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The Plot Inside The Poem

The playwright David Mamet famously said that what we want to know more than anything else is ‘what happens next’.  My own obsession with narrative goes back to my writerly roots in theatre and later in film; I’m always looking for the story, even when it isn’t obvious.

I’ve been making a study of the way in which poets use, abuse, disguise, transform and contort all the elements of story structure to keep readers engaged; the tricks they use to avoid linear plotting or logical leaps of time or sense, whilst keeping us interested. What does ‘what happens next’ mean for a contemporary poem? Is it possible to satisfy our very human desire for narrative when, as Carolyn Forché puts it,‘The history of our time doesn’t allow for any of the bromides of progress, nor for the promise of successful closure.’

In my course The Plot Inside The Poem, you’ll be close reading all kinds of poems, from W B Yeats, to Tony Hoagland, Stephen Dunn, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles Simic, Annie Freud, Hugo Williams and Don Pagis. You’ll be frisking them for scraps of narrative, identifying the gaps and leaps and the connections and looking for the places where the story lies. You’ll be discovering, through writing exercises, your own ways of sometimes embedding, sometimes reducing elements of plot, finding out just how much or or how little narrative you can get away with.

Here’s a brief analysis of an even briefer poem – ‘Written In Pencil In The Sealed Railway-Car’  – written with breath-taking economy by the Israeli poet Dan Pagis which illustrates the poet’s skill at narrative distillation.


here in this carload

i am eve

with abel my son

if you see my other son

cain son of man

tell him that i


This famous poem contains a distilled shot of plot. Firstly the title begins to suggest a context. Someone is writing inside a sealed railway car: the clear indication that it is related to The Holocaust. Dan Pagis was himself a holocaust survivor, but I didn’t know that when I first read the poem, I don’t need to know it, but it certainly adds to the gravity of the material. The poem relies on both on my knowledge of history and of religious archetypes. The narrative is in the biblical backstory as well as the historical context. The author is relying on my knowledge of both. I know that Cain killed his brother and I know that he became a fugitive and wanderer afterwards. I immediately see the parallel between the Nazis and their victims.

The fact that Pagis refers to Cain as ‘son of man’ is also relevant. He is placing the blame or responsibility for the Holocaust squarely on the shoulders of human beings rather than anything supernatural. And finally, the end is also a part of the narrative. We know what happened to the people in those ‘carloads’. Their lives were ended, interrupted. There is of course also the possibility that she is prevented from writing anymore: she dies perhaps, before she has a chance to finish?

But there is a second interpretation, which is that Eve can’t think what to say to her other son – his transgression is too great and words fail her, as the mother of one son who kills another, and parallel to that, perhaps fail the poet too. And what are we to make of the ‘pencil’ mentioned in the title? This surely conveys a sense of impermanence, the risk that the memory of those who died can be rubbed out or forgotten.

The poem enacts a contracted but huge narrative – with some ambiguities, which only seem to strengthen it – beginning with the first murder ever committed, and linking it to the Holocaust, and all in eight lines (including the title). Quite a feat of storytelling.

If you fancy hatching ingenious plots inspired by the great storytelling poets, book your place on Jacqui’s course The Plot Inside The Poem via our website, or ring us on 0207 582 1679.


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Image Credits:

Image: Interior of cinematograph camera as used on Duddell moving coil oscillograph for obtaining long records, Hawkins Electrical Guide (1914)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons