Tales around the Campfire

by limebirddennis

Many of the posts here, and much of the discussion, revolves around one aspect or another of ‘story’. However, the modern understanding of ‘story’ seems to be based mainly in the world of prose. This is a relatively recent evolution in the history of storytelling (it could be argued that Western fictional narrative, and its more ‘informal’ language, grew out of the ‘histories’ – and only became popular when books first became widely available in the fifteenth century).

If we go back to the first storytellers, while they may not have originally thought of themselves as poets, that is what they were. In order to remember extremely long tales, certain formulations, certain rhythms were used to aid memory.


The oldest known version of the “Epic of Gilgamesh” was originally five independent Sumerian poems that date from as early as the Third Dynasty of Ur (2150-2000 BC). Four of the poems were used as the source material for the Akkadian version. This first, “Old Babylonian”, version of the epic dates from the 18th century BC and is titled “Shūtur eli sharrī” from the opening lines “Surpassing All Other Kings”.

Modern West African griots keep alive a centuries-old tradition that the storytellers of Ancient Greece would have recognised immediately. In the 1930s Milman Parry and Albert Lord argued (in what became known as the Parry/Lord thesis) that the structure of the Homeric epic is due to it being a written representation of an oral composition (although much of their original work was specifically related to Serbian oral epic poetry). The thesis was developed by Lord (for example in “The Singer of Tales” where he discusses oral tradition and its relation to literary composition, using Homeric and medieval epics as examples).

With the transition from oral to literary, the written form of epic poetry continued to be the main vehicle for storytelling through the 12th Century (Chanson de Roland – Old French), the 13th Century (Parzival – Middle High German), the 14th Century (Divina Commedia – Italian), the 15th Century (Morte Arthure – Middle English) and it is easy to see the direct links between these examples and some strands of the modern fantasy novel.

Everyone who writes stories, or who tells stories, is part of an unbroken chain that links us through the medieval classics and back to those ancient firesides and the first tales of epic heroes.

While modern examples of the epic poem are relatively few on the ground, they are still there. A perfect example is Derek Walcott’s “Omeros” from 1990, which draws on many of the traditions of the Homeric epic (and is thought, by many, to be the Nobel laureate’s best work).

The Classical Greeks (for example Aristotle in “Poetics”) describe three genres of poetry; epic, comic and tragic. Later, aestheticians went further and defined three major genres; epic poetry, lyric poetry and dramatic poetry (with comedy and tragedy being sub-genres of dramatic poetry). This breadth of genre gives plenty of scope for storytelling. In fact, over the past two years, much of my poetry has been a very specific genre, science fiction. For those of you who may be interested, check out the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

Many children’s most loved poems are ‘story poems’. (In this article I’m using the term ‘story poem’ to emphasise my point, it is definitely not an literary term…) I remember how famous Pam Ayres was when I was young; and how, on Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart’s ‘Junior Choice’ radio show, Stanley Holloway’s recitation of Marriot Edgar’s “Albert and the Lion” was a favourite in our house; as was Edgar’s “The Battle of Hastings” with the perfect last verse:
“Then after the battle were over,
They found ‘arold so stately and grand,
Sitting there with his eye full of arrow,
On ‘is ‘orse with ‘is ‘awk on ‘is ‘and.”

As a trainee teacher in the 1980s, my most memorable lesson with one class of 10-11 year olds was the reading of a comic poem (by Pam Ayers I think) and then encouraging them all that anyone can write a poem (having to read mine alongside theirs to prove it!) We ended up with a whole booklet full of poems, all entitled “The Day The School Fell Down”.

As I’ve mentioned; when I am not writing short stories or working on the latest draft of my novel, I write poetry. While some of my poems may be abstract, others may be attempts to evoke a particular feeling; but some are pure storytelling. I can’t tell you why a particular story works better in poetry form, but I do know that some just do. Story poems do not have to be epic in length; as with prose fiction, story poems can range from the equivalent of flash fiction right up to the doorstops of the modern-day fantasy epic. The form of the poem can also vary; I have written story poems that are unrhymed, a series of linked sonnets; whatever seemed to fit.

And so, to finish, I would like to suggest that, when looking for the perfect vehicle for a story that has sprung to mind, that you consider poetry as one avenue.

Do you read/write poems for their ‘story value’? Or do you get something ‘different’ out of poetry?

What recommendations of ‘story poems’ can you give?

28 Responses to “Tales around the Campfire”

  1. Fascinating post, thank you so much. I often think about those early storytellers and how and why they were called to tell their stories. I wonder if you think that prayer might have come before storytelling. Surely it led to drama. (I am not a religious person.) I think, and this might just be whimsy, that it’s one of the reasons Carol Ann Duffy’s sonnet, Prayer, is so loved. I wonder if she was consciously tapping back into that first tradition (if I’m right about the firstness) and looking for how we pray today (as well as telling part of a story, or setting a scene). Even though she is saying we can’t pray any more, she then suggests the ways in which we do pray, in our griefs, in our children’s names, in the weather forecast – perhaps the earliest form of prayer, calling on the Gods to be kind with the wind and rain. Thank you very much Dennis. Fascinating. Exciting. Cathy x

    • It is a wonderful sonnet isn’t it? (I’m particularly drawn to sonnets for some reason). The last stanza “Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer – Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.” really does link together the dark world outside and all its dangers, with the words of warning and a pointer towards safety in the shipping forecast. Thanks for reminding me of this.

