David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: What Is Lyric Poetry?


I know, just by titling this piece — “What Is Lyric Poetry?” — you’re thinking, no, you’re not. You’re not. You’re not going to do this.

Yup. Doing it. Sort of. What follows is less “What Is Lyric Poetry?” and more what I like about poetry. And, what I don’t like. But I’m not going to say which is which.

Lyric poetry is intrinsically autobiographical because it’s the imprint of the poet’s mind. It’s what the self evaluates.

Because it’s autobiographical, lyric poetry is tethered to its cultural predicament. And to its historical conditions. It’s a masked posture. This is why, in addition to the physical geographic border of a specific language (meaning, French or English or Russian or Dutch or Arabic, and so on), we have national poetries. With particular, peculiar, and predominant national literary histories. In other words, we have selves of poetries. We have veils of poets.

Form is essential to lyric poetry. And, form is dynamic not traditional. I say this as known formalist. Or, more accurately, as an informalist. C. D. Wright is more of a formalist than Jack Gilbert. She’s at least as formal as Anthony Hecht. Side B? Form confines a poem to its era. All the same, it’s the contemplation inside a poem that allows it the potential to be timeless and to feel contemporary even into the future. Wisdom. Insight. Metaphor. Trust. This is one reason Henry Timrod now seems terribly wretched and Walt Whitman remains terribly brilliant.

Very little new happens in lyric poetry. Or, new ideas come, you know, but only so often. We should confess this to ourselves every time we try to write. Oh, there’s adaptation, there’s distortion, there’s refinement. It’s easy enough to imagine, say, some movement called the New Beats or the New Agrarians. The Neo Dub-Step Imagists. But “neo” is more about resurgence and reinvention. Revival. Which is not to diss the fabulous paint job.

Contemporary American lyric poetry could be a lot more sensual. More foreplay. More cooking. More blood. The novelists are killing us on this score. We’re putting all our sensuality into form. Then mass producing it. I mean, c’mon. Thought outlasts form. Somebody, please, sauté some garlic with butter. Move a lock of hair behind her ear. Stab someone.

Lyric poetry must nourish. Must delight. Must spiritualize. Must mythologize. Otherwise it’s science without God.

One recurring flaw in a lot of lyric poems today is that they are possessed of too much consistency. From the experimental to the conventional, they aim for balance. They fetishize their paradigm, their case in point, their specimen. They overly narrow the context of their metaphor. Poised imbalance in lyric poetry is the riskier, and greater, achievement.

America’s poems (poems, not poets) could stand to be a little more scandalous.

When we say a lyric poem is boring what we mean is it contains too much silence. Or not enough.

A single lyric poem can be amazing. But to understand the poetry of a particular poet, you’ve got to read their entire body of work. Then, for decades to come, somebody has to vouch for it. Then the future has to discover it anew and value it as theirs.

Pure poetry is poetry spoken in a language you don’t know. Without knowing the meaning of the words in the language, the words come across as pure sound, pure rhythm, pure melody. That’s why trying to write pure poetry in your own language is so seductive. Impossible. And necessary.

That’s enough. That’s ten observations about lyric poetry. More to come another time.

Now, it’s your turn. What is lyric poetry? Throw down your answers in the comment section below. The barn door is open. Be definitional — and with good cheer. Remember: “Allah favors the compassionate.”


Poetry Wire Christmas Idea: Each year the polymath and amazing literary publisher, Shafiq Naz, publishes 365 poems by 300 poets in his annual Alhambra Poetry Calendar. It makes for a wonderful holiday present for both the poet and the non-poet who might like something re: poetry in their life every day of the year. The collection is a combination standup desk calendar and poetry anthology that mixes established and emerging contemporary poets with familiar poems by poets from earlier centuries. And I mean, centuries! From the 14th to the 21st century. This year, give the poetry almanac. The Academy of American Poets is selling them on their website. Ho, ho.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →