This isn’t so much an essay as it is an opinion piece where I shoot off a few words in praise of narrative poetry or, in other words, poetry that tells a story.

From Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, to Virgil’s Aeneid, to the Song of Roland, the Song of El Cid, and the chantefable of Aucassin and Nicolette; from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso), to Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Regained, and Longfellow’s Evangeline and Song of Hiawatha, the legacy of narrative poetry has been to entertain, inspire, and inform those who read the poems or listen to them being recited or sung. Such poetry has frequently been used to create and celebrate national, political, and religious mythology, to define and redefine history for a cultural or national audience, or to simply tell a whopping good story.

Most of the poems just cited fall into the category of “Epic Poetry,” meaning they are long (the Iliad, for example, has over 15,000 lines of dactylic hexameter verse) and tell a story with a mixture of historical, mythological and allegorical characters.

Most narrative poems are not “Epic,” of course. Burn’s Tam O’Shanter, Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, Poe’s Annabel Lee, Service’s Cremation of Sam Magee, and Patterson’s Man from Snowy River are examples of well-known narrative poems of more modest lengths.

Fortunately, contemporary music has helped to keep the tradition of narrative poetry alive with songs such as Dylan’s Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts, Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Roger’s The Gambler, Daniel’s The Devil Went Down to Georgia, and the traditional Frankie & Johnnie. Such narrative songs are often referred to a “ballads.”

Hundreds of other examples could be cited but, like I said, this is more of an opinion piece than a research paper.

In any case, while popular music is by far the most accessible source of rhyming/rhythmic poetry these days, pop music lyrics generally fall far short of the quality and sophistication of Classical poetic forms. Here is my tongue-in-cheek read on the subject.

 

Poetic License

My iambs are imperfect and my trochees even worse.
My syntax is so bad some have described it as a curse.
My rhymes are lame as well with some exact, but most just “near.”
And missing feet cause lines to limp in ways un-linear.

And yet I am successful; my career is going strong.
And millions memorize my words as lyrics for a song.
So, if you write bad poetry and want to make some dough,
Then lyrics for pop music is the only way to go.

 

Outside the musical scene, it seems to me that narrative poetry has fallen by the wayside. Frost wrote a good number of such poems as did E.A. Robinson, but who is doing this today? My guess is that its current neglect is largely due to the fact that free verse—which has overwhelmed, inundated, buried, and crowded out traditional poetry—does not lend itself to narrative storytelling since the attempt invariably ends up being indistinguishable from prose.

Although I do not have either the patience or inclination to attempt “Epic Poetry,” I am often inspired to tell a story in verse, as I do here in Oenophile.

 

Oenophile

Our Rescue Mission’s food is offered free
To those we know and those who wander in;
A gift of love to our community
To help out those whose resources are thin.

A hundred people come to eat each night
And often many more at the month’s end
When money’s short and budgets can be tight.
Both single folks and families attend.

Each night a man comes in and eats alone,
Unkempt, unshaven, old, and weary worn.
His voice a softly-whispered baritone
With accents hinting he was foreign-born.

One night I sat with him to talk and eat,
Assuming he was poor and indigent;
The sort who lives his life out on the street
And sleeps wrapped up inside a cardboard tent.

At first, he didn’t even look at me,
And only spoke while chewing on his food.
He said he didn’t want my company
And only came because the food was good.

But when I asked him if he had a name
He paused and raised his eyes to lock on mine.
“Just call me John or Jim, it’s all the same.
I only wish I had a glass of wine.”

He didn’t seem the sort who had a nose
For anything with Grand Cru on its tag.
I pictured him with Wild Irish Rose
Wrapped neatly in a small brown paper bag.

To my surprise he said, “A Zinfandel—
A hearty, fruity one that’s not too light—
If slightly chilled would go extremely well
With the spaghetti that you served tonight.”

“You seem to know your wine,” I said. “How so?”
And he replied, “I am a oenophile
Who recommends spring lamb with a Merlot
When braised and seasoned in a Grecian style.”

