Subgenres of Poetry Help
The Three Main Subgenres of Poetry: Lyric, Narrative, and Prose
Basically, although all poems operate by heightened language, there are three categories into which most poems fit.
The term lyric poetry comes from the Greek, "sung to the lyre," and preserves the idea that sound is of utmost importance in the lyric poem. In today's lyric poetry, the speaker is speaking from here and now even when thinking about a there and then; the poet is addressing an absent listener upon a specific emotional occasion. When a reader reads the poem, he or she feels at one with the speaker and understands the poet's urge to speech.
Here's an excerpt from Stanley Plumly's lyric poem "Wildflower" (www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15494):
- It is June, wildflowers on the table.
- They are fresh an hour ago, like sliced lemons,
- with the whole day ahead of them.
- They could be common mayflower lilies of the valley...
Struck by the flowers, the poet goes on to reflect on all the flowers he has had in jars, named and pressed.
Although most lyric poems today are written in blank or free verse, poets often return to the lyric forms I've mentioned—the sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, ghazal, and sestina among them. You can read examples of contemporary lyric poems in traditional forms at sites like Poets.org and Poemhunter.com by typing the name of the form you are interested in into the search box. Two print anthologies are particularly good sources, as well: An Exultation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes, and The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Bolan. In addition, The Teacher's & Writer's Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett, offers a good introduction to forms.
The word "narrative" comes from the Greek word for story. Older narrative poems were usually lengthy and concerned a serious subject and heroic deeds performed during culturally significant events. Homer's The Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Milton's Paradise Lost are examples of long narrative poems. Ballads are less formal narrative poems; they tell a story, often elevating a local figure to hero status in common language: "God's Judgment on a Wicked Bishop" (www.poemhunter.com/poem/god-s-judgment-on-a-wicked-bishop/) by Robert Southey and "Casey at the Bat" (www.poemhunter.com/poem/casey-at-the-bat/) by Ernest Lawrence Thayer are two examples.
Here are two stanzas from Southey's poem:
Rejoiced such tidings good to hear,
The poor folk flock'd from far and near;
The great barn was full as it could hold
Of women and children, and young and old.
Then when he saw it could hold no more,
Bishop Hatto he made fast the door;
And while for mercy on Christ they call,
He set fire to the Barn and burnt them all.
What is the difference between lyric and narrative poems? Lyric poems often tell stories as part of what they do (since we are temporal beings and to us everything moves through time, everything we compose has plot or story), and narrative poems obviously must use sound and rhythm to tell their stories with force. So what is the difference between the two subgenres? I think it is the difference between intending to write a poem to tell a story and having a story creep into a poem as one searches to evoke a feeling and perception. In narrative poems, the form is used foremost to tell the story. The focus is not on the poet observing the story, but on the story itself. In a lyric poem, the focus is on the poet's observations, feelings, and thinking. Search poemhunter.com for "narrative" and then for "lyric" poems to experience the difference.
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