I spent a couple of years studying with the best narrative poets in America, yet immediately after my first year of my MFA, I started groping for a different approach. I want to take as fair and unbiased an approach in laying out what I perceive to be the advantages and disadvantages of narrative poetry.
1) Narrative poetry is possibly the most accessible form of poetry, making poetry more understandable by the general public. In many ways, nothing could be simpler than a Ted Kooser poem such as:
A Happy Birthday
This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.
In the poem, there's only two uses of metaphoric language: "ride this day down" and "pale gray ghost of my hand." The rest of the poem is descriptive and atmospheric, a nice sort of passing away of time implied in language such as "light was gone," "book was no more." However, nothing in the poem requires mental agility. The mood of the poem is immediately comprehensible even without realizing what is making the setting for the poem.
2) Narrative poetry, due to its accessibility, is often used as a vehicle for political advocacy of many kinds. This includes political advocacy for racial equality, multiculturalism, understanding of the working class, women's rights, men's rights, pretty much any political position one can take including the conservative stance. Narrative poetry has much to do with the ever growing population of poets who are attracted to forming a short dramatic story.
3) Cathartic relief for the poet. While it's not true for every poet, I do feel that many narrative poets have written about subjects close to their heart and then felt unburdened by sharing their stories, lives, etc. As such, narrative poetry can be therapeutic for those writing about traumatic events. It's no wonder that Dana Gioia has a program teaching war veterans to write poems.
4) For all the reasons above, narrative poetry is also viewed as a democratic form of poetry.
1) First off is the question: is it a form? Having sat in workshops with many narrative poets, I never questioned this as a writing student until I heard a lecture by Richard Howard asking this exact question. He read out loud a Merwin poem, asked us all to write it down and break up the lines in the way each of us thought the poem should be. Of course, all of us broke up the lines differently. That was his point. Despite all the attention to the breaking up of the line insisted on by narrative poets, there is no difference in how the lines are broken since the point of narrative poems is the narrative. Besides lines, the other "craft" that narrative poets seem to discuss endlessly is voice, that very nebulous word. I understand voice, as used by narrative poets, to mean an individual style that distinguishes the writer. I am not convinced that an individual style is something a writer should strive for. Instead, I think a writer should strive to explore, to write as close to the experience as possible, and to use the language that will convey the experience as closely as possible.
2) Lack of intellectual intrigue. There are narrative poets who can offer intellectual turns. Donald Justice comes to mind. However, most narrative poems are often too much of one-mood. I believe that much of this comes from the contemporary education of writers where they read whatever they want. A close study of Shakespeare and his formal structure would help poets to understand how to structure a turn.
3) Lack of interesting language, lack of play. Jouissance, that term the post-modernists love so much. Is it any surprise that narrative poets are often vehemently against critical theory? Play in language is not elitist. Play in language is...play. It's wonderful when executed with joy. To read Queneau's Exercises in Style is to feel Queneau's exuberance, his love of language. As poets, shouldn't we love language, every single sound in it? Yes, we might question language and say it only approximates, never fully recreates...but it does create its own thing. And play is a celebration of language as its own creation.
4) Narcissism. Granted, narcissism can be executed in form, but in no other form than narrative poetry would it be so easy to spew out one's guts. Form requires a narcissistic poet to make a concerted effort to write about his or her life in a poem. In that effort, the poet might actually be forced to reflect along the way instead of merely spewing. Narrative poetry is even easier than prose writing. At least to write a piece of memoir in prose, it generally means a sustained effort (of course there's that short short fiction which gets more popular every year) over many pages. Narrative poetry, on the other hand, is a page or a few pages.
So, why am I writing about narrative poetry. I must admit it: it distresses me. The increasing laxity, the inability of American poets to understand form (including the Neoformalists who advocate form as some kind of hokey elitism and conservative "save culture" gig), the loss of craft and skill, the long hours spent looking for an American poet worth reading...all of it distresses me.
Poetry can teach more than a political democratic stance. When beautiful, narrative poetry can have a glimmer of Whitman, but it so often no longer holds that. If narrative poets in America could do with the Whitmanian tradition what Neruda, Lorca, and Pessoa have done with it...I wouldn't be writing this post.
Poetry is more than a dramatic story. It can teach the leaps of the mind. It is a cousin to philosophy. Wittgenstein wrote that "A good simile refreshes the intellect." Poetry can invite people into their imaginations. It can ask people to stop and consider a sensation, to consider the smell of the sea, the salty tang of the ocean in their mouth, the wind goosebumping their skin, the sun silvering the water, and how their inner lives might be like this sensation of being inside the ocean's vast deep.