In What Sense are Short Poetic Texts a Narrative?

By Jeremy S. Page
2010, Vol. 2 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

We can categorize poetic texts into three distinct types: the narrative poem, or poem that tells a story; the epic poem, or a long narrative poem on heroic subjects; and the lyric, in which a poet or speaker expresses an emotional state. (Schweibert: 166)1 However, if we follow Abbott’s view that narrative occurs ‘as soon as we follow a subject with a verb...’ then it makes sense that indeed every poetic text is a form of narrative. It is thus the focus of this essay to show, using examples from Hughes, Heaney and Glück, that elements of narrative are contained in all poetic texts (and indeed, any composed text) and is the way in which we, as responders to a text, find the meaning contained within poetry.

In order to prove that poetic texts are, in essence, narratives, we must first define exactly what ‘narrative’ is. Davenport (9) quotes Cicero’s basic definition of ‘narratio’ [sic]:

‘an exposition of events that have occurred or are supposed to have occurred.’

Here Cicero expresses the idea that a narrative is simply a retelling of the facts in chronological order;Abbott (3-4) also uses the concept of time in his definition of what narrative ‘is’, stating that, rather than using a predefined measure of time to describe the order of events, narrative ‘allows events themselves to create the order of time.’ Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Toni Morrison, would have us believe that narrative is ‘one of the principle ways in which we absorb knowledge.’ a view supported by Abbott’s claim that narrative gives shape and meaning to human memories. (3) Ultimately, we can see that the most essential purpose of narrative is to relate a series of events in a textual form, becoming the ‘principal way in which [humankind] organizes its understanding of time.’ (Abbott: 3) [2]

In poetry, we understand that a poet is attempting to relate to us a sequence of events, or convey a particular emotion or state of mind. We read this poetry expecting to be told a story, and thus extract meaning from the text. Abbott’s view would be that this is only possible with the use of narrative within the poem.

We can see an example of this narrative sequence of events in Hughes’ Theology (1967). Hughes describes his own version of the Genesis story over only four short lines of verse:

“Adam ate the apple.
Eve ate Adam.
The serpent ate Eve.
This is the dark intestine.”

Here we have a narrative contained within a poetic text in the most basic sense: three separate clauses, each containing the subject-verb-object pattern[3]. Hughes describes the series of events that took place, providing a narrative in its most basic form. The last line of this excerpt is the conclusion of the narrative, defining the cause of the events from the past. Hughes then goes on in the final stanza, to describe the current effects of the narrative, describing the serpent ‘sleeping off his meal in paradise.’

Seamus Heaney in ‘Digging’ (1966) presents a different form of narrative in poetry, relating a specific moment in time while simultaneously presenting his (or the poetic “I”) emotional state. Heaney interweaves the events of the present in the poem with memories and images from the past. Again, we are shown a series of events that dictate their own timeframe: we are given the sense that, even as he remembers his ‘grandfather cutting turf in Toner’s bog,’ his father is still cutting his own peat beneath the poet’s window. Heaney draws us back to the original narrative in the poem and resolves the final stanza with the line “I’ll dig with it.” Here we see that not only have we as responders learnt from the narrative of the poem, but the narrator himself has come to a new understanding through his retelling of a sequence of events – that is, the narrative.

Finally, Louise Glück in her 1975 poem ‘Gretel in Darkness’ presents us with a narrative somewhat different from the examples given above: Glück presents us with a narrative told from the perspective of a fictional character or ‘agent’ within the text. Certainly, this highly emotive and personalized viewpoint generates a much more emotive and involved reaction from the responder – increasing the meaning that the responder takes from the text.

Ultimately, we see that through logical retelling of events in sequence – the core purpose of the narrative – poems inspire and depict series of images for responders. However the poetic medium does allow for much subtler progressions through the course of the narrative – something that is simply not possible when creating text in other mediums.

‘Narrative is a way of creating order out of chaos.’ (Abbott: 95) It is this logical order that comes from the narrative of short poetic texts that allows responders to engage with a text, and ultimately to discover the poems meaning. The medium of poetry itself allows a poet to communicate emotion to a responder, and the logical progression that comes from narrative complements this. Thus, we find that short poetic texts are a form of narrative, due to their being ‘representations of series of events.’ (Abbott: 12)

1. Schweibert also describes the ‘Prose Poem’ as a fourth category, but then goes on to clarify this as a subclass of one of the three categories expressed above.

2. ‘as [humans] are the only species on earth…with a conscious awareness of the passage of time, it stands to reason that we would have a mechanism [Narrative] for expressing this awareness.’ (Abbott: 3)

3. ‘whenever we follow a subject with a verb, there is a good chance we are engaged in narrative discourse.’ (Abbott: 1) In this sense, the discourse is between poet and responder.


H. Porter Abbott,the Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp1-11.

Tony Davenport,Medieval Narrative: An Introduction.(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp9-23.

Louise Glück, ‘Gretel in Darkness’,The Norton Anthology of Poetry,ed. Margaret Ferguson et al., 5thed. (New York and London: Norton, 2005), p1931

Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’,The Norton Anthology of Poetry,ed. Margaret Ferguson et al., 5thed. (New York and London: Norton, 2005), pp1819-1900

Ted Hughes, ‘Theology’, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. Margaret Ferguson et al., 5th ed. (New York and London: Norton, 2005), p1813

Toni Morrison, Lecture and Speech of Acceptance upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1993), p1.

John E. Schweibert,Reading and Writing from Literature, 3rded.(Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005), pp166-171

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