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What Are Narrative Poems?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated May 23, 2024
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Narrative poems are poems that tell a story. Similar to most poetry, narrative poetry has an overall point or theme. The difference between narrative poetry and many other kinds of poetry is that narrative verses also have a plot. Overall, narrative poetry doesn’t place too many requirements on the writer, but there are certain kinds of narrative verse that do fall into categories. Poets have been writing narrative poems for centuries, and continue to write them today for personal and professional gain.

Writers of narrative poetry can enjoy a certain amount of flexibility, as these poems allow for various lengths as well as rhyming and non-rhyming styles. Generally, older examples of narrative poetry, which date back centuries, were written with the intention of being read aloud. As such, certain poetic characteristics like alliteration, kennings, and meter are common among narrative poems and even help distinguish the poems from regular prose.

Even though narrative poetry doesn’t impose many requirements as far as style is concerned, there are certain types of commonly written narrative poems. Examples include epics, idylls, ballads, and lyric poetry. Epics are long narrative poetry and are usually serious in nature, and idylls are shorter, descriptive pieces similar to pastoral poems and written about rustic life. Ballads are unique types of narrative poetry because they are set to music. Similarly, lyric poetry, which focuses on expressing feelings, was originally meant to be performed while a lyre was playing.

There are numerous examples of well-known narrative poems, many of which most people are introduced to in high school and college literature classes. “Out, Out” by Robert Frost, “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, and “The Walrus and The Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll are examples of short narrative poems. "The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Faerie Queen" by Edmund Spencer, and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge are examples of long narrative poems. “On Turning Ten,” by former Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins, is a more recent example of narrative poetry. Each of these poems tells the story of some person, event, or both.

Contemporary demand for narrative poetry is similar to that of other kinds of poetry, such as rhyming poems and free verse poems. Writers who are interested in publishing and being paid for their poems can search for poetry anthologies, magazines, and websites that accept narrative poetry submissions. Unlike shorter rhyming and free verse poems, narrative poems aren’t well-suited for the greeting card market, but poets can search for poetry contests hosted by publishers and other literary vehicles.

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Discussion Comments
By anon329930 — On Apr 12, 2013

I just wanted to know when this type of poem started.

By redstaR — On May 26, 2011

@roser - Interesting idea that narrative poems could be the first form poetry took; I couldn’t say for sure whether it’s true or not, but I think it’s definitely possible. Of course narrative came first - storytelling - and this was often written in the form of an epic poem. There’s probably a lot of crossover with early religious texts, as well.

By roser — On May 24, 2011

Is it possible that narrative poems were some of the earliest poems recorded? I’m mainly thinking of epic poems like Homer’s The Illiad.

By lapsed — On May 23, 2011

@softener - If I were you, first of all I’d ask myself if the story I want to tell is suited to the form of a narrative poem. I think narrative poems are most affective if they relate to peculiar situations, which is the very thing that allows you to be more poetic or lyrical. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an entire story, you don’t need to describe a character’s life from start to finish.

Think of specific scenes that have had an impact on you from movies, books, dreams or even real life. Try to fully imagine the scene and the character in as much detail as you can and see what phrases or words come to mind. You don’t need to try too hard with obscure words or anything like that, just try to stick to writing that sounds good to you; you might be surprised what you can come up with.

I think the best advice I could give for any style of writing is to read as much as possible. Not just poetry, read anything you can get your hands on. It’s not about expanding your vocabulary so much as it is about getting a handle on the language you’re working with and how you can use it. After that, formatting your poem becomes almost natural.

By softener — On May 22, 2011

I have a school project where I have to write a narrative poem but I’m having trouble getting started. I feel like I can write a story but I’m not sure how to turn it into something that more closely resembles a poem. I think I have a good idea for a story but it seems a bit like cheating to just write a story and format it like a poem; does anyone have any advice on how I can be more poetic?

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