How It Works

My grandmother picks through

Snapbeans. Her lap full of the best ones,

The ends fall down around her feet.

Holding the basket, I wait

While she empties her apron and sweeps

What's left into a neat pile.

You'll be eating this stuff

Long after I'm gone, she tells me.

It's true. When I was a child

I ate what she and my mother had done

Long before I was born.

Hales's poem employs one significant scene depicting the narrator as a child with her grandmother. Though quite brief, the action has a beginning ("My grandmother picks through/Snapbeans"), a middle (I wait/While she empties her apron," etc.) and an end ("You'll be eating this stuff/Long after I'm gone, she tells me").

General Rule: The simpler the action, the smaller the poem.

Theme: An undercurrent of meaning runs through a narrative poem. All types of poems have themes, but narrative ones usually feature scenes that also imply or forebode the theme. In other words, any action in a narrative should also illustrate thematic concerns as well as articulate those concerns via voice.

Ask yourself, "What is the theme of my work and how does it relate to each scene or action in my story?"

Whenever a narrative poet mentions an act or introduces a scene, each must be significant with regard to theme or the reader will not fully understand or appreciate the story. Moreover, those acts or scenes must build so they forebode the climax (or high point) in the story or otherwise resolve or imply the conflict via a closed or an open ending. If, for instance, your poem has a theme of forgiveness, action or scenes should echo or show that feeling or indicate that a change associated with that feeling is imminent.

In Hales's poem above, the grandmother's act of picking through snapbeans is symbolic as is the narrator's waiting and grandmother's final comment. They imply what is broken and passed on in mother-daughter relationships, as indicated in the title —"How It Works" — and in the last two lines: "I ate what she and my mother had done/ Long before I was born."

General Rule'. After you have identified the topic and theme, break the story into the beginning, middle and end, and identify how many acts or scenes you will need to convey the theme. Then rank order those acts or scenes so they build to an ending.

Voice: The voice of a narrative poem should be aligned with the subject matter (as you learned to do in chapter eight). In addition, you have to make one more determination: Should you use the first person (I/we) or the third person (he/she/they) to tell your story?

If you chose the first person, you are employing a narrator. If you choose the third person, you are employing a storyteller. Here's the difference:

• Narrator'. You must use I or we in the poem; thus, your narrator must make an appearance, either alone (I) or with others (we). Moreover, tones of voice become aspects of the narrator's personality. If you tell the story with angry, hip and savvy tones, your narrator also is angry, hip and savvy.

• Storyteller: You cannot use I or we in the poem; thus, if people appear in the work, he, she or they are characters (depicted in the third person). Moreover, tones of voice in the poem belong to an unseen character on the page. Now if you tell your story with angry, hip, savvy tones, those traits do not belong to any character but to the storyteller who never appears in the piece.

Ask yourself: "Do I have a significant role in this story or am I simply telling it secondhand?" If you have a role, chances are you will use a narrator. If you are telling it secondhand, you may want to use a story teller — someone who might have heard the tale or known the person(s) involved in the action.

Let's discuss using a narrator first. A common mistake is to use the first person simply to describe what happens in a piece.

Consider this quick poem:

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