Completeness in stories, poems, and songs

Standard

I’ve been thinking about what makes a story complete and it occurred to me that that story would be considered complete if it were a song. Stories, songs, and poems can all be recognized as being complete or incomplete, but the standards for them are very different.

Is this sensible, or merely convention?

You find songs that would be regarded as complete stories in certain genres—ballads, country, & Christmas carols, for instance. “Good King Wenceslas” self-consciously, though not very successfully, tries to imitate story structure with an obstacle in the middle verse. “The Little Drummer Boy”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “The MTA Song”, “Ode to Billy Joe”, and “A Boy Named Sue” are also complete stories. “Norwegian Wood” is a story once you know that the original final words were “Knowing she would”. But even within these genres, we usually find songs that would not be considered complete if they were stories. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is your basic plotless sad fiction, introducing a bunch of characters, killing them off, and then holding a funeral for them. Songs and poems routinely present a single emotion, like a single scene in a story. Love songs live in a single moment of bliss; sad songs have no resolution.

Poems, also, can be complete stories. Many Robert Frost poems are (“Mending Wall”, “The Death of the Hired Man”, “The Tuft of Flowers”). Some, like New Yorker “stories”, are tantalizingly close to being stories (“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”). But most poems are not stories. They’re more like songs. They choose one moment in time and invoke its mood, with no plot or dramatic structure or climax or resolution.

It seems that stories are a strict subset of poems and songs. Anything that could be written as a story could be written as a (perhaps overly long) poem or song, but not vice-versa.

Poems are allowed to jump from particulars to universals in a way that stories are not. Here’s “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct” by e. e. cummings:

Buffalo Bill ‘s

defunct

                     who used to

                     ride a watersmooth-silver

                                                            stallion

and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

                                                                                                                        Jesus

he was a handsome man

                                                            and what i want to know is

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

It gives details from the life of Buffalo Bill, then stops abruptly on informing us that he is dead, the author leaping through the fourth wall to grab the reader by the collar and say, “This is not about Buffalo Bill; it is about you.” But you couldn’t just drop the narrative and conclude with “He’s dead now, as we all will be” in a story. Poem readers have come to expect that sort of thing. They don’t forget themselves in a poem the way they do in a story; the deliberate obtrusiveness of style keeps the reader always aware of the poet’s presence.

Consider the poem “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1897), later turned into a song by Simon and Garfunkel.

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Here again we jump from the particulars of Richard Cory to a universal statement, this one about happiness and fulfillment. If you tried to do this in a story or movie, readers would be bewildered and demand an explanation of what he was thinking and what led up to it.  Citizen Kane is just such a movie. Were it a poem, it could’ve ended after the first scene, with perhaps one extra paragraph of explanation.

Modern story readers won’t operate at the level of abstraction needed for “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct” or “Richard Cory”; they expect the characters to be real people who matter, not to be reduced to morality-play cutouts standing for Everyman. The convention used to be the opposite: Medieval plays frequently used an Everyman protagonist and caricatured villains, and, I suppose, jumped to universals at the end (or all the way through, as in Pilgrim’s Progress and other allegories).

Songs without a dramatic structure to the narrative sometimes have a dramatic structure to the melody, at least your basic verse and refrain structure, usually elaborated on by changes in instrumentation and voicing that change the mood across verses. And yet poems have a bit of structure, even free verse, but hardly enough to make up for a lack of a dramatic structure. If songs were allowed to have incomplete stories because the musical performance provides structure instead, we would require the text of poems to be more complete than the text of songs to make up for the lack of that auditory structure — and yet, we do not.

It is not possible that this distinction makes any absolute sense. Prose, poetry, and song all exist to have an impact on the reader or listener. It can’t be acceptable for a song, but not for a story, to bring alive one moment in time. Any prose that accomplishes the same thing as a song is a good and complete work of art. It’s only historical accident that prevents us from accepting it as such. At least, that’s the only conclusion that makes sense to me.

This conclusion unfortunately means that it is impossible to devise a theory of story, because our notions of what makes a story are tightly constricted by arbitrary cultural conventions.

The best way to test these ideas would be to compare contemporary Western stories to stories from distant time periods, and from cultures isolated from Europe: Native American, Asian, Indian, Arabian, African, Polynesian. I haven’t read enough of those to do that. I suspect that the stories from those cultures that we find translated into English are only the ones that match English expectations of story. But if it turns out that all those cultures have similar rules for what counts as a story and what does not, then I am wrong, and there is some objective explanation for why we expect different things from stories, poems, and songs.

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