The Dramatic Poem

If narrative poems tell stories and lyric ones sound like music, then dramatic poems characterize. But again, the mode is more complex than that. Like narrative and lyric poems, dramatic ones come in all sizes, styles and voices. Moreover, a dramatic poem can be essentially narrative or lyric. Skilled poets often cross the borders of these three major verse categories, as they should; nonetheless, every poet should be able to distinguish a predominantly narrative poem from a lyric one (and vice versa) and identify a dramatic poem that borrows from either the narrative or the lyric. If you are able to identify these elementary types, you can go about the business of composing them and, later, more sophisticated fare.

In simple terms, characterization — developing personality, motive and viewpoint —is at the core of dramatic work. Although all poems feature narrators or storytellers who don masks when speaking, characters in a dramatic poem are invented (fictive), historical (real —past or present) or composite (part invented, part real). These characters, like actors, have roles in three varieties of dramatic verse:

The dramatic episode. As its name implies, a dramatic episode features an encounter of at least two characters (one of whom may be silent). This type of poem often contains elements of narrative verse in that (a) a story or incident is related or suggested, (b) appropriate moments of narration are featured (Now, Now and Then and Then) and (c) readers can sense the passage of time.

The character study. As its name also implies, a character study is just that: an analysis of an invented, a historical or a composite entity. Often it is categorized as a voice poem because the entity speaks without interacting with other characters. Thus, such a dramatic poem is related to the lyric (especially one that focuses on a living thing —in this case, a person).

The dramatic sequence. A series of dramatic episodes or character studies (or combination of the two), this type of poem often combines the best of all modes — narrative, because a tale is told or im plied; lyric, because the focus is heightened and intense; and dramatic, because characters are featured. Although a dramatic sequence differs from a poetic play, say, by Shakespeare, in that its form is based on a series of individual poems instead of on acts and scenes, it shares similar traits with its stage cousin. In Hamlet, for instance, characters interact with each other in a performed narrative (or series of episodes on stage), character studies are featured via soliloquies (as in Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" speech), and actors obviously are fictive, historical or composite entities.

Unfortunately, because of its length and other complexities, the dramatic sequence is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, if tenets of this Chapter are combined with those in chapter twenty, about the poetic sequence, you should be able to craft such a poem. (To whet your appetite, I have included opening poems of dramatic sequences in the mini anthology from two contemporary works: "The Psychiatrist at the Cocktail Party" in City Life by Frederick Feirstein and "The Homunculus" in Castle Tzingal by Fred Chappell.)

To illustrate how dramatic verse characterizes, let's consider one of the best such poems ever made.

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