The Lryic


“Of all the short and long poetic forms descended from antiquity (ode, sonnet, epigram, anacreontic, epic, satire, epistle, etc.) the lyric has lasted best. The reason for the triumph of the short lyric, Edgar Allan Poe suggested, was that it represented poetry in its purest form. Like the diamond, lyric poetry is compressed into jewel-like clarity. ‘I hold that a “long poem” does not exist,’ Poe declared. ‘I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.’ The long poems we revere, he argued, should be seen as necklaces – short lyric moments strung together. It was partly a time and space thing. There was, Poe argued, ‘a distinct limit … to all works of literary art – the limit of one sitting.’ (Woe to the reader who applied Poe’s principle to War and Peace.)” (p.36)

“…the lyric has adapted best of all forms to a linguistic truth that gradually dawned on poets writing in English. Namely that their language is, phonically, a stress, not a syllabic system. What does that mean? It’s easily illustrated. Imagine a Frenchman reciting the nursery rhyme ‘This is the house that Jack built’. He will hit every syllable equally: ‘Theese eese zee ‘ouse zat Jacques beeeelt.’ Whereas an English speaker will, following the two strong stress line which is common in octosyllabic and decasyllabic poetry say something like: ‘This is the house that Jack built.'” (p.37)

“Lyric, with all its easygoingness, suited the modern world and the modern poet. It brought poetry and prose into closer conjunction, contradicting Thomas Gray’s rule (expressed in a letter of 1742) that ‘The language of the age is never the language of poetry.'” (p.38)

Prose or poetry? Both, and a fine lyric trouvé as well. The fact remains that poetry – whether short or long – has lost out in the centuries-long battle of literary genres. The novel has won outright. Seventy-five per cent of loans from public libraries are fiction: poetry loans are negligible. Poetry rarely, if ever, figures in best-seller lists. Go into any bookstore, and it’s a tough job finding any poetry wahtsoever. Verse has been exiled to the little magazine, with its little readerships.

Lyric and ‘song’ None the less, in a way that is not immediately apparent, lyric has not merely survived as a living form, but triumphed. The origin of the term is ‘verse set to musical accompniment’. The lyre is, of course, the instrumental ancestor of the harp, the banjo and the guitar. There is evidence that much Renaissance poetry (like ancient epic) was recited to strumming accompniment, as was balladry (with the audience dancing as well as listening) and carols (a form of verse in which music is still the other, inseparable, part).

The explosion of popular music in the late twentieth century was, effectively, an explosion of lyric. If one allows that the work of, say, Dylan, Lennon-McCartney, or Morrisey inheres in the words as much as the melodies, there is more poetry being consumed today than at any point in history.” (p.39)

Ref: John Sutherland (2010) 50 Literature ideas you really need to know. Bloomsbury: London


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