The narrative poem is one of the oldest forms of poetry that is known to exist. As the name suggests, a narrative poem tells a story, and may include the voices of all the characters within the poem as well as that of the narrator. Narrative poems can span a very short amount of time, several days, the lifetime of a character, or even several generations. In the modern day and age, narrative poems are sometimes thought of as novels in verse form – common examples include lengthy narratives such as The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer or The Aeneid by Virgil. However, a narrative poem does not necessarily have to be that long, as the famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is also considered a narrative poem.
A basic creative writing course, such as one of those offered on Udemy, is one of the best places to start whenever you are seeking to write poetry, short stories, or even novels. However, there are some specific things to know about narrative poetry in general that will help you as you begin to explore this type of writing.
Coming Up With an Idea
The most well known narrative poems in the world tell classic stories – often of heroes, villains, and gods. They take the reader on a long journey with the main character of the poem. Before we get started on coming up with your own ideas for epic poems, let’s have a look at the stories that were told in some of the world’s favorite literary classics.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante inserted himself into the story and charted his own journey through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually Paradise. The Divine Comedy is particularly well known for the satirical manner in which Dante attacked many famous people living in Italy during the time that he wrote the trilogy, criticizing their immoral dealings and practices. Another notable aspect of The Divine Comedy is the romance between Dante and Beatrice, regarded as one of the most beautiful in all of literature.
While mostly known for his work on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien is also one of the most famous narrative poets of the twentieth century. In The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Tolkien uses the narrative poem to create a story that has the appearance and the feel of a classic literary text, though it was only written in the 1920s and 1930s and was not, in fact, released until 2009.
Don Juan by Lord Byron turns the concept of the epic narrative poem on its head, exploring mundane and psychological subject matter in the same language and structure of the grand epics of the past. This humorous subject matter, presented in such a serious manner, makes the text all the more riveting.
These three texts represent great examples of what you can do if you choose to write an epic poem. Like Dante, you can choose to use a lofty subject or journey to explore the personal journey of a character. This is the same thing that Coleridge does in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, as a matter of fact.
Or, you can choose to retell a classic story from mythology through the lens of a narrative poem. Poets have been doing this for centuries, and there is still plenty of room to explore this option. Some science fiction and fantasy writers have even explored the idea of using this ancient method of storytelling to come up with new stories set in fantastic worlds.
And finally, you can choose to be humorous and satirical in your approach. Nobody expects the story of two college friends on a road trip to be presented in the structure of a narrative poem, and this contrast can make it much more interesting (and potentially much more humorous).
The Narrative Poem Structure
There are many different poetic structures that have been used in narrative poems over the years. While free verse has become more common with other types of poetry, narrative poems are generally still formatted with a specific rhyme structure and formal meter, though it is generally up to the poet to choose what that may be.
You can choose to model the rhythm and the structure of your narrative poem after one of the classics, such as the Blank Verse of Shakespeare or the Terza Rima of Dante, or you can choose to find your own rhythm and do something a little bit different. The choice is yours, but remember that the more classic the story is, and the more you want to mimic the classics, the more traditional your structure should probably be.
Understanding Story Structure
One of the key factors in writing a narrative poem is that it must tell a story. That means that to write a good narrative poem, you should have a basic understanding of story structure – the same story structure that you would use if you wanted to write a novel.
To start understanding and developing a story for your narrative poem, you need an idea. Whether you want to write about the classic love story of Hades and Persephone or you want to write a satirical story about a politician, the basics of the structure are the same.
Every narrative poem has a beginning, middle, and an end. Dante’s story begins when, lost in a forest, he must journey into Hell. At the midpoint of the story, he finally reunited with his long lost love, Beatrice. And at the end of the story, he finally finds salvation in Paradise.
The narrative poem must have a central goal or problem to be solved for the protagonist of the story, as well. Be sure that the main character in your narrative poem has a clear and driving reason for continuing through the story. After all, if he or she has no reason to continue, neither will the reader.
There are a handful of other poetic devices that you can use to bring depth and interest to your narrative poem. Be sure to explore the use of these in your narrative poem as you write.
- Allegory: Is some aspect of your poem meant to be symbolic of something else? Or is the entire poem symbolic, as is the case with Dante’s allegorical journey to salvation? There are plenty of ways to use allegory in your poetry.
- Personification: You can express a thought or an idea by giving something inanimate human characteristics – or even by transforming a thought or an idea, such as love, into something human. This is common in narrative poetry.
- Allusion: This is a reference to some other event, whether fictional or historical. You don’t have to explain the reference – it is simply there to give the poem deeper meaning or context.
- Dramatic Irony: When the reader knows something the character does not, authors can build an incredible amount of tension in their story.
These are just a few examples of the types of poetic devices that can be used in your narrative poem. Be sure to explore the world of poetry and learn how to properly understand it to write a truly great narrative poem.
While these are only the basics, they can provide you with the foundation that you need to write fantastic narrative poems, as well as other types of stories. There are plenty of courses on Udemy that can help you to write even better poems, whether you are looking to boost your writing skills with Advanced Grammar or you simply need to get over your writer’s block.