With the prose novel so firmly entrenched as the fiction writer’s main outlet these days, it’s easy to forget – or to never have known – that the novel is a relative newcomer on the writing scene, less than five hundred years old and only really popular in the last two hundred. When you consider that the earliest known narrative poem is probably over 3000 years old, the novel is a positive half-millennium-old baby. So, what is a narrative poem and how do you write one?
Putting it very simply, a narrative poem is one that tells a story as opposed to a lyric poem, which is an expression of personal feelings. Although there may be lyric elements to a narrative poem, in that it may be expressive and musical in nature, it must always have a plot and at least one character. Generally speaking, narrative poems are less strictly structured than lyric forms (such as the sonnet) as they have their roots in the oral storytelling traditions of pre-literate societies. Traditional narrative forms include:
Epics: Most commonly used to describe an heroic poem of great length and detail, eg. “The Odyssey” by Homer, the ancient Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh”, the Anglo-Saxon “Beowulf” and later, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” or Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.
Ballads: Much shorter than epics, ballads are often set to music in the manner of many folk songs of Britain, Ireland, Australia and North America. A ballad may be considered “common” or “literary”, partly depending on the author’s intent, but in general a literary ballad is composed primarily as a poem rather than something to be sung. Famous ballads include “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by S. T. Coleridge, “Border Ballad” by Sir Walter Scott, “John Barleycorn” by Robert Burns and “The Man From Snowy River” by A.B. Paterson.
Lays: The lay is most commonly a long romantic tale, made popular by the French troubadours but probably of Celtic origins, as revived by W.B. Yeats in “The Wanderings of Oisin” or “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” by Walter Scott.
A lot of narrative poems are difficult to classify except as “narrative poems”. If it’s got characters and a plot, a narrative’s what you’ve got.
Because the narrative poem is intended to be read aloud, most are metric and often rhyming to best please the ear (and, in the longer poems, to help the narrator remember the lines). Despite plenty of negative press in contemporary poetry circles, rhyme and meter are not old-fashioned or dead methods. In the hands of an imaginative poet, they can be freshened up time and again; why discard something that is tried, tested and proven to work? Here are some tools and there are lots more lying out in the shed – dust them off and see what you can make.
How to write a narrative poem
Plot: Unless you’re writing an epic (and let’s assume you’re not), you don’t need to go into every little detail. Decide how much of the story you’re going to tell – do you want to focus on just one single incident, or do you need to relate a tale from beginning to end? Identify the plot highlights – what definitely needs to be included for the narrative to make sense, and what can be discarded as incidental? As with any kind of poetry, the narrative poem is a distilled form of storytelling. The more tangents you take, the longer your poem will end up, and the more skilled you have to be to make sure it all ties together. The narrative doesn’t have to be linear (beginning, middle, end); you may like to experiment with your timeline, run parallel plots, try a retrospective approach and start at the end, anything you like – but remember that the reader has to be able to make some sense of it.
It often helps to write a plot outline. You might even like to try starting at your outline, with a new event for each stanza and flesh them out as you go along.
Character: Every narrative must have at least one character, usually a human, deity or animal – narratives have been successfully written from the perspective of an inanimate object such as a doorway or a mountain, but it takes a lot of thought and skill to make that work without being trite or seeming overly clever. (It’s a good challenge, though.) Will you tell your story from the first (I), second (you) or third (he/she) person perspective? Will it be the perspective of the protagonist, an observer or a chronicler? How much of your character’s personality is necessary to portray? For example, is the character simply in the right place at the right time to be part of a story (such as being a refugee from a disaster), or does he/she have some special trait that actually makes the story happen (courage, revenge, insanity)? Sometimes it’s helpful to write down a few paragraphs about your character, even if these details are never included in your poem – having as much information to hand as possible gives you more to choose from and lets you decide what is most important.
Language: The language of your poem is one of the major determinants of how your audience is going to react. One of the more frustrating myths surrounding poetry is that the more flowery the language, the more “poetic” the writing. A simple story told with sparing use of adjectives and metaphor can be just as expressive as rich, highly descriptive verse. The decision on language is very closely related to your character. Does a mystical, metaphorical tone suit a family fleeing from war? Does a course vernacular suit a wandering priest? The answer may be yes, but you must consider how to make it work – sometimes not choosing the obvious option makes for fascinating contrasts, and sometimes it just seems wrong.
Consider the different language in these extracts from two “going away to war” ballads:
'E wus a man uv vierlence, wus Mick, Coarse wiv 'is speech an' in 'is manner low, Slick wiv 'is 'ands, an' 'andy wiv a brick When bricks wus needful to defeat a foe. An' now 'e's gone an' mizzled to the war, An' some blokes 'as the nerve to arst "Wot for?"
Wot for? gawstruth! 'E wus no patriot That sits an' brays advice in days uv strife; 'E never flapped no flags nor sich like rot; 'E never sung "Gawsave" in all 'is life. 'E wus dispised be them that make sicg noise: But now - O strike! - 'e's "one uv our brave boys."
-- “The Moods of Ginger Mick: III. The Call of Stoush”, CJ Dennis
The Russian march is soft and slow, Through dust and heat, or slush and snow, When the Russian skies hang grey and low To the frontiers far where the Russians go; And they march to-night and they march to-day Like the grey wolves grey, like the grey wolves grey.
Nor song nor sound their track reveals, Save the ceaseless "clock" of the waggon wheels; But a rift in the mist shows a glint of sun On the long, dark shape of a toiling gun; And they strain by night and they drag by day To a distant goal, like the grey wolves grey.
-- “Grey Wolves Grey”, Henry Lawson
The heavy, “must-be-read-aloud” vernacular of Ginger Mick immediately places the reader in “conversation” with the narrator, allowing you to imagine what kind of man is telling this story simply by the way he speaks. The character of the narrator is as integral to the poem as the character of the protagonist, whereas in “Grey Wolves Grey”, the narrator is anonymous, a beautiful voice in the background allowing the imagery to star. The language determines what the reader will focus on; in a poem like Ginger Mick, for example, there’s no real scope for complex metaphor as it’s the telling and the views of the narrator that drive the poem. A more lyrical delivery, as in Grey Wolves Grey, allows for greater reflection as the reader is lulled by the sounds of the poem into a kind of reverie.
There is a catchcry in contemporary poetry circles of “show, don’t tell”; in narrative poetry, the telling can be just as effective, provided it’s done with a fine touch and a clear idea of what you want to achieve.
Rhyme and Meter
There are, of course, many possible rhyme and meter combinations – indeed, there’s no set requirement for either, but remember that a narrative poem should be read aloud and the audience is more likely to enjoy a poem that uses sound to enhance the mood and gives them lines they can easily remember.
Common rhyme schemes are:
Heroic couplets: Two-line rhyme in iambic pentameter, where the rhyme is always masculine (ie. rhyme only on the last syllable of the iamb). The couplet is usually self-contained, not enjambed. Stanzas made up of these couplets can be of any length.
xX / xX / xX / xX / xA xX / xX / xX / xX / xA
Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel A well-bred Lord t' assault a gentle Belle? O say what stranger cause, yet unexplor'd, Could make a gentle Belle reject a Lord? In tasks so bold can little men engage, And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage?
-- “The Rape of the Lock”, Alexander Pope
Heroic triplets: Three-line rhyme in iambic pentameter, all else is as heroic couplets.
xX / xX / xX / xX / xA xX / xX / xX / xX / xA xX / xX / xX / xX / xA
Nor let him then enjoy supreme command; But fall, untimely, by some hostile hand, And lie unburied on the barren sand!
-- “Aeneid”, trans. John Dryden
Ballad (hymnal) stanza: Four lines of alternating rhyme and meter, usually iambic tetrameter and trimeter.
xX / xX / xX/ xA xX / xX / xB xX / xX / xX/ xA xX / xX / xB
xX / xX / xX/ xA xX / xX / xB xX / xX / xX/ xC xX / xX / xB (also called common measure)
The very deep did rot : O Christ ! That ever this should be ! Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs Upon the slimy sea.
-- “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Long hymnal stanza: Four lines of alternating rhyme, all in iambic tetrameter.
xX / xX / xX/ xA xX / xX / xX/ xB xX / xX / xX/ xA xX / xX / xX/ xB
xX / xX / xX/ xA xX / xX / xX/ xB xX / xX / xX/ xC xX / xX / xX/ xB
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the Holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
-- “Jerusalem (Preface from Milton: A Poem), William Blake
Heroic stanza: Four lines of alternating rhyme, all in iambic pentameter.
xX / xX / xX / xX / xA xX / xX / xX / xX / xB xX / xX / xX / xX / xA xX / xX / xX / xX / xB
Peace was the prize of all his toils and care, Which war had banish'd and did now restore; Bologna's walls thus mounted in the air To seat themselves more surely than before.
-- “Heroic Stanzas”, John Dryden
Dactylic (heroic) hexameter: Two-line rhyme of six dactyls (Xxx, with the last dactyl often truncated to Xx or even just X, depending on the rhythm the writer chooses to employ – faster transitions between lines add to the sense of action and excitement, whereas the full dactyl can be more sombre). This is the most common meter for classical heroic epics.
Because the dactyl is a Greek foot and in that language is actually long syllable – two short syllables or long syllable – long syllable, in English it’s not uncommon to substitute a spondee (XX) for a dactyl in a couple of places. This does not change the overall meter, as a spondee takes much the same time to recite as a dactyl.
List to the mournful tradition still sung by the pines of the forest; List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.
-- “Evangeline”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Elegiac couplets: Two-line rhyme in alternating dactylic hexameter and pentameter with a caesura (break or pause) in the second line. In Greek and Latin poetry, the dactyl is defined as a short syllable followed by a long one – in English, it’s Xxx (one heavily stressed syllable, two light ones). I’ll use the English version for a simpler example.
Xxx / Xxx / Xxx / Xxx / Xxx / Xa (note the last foot is a trochee, or truncated dactyl) Xxx / Xxx / X ║ Xxx / Xxx/ A
In the hexameter rises the fountain’s silvery column, In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.
