Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How to Start Writing a Narrative Poem

Often, the hardest part of writing a poem - any poem - is starting. There's always the big question of "What do I write about?" This is then followed by "How do I write about it?"

Narrative poems, by their very nature, are somewhat harder to start than other poems. They have two strikes against them - the need for the story and the need to be poetic.

This discussion continues with our focus on two narrative poems, Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" and Seamus Heaney's "Digging."  For more information on the components of narrative poems, please see the previous post.

Usually, a fiction writer can start a story and simply see where the narrative goes, and a poet can start a poem and simply see how the images combine together, but a narrative poem requires a coherent story to be told while images weave together in a cohesive manner.  It isn't like building a house, and it isn't like painting a Michelangelo - it's like erecting a tent of hardened canvas and then painting the inside to look like the Sistine Chapel.  And then selling the tent to a family of four with two overweight gerbils and an annoying little dog.

This said, the unique challenges of the narrative poem allow us special access to starting such a poem.  The first is the fact that we often base these poems off of real events - this provides us with a ready setting for our poem.  "In the Waiting Room" and "Digging" both have the feel of intimacy largely because the surrounding setting details feel so close and personal - the knees in the waiting room give the impression that the Bishop's narrator is young and small, while the "squelch and slop" of the peat in "Digging" lets us feel as if we are there to hear and feel the damp peat as it splats against the dirt.  If you are writing a poem from personal experience, then you'll want to identify the details like this which made the scene so memorable for you.  Was it grandma's absurdly obese gerbil perched on an overturned coffee mug so it could poke its head up over the sweat potato casserole for a lick of marshmallows at Thanksgiving?  Then work that into your poem.  I recommend starting your writing with one of these concrete images for two reasons.  The first is, naturally, that it will give your reader an anchor for understanding the poem.  The second - and even more important reason - is that it will provide you a line to your own memories of the event.  By fixing your mind of something tangible, something that you can personally see in your mind, you will find it easier to reach over to the other memories associated with your story.

The next avenue for approach we have is the manipulation of chronology.  "In the Waiting Room" and "Digging" provide very different chronologies, and this reveals how much leeway we have when it comes to shifting the emotions and images.  For any poem, an excellent starting place is the emotional timbre of the work.  Consider which emotion best sums up the experience, and then adjust the chronology to reveal the development of this emotion.

For example, say you wanted to write an elegiac narrative poem about the the death of grandma's gerbil - there might be an overwhelming feeling of sadness mixed with the joyful memories of having known such an irascible fur ball.  The poem might open with tears and a shoebox in the back garden, but then flash back to that scene with the sweet potato pie and Great Uncle Delmer going after the thing with a steak knife.  The volta might bring us around to a climax of joy and humor and Thanksgiving sacrifice.  And somehow, this may bring us back to the present - a life after the two-inch tombstone embedded in the dirt by the begonias.  The narrator may be reflecting that life is sorrowful, but also fun.  And he might be at the pet store buying a new gerbil.  Or two.  And an annoying little dog, too.  Because his parents are going to make him live in the Sistine Tent from now until the end of his natural life, a.k.a "departure for college."  (Note to self and readers - be sure to cut off the narrative poem once the narrative has passed the middle and reached the end.  Or, better still, continue with Chapter Two of  "The Short, Happy Life of Sam the Gerbil and Other Stories.")

I hope this provides some helpful advice on how to start your writing.  If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me or simply leave a comment below.

Happy Writing,
Ryan

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