Here’s another week for the poets—you prose writers come back next week, okay? For now, I’ll be talking about narrative poetry—that is, poetry that tells a story. A closely related term is ballad, which is a narrative poem that is meant to be sung. Narrative poems and ballads have played an important role in human history; in the centuries when common people were largely illiterate, it was through ballads that they passed on the stories of their heroes, and traveling minstrels spread aspects of culture from one place to another.
Narrative poetry is still loved today—can you say Dr. Seuss? Children respond very positively to a rhymed story. Also, many popular songs are ballads—you can find them in every genre from folk to C and W to rock.
Narrative poetry shares many characteristics with the short story. It has a plot, with most or all of the plot elements: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. It contains conflict (remember all of those Man vs. _____ bits?). It features characters who may be good guys or bad guys. The biggest difference, of course, is that narrative poetry is rhymed, so there are a few things that you’ll want to consider when writing it.
1. Since a narrative poem is typically longer than other poetry, you’ll want to choose a very interesting meter (see last week’s class). Our brains like rhythm, but after dozens of lines of da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH, it starts to become wearying and predictable. A narrative poem is a great place to tuck in a little “echo” line of 4 syllables, or a syncopated 5th line, or something else to force your reader to sit up and pay attention. Many narrative poems tend to have longer lines than those in lyrical poetry.
2. Similarly, choose your rhyme scheme carefully. We haven’t had the “rhyme scheme” class yet, but I’ll touch on it here. Rhymed couplets are two lines in a row in which the end words rhyme:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are
When you use lots and lots of rhymed couplets, not only do you fall into that sort of hypnotic rhythm mentioned in the first point, but also your reader can begin to predict what’s coming at the end of every other line. You don’t want your writing to be predictable, do you? Consider a rhyme scheme in which lines 2 and 4 rhyme, or lines 1, 4, and 5, for example. A narrative poem is a great place for internal rhyme.
3. Not every story lends itself well to narrative poetry. Humorous stories work well, as do children’s stories, folk tales, and fables. Serious stories are trickier. Telling an introspective story of mourning a family member—in rhyme—would just feel wrong. It’s possible to have serious narrative poetry (I’m thinking of the songs of the late Harry Chapin, for example), but be sure to ask yourself if a long rhyming poem is the best way to tell your serious story.
4. Keep it fairly simple—a minimum of characters, one straightforward plot line, one conflict that’s resolved by the end of the poem. As the poet/narrator, feel free to add a final stanza that summarizes or teaches a lesson.
Homework: I’m not going to ask you to write an entire narrative poem! Here are your choices:
Give us a well-known story, from the Bible or from popular culture, that might make a good narrative poem, and tell why. OR…
Give an example of an already-written narrative poem or ballad that you’re familiar with. Tell why it appeals to you. OR…
Comment on something in this lesson, or ask a question. OR…
Write the first 12 lines or so of a narrative poem, making sure to use an interesting meter and rhyme scheme.
IF you do one of the assignments above, you may link to a narrative poem of yours on this site.
I’m still in Florida for a few more days, and still have not-as-frequent computer access as I would at home. I promise to get to all of your posts as soon as I can!
Next week: Onomatopoeia