On June 3rd, I’m going to moderate a panel for Passaic County Community College Poetry Center's “Celebrating the Poetic Legacy of Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg: A Literary Festival and Conference.” (Click on the title for more information.) Our topic will be “The Narrative Tradition in Poetry.” We’ll look at the history of narrative poetry and discuss various aspects of the form, along with its relationship to lyric poetry and its future. It's quite an honor to be included in this festival and conference (after submitting a proposal for competitive vetting many months ago). I'm also delighted to have an opportunity to work with a group of distinguishes panelists—poets whom you've met here on the blog: Laura Boss, Diane Lockward, Edwin Romond, Joe Weil, and Michael T. Young. (Click on their names to visit these poets online.)
This prompt will take a look at narrative poetry and offer some suggestions and tips for writing a narrative poem of your own.
If you’ve heard of Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” you know something about narrative poetry. Narrative poems are like our favorite relatives—they like to tell stories.
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 literary 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 often focus on emotionally intense moments; they are typically powered by imagery and buttressed by nuance in ways that distinguish them from prose memoirs.
Personal narrative poems (the type seen most often in today's poetry) 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, while they often delight and entertain, they can also 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 in much the same way that prose memoirs do. 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 whether a narrative poem is an epic in the style of Homer, a collection of narratives as in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a "mood" narrative as in Poe's "The Raven," or a personal narrative as in Frost's "The Road Not Taken."
1. Think about a story that you really want to tell: something that happened to you (or to someone you know), a memory that haunts you, a family legend, or a dream. It may also be completely fictional.
2. Make a list (or do a free write) in which you record the important details of the story you want to write. Include the main “characters” and a bit about their relationships to one another.
3. Decide upon the approach you’d like to take in your 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. The narrator of the poem doesn’t have to be you—you have the option of writing in the first, second, or third person. Consider a variety of perspectives before deciding.
5. Start with a “bang” by beginning with a startling detail (or part of your story). A good narrative poem doesn’t have to begin at the beginning of the story. Move the story forward (and look back) from whatever your “point of entry” may be.
6. 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.”
5. 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.
6. Set a tone for your narrative poem 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.
7. 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.
8. 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!
"Beowulf" by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet