Thursday 2 August 2012

Looking for a contemporary definition of lyric poetry. The Olympic Stables. Free Pussy Riot!!!

An oversized alien space ship has landed on Greenwich park, and put out excrescences that attract and subsequently repel humans in vast numbers.  Every now and then there is a massive cheer.  Coming back the long way round from a swim on Monday, I could have stopped and spent hours watching through the park railings one horse after another scramble up a steep slope, at 3-minute intervals – a tiny, tiny segment of the games, turned into video-loop performance art. 

My favourite event so far, unexpectedly, was the women’s road cycle race, for the psychology, complex tactics, and language: peloton = ball of wool.  Sometimes the peloton seemed more like a yo-yo, as it pulled escaping riders back. 

Yesterday afternoon there was a sewage tanker round the corner from here, pumping.  Olympic overload?  There’s no cleaning up the metaphorical Augean stables of Olympic sponsorship etc…  I hope they do better with the literal version.  Later on the tanker was replaced by a different one, huge, in Olympic pink.  On its side, in white: Lanes for Drains.


Why bother with defining lyric poetry?  Out of curiosity.  I realise that it may not seem interesting, or relevant.  Here is a through-the-ages definition, from the Poetry Foundation’s online glossary:

Lyric.  Originally a composition meant for musical accompaniment. The term refers to a short poem in which the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker expresses personal feelings. See Robert Herrick’s ‘To Anthea, who May Command Him Anything’, John Clare’s ‘I Hid My Love', Louise Bogan’s ‘Song for the Last Act’, or Louise Gl├╝ck’s ‘Vita Nova’.

If one wants a narrow definition, that one might do.  All those poems are in the first person.  ‘Vita Nova’ starts:

You saved me.  You should remember me. 

The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats.
Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.

When I woke up, I realised I was capable of the same feeling.

Here are some extracts from the much broader definition in Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem.  Again, for all time.  

It precedes prose in all languages, all civilisations, and it will last as long as human beings take pleasure in playing with words, in combining the sounds of words in unexpected and illuminating ways, in using words to convey deep feeling and perhaps something even deeper than feeling.  The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself. 

It exists in the region between speech and song… But writing offers a different space for poetry.  It inscribes it in print and thus allows it to be read, lingered over, reread.  Writing fixes the evanescence of sound and holds it against death.  It also gives the poem a fixed visual as well as an auditory life.  … A highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers. 

Don Paterson, in the notes on his versions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

Lyric unites words primarily (though not wholly) through the repetition of their sounds; if you believe words to be indivisibly part-sound and part-sense, then lyric must also unite sense… Lyric presents an additional strategy besides syntax to bind our words together.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has 3 closely-packed columns on origin and definitions of the lyric poem, though a lot of the defining is done by saying what lyric poetry is not.  It starts off with the old lyric / epic / narrative distinction, and the role of music in all three. 

In the case of lyric.. the musical element is intrinsic to the work intellectually as well as aesthetically: it becomes the focal point for the poet’s perceptions as they are given a verbalised form to convey emotional and rational values. 

Again, that refers to all periods.  If you want to read about lyric poetry from Sumerian lovesongs to the Lyrical Ballads and beyond, in 13 pages, you can do so here.  The definition of lyric poetry has changed throughout the ages.  The argument in this article can be hard to follow, and quoting out of context is tricky. 

In its modern meaning, a lyric is a type of poetry which is mechanically representational of a musical architecture and which is thematically representational of the poet’s sensibility as evidenced in a fusion of conception and image. 

The encyclopedia points out that definitions tend to fail if they ascribe a particular attribute (such as brevity, subjectivity, metre) to lyric poetry - it’s easy to think of lyric poems that lack the attribute.  More general definitions include this one by RP Blackmur (mid-20th century American critic):

Words build into poetic meaning by building into sound. 

And here’s a deconstructionist interpretation, questioning the personal nature of the lyric poem, from later 20th century Belgian-American theorist Paul de Man:

The principle of intelligibility, in lyric poetry, depends on the phenomenalisation of the poetic voice [which is] the aesthetic presence that determines the hermeneutics of the lyric.

The encyclopedia glosses this nicely:

The speaker is a device for making the invisible visible. 

…which goes with saying the unsayable, outwitting your inner police, writing what you don’t know, raiding the inarticulate, etc.  At least, I think that is how it’s meant. 

If one accepts the broadness of most of these definitions, how valid, now, is ‘lyric’ as a category within poetry?  (Or am I missing something?)  What contemporary poetry wouldn’t meet the criteria, at least in part – prose poems, book-length poems, political poetry, dramatic monologues, narrative, experimental poems put together using a random method?    I’m not sure whether everyone would agree.  Is there a confusion here between ‘lyric’ and ‘lyrical’?  The adjective in particular is sometimes used, disparagingly, to suggest that a poem or poet is traditional rather than modernist.  But this attitude seems outdated – as if its proponents are still with an old antithesis.  Poetry that’s modernist, dissonant, and/or experimental has its own music.  

As for the Olympics… Cameron and Putin at the judo together, today.  Massacres in Syria, again.  Pussy Riot: yet more evidence that dictators (and conservative church leaders) can’t stand being made fun of.  

FREE PUSSY RIOT!!!  Punk political performers / protestors, anti-Putin, anti-patriarchy, anti-Patriarchate.  Read their song lyrics here.  On the video they  perform the first of those songs, in the cathedral – this is what got them imprisoned without bail, facing 7 years in jail, and deprived of food and sleep during the trial that’s taking place now.

 You can watch the second song, in Red Square, here. 
Revolt in Russia – the charisma of protest
Revolt in Russia – Putin got scared
Revolt in Russia – We Exist!
Revolt in Russia – Riot! Riot!


  1. the part about lyric poetry just got better and better as it went on, and I was intending to ask if you could do something similar in regards epic poetry, only then to read your excellent paragraph questioning the 'lyric vs. lyrical' aspect, which seemed to echo my thoughts exactly; what a delight to read such lucid thinking on such an ostensibly sticky topic

  2. Thank you. 'Lyrical' is problematic, isn't it... I tend to use it for poetry that has a strong musical effect on me, rings in my ears (this may be very subjective) - which includes many contemporary modernist poets, JH Prynne, for example. But I wouldn't use the word for, say, an anecdotal, close-to-cut-up-prose first-person poem that ends with a punch-line. 'Lyrical' is a useful descriptive word, though of course it carries more baggage than ‘sonorous’, ‘discordant’, etc.

    Dictionaries aren’t much help – the OED and Chambers define ‘lyrical’ as characteristic of / using language appropriate to lyric poetry. Maybe the useage has evolved and they haven’t noticed. Adjectives don’t necessarily need to mean the same as the nouns they are associated with. (Diplomats tend to assume their role is to be diplomatic; but sometimes, the last thing a diplomat should be is diplomatic!)