Exercise Five: Dramatic Monologue/Dialogue

When we compose any type of verse that closely reflects another genre of literature, we have to make sure that we are not simply "throwing in line breaks." That is to say that a poem, even if it reads like fiction or a play, must maintain a closer resemblance to a poem than the other genre to really be a poem.

Take a look at Muriel Rukeyser's poem, here. At first glance, it may seem like a portion of a play, the speaking part of the character Orpheus. The phrase "when I wrote" in the first few lines is repeated in a chiastic pattern which reflects the epic poems of Homer. She uses the long "o" to link many of the lines (gold/orgy/love/gone/down/song/etc.). The final line could not possibly be uttered by an actor to a crowd - it comes from another point of view (i.e. no longer Orpheus) and, more importantly, "the fragments join in me" have nothing to do with the Orpheus myth. To any reader picking this up, they would have to agree, this is a poem:

When I wrote of the women in their dances and
     wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone
     down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from

There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music.
This exercise is a way for you to let your inner fiction writer have some fun in your verse. We all love to tell stories, but we sometimes believe that storytelling belongs exclusively to the fiction writers. However, our oldest known poems have told us complete stories with sometimes huge casts of characters. The characters are where we will really focus our attention.

One thing you want to keep in mind while developing these poems is that you want to do more than just tell a story (otherwise, why not just write some prose?); you want to give your reader some insight into the inner-workings of the character's brain and heart. Let your reader know what the psychological state of your character(s) is. By forcing yourself to get all Freudian with your subject, you will give your reader a new way to see the world and, in so doing - hopefully - make your poem more memorable.

There are a number of fantastic examples of dramatic monologue, here are a few for you to take a look at before we get started:
The steps that follow are pretty easy, so this will be a two part process - first we will create some monologues and then we'll create a dialogue.

Step One
Decide who your narrator is and who or what he or she is addressing. Since the psalm exercise has you addressing God and the ode may have you addressing an inanimate object, try to make this some real exchange so that you can hear the voice of the character as you are composing. You might even picture the response of the addressee to help you push to get the "reaction" you want.

Step Two
Make a conscious choice of the poetic tricks you'll be using throughout your poem. You should have at least three - something like "end rhyme, extended metaphor, and iambic tetrameter." Use what you are most comfortable with so you can focus on the monologue and not the forms and techniques.

Step Three
Give yourself a setting. You don't have to - and probably shouldn't - describe the setting in the actual poem, but you must have a clear vision of where this "scene" is taking place. Time of day, season, country, surrounding structure - these will all help you to hear these words.

Step Four
Compose a monologue that is at least a half a page in length, double spaced. Just let the words come out and use your poetic tricks later. Remember that the monologue must make a clear point to some imagined listener. This is not necessarily the reader.

Step Five
Take a look at Fred Chappell's poem "Narcissus and Echo," below, and try to compose a dialogue with this as the model. That is, rather than having one speaker talk and then the next, have both talking in each line. See if you can picture a situation where two people are talking/thinking over one another (say, a guy and a girl on a date, a couple fighting, politicians being politicians), a person and her conscience.
Shall the water not remember Ember
my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above of
its mirror my half-imaginary airy
portrait? My only belonging longing;
is my beauty, which I take ache
away and then return, as love of
teasing playfully the one being unbeing.
whose gratitude I treasure Is your
moves me. I live apart heart
from myself, yet cannot not
live apart. In the water’s tone, stone?
that brilliant silence, a flower Hour,
whispers my name with such slight light:
moment, it seems filament of air, fare
the world becomes cloudswell. well.
Step Six
Finally, try to write some lines of regular dialogue, as you might in a short story or a play. Then take the poetic tricks you chose for your monologue in Step Two and apply them to your dialogue. You might find that as you write your fiction, you might ask yourself if it might not work better as a poem. Have fun with it.

Remember, simply throwing in line breaks does not turn prose into poetry!