Feed on

The Lyric

From Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary:

lyric The short poem has been practiced for at least forty-five hundred years. It is one of the necessary forms of human representation, human speech, one of the ways we invent and know ourselves. It is as ancient as recorded literature. It precedes prose in all languages, all civilizations, 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.

The Greeks defined the lyric as a poem to be chanted or sung to the accompaniment of a lyre (lyra), the instrument of Apollo and Orpheus, and thus a symbol of poetic and musical inspiration. The Greek lyric has its origins, like Egyptian and Hebrew poetry, in religious feeling and practice. The first songs were most likely written to accompany occasions of celebration and mourning. Prayer, praise, and lamentation are three of the oldest impulses in poetry…

The definition of the lyric as a poem to be sung held until the Renaissance, when poets routinely began to write their poems for readers rather than composing them for musical presentation. The words and the music separated. Thereafter, lyric poetry retained an associational relationship to music. Its cadences and sound patterns, its tonal variations and rhythms, all show its melodic origins (hence Yeats’s title Words for Music Perhaps). 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. With the advent of a text, the performer and the audience are physically separated from each other. Hence John Stuart Mill’s idea that “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard,” and Northrop Frye’s notion that the lyric is “a literary genre characterized by the assumed concealment of the audience from the poet.” Thereafter, the lyric becomes a different kind of intimate communiqué, a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers. It delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, of privacy and participation. Perhaps the asocial nature of the deepest feeling, the “too muchness” of human emotion, is what creates the space for the lyric, which is a way of beating time, of experiencing duration, of verging on infinity. (The complete description of the lyric in this glossary can be found here.)

More from Edward Hirsch on the lyric:

Poetry is a voicing, a calling forth, and the lyric poem exists somewhere in the region—the register—between speech and song. The words are waiting to be vocalized. The greatest poets have always recognized the oral dimensions of their medium. For most of human history poetry has been an oral art. It retains vestiges of that orality always. Writing is not speech. It is graphic inscription, it is visual emblem, it is a chain of signs on the page. Nonetheless: “I made it out of a mouthful of air,” W. B. Yeats boasted in an early poem. As, indeed, he did. As every poet does. So, too, does the reader make, or remake, the poem out of a mouthful of air, out of breath. When I recite a poem I reinhabit it, I bring the words off the page into my own mouth, my own body. I become its speaker and let its verbal music move through me as if the poem is a score and I am its instrumentalist, its performer. I let its heartbeat pulse through me as embodied experience, as experience embedded in the sensuality of sounds. The poem implies mutual participation in language, and for me, that participation mystique is at the heart of the lyric exchange.


Leave a Reply