Fireside Chats / Why We Need Narrative Poetry Again

what we need now (more than ever before!!!) is more narrative poetry xoxoxoxo


I still had hopes, for pride attends us still,
Amidst the swains to shew my book-learned skill,
Around my fire an evening groupe to draw,
And tell of all I felt, and all I saw
Oliver Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village

Epic, dramatic, and lyric are the three types of poetry everyone learns about in high school; and while in an era of free verse and changing performance practice “dramatic poetry” can be hard to identify these days, epic and lyric still are pretty easy to spot … in a typical English class. Out in the wild, though, where all poetry has found it difficult to retain its cultural authority, longer narrative poems have all but disappeared.

What exactly happened? It wasn’t all that long ago that students in grade school were sometimes expected to memorize and recite the entirety of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” — a feat that today requires special tricks.

rime of the ancient mariner

And it’s not like narrative poems had to be even as good as Coleridge’s. The existence of  William Topaz McGonagall’s infamous “Tay Bridge Disaster” (about the, erm, infamous Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879) shows that the bar was set comfortably low for those who could only meet it there:

’Twas about seven o’clock at night,
and the wind it blew with all its might,
and the rain came pouring down,
and the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
and the Demon of the air seem’d to say

“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

Does such a poem even require a lot of time to write? No. Don’t we have a tradition thousands of years old of extemporaneous narrative verse that classical “epic poets” were simply imitating in a newly written form? Yes and yes. Isn’t narrative poetry often exciting, full of blood and guts and complex emotions and war? It has been for a long time. Actually, make that a very long time:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, which brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

Another nice feature of narrative poetry since at least the Middle Ages is that the authors wrote in “fits”: bite-sized chunks just long enough to hold the attention so that the drama could — like any good television show these days — gradually deepen and unfold.


Could an effort to bring back narrative poetry help to reverse its decline?

Certainly it’s worth trying. For one thing, we know that exposure to the screens through which we obtain most of our communication these days harms our circadian rhythms (and you can’t install F.lux everywhere). Passively consuming constantly shifting forms of entertainment has neuroplasticity implications, too, not least for our attention spans. It’s abundantly clear how rarely we have occasion to memorize anything more complicated than a password (although those can be pretty ridiculous). Narrative poetry fixes all of those problems, or it avoids them. It also moves the possibility for collaborative performance — drama, in a word — back to center stage in houses and homes, maybe even bars.

I love my social media and favorite reality TV shows as much as the next person, so I’m not suggesting that we lay aside all other forms of entertainment for the sake of epics…even for the sake of books, which also conveniently do not glow at night. I don’t suggest that we return ourselves to a sort of Dark Age–existence, beholden to mysterious wandering minstrels for stories and news. But I am suggesting that we learn to pick up our pens and dare to be a little creative. I’m suggesting that we give ourselves the opportunity to wrestle with the rhythms of language and the shape of stories with low, unthreatening, stakes.

Playing around with narrative poetry won’t decrease the length of the workweek, provide more affordable housing, or increase wages. It won’t vitiate your need to check email. But it could be kind of fun.

So write a poem about some awful tragedy…and read it to your kids. You might just help save the world.

Originally published at on October 18, 2014*


M.L. Harrison is a relapsed poet and recovering medievalist in the District of Columbia. He edited The William & Mary Review and holds a Ph.D. from Cornell. He tweets here and blogs here, often thinking of a farm in an undisclosed location. His drier jottings are gathered here.

(* — editor’s note: Oct. 18 is Rauan Klassnik’s birthday)

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