-- “The Ovidian Elegiac Meter”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Rather than trying to get this to work perfectly in English (you can, but it’s a lot of fiddling around), most English writers take the idea of alternating hexameter and pentameter and change it into iambs. The differing line lengths tend to give a lighter air to a poem, and the shorter lines can be used for extra “punch”.
Traps to Avoid
Telling a story in verse is challenging and at first will probably seem unnatural. It’s tempting to take shortcuts with syntax or to use phrasing styles that you’ve seen in classic poems – but remember, you’re writing for a contemporary audience just as those poets of old were, and it’s always best to use language that is currently accepted.
· Archaisms – thou art beauteous. There are legitimate uses for archaic speech, for example if one wishes to highlight the ancient or learned nature of a character, especially a seer or prophet, however to simply use archaic language because it’s “poetic” really achieves the opposite. Aping Shakespeare will make you appear unoriginal and will not do good things to your credibility as a poet.
· Inverted syntax or “Yoda speak” – travelled she did to lands distant. While it’s not forbidden, be really careful of using it unless you’re convinced it fits perfectly into your story, as any inconsistencies like this are going to stand out to the reader/listener. Even if you have to change a rhyme or two in order to avoid inversions, there’s almost always an alternative way of phrasing that’s more logical.
· Elision or contraction – o’er, s’pose, ‘til. The deliberate omission of a letter or letters from a word or phrase, which achieves a slurring effect either within one word or between two or more, so that there are no noticeable breaks in rhythm. This is a genuinely very useful tool, especially for writing in dialect where pronunciation is vital to the character. It’s also handy to fit lines to your metric pattern… and this is where the caution comes in. It’s very tempting to “over-elide”, contracting words that really should not be in order to force them into your line. Find an alternative, as the reader/listener will not enjoy muddling through illogical words and forced pronunciations that serve no poetic purpose.
· Forced rhyme and meter –
When the train left Edinburgh The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow, But Boreas blew a terrific gale, Which made their hearts for to quail, And many of the passengers with fear did say – “I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”
-- The Tay Bridge Disaster, William Topaz McGonagall
The full text of the above poem can be found at McGonagall Online, -- it’s suggested reading mainly because it’s widely recognised as the “worst poem of all time”. It should be fairly obvious as to why.
Of course, McGonagall is not alone in crimes against poetry. Many a ballad forces words into places they simply don’t want to go, so that the reader must say a line several times, trying out different emphasis each time, in order to make the meter work. If you have to rush through words or place emphasis unnaturally, the meter is not correct. A little licence is allowable, since reciting poetry is not the same as speaking normally, however if your pronunciation is mangled when you shove words into patterns they simply don’t fit, then the rhythm of the poem will be destroyed.
McGonagall uses just about every trick in the book to make his poem awful. Not only is his meter forced, his rhyme trite and predictable and his syntax inverted almost to oblivion, his story is far too long and drawn out to maintain any real interest. Then again, as he’s now very famous perhaps he knew what he was doing… however, I would advise against using the same techniques to advance your own poetic career.
Consider, as you write, the number of well-loved stories we have today only because they were recorded in narrative poetry. Consider the bard, welcome at any fireside from village hut to palace because of the poems he brought. Consider the satirist feared by the pompous, for he could make them foolish in verse for eternity. Consider your own poem living on for three thousand years or more. It’s poetry: it could happen.
References and Further Reading:
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy (1318). Selected English translations in free ebooks from Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org
Blake, William. Milton: A Poem (c.1811). http://www.blakearchive.org
Burns, Robert. John Barleycorn: A Ballad (1782). http://www.robertburns.org
Dennis, C.J. The Sentimental Bloke (1916). Collected works available from The Larrikin, http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/lit.html
Dryden, John. Heroic Stanzas (On the Death of Oliver Cromwell). (1659) http://www.readbookonline.net
Finneran, Richard J. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (1996), Scribner Publishing.
Hall, Leslie (trans.) Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem. Free ebooks from Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org
Homer. Odyssey. (c. 1100 BCE) Selected English Translations available from Vancouver Island University Records, https://records.viu.ca/~Johnstoi/homer/h...ations.htm
Jastrow, Morris (ed). An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic. Free ebooks from Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org
Lang, Andrew. Sir Walter Scott and the Border Minstrelsy. Free ebooks from Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org
Lawson, Henry. My Army, Oh My Army and Other Songs (1915). Free ebooks from Project Gutenberg Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847). http://www.hwlongfellow.org/works_evangeline.shtml
Milton, John. Paradise Lost (1667). Free ebooks from Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org
Pinkney, Maggie. Classic Australian Verse (2001). The Five Mile Press, Rowville Vic.
Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems. Free ebooks from Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org
Stauffer, Donald A. (ed). Selected Poetry and Prose of Coleridge (1951). Random House, USA.
Stillman, Francis. The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary (1966). Thames & Hudson, London.
Virgil. The Aeneid (19 BCE) trans. John Dryden. http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/aeneid.html