Today, as promised, I’m going to talk about literary tropes that are common to both poetry and fiction prose. Some of these posts might be a bit of a stretch as some tropes, such as plot, or character development, apply more strongly to fiction prose, than to poetry, and, in some cases, don’t apply at all. In those cases, I will refer to a short story, but not post it (that’s just too much typing for me). I’ll simply have to link to the story posted elsewhere, but you could find it in anthology if I can’t find the link.
I’m posting this poem really more because I like it. But it does touch on the trope of “Setting”. What is setting? Well, very simply, it’s where the story takes place. More simply: where. It is one of the three most important considerations to the writer of fiction prose (the other two being plot and character).
Setting doesn’t seem important until you have to go without it. Characters floating in a vacuum don’t have anything to do or anywhere to go (an even outer space, as illustrated by the movie Gravity, counts as a setting, I’m talking about trying to leave Place out of the story entirely). If there is nowhere to go, then there is nothing to do.
Characters will be poorly defined without a setting. Place clarifies who the character is, because it shows what the character does in the setting (his or her environment, what is in it and what are that environment’s obstacles e.g. The North Pole will present different obstacles than New York City) and how he or she has to negotiate his or her space on an every day basis – that tells me something of who that person is. If nothing else, how a character reacts to the different stuff in his or her space tells us something unique about who he or she is.
Place gives motivation. I read a short story where two farmers were at war with each other because they lived in the desert and there was only one well which was drying up. The well could only supply enough water for one farmer and one farm. In this story place gives the reader all of the characters’ motivations. They would not be fighting if they lived in Place where water is plentiful (not if we’re talking about a story about limited resources). Place gives the motivation for war. They need it to live and their farms demand water, and lots of it, otherwise their source of food and livelihood suffers. Here Place not only gives motivation, but impresses life and death consequences on its characters.
So, in this poem, the setting is the poem. The place does not motivate the character to take a particular action, all the narrator does is look inside and think about it. But the place does influence the character’s thoughts. How he reacts to the rivers of blood and what it reminds him of tells us something about who he is. This place fascinates him with it’s map of continents on the walls painted in blood.
He implies that it frightens him. It’s where a “convict digs his tunnel”, we normally want to stay far away from the criminal element in the act of committing a crime, that person could become very dangerous. He refers to it as a “dark church” where “the cripple and the imbecile” are taken “to be healed”. A dark church conjures all sorts of scary images to mind and it sounds as if the weak people taken there aren’t really going to be healed (we know that even if that is the intention that is not what will happen and we shudder to think what someone will do to try to “heal” the cripple and the imbecile). So, going every day to a place that inspires fear, tells us that the character is confronting fearful places. But what does this tell us about the character? Perhaps that the character is at a cross-roads in his life, perhaps he is feeling unjust accepting sustenance from a horrifying place that feeds him.
It’s a poem about a butcher shop that the poet passes every day. This hits on another important point; when considering setting, the poet or author must consider a number of choices. One of those choices is how well should he or she know the setting? Is it a place he grew up in or lives around? Or is it a place that he just imagines? Or, for that matter, is it just the background set piece for the characters to move around in? In some stories, the setting is simply where the story takes place. In others the setting is the story. In the story Dune, the story is about how the planet makes people, or transforms them, into different people. Without the planet, there is no war over its resources, and there is no story. Take a different Sci Fi story, Star Wars, the story takes place in a galaxy far, far away, but we don’t know where or how that affects the characters in it, just that it’s outer space. The setting is incidental, and the struggle is for freedom from each other. It makes for a bit of a flatter story.
Also, he picks a place he knows. Some stories the setting explains something that only the poet or the author can know and he or she is sharing this experience with the audience. James Baldwin shares his experience of growing up in Harlem in Go Tell It on the Mountain. He feels the need to share because that knowledge will create sympathy with an audience that grew up somewhere very different and create a bridge of understanding between different people.
What does this butcher shop mean to this poet? What understanding does it give his audience? What new insight will it give to the person who regularly visits a butcher shop and has never personally seen those things? How will it change him or her? Will this person notice other secret details of other similar places? Or even places that are not similar?
Keep in mind that noticing details about place doesn’t tell us as much about the place as it does the ones who are noticing those details.
by Charles Simic
Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.
An apron hangs on the hook:
The blood on it smeared into a map
Of the great continents of blood,
The great rivers and oceans of blood.
There are knives that glitter like alters
In a dark church
Where they bring the cripple and the imbecile
To be healed.
There’s a wooden block where bones are broken,
Scraped clean – a river dried to its bed
Where I am fed,
Where deep in the night I hear a voice.