“And if your kitchen had been more advanced
The chicken salad you served yesterday
Could well have been exquisitely enhanced
By a Barossa Valley Chardonnay.”

Although,” he said, “I may look like a bum,
When I was young and living in Beauvais,
I learned all that was needed to become
A trained and certified sommelier.

“Well-known for my esprit de corps
Within the Beauvais culinary scene,
I served a famous café noted for
Its one-star listed Michelin cuisine.”

“And now?” I asked. “What happened after that?”
“It is,” he answered, “time for me to go.”
He stood and, after he was gone, I sat
And dreamed of sipping a Chateau Margaux.

I doubted what he told me had been true,
But later, drunk and face down in the sand,
I couldn’t help but see that, in plain view,
A vintage Haut-Brion was in his hand.

 

As a musician, I often leverage my verse into lyrics and set them to music as I did with the following narrative poem/song written to commemorate the heritage of my particular corner of southwest Washington State. Please excuse the brief flaw in the recording. The poem is set around the year 1900.

 

 

Columbia, Reach Out Your Arms

Cape Disappointment stands above a river deep and wide.
I stand and watch the river follow out the ebbing tide.
Beyond the bar the river joins a troubled, storm-tossed sea
And somewhere on those waters sails a lass who’s dear to me.

Columbia—mighty and free;
Columbia, reach out your arms and bring her home to me.

Four years ago, I sailed away from Finland’s Baltic shore.
I turned my back on poverty in search of something more.
My one true love I kissed goodbye and pledged on bended knee
That one day I would find a way for her to come to me.

I sailed far and wide across the ocean’s frothy foam,
And landed in Astoria and there I made my home.
I found a job filleting in a salmon cannery
And saved all that I could so my true love could come to me.

Columbia—mighty and free;
Columbia, reach out your arms and bring her home to me.

The days are long, the work is hard, I’ve made it on my own.
I’m proud of what I’ve done but I am tired of being alone.
I long to feel my true love’s kiss and share her company.
I long to hear her voice and long to hold her close to me.

The money that I saved I spent it all six months ago.
I sent it to my love and told her it was time to go.
She booked a one-way ticket and set sail across the sea,
And someday soon, I pray my one true love will come to me.

Columbia—mighty and free;
Columbia, reach out your arms and bring her home to me.

Cape Disappointment stands above a river deep and wide.
I stand and watch the river follow out the ebbing tide.
Beyond the bar the river joins a troubled, storm-tossed sea
And somewhere on those waters sails a lass who’s dear to me.

Columbia—mighty and free;
Columbia, reach out your arms and bring her home to me.
Columbia, reach out your arms and bring her home to me.

 

I suppose what I am trying to say is,

1. I enjoy both reading and creating narrative poetry and,

2. Few people seem to be doing it well or even doing it at all these days.

Since narrative poetry is part and parcel of the Classical Poetry tradition, I have been pleased to see more of them showing up on the SCP site over the past few months. Even so, I’m hungry for even more.

So, if you are reading this and have never written a narrative poem (or haven’t written one for a long time), I challenge you to create one and send it in. I suspect, however, that our intrepid SCP Editor will prefer it to be shorter than The Iliad.

 

 

James A. Tweedie is a recently retired pastor living in Long Beach, Washington. He likes to walk on the beach with his wife. He has written and self-published four novels and a collection of short stories. He has several hundred unpublished poems tucked away in drawers.

