We’ve worked with narrative poems in the past (see Prompt #171, November 9, 2013) and, because of the genre’s popularity, we’re revisiting it this week. The challenge will be to write a personal narrative (a personal memory) in a poem and to write it in such a way that you leave out enough details for the reader to “fit” into your poem. In other words, it will be your story, but you'll need to think about why that story will be interesting, and perhaps even compelling, to your readers.
Historically, poetry has its roots in an oral tradition that predates all other forms of modern communication. Before there were printed books, people told stories through narrative poems. Early narrative verse used rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and vivid language—easily remembered and recited and, arguably, the first examples of performance poetry.
Early narratives were ballads, epics, idylls, and lays. Many of these are long, especially examples such as Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” and Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” Narrative poems have also been collected into interrelated groups, as with Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
As a “genre,” narrative poetry has retained importance throughout written history. Over the past thirty years, the form has made a comeback against lyric poetry, which dominated the last century. Contemporary narrative poems are dramatic and compelling and deal with personal histories, losses, regrets, and recollections. Today’s narrative poems focus on brief but emotionally intense moments; they are typically powered by imagery and buttressed by nuance in ways that distinguish them from prose memoirs.
Narrative poems initiate contact between poets and readers; they bring people together through mutual experiences—specific details may be different, but they “speak” to the shared situations of both poet and audience. Importantly, they teach us that we’re not alone.
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.
1. Don’t simply relate your narrative or tell your readers what they should feel. Your job is to show and not to tell.
2. 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.
3. Decide upon 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. Begin writing in the first person singular, but feel free to change that once you’ve completed a couple of drafts.
5. Be aware that merely telling your story and arranging it in lines and stanzas won’t make it a poem. Think about the qualities of writing that make good poems good and include some of them in this poem.
1. Remember that narrative poems often fail because the poets have included too much detail. Leave out details that might mean something to you but aren’t essential to the narrative you’ve chosen to tell.
2. Watch out for over-use of adjectives.
3. Don’t waste words introducing characters or describing scenes—jump in with both feet.
4. Don’t ramble. Be concise and get to the point. Yes, there should be a point to your narrative—something that’s something bigger than the experience, something with which readers will be able to relate. Along that line, be sure to leave room in your poem for the reader to enter and “belong.”