NARRATIVE POEM

writing the narrative poemIntroduction

A phased approach to writing a narrative poem.

Planning

A narrative poem generally needs a plan. A short poem can grow out of the lines as they arrive, the words on paper suggesting new words and themes, but that approach becomes wasteful when hundreds of lines have to be created quickly. How are the two aspects to be balanced — the poetry of individual lines, and the overall shape, plot and characterization of a successful story? One way is develop the two together, though in interlinked phases. The poem below deals with a 'chancer': a womanizer who, after losing his family in a fire, is brought to accept a deeper side of himself and create a New Age movement.

The ballad meter is easy to write, and is covered elsewhere. Below are the phases of story writing, with examples and time spent: the poem completed to date is here.

Phase One: Scraps of Verse

We dip into a book of quotations and mull over what appeals, closing the book to jot down lines as they come:

Who am I? You have heard me, not once but again
And again calling a thousand times your name.

Yes, I am the falling
throughout the summer rain:
First love or last love:
always the same.

When I was young they dandled me
Very much like you
But at manhood then I shed my skin,
Grew a pebble in the shoe.

The moon rose in the ascendant
In a bright blaze at noon
Now and wherever, in fey lands and fell
Where the wind changes your name.

Phase Two: Stanza Form

These scraps suggest the verse form: the ballad of 4a 3b 4c 3b. For example:

All my long life out as a rover,
It was women, or it was worse,
Only sometimes when the rain falls
I hear the old man curse.

Phase Three: Check

We rewrite more the scraps to see if they'll carry the content properly. They don't: the form is too restricting. We therefore extend the third line to five stresses — unusual but giving flexibility: it can be anything from an end-stopped pentameter to rhythmic prose:

Who am I? You have heard me, calling
A thousand times your name.
Throughout the falling of the summer rain:
First love, last, the same.

Now I'm not making apologies,
I'd sooner not tell lies.
But Babs can talk as though she cares or not and
They can't criticize.

Phase Four: Write Key Episodes

We then rough out possible episodes in this new form, varying it to cover character, poignancy, pace, mood, etc.

But then they all know what I'm at.
They probably swap notes,
Where did the chancer take you, do this time?
Usual misquotes.

Then Jason would take the swing with me
Or ride the water chute,
Laughing I'd toss him into the air, his hair fluffed up,
A golden parachute.

I have seen and do not discount them,
My way is also fraught
With obsessions and with evasions and always
The settling afterthought

Ah, the new appointments, I said as
The eyes shifted and looked tired:
Well, you can rest assured, sir, that my salary. . .
"Tranter, you are fired."

Oh there are no factory hooters,
Or drifts against the sky
When Charlie and his van of Peerless Dreams
Go toot and twinkling by.

Phase Five: Plot

Next comes the plot, which grows out of conflicts in the character we have created: Charlie Tranter: feckless but intending better. Scenes:

Tranters: their family history and character

Charlie Tranter: womanizer but marries Babs and has a kid.

Fired from sales job for irregularities

Has fling with office colleague

Arrives home to find wife and child dead from fire

Sympathy: reinstated in sales job

Local press investigate: fired again

Funeral: gathering of the Tranter clan

Remorse and hard thoughts

Becomes traveller in women's underwear

More adventures, which begin to pall

Becomes more of a recluse: reads, has mystical experiences

Realizes that the shadow world of imagination is real

Imagines journey to eastern Europe with woman of his dreams

Founds a New Age movement

Successful, but embezzles contributions

Imprisoned, and now looking to convert a new congregation

Phase Six: Rough Draft

Now we have to rough out the story: 250 stanzas. Mostly doggerel at this stage, as these:

And then an odd thing, I must tell you:
Bought a book or two.
Just action, spy books, cheap romances, anything
In odd hours read them through.

And then more leisurely,
I'd stop in lay-bys and what I'd thought
Was all there - hopes, dreams, fantasies:
Yes, that caught me short.

Timecheck: about 100 hours to this point.

Phase Seven: Polish Up and Add

Next we polish up some specimen stanzas to check they're performing as intended. Some of the earlier playfulness has been lost, however, and we try adding snatches of nursery rhymes,

Ring-a-ring of poses
The girl has lost her closes:
I wish you, I wish you
Would all pipe down.

rewriting where necessary in the a b c b pattern. Sexual innuendo and humour are the aim:

Where are you going, my pretty maid?
Going to milking, unless, instead. . .
That face is your fortune, my pretty one.
Only my face? kind sir, she said.

Not successful: the additions don't work in properly. We therefore absorb the nursery rhymes into the standard stanza form, trying to make poetry by taking the opening line or two as suggestions only:

Remember Charlie's a-hunting gone
To find another skin
And all to wrap for one brief, raptured hour
His little baby in.

Phase Seven: First Rewriting

We start the rewriting, aiming for cockney humour, wry poetry, fun, sauciness. Bad bad lines or stanzas are left at this stage, as the idiocies, false starts and bad taste may be useful later. Result is some 284 stanzas of so-so verse: not accomplished but material to work on:

So ever smiling, in I go:
Right, morning, everyone!
All brewster dandy, but I overdid
The bantering, the fun.

A long, long silence followed. Please
Take a chair, sit down.
And even then I was laughing and chattering: Oh
You great big lumbering clown!

Tranter, that's enough, now listen,
The sergeant will explain.
And it was odd, nothing at all I felt but
Evacuating pain.

And also there was quietness, voices
Hardly getting through,
A hard force pressing me and the tears spurting and
My hands trembling too.

Timecheck: another 50 hours to here.

Phase Eight: Second Rewriting

Now we rework the lines, stanza by stanza, rejecting those which won't come good. Result is 250 stanzas:

All their long lives they were drifters,
Feckless from the start.
No rich man in the cherry stones: but choosing
The rough trades and the mart.

Their world was a brimming oyster which
They left in dawn-white heaps:
Brides they messed in the fresh-dressed sheets that
Others had for keeps.

Poised to be irregulars,
Pressed and abruptly gone:
Down highways where always were soft voices falling
Through and over and on.

The dark trees spread in their eyelids,
Evening wraps the skin
And windows will light them from highways and byways,
And warm smiles let them in.

This little Tranter went to Haymarket,
This one to the Scrubs,
And this one in laughter ran all the way home with his
Takings from the pubs.

Timecheck: another 200 hours to here.

Phase Nine: Polishing

Stanzas are now polished and put away for weeks at a time, being reworked as they are seen afresh. First few stanzas:

All their long lives they were drifters,
Feckless from the start.
No rich man in the cherry stones: but choosing
The rough trades and the mart.

The world was their brimming oyster which
They left in emptied heaps,
And women they trashed in the dawn-white sheets must
Others have for keeps.

Poised to be irregulars,
Pressed and abruptly gone:
Down highways where always were soft voices falling
Convivially and on.

The dark trees spread in their eyelids,
Evening wraps the skin
And windows will light them from highways and byways,
And warm smiles let them in.

This little Tranter went to Haymarket,
This one to the Scrubs,
And this one in laughter ran all the way home with his
Takings from the pubs.

 

The poem completed to date is here. The final poem is published in free pdf form by Ocaso Press.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

 

 

Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.