The Poetry Orchard

Why narrative poetry matters . . .

Another name for a narrative poem is a story poem. It’s as old as fruit in the garden, or for purposes of this discussion, as old as apples in the poetry orchard. To my way of thinking, narrative poetry is at the genesis of all literature.

In ancient times when most of the world was illiterate, oral tradition thrived as the popular and compelling mode of communication. It was as integral to everyday life as social media, movies, television, and radio today. Stories in oral tradition were expressed to impart the roots of history; moral precepts and instruction; the latest village updates; and entertainment. Back in the day, stories in verse were passed on to succeeding generations because they were easy to remember. Repeated words, refrains, rhymes, and musical language were often sung, chanted, and spoken in the thread of a good narrative. And people listened. Recall a rhyme, poem, or song before you could read or write and you get the idea.

With the adoption of various alphabets, literacy took hold. Stories were transmitted by writing things down. The oldest known written tales were often heroic adventures of battles, supernatural entities, and feats of great courage expressed in the form of epic poetry. These were typically very long tales in verse. The Epic of Gilgamesh for example, written somewhere around 2100 BCE is an epic poem from ancient Sumeria written on 12 clay tablets about King Uruk in Mesopotamia.

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey for example, are Greek epic poems from about 8 BCE  that speak to the 10-year Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus on his return home. When I stop and think about the scope of the 12,000 lines comprising the Odyssey poem, it takes my breath away.

A Reading from Homer (1885) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

It’s just plain fun to imagine sitting at the feet of an ancient storyteller and listening to the exquisite poetic rendering of events that happened long ago.

But what about today? One might ask if narrative poetry is relevant to modern day.

Today, narrative poetry has evolved through the ages and has taken twists and turns from the long epic tales of ancient times to ballads, dramatic narratives, sonnet sequences, lyric sequences, straight linear forms, prose poetry, and others. Narrative poems can be long, short, rhymed, unrhymed, metered, unmetered, told by a narrator, told through characters, dialogue-driven, musicality-woven, and lyric-laced. Certainly, there are differing views and preferences from the academic community. But one thing is for sure…

Narrative poetry tells a story.

And the concept of story is fundamental to all cultures across the globe as a means of connecting one-to-one and one to the many. Something delightful happens when we “story” in the conventions of poetic verse. Because there’s beauty and power in poetry.

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.  —Rita Dove

Here a few abbreviated examples of contemporary narrative poems. “Belongings” by Sandra M. Gilbert is a contemporary sonnet sequence about her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease:

…light seems to slow/
and sorrow as the meadow turns its face/
into your unlived season, the winter hollow/
where only a steep sky, in quarter inches,/
adjusts descending sun, ascending branches./

—Sandra M. Gilbert

“The Writer” by Richard Wilbur is a short narrative that describes the speaker’s daughter writing behind a closed bedroom door:

In her room at the prow of the house/
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,/
My daughter is writing a story./

I pause in the stairwell, hearing/
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys/
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

—Richard Wilbur

Finally, here is “After the Wilderness” by Andrew Hudgins from After the Lost War in a series of dramatic monologues in the voice of a Georgia poet and confederate soldier:

May 3, 1863

When Clifford wasn’t back to camp by nine,/
I went to look among the fields of dead/
before we lost him to a common grave./
But I kept tripping over living men/
and had to stop and carry them to help/
or carry them until they died,/
which happened more than once upon my back./

—Andrew Hudgins

Whatever the subject matter or specific form, narrative poetry is relevant today because a well-told story in poetic verse enhances our humanity. Narrative poetry deepens our understanding and simply makes us better.

Thanks for stopping by.

Schneider, Steven.  The Contemporary Narrative Poem, Critical Crosscurrents. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012

Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2013: Robert Frost and the Modern Narrative