By Allen Taylor
Chief Garden Gnome
Narrative poetry has fallen out of fashion. At one time, narrative poems were quite common. In fact, throughout much of history, poetry was used to tell a story much in the same way that fiction does today. Early literature was primarily written in verse or poetic form while still maintaining the elements of narrative.
So what constitutes a narrative poem as opposed to lyrical?
With lyrical poetry, the essence is wrapped up in the way the words fall together. The mode of expression is more important than the depiction of story. In fact, lyrical poetry may or may not tell a story at all. If it does, the mode of expression is at least equal in importance to the narrative if not more so.
By contrast, narrative poetry first and foremost tells a compelling story. Like good fiction – be it flash fiction, a short story, novelette or novella, or a full-fledged novel – it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Central to its form is conflict, or tension.
That’s not to say that narrative poetry can’t contain lyrical elements. It most certainly can. A narrative poem can include any mode of expression common to any type of poetry. It can include elements of the avant-garde, surrealism, concrete poetry, rhyme and meter, typographical elements, various forms of alliteration, metaphor, irony, or any one of the other thousands of poetic elements in the poet’s bag of tricks. However, all of those elements must bow in service to the narrative itself and propel the action forward from rising action to the climax, the denouement, and the final line.
Narrative poems can be long or short as long as they tell a story. Very long narratives may rise to the status of epic as in the case of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or they may simply be long narrative poems. On the other extreme, the could be as short as a Twitter poem.
They may or may not include characters, a plot, description and setting, or other elements of fiction. Or they may simply be constructed as dramatic monologues.
Narrative poetry is a flexible form. It has every bit of the same versatility as lyrical poetry with one primary ingredient that can’t and won’t be found in the latter – the story that begins, holds the reader’s attention through a narrative arc, and has a definite end that gives the reader a sense of satisfaction for having spent her time with the author. With all this going for it one must ask, why don’t poets write narrative poems any more?