27 February 2007

Writing Narrative Poetry

I am, by choice, a big fan of narrative poetry. I tend to write narrative poems more than any other type. What are they? Narrative poems are poems that tell stories. The Iliad was a series of long narrative poems strung together. Beowulf. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Cremation of Sam McGee. What makes them different than writing fiction? Narrative poems are stripped down to their bare essentials. They allow the reader to supply details the poem doesn't have time to tell. Hair color, type of shoes, breed of horse? Unless it is necessary to the poem, it's not in there. Narrative poems concern themselves with the immediacy of the moment rather than the emotional picture. They plunge you into the action, sword in hand, blood spatters on your shirt.

A good narrative poem is like any good piece of fiction. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Narrative poetry has more in common with short stories than novels, in that it focuses on a specific topic. Generally, the bigger the action, the longer the poem; the smaller the action, the smaller the poem. No one wants to read a twenty page missive on the how you learned to tie your shoes. (Trust me.) A few stanzas should be sufficient. Tell the story you need to tell, and nothing more. While thinking of your story poem this is where you bring in three important words to guide you through the beginning, middle, to the end. "What happened next?"

Narrative poems generally have a theme that runs through them. The theme helps the poet choose the words and meter that will set the tone and emphasize the theme. An important aspect of setting the tone is the choice of POV presentation. If the story is about you, or is significant to you, first person POV may be your best bet. Your narrator mirrors your personality. Third person, or storyteller POV, allows the poet to distance him/herself from the story being told. The story may even be told second or third hand for effect. Part of the advantage of writing poetry is the ability to study a topic in many different forms, through different narrators. The death of a loved one can be examined through a variety of lenses from the intimate to the distant.

One way to write narrative poems (you may want to cover your eyes, writers) is to outline them. Yep, the dreaded outline is a useful tool in organizing a narrative poem. "But isn't that like using a sledgehammer to smash a fly"? Not in my opinion. Any tool that helps bring definition to a piece of writing, and more importantly - enable me to write faster - is a good tool. You wouldn't build a birdhouse without a blueprint, would you? (If your birds are living in Dali-esque housing, no need to answer.) Even something as simple as: What is my topic? What is my theme? Whose voice do I want to tell this story in? What is my beginning, middle, end? A sentence for each. Even a word or two for each, anything to make you consider the options before you write. Then, with the objectives firmly fixed in your mind, go forth and write the first draft.

Poetry, especially narrative poetry does not spring forth complete as if a child from the head of Zeus. I really wish it were so, but one of my favorite quotes by L. Sprague de Camp sums it up. "There is no mistaking the dismay on the face of a writer who has just heard that his brain child is a deformed idiot." Revise, revise, revise, until you have the story that you wanted to tell, in a form that makes people want to read it. Lyric poetry wants to clue you in on the thoughts and feelings of the poet, hence the elegy, ode, and sonnet. Dripping, gooey with sentiment. Emotions are the driving force of lyric poems. It's a big reason Plato and Aristotle thought poets had no place in their utopias. All those messy emotional appeals. Narratives might have had a chance, for narrative poetry it's all about the story. Everything else is just gravy.

The openings to some narrative poems.

Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Burrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast:
They thought if only Casey could but get a whack at that,
They'd put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.


The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert W. Service

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.


And a different take on the narrative-

'Out, Out—' by Robert Frost

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them "Supper." At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. "Don't let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!"
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

##

6 comments:

Carla said...

I like narrative poetry too. I can't begin to write it - I have no ear for verse of any kind - but I do like to read it. Probably because it's another kind of story. I've often thought it might be one of the oldest forms of storytelling, as the music in the rhythm and the rhyme adds a special quality (as well as presumably being an aid to memory). Of your three examples, the Robert Frost one is the one I like least, but I don't know why.

Constance said...

That's what attracts me to it also, the storytelling aspect. Poetry is like any other type of writing. The more you practice, the better you get. (Or more obsessed.) The rhythm thing is probably why I can remember large chunks of poems I memorized in school. Also why I love listening to Garrison Kellior read poems, his voice makes any poem lyrical and interesting.

Robert Frost is a bit harder to get into. He writes deceptive poems - they look easy on the surface, but they have lots of layers. And they aren't always pleasant. It's the last line of that poem that haunts me -
"And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."

David Anthony Durham said...

Constance,

I went to a great reading the other night here at Colorado College. One of my colleagues, Dave Mason, has just published a verse novel called "Ludlow". It's about a mining union conflict and massacre in Colorado in 1914. I thought you might dig the combination of history and poetry.

I know nothing about poetry, but "Ludlow" seems quite good to me. Dave is certainly passionate about narrative poetry and argues that it should be much more a part of our national literature. The book got a starred review from Booklist, so I'm thinking it's one to safely recommend.

Constance said...

David, I'm always looking for good narrative poets to read. I will definately check him out. Poems based in history are difficult to write, and more difficult to interest people in reading. I play with poems referring to mythology and Roman history at times. The problem is, not that many people have enough background in the classics to either appreciate or have patience with that type of poem. Even my writing groups have little interest in critiquing the narrative or mythological poems.

I would like ANY type of poem to get more than a passing interest from people, but reality is it ain't gonna happen. I write on history, religion, death and mythology because that is what interests me. I write other things geared toward a particular submission - the West, or Wyoming - but I'm never quite comfortable with the result.

JeffStreeby said...

I found your site while looking for a place to submit my longest narrative poems for publication. Most are staged as dramatic monologues. Some current examples at http://www.cowboypoetry.com/sundaycreek.htm I consider this sequence of 83 dramatic monologues a single long mixed-form poem. Some of the longer new pieces are decasyllabic. I just finished an MFA in Gerald Stern's program, so I'm currently experimenting with more complex and layered narrative structures. I'm a fan of Frost, of William Heyen's Crazy Horse in Stillness, of Erica Funkhouser (especially of three long narrative pieces in Sureshot and of the new Earthly which contains beautifully lyric moments in its narratives) and of S.V. Benet's John Brown's Body, all of which I think deserve a wide audience.

Constance said...

Jeff, narrative poems are a tough sell outside the cowboy poetry arena. People just don't seem to have the patience. Your stuff reminds me of Robert Service, one of my favorites. Frost is wonderful to read and study. I have an entry on him somewhere further a long. Thanks for stopping by, bookmarked your page. :)