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. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) distinguished three generic categories of poetry: epic, drama, and lyric. This categorization evolved into the traditional division of literature into three generic types or classes, dependent upon who is supposedly speaking in a literary work:
epic or narrative: in which the narrator speaks in the first person,
then lets the characters speak for themselves;
drama: in which the characters do all the talking;
lyric: uttered through the first person.
The lyric, which offers us a supposed speaker, a person to whom we often assign the name of the author, shades off into the dramatic utterance ("All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy," John Stuart Mill writes), but has always been counterposed to the epic. Whereas the speaker of the epic stands in as the deputy of a public voice, a singer of tales narrating the larger tale of the tribe, the lyric offers us a solitary singer or speaker singing or speaking on his or her own behalf. Ever since Sappho (late seventh century B.C.E.), the lyric poem has created a space for personal feeling. It has introduced a subjectivity and explored our capacity for human inwardness. The intimacy of lyric — and the lyric poem is the most intimate and personally volatile form of literary discourse — stands against the grandeur of epic. It asserts the value and primacy of the solitary voice, the individual feeling.
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.
SEE ALSO dramatic monologue, epic, poetry.
oral-formulaic method Milman Parry (1902-1935) and his student Albert Lord (1912-1991) discovered and studied what they called the oral-formulaic method of oral epic singers in the Balkans. Their method has been variously referred to as "oral-traditional theory," "the theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition," and the "Parry-Lord theory." Parry used his study of Balkan singers to address what was then called the "Homeric Question," which circulated around the questions of "Who was Homer?" and "What are the Homeric poems?" Parry's most critical insight was his recognition of the "formula," which he initially defined as "a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea." The formula revised the standard ideas of "stock epithets," "epic clichés," and "stereotyped phrases." Such often repeated Homeric phrases as "eos rhododaktylos" ("rosy-fingered dawn") and "oinops pontos" ("wine-dark sea") were mnemonic devices that fitted a certain metrical pattern and aided the epic singer, or aiodos, in his extemporaneous composition. Such phrases could be substituted and adapted, serving as place-holders, as a response to the needs of both grammar and narrative. These formulas, which could also be extended, were not particular to individual artists, but a shared traditional inheritance of many singers. Parry's work revolutionized the study of the Homeric poems by treating them as essentially oral texts. For example, Parry and Lord observed the same use of formulas in Serbian oral poetry that they found in the Homeric poems.
Parry and Lord discovered that the epic form was well-suited to the singer's need for fluency and flexibility, for composition as well as memorization. The singers composed poems orally by calling upon a rich storehouse of ready-made building blocks (traditional patterns), which moved well beyond phrasing. Singers could call upon this stock of lines and formulas for describing places, expressing different characters, and narrating action — and thus perform epics of ten thousand lines or more with uninterrupted fluency. Parry and Lord provided us with a generative model of epic performance. F. P. Magoun explains that oral poetry is composed "rapidly in the presence of a live audience by means of ready-made phrases filling just measures of isochronous verse capable of expressing every idea that the singer may wish to express in various metrical situations." The oral-formulaic method has subsequently been applied to a wide variety of texts and genres, such as Babylonian, Hittite, and Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, medieval romances, Russian byliny, the corpus of pre-Islamic poetry, Toda ritual songs, Coorg dance songs, English and Spanish ballads, and even African American revivalist sermons. Oral formulas also clearly influenced written poetry. It is now possible, for example, to view Old English poems as transitional texts, written poems that embody oral formulas.
SEE ALSO aoidos, bylina, epic, oral poetry.
naked poetry Naked poetry is a term for the radical modern impulse to strip poetry down to its bare essentials. Lafcadio Hearn coined the phrase naked poetry for one of his general lectures at the Imperial University in Tokyo (1896-1903). He said:
I want to make a little discourse about what we might call Naked Poetry ... that is, poetry without any dress, without any ornament, the very essence or body of poetry unveiled by artifice of any kind.
The sparseness and classical restraint of Japanese poetry helped lead Hearn to the concept.
The Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez also invented the term poesia desnuda (naked poetry) in Eternidades (1916-1917). In his poem "At first she came to me pure" he remembers how poetry first came to him in his youth as a naked young girl "dressed only in her innocence," and he loved her. Gradually she dressed up and put on more ornaments and he started to hate her without knowing why. Years later she sheds her clothes and returns as a young girl again: "Naked poetry, always mine, / that I have loved my whole life!"
The impulse to a pure and exposed poetry has had many modern articulations. Charles Baudelaire took the title My Heart Laid Bare (1887) for his intimate journals, which were never completed, from Edgar Allan Poe, who said that if any man dared to write such a book with complete frankness it would be a masterpiece. "But to write it — there is the rub," Poe said: "No man dare write it. No man ever will dare write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen" (1848).
W. B. Yeats's 1914 poem "A Coat" personifies his "song" as a coat embroidered with old mythologies, which he then sheds: "For there's more enterprise / In walking naked." In 1921, the Yiddish poet Peretz Ravitch published a collection entitled Nakete Lider (Naked Songs). The Greek poet Pantelis Prevalakis borrowed Jiménez's phrase and called his second and third books The Naked Poetry (1939) and The Most Naked Poetry (1941). He wanted a verse free of artifice, sincere and unguarded, bare. Jiménez's naked poetry, which was translated by Robert Bly, had a strong influence on American poets of the 1960s and '70s. In 1969, Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey borrowed Jiménez's phrase for their anthology, Naked Poetry, which they followed seven years later with The New Naked Poetry. These anthologies of free-verse poetry in open forms reflect their conviction that "the strongest and most alive poetry in America has abandoned or at least broken the grip of traditional meters and had set out, once again, into 'the wilderness of unopened life.'" They suggest that poems "take shape from the shapes of their emotions."
SEE ALSO free verse, projective verse.
the dozens Playing the dozens is an African American verbal street game of escalating insults. In different communities, it is also called woofing, sounding, joning, screaming, cutting, capping, and chopping, among other things. There is a slight shift in the rules from place to place. Played by both males and females, it is sometimes "clean," more often "dirty." In the Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), Clarence Major defines the Dirty Dozens as "a very elaborate game traditionally played by black boys, in which the participants insult each other's relatives, especially their mothers. The object of the game is to test emotional strength. The first person to give in to anger is the loser."
No one knows the origins of the dozens, which probably derives its name from an eighteenth-century meaning of the verb dozen, "to stun, stupefy, daze." Lawrence Levine points out that all the ingredients of the dozens were present in the slaves' environment. He quotes the earliest documentation of the dozens in a Texas song collected in 1891:
Talk about one thing, talk about another;
But if you talk about me, I'm gwain to talk about your mother.
The dozens is a way of using language to stun someone in front of an audience, as in this opening rhymed couplet:
I don't play the dozens, the dozens ain't my game
But the way I fucked your mama is a god damn shame.
There is a structural turn in the couplet: the first line disclaims the game, which the second line then contradicts.
The sociolinguist William Labov codifies the "Rules for Ritual Insults" in Language in the Inner City (1972):
1. A sound opens a field, which is meant to be sustained. A sound is presented with the expectation that another sound will be offered in response, and that this second sound may be built formally upon it. The player who presents an initial sound is thus offering others the opportunity to display their ingenuity at his expense.
2. Besides the initial two players, a third-person role is necessary
3. Any third person can become a player, especially if there is a failure by one of the two players then engaged.
4. Considerable symbolic distance is maintained and serves to insulate the event from other kinds of verbal interaction.
In his autobiography, Die Nigger Die! (1969), H. Rap Brown remembers that in school his teachers tried to teach him "poetry" in the classroom when he was actually talking poetry in the streets. "If anybody needed to study poetry," Brown says, "[my teacher] needed to study mine. We played the Dozens for recreation, like white folks play Scrabble." He grew up in Baton Rouge and distinguishes between the dozens, which are a "mean game because what you try to do is totally destroy somebody else with words," and "Signifying," which was "more humane." He says, "Signifying allowed you a choice — you could either make a cat feel good or bad. If you had just destroyed someone (verbally) or if they were just put down already, signifying could help them over." Claudia Mitchell-Kernan recalls that in Chicago, games of verbal insult were called sounding in general. The dozens was a specific type of game that broadened the target from an individual adversary to his relatives and ancestors, especially his mother. There were direct insults, called sounds, and indirect insults, called signifying.
