The Rigors of Writing a Narrative Poem

It’s the easy kind, right? Tell a story and break it into poetic lines. Go back to it with the old saws, add interior rhyme, see if you can emphasize rhythm, at least in part of it. Take out articles, adverbs and extra adjectives. See if you can fit a metaphor in there, a morale, perhaps, a relevant line from someone else’s poem. Make it more political. Quote something that sounds preternaturally wise.

And so forth, which is like trying to turn a plastic kayak into a schooner by adding a particular kind of sail. Both shapes float, after all. It’s a difficult thing to do, but I find it hard to pull it off.

There are no right and wrong ways to do it, but perhaps going ‘slow’ is a good suggestion. On the other hand, going ‘fast’, letting it all out in one blast, can work too.

Elisabeth Bishop said it took her twenty years to write ‘The Moose’, which meanders lyrically, establishing the Atlantic setting geographically and psychologically, taking a while to get to the actual moose. It’s clear that she has a lot to say about many things, and that while the moose has been roaming around in her mind for many years, the passengers on the bus, the clinging, dense, claustrophobic feel of the woods and a subtle atmosphere of menace are integral to the main point of how the curious power of nature can transform a rather ordinary moment into a transcendent one.

All to say that spending time with a first draft is a step forward for me. I decide what form I will use, what poetic form. It helps me to determine right away that I am writing a poem, and not a story, not only a story. Giving my narrative a definite poetic is important to me helps even if I change it later. I decide on a short or the long line, on the kind of punctuation I will use.

My long poem rabbit (rabbit, Aeolus House, 2020), happened because a rabbit died. With zillions of rabbits in the world, that death should not have been momentous, but I needed to write the poem. It wouldn’t take long to tell. The rabbit came to our yard. It was hurt and it died.

I knew there was more to the story but not why. Here’s where writing habits kick in, such as the benefit of writing on and on, like a marathon, stream-of-conciousness, and continuing even if nothing seems to make sense. Eventually something will kick in and say Enough, time to edit and look for a pattern or a path. Amazing things sometimes happen if I stick with it.

But poems can get bogged down in trying to make sense, trying to dig deeper, trying to be more poetic. The key word is ‘trying’. The opportunity to free my mind from any constraints, (maybe wine would have helped) was there when I wrote ‘rabbit’. I needed to plod on, because I thought I had more to say that was connected, the way that everything is connected. It was time to play, and grab whatever came along in the wind.

Eventually the synapses decided to connect and linked this particular sorrow, one that seemed out of proportion with all the other sorrows in the world, to those lurking somewhere inside of me. One sadness instantly brought back many previous and concurrent ones.

In this case what the poem was after was loss, eventually zeroing in on the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris, where I had sat to listen to an organ concert by a famous Canadian organist. How I worried during the fire about the thousands of organ pipes I’d heard in glorious song! Loss lingered on the severe illness of one of my dearest friends, and the possibility of losing her.

I write a lot of narrative poems. At present I am working on a series called WILD Wild Flowers & friends, about plants that I met on local trails in the summer. I say met, because the encounters seemed entirely personal, as if I’d met some of them before. Of course, I had. In years past I had even tried to remember the names of some of the flowers, nearly all of which to all I felt about meeting that wild plant. I’d forgotten. Once I identified a flower on a trail, I focussed on it, research on the internet, tied information gathered, reclaimed our acquaintance.

So I had a few ways into a poem. I had, for example, the water lily’s Latin name, Nymphea odoratus. Already I had nymphs, and odors to think about, and my reactions to both while further research uncovered amazing facts about this ubiquitous lily. I had tonnes of material, and I still wanted to write a short narrative poem. It’s easy to get carried away in narratives by enthusiasm.

Here’s where the value of The Ruby Tuesdays, an Ottawa writing group, kicks in. I had so much botanical information in the first water lily draft that the wonder of the lily itself was eclipsed. I had allusions to great Art, and to Greek mythology. I had the whole kitchen in it. But it didn’t have a heart yet.

It helped to ask for the opinions of other poets I trusted; my family and friends might like what I’ve written but are prejudiced, sometimes against. A botanist might be over the moon to see an abundance of her specialised language in my poem, but if I wanted valued advice, I needed the point of view of poets. Meeting on Zoom, I read the poem aloud, and started to realize some of my problems. I listened to comments and took them seriously, whether I agreed with them or not.  It’s such a great group, there’s no need to be defensive.The Rubies said cut the scientific jargon down, along with editing the cracks, crevices and alcoves I’d included, on rhythm, and gave advice on syntax, cadence and word choice.

I had written a terrible draft, and needed underscoring of where I’d gone wrong, because it is so hard to throw out my favourite words, even if the only reason I liked them was for the sound of the scientific vocabulary.

I have trouble making a group of words, of lines, into a poem that I’m satisfied with. I always want my poem to take wings, and am disappointed that I often don’t know enough, haven’t read enough, haven’t spent time enough thinking and rewriting. It’s hard when a narrative I care about crashes like a kite in a storm.

Writing a good narrative poem is just as hard as writing a good ghazal or sonnet. I think of trees. The final narrative is the tree, but it exists because of its roots and the mycorrhizal interplay underground. Without fungus, the tree might be lost. The more healthy the underground inter-reliance, the healthier the tree. I do believe though, that the more free associating and cutting I do, often makes for a better poem.

The tendency is to lapse into free verse, which again, seems easiest, but isn’t. It depends on what the writer wants: a story or a poem. If a poem, why not make it a good poem.

2 thoughts on “The Rigors of Writing a Narrative Poem

  1. Absolutely loved reading your process. Getting to the heart of the matter is quite the journey, no matter what we write. Thanks for this.


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