The Sweet Seduction of Narrative Poetry

Humans are hardwired for story, all right. Suckers for it. Can’t resist it.

Got a good tale to tell? Ready with just the right amount of detail, cutting all the rest? Then poetry is waiting, open arms, just like any other genre.

Don’t believe me? Check out Walter McDonald’s narrative poem below. You find yourself believing in these two men in a matter of five lines, identifying with what they’re both about and up to, giving yourself up to the inevitable turn at the end because you have to get there to see what happens.


What If I Didn’t Die Outside Saigon
Walter McDonald

So what do you want? he growled inside the chopper,
strapping me roughly to the stretcher
as if I were already dead. “Jesus,” I swore,
delirious with pain, touching the hot mush of my legs.
“To see my wife. Go home, play with my kids,

help them grow up. You know.” His camouflaged face
was granite, a colonel or sergeant who’d seen it all.
He wore a parka in the rain, a stubby stale cigar
bit tight between his teeth, a nicked machete
like a scythe strapped to his back. He raised a fist

and held the chopper. He wore a gold wrist watch
with a bold sweep-second hand. The pilot glanced back,
stared, and looked away. Bored, the old man asked,
Then what? his cigar bobbing. I swallowed morphine
and choked, “More time. To think, plant trees,

teach my kids to fish and catch a ball.”
Yeah? he said, sucking the cigar, thinner
than he seemed at first. Through a torrent of rain,
I saw the jungle closing over me like night.
“And travel,” I said, desperate, “to see the world.

That’s it, safe trips with loved ones. Long years
to do whatever. Make something of my life. Make love,
not war.” I couldn’t believe it, wisecracking clichés,
about to die. He didn’t smile, but nodded. So?
What then? “What then? Listen, that’s enough,

isn’t that enough?” His cigar puffed
into flame, he sucked and blew four perfect rings
which floated through the door and suddenly
dissolved. Without a word, he leaned and touched
my bloody stumps, unbuckled the stretcher straps

and tore the Killed-in-Action tag from my chest.
And I sat up today in bed, stiff-legged, out of breath,
an old man with a room of pictures of children
who’ve moved away, and a woman a little like my wife
but twice her age, still sleeping in my bed.


The abstract dreams of the injured man and the reality of descriptions and dialogue inside the chopper dance nicely together. And man, that final stanza, that “tore the Killed-in-Action tag from my chest.” Those final four lines of realization contrasting dream life from real life, “what if” life from “actually happened” life.

Makes you glad you’re hardwired for story, doesn’t it? Makes you realize you have stories to share, too, and this isn’t a bad model to emulate.

Not bad at all.