Yesterday I attended a talk by narrative poetry specialist, Katrina Vandenberg, published author of two books of collected poetry. She gave six specific points of advice for writing narrative poetry. I can’t do her justice, because her points were very well illustrated by poetry, which I am unable to reproduce. Apologies.

1. Start in the middle.

The same advice that is given about long fiction applies to narrative poetry. Start somewhere in the middle of your story, and involve your reader in the main action. This acts as the attention hook. The reader (sucker) has no choice but to read the story when he is stuck in the action. Narrative poetry is usually shorter than short story or other narrative style, so it is important to get right to the punch. There isn’t any time to introduce the story, you have to skip that, and start in the middle. What happens before hand should be hinted at by the unfolding events, but they have to remain in the background.

2. Shake up the truth.

Basically, don’t be afraid to fudge events when you want. A narrative poem doesn’t come with a guarantee of truth, and you should take that artistic license and run with it. Think the story would be better if things happened a different way? Then go ahead and do it that way. Narrative fiction is about getting to the heart of the idea through your depiction of events. If you needed the waiter to have been rude for your narrative about a diner to work, then do it.

3. Think about how you were wrong.

When looking for topics to write a narrative poem about, look back on your life and think of events you truly regretted. Maybe you never got to say goodbye to a close friend when you moved away, and you fell out of contact.

4. Write to someone specific.

This is related to #3. When you think of the situation you regretted, write to a specific person in that incident about it. If your grandfather died, and you never got to thank him for your favorite toy growing up as a child, then write a poem to him about that. This serves a lot of purposes. It gives your subject a reason. It also injects another person into your writing.

People are interesting, and we read stories because we like reading about interesting people. Poetry is the same way. Characters we can identify with, or at least, enjoy observing ensure our rapture in the poem. Even the most abstract poem has an implied person, that is, the author viewing the object. Beauty is found through the observation of it. Without a person to witness it, a falling star has no aesthetic value.

So really, when we come to read a poem, we are coming to either hear from a person, or hear about a person. And this is why it is so important for us to mind the reader, and ourselves. We have to communicate through the barrier of paper and ink, to get the message across. Her suggestion that we write our poem to a specific person, real or imagined, forces this connection. The reader becomes aware of this other person, that you address your poem to, and this draws their interest.

5. Be a likable narrator.

In narrative poetry, you too are a character in your poem. You are another person to attract interest in the poem. Of course, it is important that you do more than just be a person. You have to also be a likable person, then the reader will stick around to hear what you have to say. Ms. Vandenburg suggested writing from the perspective of the sidekick, because the story isn’t all about the sidekick. That way when the story about the hero is narrated, we don’t have a narcissistic hero narrating his own accomplishments. That is what his sidekick is for, and we can sympathize with his sidekick, because in real life we aren’t always in the spot of attention. We know what it’s like to be on the side watching someone else, and it is easy to relate to that person. Maybe you are the wingman for the guy who gets all the girls, and you could write about that.

6. Let images do your work.

You can imply the existence of people, or the happening of events through simple images. Have a line about uncorking champagne? It can be inferred that there was a party. Have a lipstick stain on your forehead? You can bet there was a girl, unless you happen to like smearing make up on your face.

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  1. Steph (what is left) on 24 November 2009, 03:36 said:


    I’m going to start a narrative poem and, while it’s not all relevant, the bits that are are quite helpful.

    Thanks for transcribing this. :)