The Narrative Poem

Narrative poems come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: They tell stories. People have been telling stories since the dawn of creation, and the great religious and poetic works reflect this. For instance, a parable is a story. Throughout time, in cultures around the world, the person who tells an enlightened tale has been honored as a priest or visionary with unique powers. Even the word poet, used today in conversation, implies that a person has a special gift that distinguishes him or her from other writers.

Children, of course, love stories. Typically, a narrative poem — heard in childhood — ignites the muse within us, so we vow to become poets when we grow up. Such was the case with me upon hearing "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose first stanza begins:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.

I can still remember my mother reading that poem to me in our living room, transporting me to the Revolutionary War via Longfellow's tale. Reading it again for this chapter almost thirty-five years later, I am moved more by the memory of narrative verse — and how it inspired me —than by the poem; however, without "Paul Revere's Ride," I might never have been moved to become a poet and share my stories with others.

"Since I was a small child, I have loved to hear a good story," says Jim Peterson whose first book, The Man Who Grew Silent (Bench Press, 1989), features several narrative selections. "In fact, I'd rather hear a good story than read one. A narrative poem between, say, two and six pages is ideal for oral delivery. It doesn't last so long that the listener loses interest. It is condensed, avoiding the lengthy build-up and detail that novels and even short stories usually require." Peterson observes that a narrative poem usually is stripped to the barest essentials, "the basic actions and transactions of its characters."

Thus, it can pack more punch than fiction.

But many poets (including me) believe that narrative verse has suffered in modern times. Poet Robert Kinsley notes: "It's shameful that we have lost so much in terms of the narratives of our lives. No more real myths in the world, so very few stories that are larger than our immediate selves. I suppose in some ways that's why narrative verse has fallen out of favor in poetry, and with good reason perhaps. Too much of it is so narrow. So little goes beyond the immediacy of the moment."

Two points:

1. When Jim Peterson says that a narrative poem has appeal because it is stripped to its barest essentials, he is talking about structure — the craft involved in making such verse.

2. When Robert Kinsley notes that narrative verse has fallen out of favor because much of it is too narrow, he also is talking about structure —or lack of craft involved in making story poems.

True, some people are natural storytellers. They spin their tales and enchant others without stopping to consider how they are able to do this. If they are also poets, they intuit basic elements of a story but, alas, cannot explain why theirs succeed. If you are like most of us, however, sometimes you can tell a good story and sometimes not; thus, by knowing the basic elements of narrative verse, you'll be able to improve your poem or detect why it will succeed or fail —often before you even begin to compose the work.

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  • marvin
    Who is poet "robert kinsley"?
    8 years ago
  • jennie
    What is the structure of a narrative poem for children?
    8 years ago

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