Whether barbershop anecdote or a story by Chekhov, the brief narrative is best suited to the lives of loners, “isolatoes” (Melville’s word), drifters and others never quite at home. In theory, one could tell a good story about a Congressman (come to think of it, Ward Just did), but the lives of the obscure and forgotten, and those on the margin (not necessarily in the social-justice sense), seem best adapted to short, tightly focused accounts. A novel would stretch and pad and thus dilute the essentials. Novels are social; stories, personal. Frank O’Connor in his study of the short story, The Lonely Voice (1963), says short stories, unlike novels, are characterized by “an intense awareness of human loneliness.” Or at least aloneness.
Before he wrote poetry, Edwin Arlington Robinson tried his hand at prose fiction, and even chose a title for a possible collection of these pieces: Scattered Lives. (That might have served Joyce instead of Dubliners or Sherwood Anderson instead of Winesburg, Ohio.) They were never published and only fragments survive. Robinson turned to poetry without giving up narrative, and 1896 self-published his first book, The Torrent and the Night Before. In “Calverly’s” (The Town Down the River, 1910), Robinson recycles the title of his abandoned fiction collection:
“No fame delays oblivion
For them, but something yet survives:
A record written fair, could we
But read the book of scattered lives.”
The title refers to a tavern in New York City, and Robinson memorializes his drinking companions who have died. Throughout his verse, he strives to preserve the memory of those for whom “no fame delays oblivion.” Robinson is one of the great storytellers in our literature. Everyone knows the stories of “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.” “Mr. Flood’s Party” (Collected Poems, 1920) was famous in its day but less so now. Eben Flood has walked into town to buy a jug. He’s an old man who lives alone. He pauses in the dark, places the jug on the ground, “With trembling care, knowing that most things break,” and talks to himself. Flood addresses Flood:
“`Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!’”
Critics have dragged in the Rubáiyát (“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou”) and La Chanson de Roland to explicate a poem about a drunk falling off the wagon. We’re witnessing what’s known in recovery parlance as a “slip,” and potentially a fatal one, given Flood’s advanced age. The self-addressed monologue is histrionic and typical of alcoholics, who like to dramatize their psychodramas. Flood sings, as many of us have, when primed with whiskey. Who are we to condemn a superannuated drunk who lives alone for taking a drink?
“He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.”
What might Robinson have made of his story if he had told it in prose? Verse was the preferable option. Scott Donaldson writes in the introduction to his Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (2007):
“Usually he took for his subjects those who had failed in life and love. He wrote about the derelict and downtrodden, the old and bereft. Who wanted to read about successful aldermen, anyway? Those who led `scattered lives’ interested him, not least because for a long time he thought of himself as one of them. Recognition came late to Robinson. He spent two decades struggling to get his poems published, surviving on the edge of poverty. Drink and depression dogged his days, yet he was sustained by a persistent belief in his calling—that he had been put on the earth to write poems. It was the only thing he could do, and he meant to do it, no matter how few seemed to notice.”