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)

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