Rhymes are fun and cool. Don’t think so? Go back to school!
Ok, sir. Is there anything else you’d like to rhyme? All good? Great.
You might think that rhyming is the coolest and indeed, there is nothing more satisfying than unearthing a rhyme that felt like it was just waiting for you throughout the whole stanza. We may think other aspects of poetry rule the game such as imagery, structure, symbolism, but you may be one of the very many poets who overlook the use of narrative voice in their prose. If we go back to what a poem is, we’d realize what a mistake we’re making because a poem is really a drama completely driven by the narrator. A novel needs 200 pages, complete with characters and story structure. A poem needs one. But the effect and the conflict? It still all has to be there in your magical poetic stew, whether it’s three lines or three stanzas.
Deciding who your narrator is and what they want is just as pivotal as in any other form of expressive writing. Whether you decide that your narrator is… well, you, or someone else, here are five sources of inspiration and counsel to help you develop a narrative voice.
1. Read Poems Inspired by Ancient Myths
Ancient myths are not only ripe with hypnotic images that dredge up our psychic angst, they are also amassed with powerful characters and perspectives that constantly bump up against one another. Take Prometheus, who was condemned to have his insides eternally consumed by a hawk. If prose could be uttered from his mouth, what would he say to anyone who could hear him? Consider mythic beasts and their ravenous natures and languages, such as the Chupacabra in Latin American folklore who terrorized the local natives. Pick a powerful character and think, in prose, from their perspective.
The reason why folklore and myths are so effective is that they set up dramatic tension in a simple, imaginative, and incredibly evocative fashion, just like you should be doing in your poetry. Looking through the lense of a story such as these will guide narrative voice along its rightful path.
2. Read a Vocabulary Builder
The same narrator who says “It’s in the dire pursuit of the best possible fiscal consequences that we’ve decided to convene” is not the same one who says “I came to get that cash back in my pockets, yo!” Understand what word choices you want to make and stay consistent. If you’re hungry for more antiquated words like “bereavement” or “amaranthine,” then make sure to also research the language used in and around that same time period.
3. Think About the Context
Besides what’s being said in the poem, think about where it’s being said. If your narrator is an investigative reporter writing from a small desk in some unknown corner of the world trying to write a coded message in prose, think about what that room is like. Is it humid where they are? Is the room miserable, accompanied by cracks in the walls and stained carpets? Maybe your adjectives are sparse here, your lines just a little shorter than usual. If you are the narrator, still think about the context in which you felt the need to write this down. Were you on a bus on the way back from an ex-girlfriend’s house? Or do you want the poem to describe the intense argument you guys had just minutes before?
Of course, we all know the poem itself. But to bring it into life, we must give it a context.
4. The Impact of the Poem on the Narrator
How does the poem effect the narrator? As you go through, do the stanzas impart more sorrow, making the tempo slow down a bit in the third stanza? Or does the energy keep building as the poem goes on, acting more like a time bomb? Feel free, if you so wish, to make the poem sound spoken. This might mean a fumbling “Well” or “Oh” every now and again or an unnatural break in rhyme scheme.
No one wants to read a poem that sounds like it was written impersonally for a fortune cookie!
5. Narrator’s Motives
Last but not least, why in the world are you writing this poem? Seriously, why do we care? Unless you feel you know this answer and woven this into your narrative voice, it won’t be a great read. Trust me, I can say my least favorite poems of my own were ones that ignored this question.
A poem will never be just for “release.” A poem is begging for something from its reader, so you better be sure you know why it’s worth reading. Is the poem a warning? Is the poem meant to destroy something? Is it meant to charm or fool us? What kind of change are you trying to inspire in your readers and why?
These are just some of the ways to get started on narrative voice for your next prose piece. Remember that while your work may contain beautiful imagery and structure, these aesthetic elements will be easily overlooked. Ultimately, it’s the messenger that’s responsible for making this beauty a real, felt, dramatic thing.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.