When most people hear the word “poetry,” a few things come to mind almost immediately. One big assumption is that all poems rhyme. Another is that poems are all short. And while those are common qualities of many forms of poetry, narrative poems are a really unique category of the literary form.
In this guide, we’ll explore the basics of narrative poetry and give you the tips you need to start writing a narrative poem that gets everyone’s attention.
What is a Narrative Poem?
In many ways, narrative poems are almost identical to short stories. They typically have a clear plot, characters, and dialogue—and, unlike many forms of poetry, they’re chock full of complete sentences. Narrative poems also don’t need to rhyme; in fact, many of the classic examples of narrative poems have very little to no rhyming.
Examples of a Narrative Poem
We’ll explore some of the more famous examples of narrative poetry later in this guide. But to give you an idea of what this style of writing like, here’s one example of a narrative poem—an excerpt of it, anyway—by Edna St. Vincent Millay called “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.”
“Son,” said my mother,
When I was knee-high,
“You’ve need of clothes to cover you,
And not a rag have I.
“There’s nothing in the house
To make a boy breeches,
Nor shears to cut a cloth with
Nor thread to take stitches.”
(You can read the rest of the poem here.)
How to Write a Narrative Poem
Like all forms of creative writing, the rules of narrative poetry are meant to be broken. However, you’ll typically find a few key attributes to any narrative poem, including the following:
- A narrator. Narrative poems tend to be told by, well, a narrator. This might include someone who’s recounting a story or someone who is telling it as if it were happening in real time.
- A storyline. Writing a narrative poem requires you to tell a cohesive story. You’ll want to utilize the building blocks of storytelling, including characters, conflict, and resolution, just to name a few.
- Poetic techniques. At first glance, a narrative poem might seem no different than a short story. But what makes a narrative poem unique is the plentiful use of poetic elements such as simile, metaphors, and hyperbole.
Narrative Poem Structure
If we were exploring a form of poetry like sonnets or haikus, this section would have some fairly prescriptive instructions on structure. But as you’ll see across many examples of narrative poems, there just isn’t one structure that authors rely on.
As you saw in the earlier example by Edna St. Vincent Millay, some narrative poems look like, well, poems. But other narrative poems might have paragraphs and unorthodox line breaks that make the piece look less like a traditional poem—which is what many writers feel makes the format insanely fun to write.
Long Narrative Poems
There’s a chance that you’ve read some of the most famous examples of a long narrative poem while you were in school. Remember books like The Iliad and The Odyssey? While those pieces are several hundred pages long, they are considered some of the greatest examples of a long narrative poem in the history of literature. Another example of a narrative poem of this length includes Mahabharata, which is the world’s longest poem at over 10 times the length of The Iliad.
Short Narrative Poems
On the flipside, a short narrative poem can be incredibly concise. One such example is “We Are Seven” by William Wordsworth. You can read the entire short narrative poem here, but take note of the length—a mere 417 words. While it tells an incredibly compelling story through the format, you’ll notice that this example looks much more like a traditional poem.
Narrative Poem Generator
A few folks on the Internet built a narrative poem generator, which will spit out narrative poem ideas after you enter just a few key components. You might not write the next American masterpiece, but this can be a fun way to glean some inspiration and to get your feet wet as you explore the narrative poem format.
Narrative Poems for Kids
Believe it or not, many well-known children’s literature strories are actually prime examples of narrative poems. Remember stories such as “Casey at the Bat,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and “The Spider and The Fly?” Each of those classic tales are textbook examples of the narrative poem format.
Narrative Poems by Shel Silverstein
Speaking of classic narrative poems for kids, the most recognizable children’s author on the planet is most famous for his, well, narrative poems. Shel Silverstein is responsible for crafting stories and characters that will outlive many of us. Among his most well-known books: Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up are collections of his best poems, while The Giving Tree is a narrative poem on its own.
Classic Narrative Poem Examples
There are so many narrative poems (and great ones at that) to draw inspiration from as you begin to come up with your own narrative poem ideas. However, as many experts would tell you, getting familiar with some of the classics is always a safe way to get started. Here are just a few to read as you’re exploring this format.
- “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
- “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- “The Eve of St. Agnes” by John Keats
- “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes
Narrative Poems by Robert Frost
Literature experts would likely want to shake me if I didn’t include a few narrative poems by the prolific Robert Frost. His unique voice and his approach to writing are both widely celebrated—especially by fans of narrative poetry.
Frost has an extensive catalog of narrative poems, but here are a few that we’d consider must-reads:
- “Out, Out”
- “The Road Not Taken”
- “Acquainted With The Night”
- “Fire and Ice”
- “The Death of the Hired Man”
When I was getting my master’s degree in creative writing, I have to admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of poetry. That is, until we began exploring narrative poems. Not only do these long-form works allow you the room to tell really compelling stories, but the format can be an incredibly fun way to explore poetry.
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