 

 


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24 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Hi James, I love lyric poetry and it is a wonderful form; but you are right to point out the importance of narrative, and indeed the greatest form of this is epic, which Aristotle put – alongside tragedy, which is also story-driven – at the apex of poetical achievement. To write epic is an extremely difficult thing to do and not to be undertaken lightly; you will find several reviews of modern epics, particularly American ones, by me, on these very SCP pages! I invite you to revisit them to see if the poems are ones you might want to read. Also, I am pleased to be one of those who unashamedly am attempting to write a modern epic in a loose imitation of Dante via my English Cantos. Three and a half (Cantos 1, 2 and 3 and the intro to Canto 9) have appeared on these pages, so whether I am being successful or not you have plenty of material to judge, and I thank you for your earlier comments. What you may not have seen is that Canto 4 has been published on the pages of the Lowestoft Chronicle : http://lowestoftchronicle.com/issues/issue37/jamessale/ So, I hope you can enjoy that as well. And FYI I am hoping the whole 12 cantos of Hell, provisionally entitled, HellWard, will be completed and published this year. And to whet your appetite, Canto 10 is the Brexit (i.e. political) Canto and Canto 11 the poetaster canto where we find Allen Ginsburg and various other pseudo poets who have undermined art. Given the disputes on these pages some years back, I am almost certain to include Walt Whitman as well – but don’t worry, there’ll be a couple of dreadful Brits to keep them company in their de-constructive howling. Hope this is useful.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      James,

      Being retired I had the time to read through Canto 4. To its credit and my relief, it did not put me to sleep! Quite the opposite–it held me captive along its well-paced narrative as you recorded the re-encounter with your slick and abusive former mentor–and your escape from the temptation to be seduced once again by his charm and as well as out of your desire to have your fading life affirmed as still being useful needed–even if it meant choosing hell to avoid going to hell.

      Like Odysseus escaping the siren song or Christian extracting himself from the Slough of Despond, you have survived to continue your terza rima journey even deeper into the belly of the whale.

      Thank you for the link. It is good to see someone rising to the challenge of epic poetry who is capable of it!

      Reply
  2. Peter Hartley

    James – there always seems to have been a kind of hierarchy in the arts, doesn’t there, where for example (and I’m thinking of British 18th and 19th century painting at the moment) still life is the lowest form of subject matter then landscape painting, then portraiture, group portraiture, then right at the top of the scale historical or epic painting, and each requires increasing levels of competence and confidence to attempt. A Sunday watercolorist would not attempt a theme such as, for example, John Martin’s “Great Day of his Wrath”. To a Sunday painter it is quite an awesome step to move from watercolour to oil painting, even though in some ways the latter is easier; and it would be unthinkable that he should set his sights so high as to attempt to paint a scene that has to be “composed” of elements not seen together in life. It explains the “attractiveness” of the found object to the talentless, like Duchamp’s urinal, and Emin’s condom-strewn bed. This kind of art takes seconds to present. The value of art objects used to be at least in part commensurate with the effort involved in their construction but now no longer. I only want to make one point here: epic or narrative or historical poetry, if it bears any similarities to pictorial art, is rare because it’s blinking difficult, and it frankly doesn’t repay the effort. During my membership of SCP I have three times attempted narrative poetry and three times failed miserably. It doesn’t have to be epic like “Paradise Lost”. Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” is a dramatic short example of the genre, but it’s still a stage in advance of anything I’m capable of.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Peter, I suspect that you are selling yourself short. Few in all of history are capable of “Paradise Lost,” but don’t let a great poem (like Noyes’) deter you from writing a good one!

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        James – wise words. But the few times I have tried I haven’t known when to stop, so they just turn into a picaresque series of isolated incidents and I literally lose the plot, if there ever was one to start with …Hang on, I think you might have just talked me into it. This epic is the last one I left off: it’s going to be about four ginormous Catalan pigs and the plot already out-Herods Homer.

  3. Robert Cooperman

    You should read more: Campbell McGrath’s long narrative about the Lewis and Clark expedition; Francis X. Walker’s narrative about the slave on that expedition; Andrew Hudgins’s narrative about Sidney Lanier. I could name more. But all of these are magnificent. Then there’s my own TROY, the first half, told in blank verse, about the lesser heroes who got killed by the greater ones at Troy; the second half about the night of the Trojan Horse, told in villanelles.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Robert, You are correct in suggesting that I should read more. It is also helpful to know where to look, so I thank you for steering me in what I hope will be a satisfying direction, although I must say that the poetry of Sidney Lanier, while historically interesting, does not translate well into my own aesthetic.

