Family Oral History: Narrative Poem

“Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but the scald…Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try.”

Toni Morrison
— from her Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Write a poem, 11-16 lines long, in which you tell a story from your family’s oral history.


Your poem must tell the story of some one incident, something that really happened at a specific time and place, either to a family member or family acquaintance.

You should choose a story about someone who died before you were born, someone you know only through family stories.

Imagine the details. (Actually, if you do a good job, only you will know how much of the narrative is fabricated.)

Be specific. For example, don’t say “a bird;” say “a scrub jay.” You get the idea.

Do not tell, in the poem, why the incident is interesting or what it meant to the person. Use all your space to tell what happened. Let the event speak for itself.

Vary the length of your lines from nine to ten to eleven syllables. In other words, approximate blank verse but without the iambic pentameter. Make it a bit like a sonnet, but without the rhyme.

Refer to someone in the poem by a nick-name, like, maybe, Bubba, Auntie Moo, or Lumpy Larry. You get the idea. (Ok…this is optional)

Choose a color which is appropriate for the mood or tone of your poem. Include this color in at least two lines. (This can be optional too, but it’s a good suggestion)

Poems as Prompts

Finding poetry prompts in the captivating richness of poems: Use the following strategies to start your own poem drafts (notes for poems) in response to favorite poems, playfully finding poetry prompts in the captivating richness of poems by reading, reading, reading poems:
*Quick write all that comes to mind initially after first reading the poem title. Then read the poem and add your responses to this initial reflection toward your own new draft poem.
*Pick a favorite line or phrase for your draft title or use as a repeating refrain. Variation of above––pick a series of phrases (3-4), freewrite a few lines to each one and put the writing together for a draft poem with interesting leaps.
*Make a list of several favorite words from the poem and use them in your draft.
*What could happen next in the model poem? Quick write on this. What has not been mentioned yet in the model poem? Quick write other ways to see this topic.
*Copy the model poem out in longhand and watch how it’s constructed, underlining your favorite words and phrases to be responded to in your draft.
*Read the model poem aloud to fully savor the nuances of rhythm and sound, then find a way to develop a similar sound in your own work––possibly using a phrase from the model as a refrain, or repeating a question and/or statement throughout your new draft poem.
*What does reading the model poem make you think of––list the mind pictures and images that come to mind––write about these in a series of short freewrites and juxtapose these short passages together in a new poem draft.
*Use a favorite line from the model poem as an epigraph and draft a new poem as an expansion on this idea or image, always striving to see with new eyes.
*Re-vision: Begin several new draft poems, notes for poems, and pick your most interesting for revision and expansion. Re-read your drafts and watch for opportunities to add more vivid detail and images, knowing that first drafts are most often only half-written––only half there.
*By encouraging writers to find prompts in the poems they read, they accomplish two or more things at once––they are encouraged to read lots of poems, finding favorite phrases, words and ideas, and they always have an abundance of writing starts at hand––all the published poems in the world around them.

Some Playful, Aggravating & Reusable Poetry Prompts

1. Things I’m afraid to tell myself
2. Ways of Oregon rain
3. I’m from a place where
4. Things Momma don’t allow
5. Things I’ve learned lately
6. Nerudian questions like––What truly sleeps in a riverbed? Why is everything more beautiful underwater? Why do rivers journey? How far can you travel downriver? Who is the river murmuring to? What cleans and aerates you like rapids?
7. What’s hidden in the trance of high school?
8. How best can we share this ocean of air?
9. What of the silence around your name?
10. When is there a vortex of noise?
11. What is the simplicity of trees?
12. Being quiet and listening to breath
13. What is meditative for you?
14. What can night teach us?
15. Finding our way in the dark
16. Earth teaches her children . . .
17. Fall was in the air
18. Winter falls like a shroud
19. The warmth of wool
20. Slouching in mud
21. Hills dodge everywhere
22. This careless river
23. The reckless surf
24. Slow children at play
25. Meditation: Don’t even think about it
26. Walking perpetually changes the scenery
27. Hot winds discourage clothing
28. How dusty and barren Mexico’s inland womb
29. It’s better tomorrow/Mejores manana
30. Travel provides new perspective
31. Exchanging greetings with everyone I pass
32. Travel is unpredictable like me
33. A walk through the house through a child’s eyes
34. What good is a day?
35. “Absence” as positive and/or negative
36. What can a poem do?
37. A paradise of strangers
38. An ode to transitory things
39. In celebration of favorite foods
40. An ode to small objects
41. Seeing through the layers