Subgenres of Poetry Help (page 2)
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.
Peggy Shumaker, author of Gnawed Bones and Just Breathe Normally, writes on Brevity.com (www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/craft/craft_prosepoems.htm) that prose poems are brief pieces of prose, meant to stand on their own and capture our attention "via compression." She admires Naomi Shihab Nye for taking "on big questions" in her book of paragraphs entitled Mint Snowball. Shumaker quotes Nye as saying, "I've never heard anyone say they don't like paragraphs. It would be like disliking five minute increments on the clock." Shumaker says to write the prose poem, poets give up line breaks, but to be as cutting as a stiff wind, they rely on "bits of dialogue, quick exposition, complex rhythms" and sentence variety in the highly compressed prose they use.
Ideas about prose poems seem to date back to1842, when Aloysius Bertrand wrote Gespard de la nuit, a collection of fantasies written in rhythmical language. In 1869, Charles Baudelaire introduced what we call prose poetry to a larger audience with his volume Little Poems in Prose, in which short prose pieces employed regular rhythm; a definitely patterned structure; vivid, sometimes surreal, images; and emotional heightening. He explained the form this way:
Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of a miracle of poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?
Today, Michael Benedict writes in his introduction to The Prose Poem: An International Anthology that there are "special properties" of the prose poem: "attention to the unconscious, and to its particular logic"; "an accelerated use of colloquial and everyday speech patterns"; "a visionary thrust"; a reliance on humor and wit; and an "enlightened doubtfulness, or hopeful skepticism."
This is an excerpt from a prose poem by James Tate entitled "The List of Famous Hats," which displays these traits:
Napoleon's hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that's not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn't much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities…
A Few More Contemporary Poetry Subgenres: Language, Performance, and Cowboy Poetry
For language poets, the structure of language dictates meaning rather than the other way around. By breaking up poetic language, the poets require readers to find a new way to approach the text. In her book of essays, The Language of Inquiry, language poet Lyn Hejinian writes:
Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.
Writing about language poetry, or as the language poets write the term, l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e p=o=e=t=r=y, on www.worldlitonline.net/art3.pdf Suman Chakroborty quotes David Melnick's 1978 contribution "A Short Word on My Work," published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: "The poems are made of what look like words and phrases but are not… What can such poems do for you? You are a spider struggling in your own web, suffocated by meaning."
Charles Bernstein maintains in an interview at http://home.jps.net/~nada/bernstein.htm that this kind of poetry contains "features of language" that can "roam in different territory than possible with tamer verse forms" so "the poems do not necessarily mean one fixed, definable, paraphrasable thing."
Here are some lines from Charles Bernstein's "These Horses Do Not Move Up and Down" that illustrate the features he identifies in language poetry:
- Teapots explode, asterisks expound.
- The silly sailor says to us the ship
- He built is broke. Heaven help the
- Nincompoop who shakes instead of bloats.
- Take two steps forward, you are half-way there…
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