      Reply
      • Robert Cooperman

        James,

        It’s not so much his poetry that Hudgins writes about, but about his being a musician (in the Baltimore Peabody Orchestra) and his life in the south while dying of TB. It really is an amazing piece of work. There’s also a marvelous collection by Ted Greenaway (forgive me, I can’t remember titles as well as authors), about the Alaska Gold rush, in sonnets.

  4. Esiad L. Werecub

    I’m sure Mr. Tweedie meant Homer wrote in dactylic hexameters.

    Reply
  5. Acwiles Berude

    Mr. Tweedie’s opinion piece is nicely done. He names traditional poetic narratives and more modern pieces. I concur with his point about contemporary music as well, as seen in “Poetic License”. I’m sure we will all have our favourites from that world; my favourite piece is Al Stewart’s “Roads to Moscow”. I also enjoy very much Mr. Tweedie’s own “Columbia, Reach Out Your Arms”.

    I appreciate Mr. Sale’s Aristotelian reminder of the Greek epic writers and dramatists. It is to them that the appellation of classical most truly applies. And so @ SCP we should strive to reach those heights, as Mr. Sale is attempting to do (even if he may be unsuccessful) in his poetry and prose. He has the right idea. I also agree with Mr. Tweedie’s admission of the difficulty of narrative poetry. It is some consolation that even so great a writer as Vergil was exasperated by epic poetry.

    For me, the central problem of PostModernist and NewMillennial English poetry falls exactly into this arena. My contention, which nearly everyone @ SCP disagrees with, is that the answer does not lie in iambic pentameter. It is Milton who most deeply informs my feelings here.
    I do think that Whitman, [Pound] and Ginsberg, were each striving in their own strange ways for just such a line. As Mr. Sale notes, they failed, and failed abysmally.

    I also agree with Mr. Hartley, who hardly agrees with me on anything, that epic, narrative and historical poetry is “blinking difficult”. I would, of course, use a different adjective; but I get his meaning. I do think he is absolutely right; but I think my main focus should ever be on epic, narrative, and historical poetry. [I would also add impersonal poetry of the present.] Of course, realistically, this does not dovetail easily into SCP.

    As to Mr. Cooperman’s thoughts, they are intriguing, and I hope he will say more.

    Reply
  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    I think there’s a definitional problem in this entire question, hinging on the word “narrative.” Strictly speaking, every poem is a “narrative” in that it recounts some sort of story or incident. The exceptions to this would be surrealist poems that mean nothing comprehensible, or langpo or oulipo productions that are merely instances of arbitrary word games. Even Lewis Carroll’s “nonsense” poems that use fake words might also be called narrative, since (like “The Hunting of the Snark”) they do seem to follow a kind of narrative line, despite the fake language.

    Even a limerick is a narrative, since it tells a short, facetious story. Many sonnets also relate incidents or events. So it isn’t a question of narrative, but actually one of LENGTH.

    Long poems fell out of favor with the modernist revolution, which demanded short lyric pieces with no abstraction and explication. This brought about a flood of poems that were brief, cryptic, vaguely suggestive, resolutely plain, and non-rhetorical. This change gave us the tsunami of workshop garbage that we have today, with everybody trying to write some brief and plangent piece about something trivial in simple words, but making it seem vastly important in its emotional resonance.

    Some modernists did attempt to produce long poems while remaining true to modernist aesthetic principles. These poems are basically failures, with the occasional splash of brilliance here and there in the text. I’m thinking of Pound’s “Cantos,” W.C. Williams’ “Paterson,” Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The best that can be said of all of them is what T.S. Eliot wrote in the last-mentioned poem: they are “fragments shored up against a ruin.”

