In the 1990’s, lyric-narrative poetry was all the rage, and I spent way too much time trying to figure out how to define that. Labels are often more trouble than they are worth.
But who doesn’t like a story? And a story combined with poetry can be very, very lovely. You get plot, character, setting, and all the rich sounds of poetry.Epic poems, like The Odyssey, are narrative poems, as are shorter poems like “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. And by the way, a fabulous new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson came out recently. Highly recommended by me, and better people than me.
Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Aaron Smith write narrative poems. For some poets, narrative can be a way of working through trauma by becoming the storyteller and taking control of the story.
You know that saying “The winners make history”? Well, not necessarily. As Sharon Olds wrote “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”
The poem below, originally published in The Powow River Anthology and in my chapbook, The Glass Transition, is a narrative poem. Like many narrative poems, it’s written in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. The “Angels” mentioned in the poem are the motorcycle club, The Hell’s Angels.
Hold a pebble in your mouth to reduce the sensation of thirst.
— Survival tip
It started in a washed-up biker bar,
First letting Judy, former puffer-queen
And party-girl for Angels brag on me,
Her college girl. The bikers lined up shots
And beers for me. I thought that I could take
The things I wanted from that world and walk
On whole to what I thought was next. The bar
Was full of idle whores who’d doped themselves
Together, piece by piece, so they could give
Up any piece they chose to later on.
Who did I think I was? They jumped me on
The sidewalk, snarled their hands around my hair,
My imitation pearls, as if these were
Just ropes to pull me to the leveled ground.
The pearls spilled off into the gutter, small
White mice escaping sudden light. The girls
Got bored and went back in the bar, left me
To limp away, to leave a trail of hair
Along the bricks. What did I give up first,
To get the things I craved? This story rolls
Just like a pearl inside my mouth. It clicks
Against my teeth, against all kinds of thirst.