Guest Post by Timothy E.G. Bartel
In the last post, we saw that poetry, which had ruled for thousands of years as the go-to method for telling stories, was pushed aside by the novel in the last two hundred years. Today poetry can seem like an afterthought, exiled to dusty corners of bookstores and libraries. Even the words “book” and “story” have become almost synonymous with “novel.” When creative writing students in high school and college dream of writing stories, it is seldom poetry that they dream of writing. Novel-writing—especially in a way that can be easily adapted into film—is the storytelling norm.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with the novel, as readers of StoryForge will no doubt point out. But to forget the poem as a powerful storytelling tool would be to lose one of our greatest inheritances from the past. To lose Tragedy would indeed be a tragedy. Thus, in closing this series, I will offer three ideas for reclaiming the storytelling power of poetry in today’s novel-dominated world.
1. Rediscover the Story in Lyric
The first step is to familiarize ourselves with where we are. The short, free verse lyric poem rules supreme in contemporary poetry. What is surprising about the best of such poems is that narrative sneaks in more often than not. Consider “No Time,” a recent poem by the popular Billy Collins:
In a rush this weekday morning
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite.
Then, all day, I think of his rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down. (Poetry Magazine, Dec 2000)
While the action of the poem is no grand plot of Aristotelian Tragedy, there is still narrative movement: the son honks, then the father disapproves, then the mother concludes the narrative by soothing the father. The story beats inciting incident, conflict, and resolution, are all used to quietly to shape the poem’s themes of time, memory, and family. The writer who is keen to develop storytelling in their poetry must learn to discern such narrative patterns, however subtle. The next step is to:
2. Read/Reread the Classics
Form ballad to Epic, western history is filled with narrative poems more often referenced than read. Storytellers would do well to forego adding the next YA dystopian novel to their reading list, and add Milton or Coleridge instead. Such narrative poems can reacquaint us with how to bring story from the background of poetry into the spotlight. There is no better place to learn the unique shape and pace of poetic storytelling than from such masters. Such models should then lead us to:
3. Practice English Prosody
As Aristotle shows, a poetic story is not complete without the appropriate meter and line length. The study of English poetic meter (or “prosody”) has been rejected as dry and boring by most writing teachers these days, but it must be regained if writers are to harness the full power of storytelling in poetry. Though there are several helpful books about writing in formal meter, sometimes the best teachers are the poets themselves. One could do worse than to learn how to write a line of iambic pentameter from Milton.
In closing I offer the following books for those interested in brushing up on their narrative poetry and English prosody:
- “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- “The Passing of Arthur,” Alfred Lord Tennyson
- “The Ballad of the Burglar of Bagdad,” Elizabeth Bishop
- Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare
- Samson Agonistes, John Milton
- Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot
- Paradise Lost, John Milton
- Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton
Guides to English Prosody:
- The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry
- Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, Paul Fussell
- The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Eavan Boland and Mark Strand
- Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis (less of a guidebook and more of an introduction to epic storytelling)
Timothy E. G. Bartel is a poet and educator who currently serves as Assistant Professor of Literature at Houston Baptist University. His poems and translations have appeared in such publications as Christianity and Literature, Dreams and Nightmares, Pilgrimage, Relief, and Saint Katherine Review. His first book of poems is The Martyr, The Grizzly, The Gold (Damascene Press, 2012), and his second, Arroyos, is forthcoming this spring (Mariscat Press, 2015). Timothy is the founding editor of Californios Review, which features new writing from West Coast writers.