Tell Me a Story . . . Poetically

Shaun telling a story

I’ve recently been thinking about the place of poetry in storytelling. I belong to a storytelling organization, and we’ve had some discussion about whether poetry should be a part of our storytelling festival. My immediate reaction: Yes, of course, it should. And then I think about it and the main objection—that it would take away from the storytelling focus. And so my reaction is, still, Yes, yes it should be a part of the festival.

I can’t help but think of Homer, of Ovid, of those early storytellers that we know of and so many more that we don’t. How their stories were composed as poetry. How every form of creative communication comes from poetry. I find I always want to honor it every time I get a chance.

I’m working on a story I want to tell at the Oklahoma City Storytelling Festival next month. In it, I want to combine poetry into the story, actual poems I have written that go with the story, that enrich it and complete it. While I try to always tell poetic stories, I rarely incorporate written poems into the stories.

Poetry should always be a part of a storytelling festival, but some people think that is only true if it is narrative poetry. That makes a kind of sense. And at the same time, even a strictly lyric poem conveying the essence of an emotional experience is going to tell a story. If it is a good poem, that is. It will not be a traditional narrative poem, like one Homer or Ovid wrote, but it will tell a story in shorthand. The audience is left to fill in the gaps.

And essentially, that’s where I think poetry loses people. That’s why poetry has taken the backseat to fiction and other traditional narrative modes—because poetry demands more of the audience. It demands that you be a part of what is communicated. The poet is not all. The poem is not all. The reader/listener has to complete the creative act.

Of course, I also think that poetry is continually demeaned by the prevalence of really bad verse masquerading as poetry that one can find anywhere. But that’s another topic for another day.

The demand on an audience is both poetry’s beauty and its danger. And that is why I love it.

–Shaun Perkins

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