    There is some fine work in all of the above poems, but in the final analysis they fail to cohere, because any long poem can only work if there is some coherent worldview sustaining it — a worldview that might not be shared by all readers, but which is clear, understandable, and based on secure moral certainty, wide cultural acceptance, and epistemological realism. If those things are absent, it’s hard to write anything other than some stupid short lyric effusion about a chipped coffee cup, or a momentary epiphany.

    The critic M.L. Rosenthal suggested that although epic was extremely problematical for modernist poets, they could produce what he called “sequences,” or long poems that were basically lengthy chains of smaller modernist pieces linked in some vague or murkily suggestive manner. But frankly, that was just a desperate attempt on his part to help modernists produce some kind of substitute for the epic or longer narrative.

    Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      Another spot-on, tuition-free lesson from Dr.Salemi.

      Is an on-line course too much to hope for?

      Reply
  7. Dusty Grein

    I love this piece, James. As a fellow PNW resident (just south a bit, in Newberg, OR) I loved your ode to the Columbia. I tend to align with Joseph’s opinion that the term narrative is rather fuzzy around the edges. For me, the distinction isn’t just one of length but one of form, and of genre.

    I love craftwriting mid-length forms, and the Chant Royale is one of my favorites. I often play a little loose with my interpretation as far as a form’s meter goes, and tend to use 3rd paeonic tetrameter when telling these 60-line stories. I also seem to gravitate personally, to the fantasy and horror realms, which are really not the forte of the SCP’s site. Poe’s “The Raven” is perhaps—alongside Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”—sit at the top of my favorite classic works list (both of which I memorized as a young man, and can still recite most of from memory).

    I love exploring forms from French to Italian, and from Welsh to Modern American, but as I said previously, the English Chant Royale is my personal favorite, and at 60 lines with its staggered rhyme pattern can be challenging, yet also very compelling when the story is one that holds a reader’s interest.

    Here is a link to one, which is in my opinion, one of the finest pieces I have ever crafted. I would submit it to the SCP, but it really is genre based, and not really in line with the choices made for inclusion on this forum. Like The Raven, or even The Devil Went Down to Georgia, it is at its core a horror story with an element of fear, and even actual evil. I would love to hear your take on it, as well.

    https://rhetoricaskew.com/2018/10/31/greymoor-hall/

    Thank you for bringing this question, and the differing perspectives it brings, to the forefront of this great community.

    Reply
  8. David Watt

    James,

    Your narrative poem/song beautifully personalizes the determination shown, and sacrifice made by immigrant ‘trail-blazers’ for the sake of love, and the dream of a better life. This story could apply equally as well to an Australian setting. I guess that’s where the worldview comes in.
    It’s the sort of narrative I enjoy.

    It is true, as Joe S. said, that narrative poetry doesn’t have to relate to true events, but to be effective it must tell a story which is memorable and meaningful.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Thank you, David. You caught my poetic intent perfectly. I also agree that much if not most poetry is arguably narrative. I also agree (with Joe S.) that “length” is a useful distinction, especially when using the appellation, “Epic.”

      But I also believe that there are other factors that should be considered in deciding whether or not to label a poem as being “Narrative.”
      For example, Poe’s “Anabelle Lee” tells a story that speaks to the human experience of grief and loss while Wordsworth’s Tinturn Abbey uses a nature walk as a pretext for reflecting on life, the universe and just about everything else.

      Poe’s poem is clearly narrative at its core in a way that Wordsworth’s is not. Nor would I use the term as a descriptive label for Shakespeare”a sonnets or Jabberwocky.

      Although my criteria is a bit slippery, I would say that if the author’s intent is to tell a story that in and of its telling illustrates or evokes a response from the reader, then it is clearly included in what my essay refers to as “narrative poetry.” If, however, the poet’s intent is to use a life experience as a pretext for talking about other things (such as “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” or Burns’ “A Man’s a Man for All That”) then I would not include it in my list of “narrative poetry” as I understand the term.

