The Sweden story frustrated me not because the connection between story and storyteller was too obscure, but because it was, on the surface, so obvious. My experience—being assaulted and robbed on St. Croix, having friends murdered, trying to care for a friend who’d just been raped by an intruder into our house—was the story’s missing, cohesive ingredient. But equating my own travails, however horrendous, with the violent death of a young Swedish woman edged beyond self-awareness into egoism. That is, when the equation was expressed through expository argument and explanation. A poetic approach let me mine those connections less literally, allowed my experience to enter the story as metaphor, instead of monstrosity. By decoupling “literal” from “objective” (by, in fact, making literalness the enemy of objectivity) the poetic form freed me to engage a layer of story my careful prose obscured.
With that permission, the tale grew. Elements too far apart (or too tenuously connected) to be linked in a standard narrative suffered no impediment here. There was nothing to keep me from zinging, in the space of a line, from 2014 to 1970 to 1993, from Stockholm to Massachusetts to the Caribbean shore where I once lived in an abode that would become a stage for terror.
Set on an outcrop,
cantilevered over a jagged reach of coral. As though
in mid-dive from a loom of jungle the white house leapt
at the sea. Nothing neighbored it. The road
threaded slim and careful along the empty coast
to town. For miles, the road. Town the crumble of
Frederiksted, with only the ghost of a dirt track
branching off along the way for intersection,
along the road that
limned the land like beach wrack.
But together with the liberty to speak like that, to repeat my “along”s and throw in a “limn” (a word I distrust) with my “wrack”s, come new taboos. Connections must remain allusive or disjunctive, not spelled out. While I can jump from era to era as abruptly as I want, I find it hard to view one era from the vantage point of another, as I do so easily in prose. Foreshadowing works not well at all, and flashback little better.
The poetic ground is by design too unstable to make a firm foundation for narrative devices that lean so far out over time. Word choice, too, has its limits. On the one hand, I can mangle or manhandle my vocabulary without incurring the comic toll such play would inflict on my prose, but the poetic requirement that one be inventive in expression is balanced by a moratorium on flashiness, a moratorium on visible exertion. Ostentatious erudition is all the more uncool.
If it took me a while to accept the invitation, I had reason. Poetry is no place to enter undefended
Especially, I’m finding, because each word takes on so much extra force. Like a battle on a board game, enormities are manipulated with the flick of a hand. The smallest rephrasing has strategic consequences. Again, this seems organic. If “Between Lilac and Witch Hazel” is at heart about the connections between a local event and the great world, the equation (so impossible to state explicitly in prose) is implicit in the poem’s very structure, wherein each small word holds sway over the entirety.
In phrasing, too (in another scene from the Caribbean section of the tale, involving a group of adolescent boys), the tie between personal impression and imperial power can make a gentle appearance.
The sea he’d seen lie gentle only, that had at first
seemed empty. Until with Mickey late
on that initial afternoon they’d burrowed down into it
and met with their almost no longer teenaged bodies still
clean as augurs its iridescent schools and swarms, and
sinking to where the shallows strangely
heavied and a blade cold drew him
downward first by the feet, he’d felt
through the snorkel the sonar ping of
Thanks to this precision, the new mode, for all its strangeness, feels like a homecoming. Not because I’m a poet at heart, but a journalist. This form is as direct a telling, as the inverted pyramid structure was to the news in The Atlanta Journal.
However lush and runaway it might appear, the poem is spare. This may have been the cause of my long inability: Telling such a far-flung tale as standard nonfiction always involved too much verbiage, its ideas over-padded in the excelsior of explanation. The poem can stick to the necessaries. For that reason, writing it feels not like a license, but an adherence, faithful to the form the story’s function called for. It’s just that, for the form to stay true, the writer needed to stray.
Russ Rymer has contributed to The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other magazines and has authored two nonfiction books and a novel