A narrative poem is one that tells a story, true or imagined. It can have all of the elements of fiction, including:
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- A character or characters. The main character may be the same or different from the narrator, the voice that tells the story.
- A setting – the place where the story happens.
- A plot – what happens in the story.
- Dialogue – conversations between the characters.
An example of a famous narrative poem is Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. This poem is a kind of horror story. Here is the beginning of the poem:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“Tis some visiter, ” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door
Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; — vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;
This it is and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir, ” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you” — here I opened wide the door…
The main character in this poem is a man who has lost a woman he loved named Lenore. This character is also the narrator or the speaker of the poem, so he tells his own story using the word “I.” The setting of the poem is the man’s room on a bleak December night. As the poem continues, a raven, a type of black bird, comes into the man’s room, settles on top of the door frame, and refuses to leave. No matter what the man says, the bird answers with the word “Nevermore, ” and the meaning becomes more and more horrifying until the man sinks into despair. This is the plot of the poem’s narrative.
Poem types – write a narrative poem!
Want to try writing a narrative poem of your own? Here are some tips:
1) For there to be a story, something has to happen or change between the beginning and the end. A happy situation is not a story. It becomes a story when a problem arises that interrupts the main character’s happiness. Similarly, a depressed character moping around his room is not a story. It becomes a story when the character decides to improve his situation… or when something happens that threatens to make his situation even worse.
2) Help readers imagine the story. Give details related to the five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, and even taste. Be specific. Did Maria seem angry at Jeff? Instead of just saying, “she seemed angry at him, ” think about what, exactly, this was like. Consider showing the evidence of Maria’s anger, instead of the conclusion. If you say, “Her jaw tightened, and she refused to look at him, ” this gives the reader a stronger picture.
Think of an upsetting fight or argument you had with a family member, friend, or romantic partner. What was it about? Write a poem that tells the story of whatever caused the argument.
If the argument was over a particular event, then you’re all set. You have a characters, a setting, action. If the argument was over an ongoing situation (for example, your partner didn’t participate enough in child-care), then think of or invent a particular instance of this and write about that. Hint: try not to tell readers your opinion or feelings about the situation or the other person. Instead, show all the details (the “evidence”) that will let readers figure this out on their own.
(Safety tip: if the fight was with someone you are currently living with, you might not want to leave the poem lying around the house. Just thought I’d mention this).
Poem types – How to write a ballad
A ballad is a rhyming narrative poem written in a form that can be sung to music. Ballads most often use the rhyme scheme abcb. This means that in a group of four lines, the second line rhymes with the fourth one. The first and third line do not rhyme.
Here’s part of a ballad by William Blake (1757-1827). I have written the letters a, b, and c to mark the end rhymes.
The Maiden caught me in the Wild, (a)
Where I was dancing merrily;(b)
She put me into her Cabinet, (c)
And Lockd me up with a golden key.(b)
Poem types – write a ballad!
- A time you fell in love at first sight… or thought you did.
- A car accident.
- A time you received bad news. Don’t tell the reader how you felt about the news. Instead, show the details of the place and situation where you heard the news, doing this in a way that expresses your feelings. Think of how, in movies, the camera zooms in on objects to create a mood. See if you can do the same thing in the poem.
Here are the last words for eight lines of a ballad. If you are up for a challenge, fill in the blanks however you like to create your own poem. (Hint: you can cheat and change some of the words below if that makes your poem better).