      I say the criteria is “slippery” because poems often use a narrative bit to go off in some other direction, as does Burns in “To a Louse” and “To a Mouse”—each partially narrative, but not in full.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        BTW, James. “Criteria” is the plural form of “criterion.” You have, above, consistently abused this grammatical fact.

  9. James A. Tweedie

    Criteria

    1. The poem contains a story narrative of some kind.
    2. The story narrative is the central focus of the poem.
    3. The story, in and of itself, contains and communicates the central themes and ideas of the poem.
    4. This is the intent of the author.

    At least four distinct criterions, i.e. criteriA.

    In any case, by their very nature, comments are spontaneous creations and not polished essays being submitted for grammatical review by a course instructor.

    PS: Since the subject seems to interest CB, it may be worth noting that the use of the word “criteria” as a singular is discussed on the Merriam-Webster online site as follows:

    Is criteria singular or plural?: Usage Guide
    The plural criteria has been used as a singular for over half a century. “Let me now return to the third criteria. “— R. M. Nixon. “That really is the criteria.” — Bert Lance. Many of our examples, like the two foregoing, are taken from speech. But singular criteria is not uncommon in edited prose, and its use both in speech and writing seems to be increasing. Only time will tell whether it will reach the unquestioned acceptability of agenda.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      James,

      I would never suggest, as you have, that past mistakes of usage, repeated over and over, should win the day, and I doubt that you, in your better moments, would do so either.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        In addition, there really aren’t a lot of these Greek and Latin plurals to remember. Why shouldn’t we keep them straight, instead of allowing bad usage to dictate our practice?

        criterion — criteria
        phenomenon — phenomena
        stigma — stigmata (usually limited to the religious marks)
        memorandum — memoranda
        basis — bases
        thesis — theses
        parenthesis — parentheses
        hypothesis — hypotheses
        arcanum — arcana
        trivium — trivia
        effluvium — effluvia

        Some (like the last three here) are now only used in the plural form, but they still must take a plural verb when employed.

  10. Martin Hill Ortiz

    Narrative poetry is so hard to pull off! Many writers trip over narrative and damned few of those can handle rhythm and verse.

    Let me give you some favorite examples. Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” When I first heard this, I forced friends to listen to its genius: a mystery in lyrics.

    Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston. For kids but fun for adults.
    https://www.amazon.com/Zorgamazoo-Robert-Paul-Weston/dp/1595142959

    Finally, The Golden Gate and Beastly Tales from Here and There by Vikram Seth.
    https://www.amazon.com/s?k=vikram+seth&i=stripbooks-intl-ship&ref=nb_sb_noss_1
    The former is an entire novel in sonnets. The latter classic fairy tales.

    Reply
  11. Monty

    Being one who’s never before attached any thought as to what constitutes a ‘narrative poem’, I found your ‘opinion piece’ – and some of the responses it elicited – to be intriguing, informative and at times amusing.

    What you refer to as a ‘narrative poem’, James, I’ve always referred to – partly out of blissful ignorance and partly out of a long-held aversion to over-label things – as a ‘story poem’. I’ve always tried to keep things (including life) as simple as possible, and that includes not putting too many different labels or categories on things within the arts (especially music-genres). I think poems and songs can sometimes be over-categorised, or categorised just for the sake of categorising; which can then lead to the lines becoming blurred as to which type should fit which category. In this case, ‘narrative’ poetry seems to be just such a categorisation. As can be judged above by yours and other commenter’s words, it’s an ambiguous term to begin with, depending solely on one’s individual interpretation of the words narration/narrator/narrative. This ambiguity is exemplified above by another commenter’s assertion (correct, in my opinion) that “Strictly speaking, every poem is a ‘narrative’ in that it recounts some sort of story or incident”. And if we were to take the word ‘narrative’ as ‘that which can be narrated’, then that widens its use even further. That’s why I try to simplify the act of labelling. I could read three poems in succession; after which I may say: ‘One was a protest-poem.. one was a landscape-poem.. and the last one was a story-poem’. See? If a poem contains a story, then I just play it safe, James, and stick to the simple term ‘story poem’ . . ‘coz it does exactly what it says on the tin! No ambiguity.

