In the last several issues of this newsletter I’ve written about narrative conflict. We’ve covered what it is, how it reveals the truth about characters, and how easy it is to let tired clichés stand in for it. Throughout these posts I’ve made one consistent point: meaningful conflict is required for a story to work on any level. Today I want to apply this idea to a different form—poetry.
For me, the most interesting poetry is the down-to-earth, observational work of poets like Ted Koozer, Wendell Berry, and others. These poets tend to focus on everyday life and the insight that comes when contemplating the details of it. They find deep meaning in the small things, and help their readers see it too.
Last Spring, I discovered a wonderful example of this in the poem “Ford Galaxy” by Irish poet Clodagh Beresford Dunne, originally published by Poetry Magazine. Not only does this poem find something beautiful in the ordinary, it is a great example of how conflict drives narratives in “non-narrative” forms of writing. Take a moment to read it.
Let’s start by observing a few things. First, the subject of this poem is a green Ford Galaxy minivan. Few things in the life may seem less worthy of poetic tribute than a used minivan. And yet, how does the speaker describe it? “Majestic as a king / on his lectica”! Not many people would describe this vehicle as ‘majestic,’ and yet the speaker does so without irony. The speaker also attaches several memories—some fond, some otherwise—to the van. And the reader certainly can connect to the deep emotion of its origin story: “purchased from our savings / when we were told / we were having twins.” As we approach the final lines of the poem, the speaker has clearly shared the memories and moments this minivan embodies. And then we encounter another character’s car:
I once knew a woman who drove a convertible:
metallic navy, white leather interior, gloss veneer
fabric, reclining roof.
A thing of vehicular beauty.
If there is a direct opposite of the well-loved family minivan, what would it be other than a dark, shiny, WHITE LEATHER INTERIOR, luxury convertible? The moment of this new car’s introduction is when the poem turns. After the rhythmic and familiar description of the minivan the reader practically sees this beautiful convertible come screaming alongside our green van on the highway, a gorgeous woman laughing with her hair in the breeze. It’s a strong image that changes the pace of the poem. And this new image is in direct conflict with the images of the previous lines.
This is the “inciting incident,” to borrow a term from three act structure. This is the moment where the ideal of the minivan is contrasted with the luxury convertible. In my reading, one of these vehicles embodies responsibility, affection, chaos, and family. The other shows freedom, beauty, and perhaps detachment. Your reading may differ, and that’s okay. But either way, these two contrasting images offer up two different visions of life.
This is a conflict in the realm of ideas. As I have previously argued, we can examine conflict on three levels, the physical world, the inner world, and the world of ideas:
While the images are purely physical, the conflict lies in the ideals these images represent. The convertible exemplifies one life, and the minivan another. The image of the convertible asks an implicit question: would you rather have chocolate and crumbs ground into your seats, or would you rather them be pristine white leather? What gives the vehicle more value? What is it exactly that makes us love our cars, our things? We each have a different answers, both in general and the particular. But in this poem the speaker offers a vision of why one can be better than the other. How do we know they have a preference? The final line shows us where the speaker’s values lie, “When she sold it she never wrote a poem.”
This is the speaker’s resolution to this conflict. For the speaker, all the vehicular beauty in the world couldn’t compare to the glorified messiness of the lived-in family van. Of course, this is not a universal sentiment. Some people don’t want the kids and the family car. And some people don’t have the ability to face this choice. Some folks just aren’t at that place in life yet. But there is real conflict for many between the desire for clean, luxurious, and simple lives, and the kind of life where we grab the bars on a van’s roof rack and shake it like the Hulk. And “Ford Galaxy” does a beautiful job of prompting us to consider it.
Brian Lundin is a writer who loves the craft of narrative storytelling. He has served as the Lead Writer for the Austin Stone Worship Story team since 2013 and teaches regularly in the Writer Development Program. You can find him online at Micro.blog and Twitter.