{National Poetry Month} On Narrative Poetry

On Narrative Poetry by Natalya Lawren {guest writer}

Poetry is not all about exploring a concept in a series of images– maybe it’s more like short stories which are, oh, right– exploring a concept in a series of images. But hey, joking aside, the difference between poetry and narrative is large, because poetry may contain a story, but will not flesh it out and tell it like a short story or a novel might.

Except when it comes to narrative poetry, which is very common, though popular perception makes it less so in modern times. Epic poetry was the way in which stories were passed on orally and to ease the process of memorizing. The language was precisely memorized and the rhythm and rhyme carried it along. Homer traded in these intricacies, particularly following the epic adventure of some of the most popular focus of early narrative poetry, that of heroes and gods.  Chaucer, Dante, and Arthurian Legend are also good examples of stories told through poetry. Even Shakespeare, though not completely in verse, utilized in the speech of the nobility in his plays.

Narrative poetry does not need to be long or spoken, but its requirements are that it tells a story, has a plot and usually, like prose, a character and setting. But as we move more into either an implied story or some change in approach to poetry, we appear to be moving farther from a continuous narrative that has such a fantastic impact. Not to be too hasty and attempt to mourn the loss of a form that is alive, there are still narrative poems being written, of which I would say my current favorite is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Perhaps we will witness a return to poetry being the prevalent form of telling a tale.  Perhaps as an epic fantasy, perhaps a personal story. A ballad of romance gone wrong, or how you came to love mint chocolate chip ice cream.

I, unfortunately, am terrible at Narrative poetry, so I will not endeavor to share any of my disastrous attempts. But despite my utter failure, I’ve included this category because it is a massive part of poetry historically and presently. Just like poems can express revolutions, songs, people, and the fantastical, poetry is not only reserved by the abstracted– it can express a plot of a story. Some of the most successful poems and famous creations have been just that.

What may be so distancing from poetry might be this need for it to be/seem/fulfill expectations of the abstract.  Yet storytelling has always been a captivating experience, and when you find the right story in the right form, you fall in love. That’s what reading and hearing and experiencing has been all about. And if you feel as though National Poetry Month detracts from this experience of reading a story, I am here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be like that.  We have become caught up in a stereotype of everything poetry is and must become, but what I am trying to do for myself and everyone else is exploring the many facets of what poetry is, because we get to the unfortunate truth– everyone judges a book by its cover.

Yet a cover for a book of poetry may entail the fantastic journey of the lone hero in slaying a dragon. It can be a quirky and honest experience of a mistake. What have we to say to that? If we had to give the prevalence of poetry in the original form (before writing evolved onto paper) a reason, it would be to tell a story– to unfold the image of the creation or teach the people the history of a tumultuous war. How would the explanation differ from present-day?

I encourage us to be aware of the narrative form and to seek out writings in it. Read some classics, or find contemporary or still-living poets and their work. Tell a story of your own and think the best way to formalize it. Narrative poetry is a fantastic thing to read and experience, and I encourage everyone to seek it out for National Poetry Month.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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