    But regardless of what we choose to label them as . . you’re dead right in saying that poems containing a fictional story seem to be few and far between at the moment, at least if these pages are anything to go by. There may be several reasons for this:
    a/ For a poem to contain a story, it could be said that it has to be of an above-average length, hence more time-consuming to compose; and in these days (in the western-world) of speed seeming to be of the essence, and our undertaking of tasks being judged by the speed with which we can complete them . . perhaps some are deterred from writing poems which they feel will be too lengthy, hence too time-consuming.
    b/ Many parts of the western-world have been severely dumbed-down in recent times, which has, in turn, reduced its citizens into some kind of submissive oblivion to reality.. and a submissive willingness to adhere to a collective, subordinate way of thinking; a collective way of seeing and doing things – which has, consequently, been to the detriment of individualism. Hence, ‘individuality of thought’ has been stifled, resulting in some people being less encouraged to use their imagination (lest they go against the grain of the collective way of thinking, or the collective adherence to political-correctness); and a healthy imagination is an essential requirement to conceive of and write (in poetry or prose) a good fictional story. Without imagination, there’s no inclination to think of and write a fictional story.
    c/ Maybe some people are under the simple misconception that poetry is not really to be used for the telling of a story, but more for the conveying of a sentiment.

    Regarding what you referred to above as ‘narrative songs’: again, I feel the word ‘narrative’ to be potentially ambiguous, as is your alternative offering of ‘ballad’. To begin with, I’ve never before heard the term ‘narrative song’; and if one were to ask ten different humans what they considered a ‘ballad’ to be, one may get 5 or 6 different answers! Having said that, I do recognise the word ‘ballad’ as being a valid term for describing a certain type of song, but I feel that the term was more fixed in days gone by, and has now become more open to interpretation.

    My aforementioned aversion to over-labelling poems is just a preference, but I’m a lot more staunch about the over-labelling of songs: especially in the face of how many new ‘genres’ have sprung-up in the last 30 years.. most of which have only been valid in terms of marketing. It’s such an unnecessary over-complication of what is essentially just a ‘song’. Imagine a modern-day debate amongst three chums who’ve just heard a certain song for the first time, which contains a story: ‘What genre is this?’.. ‘It’s folk’.. ‘No, it’s folk-blues’.. ‘No, no, it’s folk-rock’. Let’s say they eventually settle on folk-blues . . then another debate might ensue: ‘So, it’s folk-blues music, but the song itself.. is it a narrative-song? Is it a ballad?’ See? All these external issues, and it’s just a ‘song’. Again, I just simplify it by saying it’s a story-song (as opposed to a protest-song or a love-song).

    Again, regardless of the genres and labels we use . . you’re equally right in saying there’s a severe dearth these days of songs containing a story. But I feel there’s a severe dearth these days of songs containing ANYTHING! Long gone are the days when a song actually ‘said something’. Record-companies these days ensure that the lyrics of their acts are pathetically dumbed-down, ‘coz the buying public have grown to accept such dumbing. Can you imagine the reaction these days if one were to go to a record-company saying: “I’ve wrote this song about a tragedy which occurred 70 years ago” . . one would be laughed straight out of the door. It’s all over!

    I like the list you gave as examples of a ‘narrative song’:
    1/ Jack of Hearts.. not only is ‘Blood on the Tracks’ my favourite Dylan album, but ‘Jack of Hearts’ is my favourite song on that album.
    2/ I shall always have an affinity with Daniel’s ‘The Devil..’ : When it came out around ‘79, I was about 15-16, and owing to the environment in which I’d grown-up, I don’t think I’d ever heard a violin before.. let alone a fiddle! Thus, not only is it a captivating story, but it’ll always be the song from which I learnt of the existence of the fiddle.
    3/ Being an avid lover of a game of Poker, Roger’s ‘The Gambler’ has always resonated with me.
    4/ I know 3 or 4 of Lightfoot’s songs, but the one you listed isn’t one of them.
    5/ I’m not aware of Frankie and Johnny.

