How to Figure Out the Narrative of a Poem

By The Poetry Center, John Timpane

Many poets are also storytellers, and as storytellers, they, too, use all the elements of narration. When reading narrative poems consider the narrative elements:

  • Speaker (also known as persona): This is the imaginary person who “speaks” the words in a poem. Some poems feature speakers as full-fledged characters with names and histories. But for the sake of discussion, imagine all poems as having speakers.

  • Setting: This is the time, location, and physical environment in which a story takes place.

  • Situation: This word refers to the circumstances or state of affairs at a given moment in a poem or story. It can also refer to the circumstances in which a character finds himself or herself at a given moment.

  • Plot: This term refers to the deeds and events in the story, which are organized toward a particular emotional or moral end.

  • Character: This word refers to the fictional representation of an imaginary person. A character is really a bunch of words that spurs us to have a mental image of a person.

Interpret narrative poems — or any poetry, for that matter — by paying attention to what the poem says and your responses to it. Build a bridge of speculation between the poet’s words and suggestions and your reactions. Interpretation is often the best part of poetry.