A narrative poem, like narrative prose, tells a story. The earliest narratives were poetic recitations sung or told by bards about heroes and gods, and all delivered in specific rhythms and measured lines to aid the memory. Later—after these narratives were written down—they began to morph into different types.
The earliest narratives are epics: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. They follow particular rules, such as a call upon the muse to help the poet recite or write. Usually a chief character struggles against foes, sometimes the gods, but who is also helped by the gods. The actions of the hero often have great consequences for a people or a nation. For example, in the Iliad, Achilles’ refusal to go into battle causes great harm for the Greek army.
Other forms of narrative poetry include legends, tales, and fables, which may or may not follow specific formulaic rhythms. Legends are a mixture of fact and fiction, tales are purely fictional, and fables employ animals or inanimate objects to present moral truths. In addition, narratives are usually told by an unidentified third person, yet some, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, are told in the first person. Of course, legends, tales, and fables are also forms of prose.
Ballads and cowboy poems employ the narrative and are sometimes put to music. If they are long, they may be considered narrative poems, but the shorter ones are often listed as lyric because they contain strong emotional qualities. The division between poetry types can be murky, as will be seen when we discuss lyric and dramatic poems.
L. Luis Lopez has written three books of poetry: Musings of a Barrio Sack Boy, winner of an Honorable Mention in the 2000 Writer’s Digest poetry competition; A Painting of Sand; and Each Month I Sing, which was granted the American Book Award 2008 and the CIPA EVVY first place in poetry award 2008. Luis teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, and Mythology at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado. He offers workshops in reading and writing poetry. In addition, he and his wife, Maggie, are owners of Farolito Press. Visit his Web site at www.lluislopez.com.