    If we could revert momentarily to the ‘Jack of Hearts: Of course it’s the perfect example, the absolute epitome, of what you refer to as a narrative song/ballad, or what I refer to as a story-song.. but taking into account the aforementioned claim from another commenter: “Every poem is a ‘narrative’ in the sense that it recounts some sort of story or incident”.. if we swap ‘poem’ for ‘song’, then surely other songs from Blood on the Tracks – such as ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ and ‘Tangled up in Blue’ – must be considered to be ‘narrative songs’, as must innumerable other Dylan songs (‘The Hurricane’ and ‘Joey’, both from the album ‘Desire’, spring immediately to mind, as do several songs from the ‘Blonde on Blonde’ album). Hence, what is a narrative song? And what isn’t?

    How fortunate you are, James, to be able to sing and play your own poems. I imagine that affords you endless hours of pleasure, pottering around between poem and song.

    Tell me, is Oenophile fiction, or an account of a happening?

    I couldn’t resist poking my nose in to the mild debate over criteria/criterion. Of course criteria is plural, and criterion is singular, and you were correct in the examples you gave: four different criterions constitute a criteria. Thus I was a tad dismayed to notice the extract you quoted from a dictionary, which claims that criteria can also be used in the singular. I must deduce from that that the dictionary you quoted from was an American one, and its claim that criteria has been used in the singular “for over half a century” has been such only in America. But why? Why flagrantly change the meaning of a word which has stood firm for centuries? And for no valid reason? The American propensity to meddle around with the English for no worthwhile reason has never ceased to perplex me. Whenever I learn of yet another example, my feelings are always the same: Why can’t they just be grateful that when their nation emerged, they were given a ready-made, tried and tested language to use with which to hit the ground running . . and just be satisfied with it? I’ve seen so many examples on these pages of needless modifications, or words being disfigured with the omission of a hyphen . . and now this. Why can’t the powers-that-be over there just simply decree: “It’s come to our attention that a slight ambiguity has developed between criteria and criterion; so to nullify the ambiguity, we decided to look at how the British use those words – given that it was they who gave us the language – and we’ve noticed that they strictly use one in the singular and the other in the plural, with no crossovers: hence no ambiguity. Thus, next time we update the dictionary, we’re gonna enter the new usage as correct, and we’ll put the old usage under the banner of ‘obsolete’.” Wouldn’t that be the most simple solution in any event, instead of changing the whole meaning of words, and leaving readers unsure of the correct usage? If some of the alterations made to the language over there were for the better, I’d be more readily appeased; but the ones I see always seem to be detrimental. It seems so typically stubborn of America: “We’re gonna use the language our way, even if it sometimes confuses things; we’re not gonna ask for any tips from those who’ve been using it for a thousand years”. Why?

    Over a hundred years ago, some Wilde Irishman joked: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays.. except, of course, language”. And that was THEN! Imagine what he’d say now.

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  12. Alexander Blackie

    Hi, James, your piece on narrative poetry was excellent and shone a light to my mind on the plight of classical poets in competitions where prose masquerading as poetry wins all the kudos.
    One form of narrative poetry which is worth a mention is the dramatic monologue which was once the bee’s knees for Victorian poetry readers.
    Another worthy of mention is the use of ottava rima as the favoured form for writing narrative and epic poetry. Used by many great poets from Boccaccio through to Lord Byron and lastly Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) who wrote his posthumously published novel, “Byrne”, entirely in ottava rima. I found my poetic voice through the use of ottava rima.
    Very Best Regards
    Alex

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