Wednesday, February 13, 2008

About Narrative Verse


I've ranted about the uselessness of lyric poetry and suggested we all stop writing it.

So what of narrative verse? How should we tell a story in lines and stanzas?

Unfortunately, we've forgotten a little of how to do this. We've come to believe that storytelling is the domain of prose and that flowery crap is the domain of verse. We believe this so deeply that our instiutions generally split writers into storytellers and poets. This is such an ingrained belief that I had to snag a prose fiction writer to be on my thesis committee (my thesis was an epic poem about the American War of Independence) because the other two poets on it hadn't written much (anything) in the way of narrative and I needed someone who knew story structure "backards and fards."

Yes. So. What to do? Well, first we need to realize that writing an epic may not be within the grasp of everyone. Most poets are used to short pieces of crap and feel intimidated by anything that runs more than one printed page. That's okay. We can tell a story in one page. Let me quote from the emo kid himself:

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed - Ah! woe betide! -
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill's side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

And I will quote from his American Cousin as well:

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Now. Apart from having rollicking rhythms in your head, you should be telling yourself "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is longer than that and "Is Annabel Lee really a narrative poem?"

To the second question, yes absolutely. The movement of the poem is the story of their love and her death -- notice I said story. As for the first, do you need the rest of LBDSM to "get it?" It's nice in its truncated form.

But the point is not I think Emo Kid is long-winded, but that a narrative can be brief. We don't need to go on for 100 or 100,000 lines, we just need to make a good story.

How do we do this?

The same as any story-teller: plot, character, and setting.

So what is the difference between Narrative Verse and Narrative Prose?

Well, nothing. Unless you count the idea that verse is supposed to appeal to the reader on a sonic and visceral level that prose can't approach. Or that verse is monovocal and prose is polyvocal (as much as I h8 Bakhtin, I agree with him on this idea). I very much count those two things. Prose is great for telling a certain kind of story. Verse is better for telling another kind.

Let us not worry about what kinds just yet.

Let us instead say, "yes, we will write a narrative poem today." Keep it short, interesting, and full of life. Make it, above all else, accessible and moving.


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