yric poetry is a diverse category of writing that can enhance not only your poetry but your prose as well. It encompasses, but is not limited to, poems in praise called odes; poems in grief known as elegies; and persona poems, where the poet takes on a character role, voicing conflicts and emotions aloud as a different speaker.
So, what sets lyric poems apart from other types of poems? Whereas narrative poems (much like their prose cousins) explore a story, often with a specific external setting, lyric poems exist in a freeze-time vacuum, similar to a pause button, where the speaker of the poem sorts through inward thoughts, feelings, and reactions to a slightly-removed external world. In lyric poetry, the readers are eavesdropping, in a way, on the doubts, conflicts, and hope of a speaker whose turbulence or joy the reader begins to identify as common to the human condition.
Likewise, unlike dramatic poetry, which began in ancient Greece at Dionysian festivals and was written expressly for physical and dramatic performance—often as part of a play or video, such as Spoken Word poetry today, lyric poetry tends to be meditative, quiet (not to be confused with boring or conflict-less), and introspective in nature. In other words, lyric poetry is the private and personal world made public through each reader, whereas dramatic poetry is public-intended writing made public for groups or crowds who have convened for the purpose of verbal performance.
“Lyric poetry is the private and personal world made public through each reader.”
We’re all familiar with the use of “lyrics” within song structure; and indeed, it’s still a handy way to think of this genre, as lyric poetry was originally chanted, sung, or set to music. The poet or an accompanist would pluck on the strings of a musical instrument that resembled a harp during the recitation. Today, most lyric poetry is without physical music, and we call words set to music “songs” to set them apart; but lyric poetry still retains its roots with an emphasis on melodic language that expresses complex human thoughts and emotions.
Let’s take a deeper look at each type of lyric poetry and discuss tips for enhancing your own craft through writing and/or reading lyric poems.
“In an ode, anything may become extraordinary.”
I. Ah, the Ode!
Have passion? In an exuberant mood? Care to share why something or someone is unsung and highly underrated but deserves appreciation? The ode is an excellent way to express enthusiasm for a subject.
One aspect I adore about odes is how focused they are. Often, odes zero in on just one person, place, or thing and stay attentive throughout each line and stanza. Writers of all genres can benefit by a study of how language can be both highly descriptive and highly compressed, and odes do both well.
Odes are often positive in tone. They are written to celebrate events, objects, and people. Our world is often a cynical one, and it’s frequently easy to point out and bemoan the problems that surround us. Odes will have none of that. Odes notice the silver linings and graces in our lives. Writing odes is a great practice on accentuating the positive and flexing one’s descriptive muscles for the positive.
Odes may rhyme, as Keats’s famous “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” do, or they may be free verse. Some of my utmost favorite odes in free verse were written by Pablo Neruda. Neruda wrote warmly and expansively about everyday items. Like seriously ordinary items, including: “Ode to My Socks,” “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market,” and “Ode to Maize” (aka: corn). Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” fairly thrums off of the page with magnetic enthusiasm to the spice in its shaker:
Dust of the sea, in you
the tongue receives a kiss
from ocean night:
taste imparts to every seasoned
dish your ocean essence;
wave from the saltcellar.
In an ode, anything may become extraordinary, which is one of the charms of the form. What better challenge, as a writer, than to make a pedestrian subject new again? The great focus on taste as a part of salt is expressed as a metaphorical “kiss/from ocean night” in Neruda’s ode; the metaphorical image brings a new way for the reader to interpret how and why salt’s flavor brings added meaning to our food and dining experiences. The personified “miniature/ wave from the saltcellar” is also a vivid, innovative touch in this passage.
Care to take a few lessons from the ode form?
- Don’t wait for a promotion, birthday, or golden anniversary to get to the page. Look around! The everyday world is a feast for written thanks. Make a list of four or five people, places, or things that are part of your ordinary life. Pick one to praise.
- Use comparisons, metaphor, and/or simile to explore the insightful, interesting elements of an ordinary subject.
- If it’s been said that way before, it doesn’t belong in your description. Aim for either synonyms or precise comparisons that make the imagery fresh in your writing.
- When editing your work, omit details, phrases, or lines that pull away from the one focus of the piece: praise just one person, place, thing, or event.
You might notice that many odes use the term itself in the title. While it’s not required, many poets still follow the convention of beginning their title with “Ode to...,” as a way to set up the praise that follows. As shorthand, it works marvelously to cue readers from the get-go that this poem will be positive in tone.
“An elegy is the introspective, mournful valley.”
II. The Elegy
It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, however. Lest you think lyric poetry must be upbeat, I introduce another form of lyric verse: the elegy. If an ode is the mountaintop of lyric-poetry passion and enthusiasm, then an elegy is the introspective, mournful valley. While many elegies are written for a deceased family member or friend, elegies may also take for their subject loss in general—whether that be loss of a love, loss of a time or era in life, loss of a job or dream, loss of a pet, or any number of other human losses that highlight our vulnerabilities and regrets.
It may sound a bit sad-sack, but elegies are tribute poems and paradoxically, contain great strength in their candid, laid-bare depictions. Yes, grief is often a large part of the elegy; but so, too, is a connection, a bond, which remains despite distance or time or death. As such, elegies are often poignant and beautiful expressions of a range of human sentiments and memories. They also often offer comfort and/or consolation of some variety near the end of the poem.
One of the most famous elegies in American literature is Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” This poem was written during the summer of 1865. The country was in mourning after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination earlier that spring. Like many elegies, the eleventh part’s two stanzas contain extended metaphor:
O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?
Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air,
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific,
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there,
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows,
And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.
This sixteen-part elegy offers insight into the grief of a nation after the fall of their leader. Scenes of the rural countryside and teaming new life are juxtaposed with grittier, sadder urban images of work and grime, such as the “dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys.” April is referenced in “the Fourth-month eve,” representing blooming Spring; April was also the month when Lincoln was assassinated. The Civil War also both began and ended in April—clearly, an event-packed and emotion-packed symbolic month!
Without once mentioning the word “president,” the reader feels in Whitman’s tone and imagery the despair average working people experienced in the aftermath of national tragedy. The fact that this section of the poem above opens with two questioning words: “O what...” underscores the internal confusion of the country at that time. While the Civil War is also never mentioned directly, the year this elegy was written also marked the end of a prolonged four-year war that left thousands of men dead or maimed; the tragedy of the loss of a leader mirrored an equal tragedy of the loss of so many young people’s lives. The year 1865 was a time of ends, but also a time when the question of how to rebuild a nation weighed heavily in the media and in the minds of millions; it is fitting that this elegy should explore all of these calamities while zeroing in on the loss of leadership.
Takeaways from the elegy form:
- One loss may stand in for many smaller losses, as Whitman’s poem explores.
- Loss may be communal, but it is always also highly personal. What specific images most reflect your own thoughts and feelings on loss?
- There are no easy answers where grief is concerned. Loss is multilayered and includes questions. As in Whitman’s poems, many elegies either begin with or include a key question or questions.
“Persona poems represent a character’s POV.”
III. The Persona Poem
Persona poems, our third genre of lyric poetry, are like their ode and elegy cousins in that they have a definitive point of view, and they have a tightly-knit theme and purpose. What makes persona poems unique, however, is they are spoken from the POV of a speaker who is not the poet. So while odes and elegies represent the highly-personal reflections of the writer, persona poems (also sometimes called dramatic monologues) represent a character’s POV.
There have been persona poems written from the POV of royalty, plants (as in Louise Gluck’s “The Red Poppy”), and animals (like the pig in “Animals are Passing from Our Lives”). One of the most famous persona poems is T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The speaker is a balding, middle-aged man whose love is much younger. This speaker waxes nostalgic on the experiences he’s already had and laments, to no small degree, his own aging.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
Published in 1915 when Europe was at war, the character’s personal love struggles and anxiety-riddled questioning are set against the unstated backdrop of then-readers’ larger cultural worries and concerns.
Care to take a few lessons from the persona poem form?
- The speaker of persona poems is not the poet. Much like many fiction protagonists aren’t sharing the same characteristics or views as their author, persona poems are a great way for a writer to delve into ideas that might scare, oppose/repel, or annoy them in real life. Robert Browning’s famous persona poem, “My Last Duchess,” is written from a murderer’s POV!
- Consider antagonists in your life. Create a character different from yourself and set that character loose on a social, political, or personal issue. Watch as surprising details arise from their opinions or actions in the poem or prose that otherwise you wouldn’t have explored!
- Persona poems also create a way for the writer to explore the psychology and motivations of other people. Let’s face it—people are fascinating contradictory jumbles, all of us included. We do what we say we don’t want to do; we fear things that don’t happen or that aren’t the bigger issues we should be fretting about instead; and we hope for things that we don’t take action to make happen, to name a few common human inconsistencies. While it’s good to explore our own feelings and foibles at length, as did the Confessional Poets of the 1950s and 1960s, part of growing as a writer is also to step out of our own identities from time to time in order to connect with a wider view.
- Persona poems have a strong narrative voice that draws in the reader. The characters might be world-weary and self-effacing, like Prufrock, but every detail still supports their particular viewpoints, and details that don’t are edited or omitted.
Clearly, lyric poetry—in these three genres, as well as others—offers rich, evocative ground for focusing on specific details and narrowing out extraneous information; provides a context for praise or the expression of grief; and sheds insight into human behavior in ways that can be transferred with great success into our own writing lives.
Melanie Faith holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, NC. Her writing has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. Her full-length, historical poetry collection set in the 1918 flu epidemic, This Passing Fever, was published by Future Cycle Press in October 2017. Vine Leaves Press published her craft books about writing and editing flash fiction and nonfiction, In a Flash! Writing and Publishing Dynamic Flash Prose, and her craft book about writing poetry, Poetry Power, (both 2018). Her next craft book, Photography for Writers, is forthcoming in December 2019. Most recently, her shorter pieces appeared in After the Pause, Contemporary Haibun Online, The Sandy River Review, The Writer’s Monthly Review Magazine, and Embodied Effigies. Her flash fiction, “The Slades,” placed honorable mention in the 2014 Bevel Summers Prize for the Short Short Story and was published in Shenandoah (Washington and Lee University). In addition to numerous photography publications, her art made the cover of both OVS Magazine and Chantwood Review. Her instructional articles about creative writing techniques have appeared in The Writer and Writers’ Journal, among others. To learn more about Melanie’s writing, teaching, and photography, please visit: www.melaniedfaith.com.