Poets have the potential to tell stories as much as any other author. A narrative consists of the sequence of events that recount a story, which is the central aspect of narrative poetry. Understanding the narrative voice in poetry involves following the plot and analyzing the speaker. Considering all aspects of the narrator helps readers understand how the poet sketches characters within the confines of poetic style.
Narrative poems are those that have a plot. Certain poetic styles, such as epics and ballads, traditionally feature a story. Epics are very long poems that describe the actions of a heroic character, usually making history as in the case of Homer's "Iliad." Ballads are narrative songs that traditionally follow the format of rhymed quatrains, or four-line stanzas. The usually anonymous folk ballads recount a centralized dramatic event, such as a man's labor beating a machine's. Narrative poetry spans as far back as the Homeric epics of antiquity, through medieval ballads to modern poetry.
The narrator tells the story in the poem, giving the speaker a voice. Three types of narrators exist. With one the speaker participates in the story, perhaps as the main character. Conversely, the narrator might not participate but is present at the time and tells what he observes. Lastly, the speaker may be completely outside the story. Narrators also have different points of view. Narrators speaking of their own actions use first person. Third person narrators tell a story that happens to others. If these narrators have no insight into the thoughts of the participants, their point of view is objective. Omniscient narrators have god-like knowledge of the characters, describing their inner thoughts and feelings.
Understanding the narrative voice in poetry requires some level of analysis. Readers start by considering who the speaker is, whether the poet, a specific persona or an omniscient being. They also look at the setting, identifying where the action happens and whether it occurs during a specific time period. Literary time periods offer insight into a poem's meaning, so readers should consider whether the poem belongs to a specific era. Readers naturally follow the storyline. Narrative poetry builds by creating tension that leads to conflict, whether moral, physical or some other type. The tone of voice the poet uses to create the story also helps the reader understand the plot of the poem.
Narrative Poem Examples
Understanding the speaker's voice requires reading examples of narrative poetry. Edgar Allan Poe describes the story of Annabel Lee in his poem by the same name; the first-person narrator participates in the story, ultimately lying down by the tomb of his lost love. The folk ballad "John Henry" relates the story of a man conquering a steam drill but dying in the process. The third person narrator in this poem has little insight into the characters, making it an objective speaker. William Blake used strong narrative voice in "The Chimney Sweeper," contrasting a sing-song rhyme scheme with the grim story of a small boy forced to sweep chimneys; the rhyme scheme reinforces his youth while his first-person words build horror in the reader.