How narrative entered my understanding of poetry

Description is one of my strongest points in poetry. At least the thing that I strive after, and tend to succeed at, the most.
And while I am still trying to figure out story-writing, narration is another aspect of poetry that often characterizes my writing (something which only recently was brought to my attention.)

One of the early narrative poems that I really enjoyed was by none other than Edgar Allen Poe.
I have to say I am NOT a huge fan of Poe’s poetry. I tend to shy away from his style of poetry: dark and dramatic. But Poe was another one of my thin paperback books of poetry – so I did get a taste of his writing early on.

Although I didn’t pick up his book often (compared to how many times I reread Sandburg’s book) I did find myself returning to “Annabelle Lee.”

Maybe it’s the flawless rhyming scheme. Maybe it’s the easy and light flow that carries the poem even through the dark subject matter and that then grows more intense and pulsating as the story develops. Maybe it’s the raw openness of a broken-hearted story teller and the tenderness of young-love.

I really appreciate that in his strong narration Poe doesn’t sacrifice. So often narration conflicts with other aspects of a poem – where one or the other has to bend to allow the poem to work. That’s my biggest problem with epics and why I have yet to read beyond the first page of an epic. The story gets so chopped and hard to follow when forced into meter. Another conflicting force is description. Poetry is great for description. But in narrative poetry it often seems like the focus is torn between being “poetically” descriptive and telling the story – so that one or the other is limited. Either the story becomes overwhelmed and overtaken by too much description or the story becomes bland and dull because description is avoided for the sake of the “story”. And finally – meaning. Again, it can go to one extreme or the other. Either the story is weighed down with lessons and morals and “meaning” at every turn – to make sure the poem is good and philosophical as it “should be” – or the poem strips the story of meaning, as if trying to avoid “overdoing it.” Or – even worse – the poem is attempted to be made “mysterious” and important meaning is left out on purpose, in the name of making it “poetic” (which, of course, means that giving away “too much” goes against the trade.)

Now that I’ve given all that outward criticism, I must admit that one of the reasons I can recognize it is because I struggle with it myself. How do you find balance in a poem? Specifically a narrative poem where there are so many imperative parts that all need to somehow fit together – and in a manageable size? This isn’t a novel we’re talking about here. How do you condense the content of a novel, plus description and flow, into a fistful?

I’m still not sure, but Edgar Allen Poe knows. He did it in “Annabelle Lee”. And for that I hold a great respect for him (even if I often suppress it.)
And although I barely understood what a narrative poem was or hardly the aspects of a poem and what it took to make a poem work when I first read this – instinct told me that it did work. Instinct drew me back to it. And this poem definitely made an early impression on me.

Annabelle Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love –
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulcher
In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me
Yes! that was the reason
(as all men know, In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we
Of many far wiser than we
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,
In the sepulcher there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

– Edgar Allan Poe

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