Storytelling in Poetry

Roberto Carlos Garcia

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 154.

Poetry is a form of storytelling, particularly in the case of narrative poetry. Narrative poems contain all the parts of a story, but it is within the line that narrative poetry unfolds: through its use of diction, syntax, and line breaks.  

Tyehimba Jess’s leadbelly (Wave Books, 2005) is a historical narrative, a doorway into the world of blues and folk musician Huddie William Ledbetter, also known as Leadbelly. Jess creates a unique Southern voice in the poems by combining words in a way that skillfully and seamlessly recreates the music of the blues, ultimately enhancing the story he tells in his book. Lines like this from the poem “leadbelly: from sugarland” evoke Leadbelly’s music:

I push groan from gut, birthing a blood light into song, black
wave of Texas roil rippin’ cross cane field, heat mirage of field
holler syncopation, missin’ link in a chain of gospel moans

This elaborate arrangement describes Leadbelly playing guitar and singing his song. The poem’s active verbs—“birthing,” “push,” and “rippin”—and double-noun combinations, “blood light” and “heat mirage,” emphasize the phrasing of blues music. 

Jess frequently uses nouns as adjectives to mimic blues lyrics, and the subsequent syntactical rearrangement creates energetic lines like the opening sentence from “misfire”:

when jake carter’s scotch and whiskey hands came too close to
the music growling its way out of my baby’s hip, i told him slow
behind a clenched excuse for smile that them watermelon hips
and sundown lips was mine for dinner that night. 

The phrase “scotch and whiskey hands” immediately evokes a tense situation; there’s alcohol involved, and there’s danger.

Jess pays careful attention to the sound of words throughout the book. His use of long lines and long vowel sounds in the excerpt above, for example, slows down the narrative. The second stanza unfolds more quickly: “the .32 colt kicked hot into my grip, snarled its way level with / the head of a man who refused to take death seriously.” This sentence contains a mix of short and long vowel sounds. But the rapid-fire, short vowel sounds—“kicked” and “grip,” for example—intensify the action in the poem, pushing the reader to its conclusion:

    i tackled him hard,
cocked back the hammer, but I only recall the empty
shutter snap that froze him dead for a shell-shocked heartbeat,
then released, filled him full of Lazarus. left me with only a gun
butt to blast him into black and blue sleep.

leadbelly’s narrative poems are full of diction and syntactical choices that feel specially attuned to their subject matter, enabling Jess to better tell the story of the blues icon: his hard-scrabble life, the characters he interacted with, and the struggle for survival that was twentieth-century Black life.

While leadbelly told a comprehensive narrative capturing the life of a historical figure, storytelling can also be smaller scale and personal. The poems in Gerald Stern’s American Sonnets, for example, read like detailed recollections of singular moments. Between twenty and twenty-three lines, Stern’s sonnets are not the traditional Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnets. Each begins with an anecdote: the speaker invoking the memory of a person, place, or thing. Reading American Sonnets can feel like eavesdropping on a personal conversation. “I grew up with bituminous in my mouth,” he writes in “Winter Thirst.” “It was Jane Miller who called my lips beautiful,” he recalls in “Rebecca.” 

To tell the poems’ stories, Stern utilizes a kind of right-branching syntax, defined by Ellen Bryant Voigt in her book The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song (Graywolf Press, 2009): “when modification follows in closest proximity to what is modified.” As an example, Voigt gives the text of the Pledge of Allegiance. In Stern’s improvisation, every phrase that follows the fundament, or initial statement, builds on or adds to the original phrase. 

Stern’s poem “For the Bee” is a perfect example:

The fence itself can’t breathe, jewelweeds are choking
the life out of the dirt, not one tomato plant
can even survive 

Stern is describing a scene, adding description as he goes. Stern’s narrative is also enhanced by his use of independent clauses, one after another. The combined effect is a heightening tension that pulls the reader more deeply into the story. For example:

      the crows are leaving, the worms
themselves won’t stay, the bricks are hot, the water
in one of my buckets has disappeared

The end of every line is also enjambed, propelling the story forward. Stern continues:

and I
am trying to get a pencil out of my pocket
without breaking the point though it is painful
lifting my leg like that;

Stern uses the conjunction “and” fourteen times in “For the Bee,” as he does throughout the collection’s other sonnets. The word serves as connective tissue while giving the sonnets their conversational feel.   

Both Jess’s and Stern’s use of diction, syntax, and enjambment in storytelling inspires me to push the boundaries of my own craft.


Roberto Carlos Garcia is the author of several books, including What Can I Tell You?: Selected Poems (FlowerSong Press, 2022) and Traveling Freely, an essay collection forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2024. He is the founder of Get Fresh Books Publishing, a literary nonprofit.

Art: Rombo