Saturday, November 9, 2013

Prompt #171 –The Personal Narrative

Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story and is a long-time favorite among poets and readers. When I was in fifth grade, everyone in the class was required to memorize and recite “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” a historical narrative by Longfellow. I can remember memorizing a stanza each week and then, after much practicing with my parents, getting up in front of the class to recite the whole poem. I still remember the first few stanzas! Narrative poems can vary in length from very long to short. Sometimes the stories they tell are quite complex and include the voices of characters and narrators. Narrative poems from the past, for the most part, were written in metered verse and include ballads, idylls, lays, epics

The personal narrative, however, is different and is popular today among many free verse poets. Often misunderstood, personal narratives sometimes fail to move beyond the anecdotal and simply recount an experience that the poet has had. A great personal narrative, though, has to be larger and more meaningful than an anecdotal poem. In other words, a great personal narrative can’t rest on its anecdotal laurels and must do more than simply tell a story. It needs to approach the universal through the personal, it needs to mean more than the story it tells, and the old rule “show, don’t tell” definitely applies.

This week let’s try a personal narrative poem, but right from the get go, let’s set a limit of no more than 30 lines. this may help avoid the pitfall of superfluous details.

1. For starters, decide what true story from your life you’d like to tell. Think about why you want to write a poem about this event in your life. Joy down some ideas about the sequence of the story, the people concerned, and the emotions involved.

2. Plan on writing in the first person singular, but know that you’re fee to change that later on.

3. Consider the approach you’d like to take in your personal narrative: chronological, flashback, or reflective. In chronological, you structure your poem around a time-ordered sequence of events; in flashback, you write from a perspective of looking back; and in reflective, you write thoughtfully or “philosophically” about the story you tell.

4. Don’t simply relate your narrative or tell your readers what they should feel. Your job is to show and not to tell. Avoid “emotion words” such as “anger”—bear in mind that when someone is angry he or she is more likely to slam a door than to say, “Hey, I’m angry.” You can show anger or any other emotion without ever using the words. Let actions and sensory images lead your readers to understand the emotions in the poem. As the writer of a personal narrative poem, it’s your job to include revealing details, not to interpret or explain them for your readers. You may want to avoid the passive voice, “to be” verbs, and “ing” endings as these can inhibit the process of showing rather than telling.

5. Set a tone for your personal narrative. Tone in poetry is an overall feeling that inhabits every corner of your poem. Think about your story and the feeling with which you want your readers to leave the poem.

6. Think about the perspective from which you want to tell your story. Do you want to tell the story as if it were happening in the present (using the present tense)? Do you want to write from a perspective of looking back (past tense)? This is, of course, up to you and you will need to think about how use of the past or of the present tense will impact your poem.

7. Just as a short story includes rising action, a climax, and denouement or resolution, so should a personal narrative poem. Use of stanzas can be helpful in emphasizing the sequence of your poem. Be acutely aware that you’re writing a poem and not prose. Narrative poetry often springs from a prose impulse and becomes mired in prose-like details. Remember that you’re writing a poem and should be focused on imagery, figurative language, and the sound quality (alliteration, assonance, dissonance) of your work. Don’t become so engrossed in the story that you forget about the elements of good poetry!


Following is the title poem from Catherine Doty’s book, Momentum. Cat was last week's guest prompter.

Read the poem carefully two or three times. What makes this such an effective personal narrative?

What has Cat done in the poem to invite the reader into her experience?

How did you feel when reading the poem? What do you think Cat wanted you to feel?

How does Cat show without telling?

How does this personal narrative that describes a childhood experience take you back to your own childhood? What’s the “universal” message that Cat conveys through her personal experience?

How do the language and imagery enhance meaning?

How does this poem grow so much larger than the simply anecdotal?

Think about how Cat brought the poem to closure. What does Cat's “dismount” do for the poem? What did it do for your understanding of the poem. 

By Catherine Doty

Your friends won’t try to talk you out of the barrel,
or your brag to go first, which has nothing to do with bravery.
And you’re so hungry to earn their love you forget
to claim first your, perhaps, last look at this mountain—
crab apples hanging sour in the sun, abandoned Buick,
a favorite place to play, dismantled and weathered
and delicate as a voting booth. Instead you dive straight away
and headfirst into darkness, the steel drum that dusts you,
like a chicken part, with rust. Looking out, there’s nothing
to see of your friends but their calves, which are scabby,
and below them the filthy sneakers, shifting, shifting,
every foot aching to kick you off this cliff.
Their faces, you know, are blank with anticipation,
the look you see when they watch TV eating popcorn.
They’re already talking about you as if you’re gone,
as if you boarded a bus and roared out of earshot,
when one foot flashes forward and launches you.

You know as you feel that first solid slam you are lost.
The barrel changes shape with each crash to earth,
as you will later, assuming and losing lives, but this
is so true now: ankles flayed to the bone, cracked ribs
and crushed mint, the brittle, pissy sumac. Right now
the pin oaks are popping in their sockets, the hillside
wears your shoes, clouds pleat and buck. You know, of course,
that no one’s going second, and friends who tell this story
will use the word idiot, rolling their hands in the air,
but you know you know what your life is for now and rise up,
and just about scalp yourself on that tree limb above you,
another thing you couldn’t possibly know was coming,
another which, like your first breath, was not your idea.


  1. This is brilliant! Thanks for reminding us that a great personal narrative has to do more than tell a story! Love Cat Doty's poem!

  2. So often at poetry readings I hear one dreary narrative after another. Many of them are "so what" poems, and I don't mean to be disrespectful here. It's just that too many poets write from that prose impulse you've noted, and their narratives don't seem to move beyond that. I would imagine that it takes a lot of hard work and tweaking, not to mention time, to develop a strong personal narrative poem. The Doty poem you cite is fantastic and a great example of what a personal narrative can do.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bob! I'm sure there are many who agree with you and, yes, the Doty poem is extraordinary.

  3. That example poem by Cat Doty is AMAZING! Nice prompt, thanks, adele.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rich! I love the Doty poem ...

  4. Early Sunday morning silence
    heralded by a one note song
    backgrounded with a building chorus
    a crescendo of sound
    colliding thoughts
    against the inner surfaces
    Cows in Davie
    Jersey cows
    Jersey tomatoes
    beef tomatoes
    by the heavenly scent
    of a passing angel

    1. Fantastic, Risa! I love the "musical" beginning and the continued musicality of the poem (the way you worked with sound). Also love the playfulness and the great dismount. Thanks so much for sharing with us.

    2. Well done, Risa! A divergence from your accustomed style and, as Adele noted, wonderful musicality. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks, Adele. I was wondering how you would respond. My work seems to have taken a new direction, thanks to you and your efforts here on the blog.

  6. Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)November 15, 2013 at 6:05 PM

    Wonderful insights into developing an effective personal narrative, which I think would work as well for prose as for poetry. An interesting poem by Risa.

    Thank you, Adele,
    Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)