Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What is a Narrative Poem?

In fiction, we often use this term "narrative" to describe the way a story is told.  In poetry, we use this term to differentiate poems which have a narrative arc from those that don't.  Unlike a Setting Poem, which may simply express the beauty of a place and a moment, a narrative poem tells a story, often with a beginning, a middle, and an end (as in fiction).  The ultimate narrative poem would be the epic poem, such as The Odyssey or The Illiad.


Today's discussion focuses on two poems, Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" and Seamus Heaney's "Digging."

To understand narrative, we must differentiate between two similar terms - story and plot.
Story: The events of a narrative in chronological order of occurrence.  Just imagine the movie Memento told in reverse - instead of seeing the first events at the end, the movie would tell the events in the order they actually happened.  Or if you were going to write about your day, starting with breakfast, moving on to lunch, and finishing with dinner and bed.
Plot: The events of a narrative in the order they are told.  This is an important distinction - often, authors rearrange events (via flashback, for example) in order to shift the emotional impact of those events.  Memento takes the story and tells it in reverse.  Your day could be told in a linear fashion, going from breakfast to bed, or you could start by telling us about how your little brother fired a wad of meat roast at your head during dinner.  Then the story would go into the events of lunch, explaining the root cause of little brother's evil ways.  But then, as the story progresses and the narrator reaches and emotional denouement, we learn that you started it over breakfast when you dumped an entire bowl of milk-sogged Wheaties in little brother's underwear drawer.  (Never mind that he had it coming).
Unlike Setting and Idea Poems, Narrative Poems rely on character and conflict to drive the poem forward.  This is very similar to fiction - the best stories require good an interesting conflict to hold our attention, and a conflict is only relevant as it affects the life of our plucky protagonist.
Conflict: The bad things that happen to good people.  And the badder the better.  A good conflict will literally rock our protagonist's world - aliens dropping from the sky, cats and dogs living together in harmony, that cute guy asking the shy girl to prom.  For a conflict to be relevant, it must be personal to the character.  "In the Waiting Room," for example, uses the conflict of a young girl suddenly discovering that she is related to the other people around her.  Seeing the hanging breasts of aborigine women in a National Geographic literally shakes her to the core.
 Character: Our protagonist.  Narrative poems may include multiple characters, but the character usually only refers to the main character.  Unlike novels or epic poems, short narrative poems are only long enough explore the emotional transformation of a single character.
So far, we've covered the aspects of narrative poems which make them very similar to fiction.  Yet they remain most certainly poems.  For this reason, the key elements of poetry remain essential considerations:
Line: Poems, unlike fiction, are two-dimensional.  You could write an entire novel in a single line of text stretching from here to the moon.  But this wouldn't work for a poem.  The line breaks - and the way these lines appear separated from each other on the page - contribute to the meaning.  For example, in Heaney's "Digging" we see how the last stanza uses line breaks to shift the emphasis within the final two sentences:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Note here that periods are still used to mark the start and end of sentences - a line break is often independent from a sentence break.  And between the first and second lines, we have an example of enjambment, when a sentence carries over from one line and continues onto the next.
Stanza: Think of this as the paragraph of poetry, a collection of lines with a common theme.  Enjambment across stanzas is also something to watch for.
Persona: Also common in fiction, this is where the narrator assumes a certain type of attitude toward the work.  The persona is not the author - it may sound like the author, but the persona represents a meta-existential fictional creature unique to the given work.  And sometimes these creatures are dark and scary.  When they are holding a squat pen, they are.
Transitions: Very important in all narrative work, transitions are those pesky little details which tell us that we're moving from one scene to another.  In "Digging," a single two-line stanza carries us from  a scene with the narrator's father to a scene with his grandfather:
By god, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
Image: Poems are known for imagery.  Basically, we want to see things.  Readers like to picture these poetic places in their mind.  And Bishop's poem has some great images, from a volcano that's "black, and full of ashes" to "A dead man slung on a pole."  These images stick in our minds, giving us something to think about.
Symbol: What's a poem without symbol?  Some image must stand for something else.  Those women's necks "wound round and round with wire / like the necks of light bulbs" probably stand for something in Bishop's poem.  "Those awful hanging breasts" mentioned in the third stanza - there's something deeper that the narrator sees in these images, making them symbols for the larger theme.  Also look at the spades versus the pen in Heaney's "Digging."
Metaphor: (Otherwise known as a simile which fails to use "like" or "as.").  Similar to symbol, a metaphor uses one object to refer to something else, possibly an idea or a belief or a person.  "That man's a beast on the court!" could be used to describe an amazing basketball player.  Ted Kennedy was "The Lion of the Senate."  Did he have a mane and a tail?  No.  Compare this with John McCain, "The Maverick of the Senate."  McCain isn't using a metaphor here - he's using a literal description.

Coming Soon: How to Write a Narrative Poem.

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