Some Thoughts on Narrative Poetry
The one type of literature that most intrigues me is ‘narrative poetry’. To combine the power of a poem with the drama of a narrative seems to really push the envelope in way that has great potential that is rarely realized or even attempted. Of course there is nothing new about narrative poetry. The epic poems of ancient lore are often the main works of literature that have survived from earlier civilizations.
But what is narrative poetry? What makes a poem and what makes a narrative? Can the two be combined? For my answer I find it helpful to begin by exploring a basic taxonomy of literature in general.
A Taxonomy of Literature
Literary works come in many shapes and sizes. One can categorize works in many ways, but however one structures a categorical analysis there is no hard and firm line between various labels in a category. At the extremes it is easy to make distinctions but where a definitive line should be drawn between two extremes is somewhat arbitrary. Despite these challenges, it useful to review some of the ways that we can categorize literary works.
The most obvious characteristic of a literary work when we first encounter it is its length. It can be as short as a few words or long as multiple volumes on a shelf. For works of fiction we have several standard labels that are applied to literary works based on length. They include short story, novella, and novel. Now it can be debated about exactly where the dividing line is between the various labels, but the general grouping provides useful labels for categorizing works based on their length.
The next characteristic that one will normally encounter in a literary work is the perspective from which it is written. This is referring to the authorial voice of the work and whether it is written in a first, second or third person perspective. It should also be noted that literary works will frequently shift their perspective throughout, but that does not negate thinking about the perspective category of a particular work.
Reference & Subject Category
A literary work may refer to real events and issues or to imaginary stories and ideas. I.e. it may be a work of fiction or a work of non-fiction. And within those two broad categories there are many sub-category traditions which a literary work may be grouped with. I.e. the genre of the work is an additional sub-categorization of a literary work that is essentially about the nature of its subject or how it references the world outside the literary work.
A literary work can be characterized by its type of content. E.g. does it tell a story, is it descriptive of some subject, or is it a reflective and/or emotive that seeks to convey or inspire a feeling or impression.
Style & Method
What is the style and method of the work. Does it attempt to achieve its goals through words written in prose or words written in a poetic form? I.e. what is the mechanism of language that is used to communicate its message?
A Literary Analysis Matrix
The taxonomy I have presented in this essay makes no claims about being complete or even using the correct terms for what I have described. The point is to note that whether a literary work uses a prose or poetic style is independent of the other characteristics. A work of prose can be long or short, fiction or non-fiction, and have a particular perspective. Likewise of poetic work is a literary work written in a poetic style and/or method, but it also can either be long or short, fiction or non-fiction, etc.
To claim the prose/poetic character of a literary work is independent of the other ways of characterizing a work does not mean that every possible combination will work well or be an effective means of communicating. Edgar Allen Poe is famously noted to have written: ‘I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.’ Poe was ultimately focused on a particular definition of poetry and in particular what makes good poetry, but whether or not anyone has been successful at writing a good “long poem” is a separate question from the mere possibility of a poetic work being long.