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Understanding the Subject of a Poem
A Crash Course in Poetic History

How to Figure Out the Narrative of a Poem

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.

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