Langston Hughes imitates the dozens, and uses it to structure his wittiest and most ambitious work, the twelve-part sequence Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961).
SEE ALSO signifying.
aubade A dawn song expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak. The earliest European examples date from the end of the twelfth century. The Provençal, Spanish, and German equivalents are alba, albada, and Tagelied. Some scholars believe the aubade, which has no fixed metrical form, grew out of the cry of the medieval watchman, who announced from his tower the passing of night and return of day. Ezra Pound renders the Provençal "Alba Innominata" as ''Ah God! Ah God! That dawn should come so soon!" In The Spirit of Romance (1910), he points out that romance literature dawned with a Provençal "Alba" from around the tenth century:
Dawn appeareth upon the sea,
from behind the hill,
The watch passeth, it shineth
clear amid the shadows.
However it began, the fact that the dawn song is found in nearly all early poetries suggests that its poignancy crosses cultures.
Chaucer gives a splendid example of an aubade in book 3 of Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1380s). It begins when Criseyde hears the cock crow and then continues on for fourteen additional stanzas:
"Myn hertes lyf, my trist, and my plesaunce,
That I was born, allas! what me is wo,
That day of us mot make desseveraunce!
For tyme it is to ryse, and hennes go,
Or elles I am lost for evermo!
O night, allas! why niltow over us hove,
As longe as whanne Almena lay by Jove?"
The aubade recalls the joy of two lovers joined together in original darkness. It remembers the ecstasy of union. But it also describes a parting at dawn, and with that parting comes the dawning of individual consciousness; the separated, or day-lit, mind bears the grief or burden of longing for what has been lost. The characteristic or typal aubade flows from the darkness of the hour before dawn to the brightness of the hour afterward. It moves from silence to speech, from the rapture of communion to the burden of isolation, and the poem itself becomes a conscious recognition of our separateness. This is made evident in Shakespeare's Romeo and ]uliet (act 3, scene 5, 1-36, 1597), which includes a debate about whether the two lovers are listening to the song of a nocturnal bird or a morning one:
Will thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale and not the lark,
That pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
The aubade concludes with Romeo's heartfelt cry, "More light and light — more dark and dark our woes!" John Donne rebels against the convention of separation in his aubade "The Sun Rising" (1633), which begins by chiding the sun ("Busie old foole, unruly Sunne"). There is no beloved at all in Philip Larkin's last poem, "Aubade" (1977), a terrifying spiritual confrontation with oblivion. The direction of the aubade is irreversible. It moves from the song of the nightingale to the song of the lark and thus flows into time.
wine poetry The medieval Arabic poets had a lively genre of wine poetry called khamriyyat, which derived from the social institution of wine parties among Andalusian Muslims. The Abassid wine poem had numerous thematic possibilities. Poets spoke of the need for wine and the joys of drunkenness; they invited and implored others to join them; they provided lush descriptions of wine's color, texture, and provenance; they described the places where drinking is most enjoyed (in taverns, palaces, and gardens, along rivers); they praised their friends who drank with them, fellow partakers; they praised cup-bearers and responded to fault-finders; they celebrated wine's power to overcome grief. The Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas (d. ca. 814) is well known for taking the wine poem, which had been only an occasional element in the classical Arabic ode (qasida), and boisterously enlarging it. In the eleventh century, the medieval Hebrew poets adopted the conventions of the Arabic wine poem (Shmuel HaNagid, "Have You Heard How I Helped the Wise"; Moshe Ibn Ezra, "Bring Me a Cup").
Drunkenness is frequently compared to ecstatic union in sacred poetry all over the world. Mystic poets are often "drunk" with God. This motif is especially powerful in Sufi poetry, where wine-drinking is a common metaphor for spiritual intoxication. Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī writes (#216): "Bring wine, for I am suffering crop sickness from the vintage; / God has seized me, and I am thus held fast."
SEE ALSO ghazal, qasida.
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“Excerpted from A POET’S GLOSSARY by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.”
About the Author
Edward Hirsch is a celebrated poet and peerless advocate for poetry. A MacArthur fellow, he has published eight books of poems and four books of prose. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Rome Prize, a Pablo Neruda Presidential Medal of Honor, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. He serves as president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and lives in Brooklyn.
A Poet's Glossary
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