Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Scintillating Shapes of Story

Nancy’s post discussing pairings of fiction and poetry for book clubs (not unlike the wines and cheeses that nourish discussion) gives a wonderful example of narrative poetry in Miller Williams’ “The Curator,” a free-verse piece. Now, friends, let’s open a dialogue about narrative poetry in the comments section here.  In the weeks ahead, Nancy and I plan to post some good examples of narrative poems that we find compelling and hope you will join us here to read, comment, and suggest narrative poems you love and writers you admire.  While this is not the place to submit your own work for discussion, it is a wonderful forum for links to poems and poets who inspire your work.  Want to share?

So, let’s talk form. Should narrative poems always be free verse? Not at all, in my opinion. Narrative poems can take any number of forms. Some of the most memorable to us from childhood are rhymed and metered to a fine bounce.  Remember “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer or Henry Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”?  Poets from Shel Silverstein to AA Milne peopled poems with rhymes we could dance to.  As we grew older, we engaged with epics, narrative poems with a long tale to tell, but also with shorter stories like Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” Is this a character study or a narrative poem?  Look at the form it takes—couplets in iambic pentameter— that nevertheless does not read in the bouncy fashion of our childhood favorites.

Now, have a look at Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” written in blank verse (iambic pentameter with no rhyme scheme) so masterfully that Frost uses two partial lines of conversation to complete one line of iambic pentameter, not an easy thing to do. Through conversation, the characters are developed, the plot thickened, and the overall conflict and purpose of the poem revealed or suggested. There’s nothing like a misunderstanding between a man and woman to generate heated discussion. Frost appeals to readers for understanding about this couple’s plight.  I had a student tell me that “Home Burial” and “Death of a Hired Man” could be short short stories or flash fiction.  Clearly, narrative elements—a story and characters—were obvious to him.  Why not just call it prose then? 

Because Frost is a poet.  Because the lines and the form itself, blank verse, is verse, not prose.  Because the margins and line lengths suggest NOT a prose form but a poetic one.  Let’s face it, any number of works can be re-formed into another kind of writing.  The writer gets to make that call for his or her own work.  Still, isn’t the effectiveness of a narrative’s form and structure an interesting conversation to have with your book club?

None of the poems mentioned here are short poems, begging the question of how long a narrative poem should be.  E.A. Poe in his “Philosophy of Composition” insisted that all stories be only as long as one could read in one sitting, no interruptions. Homer would clearly disagree. Perhaps more important than length, I’d say a narrative poem should be effective, long enough to tell the story as well as it can be told and still leave a mystery for the reader to discover. Yes, I know that Nancy and I arrived at 110 as our line limit, simply because we’d like to represent more than one writer in our anthology. What do you think about the relationship between length of poem, story told, and reader engagement?

Can a story be told in fewer lines, even in a few words?  Perhaps you recall DeGroot’s play Papa that says Ernest Hemingway allegedly bet he could write a story in under ten words.  His story was this: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."   Whether or not the writer actually wrote the story or engaged in the bet, the legend of it engages writers and thinkers to consider what a story is—what is written or what is suggested that leads the reader to imagine a completion, an actual story.  I submit that these six words are like a good question, the seed of a story, which, when planted in the mind of a writer or reader, becomes rooted and leafy, fleshed out as a plethora of thriving stories.  The six words alone won’t do it for me.  However, you may feel differently and consider this a microscopic story.

As you write and submit your own strong narratives to our Call for Submissions for The Well-Versed Reader, help us engage you in discussing effective narrative poems that you would well suggest to your book club. Post links and comments in the comments section below.  


  1. William Preston, Poetic Asides Poet Laureate, wanted to post the following, but had trouble logging on. If that's the case for anyone else, email us. In the meantime, setting up a Google (gmail) account is fairly simple and gives one access to some cool Google tools too. Here's the note from Bill:

    "I know nothing about analyzing any kind of writing. I don't belong to a book club and rarely read novels, but I will attempt a poem or two for this exercise because I've long admired Jane's and Nancy's poem for many reasons, one being the stories they tell. I tend to write short verse, so I am intrigued by the question of how long a narrative poem need be. The question reminds me of the reply, attributed to Lincoln when he was asked how long a man's legs have to be, "Long enough to reach the ground." As for leaving the reader with some mystery and a problem to solve, I confess that I've no idea about that. I view this entire exercise, therefore, as an opportunity to learn."

    1. I love this, Bill. Stories are always a learning experience for me. I may think I know where the characters are going and what I'm talking about, but I am forever discovering something I don't know at all but find intriguing if I let the conversation or the elements of story run ahead of me. For me, that's the fun of narrative: not knowing until I know.