  2. What a rich history we unknowingly invoke every time we sit down to put pen to paper. I hadn’t thought about it, I just assumed storytelling came about from times when humans didn’t write and could only speak what they wanted to communicate. What an interesting post, thank you!

  3. Fascinating post, thank you Dennis. I’d never really thought about the poetic form to aid recall, but it makes perfect sense.

  4. I personally prefer to read lyric rather than narrative poetry, but I entirely agree with you, Dennis, about the history of storytelling and the importance of myths and epics to both SF/fantasy and to mainstream types of fiction. What about James Joyce’s “Ulysses”?
    As for an example of a great “modern” narrative poem, the first thing that comes to my mind is Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The very prolific Robert Browning is also noted for the genre in his lengthy poem, “The Ring and the Book.” And to go back a way in history, who can forget Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”?

    • I did jump rather arbitrarily from C15 to modern day. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a classic of the form and published in between my examples.

      For anyone who has let it pass you by, go and read it!

      • “Water, water everywhere and all the boards did shrink. Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink…” We read this during just one lesson in GCSE drama about nineteen years ago and can still recall bits and pieces, so a very good case in point!

      • I’m not sure what is read in American schools these days, but way back when I was in high school “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was standard fare for freshmen – that is, the first year of a four-year high school. I loved it! I’m not sure that everybody loved it equally! I use a couple of quotations from it as epigraphs in Volume Two of “Termite Queen.”

  5. I’ve always loved to read (and write )poetry – the old epic tales up to modern stories. When I was a kid writing poems helped me get out my frustrations with life, then my step-dad turned them into songs.

    • I didn’t even get into song lyrics (another post needed…). So far I have only put one of my songs to music (and got the recipient crying when I sang it over the phone).

      What did your step-dad do with your songs? Did he sing them to you? Record them?

      • He’d record them. He had a band, and has made a few albums. One of my big final projects as a senior in high school was to make a music video, and I got together with him and made the video of one of the songs I wrote as a poem. I never wrote them down thinking they’d be a song, but I’d always let him read them and he liked the rhythm to them he said. I wish I knew where that video I made was, it’s long gone.

  6. Reblogged this on dmlbooks – dennislanebooks.com and commented:
    Here is an article of mine over at Limebird Writers, where I talk about the history of storytelling from 2150BC to today (glossing over bits here and there…) and the links between epic poetry and the novel.

  7. Thanks for this insight. It has given me a lot to ‘chew on.”

  8. I think I have written story poems without meaning too. 🙂 I guess whenever there is a message, we are (unconsciously) aware of the best form (novel, short story, poem, etc) to tell this story. Thank you for this very interesting post.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right, we often do it unconsciously. However, in some cases, it is useful for someone to prod a writer to think about other ways of dealing with a subject. I wrote a lot of lyric poetry in the past, but in 2011 I was concentrating on putting together a genre collection (of stories, flash fiction and poems) and I think that some of the narrative poetry I have written for that is my best work. So it just takes a push in the right direction!

      • That’s why I am glad you wrote this post. Being aware of this is the first step in the process of recognising, focusing and refining such poems. Thanks again.

  9. Interesting way to think about how we told stories that would endure before the written word was so available.

    My pick for a favorite “story poem” is Annabelle Lee by Poe. It not only tells a story, but sets a mood–something I look for in any good piece of writing, poetry or prose.

    • Thanks for your comment. Annabel Lee is a perfect example; and, in my mind, really shows the link to those ancient storytellers (with the opening “It was many and many a year ago” and the repetition of the phrase “kingdom by the sea”). A short poem but so evocative!

  10. Oh and my partner has told me that I shouldn’t hide my light under a bushel! She wanted me to say that I took the photo that illustrates this article…

  11. I confess that I’m hopeless at poetry and always have been. You either have the ear for it or you don’t.

    • You’d be surprised, there is an infinite variety of poetry and so there is usually something that one can do.

      When all else fails I fall back on acrostics, which seem to result in some quite metaphysical poems. For example, here is the end of my poem “Time”…

      Thousands of nows join as one.
      Hourglass trickles become a flood.
      Ripeness is.
      Opening its petals,
      Unfolding itself,
      Gradually revealing that which was always there.
      Hemispheres join to form one unbroken whole.

      Unafraid, a pink damp form crawls out into the light.
      Silent tears of joy as it wonders “Who am I this time … ?”

      I find that starting with a phrase as a spark for an acrostic poem can surprise me as I write it down.


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