A lyric (lih-RIK) is a type of personal rhythmic poetry. A lyric poem does not contain a narrative because its intent is making feelings understood rather than relating events. It is concerned with the often intense or complicated feelings of the speaker (who may or may not be the poet themselves).
The word lyric comes from the lyre, an ancient Greek portable harp frequently used by performers. Lyrical poetry was originally meant to be set to music and performed. With the advent of the printing press, performed poetry took a backseat to written works, but since the mid-20th century and the ubiquitous access to popular music, people are as likely to hear a lyric as they are to read it.
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle categorized all poetry as either lyrical, dramatic, or epic. Where epic poetry is meant to represent and appeal to an entire culture, lyric poetry is more personal. Epics are typically told in third-person omniscient point of view, while lyrics are almost always in first person. A lyric poem seldom takes up more than a page; an epic can be several books long. Dramatic poetry, meanwhile, is almost a hybrid: it tells a story, but it is driven by emotion.
A Brief History of Lyric Poetry
In ancient Greece, poets performed their work with musical accompaniment, usually in the form of lyres, other stringed instruments, or panpipes. Some of the earliest lyrics poems were compiled by the library of Alexandria, including the work of Sappho. These traditions were also carried on by a few poets in ancient Rome.
The Book of Songs, comprised of works written between 11 and 7 BC in China, contains hymns, eulogies, and even folk songs. These were most likely crafted by uncredited common people writing about their everyday lives. They employed the use of meter and focused on subjects like love, loss, work, war, and politics.
As early as the 7th century, the first incarnations of the ghazal, a type of lyric poem composed of couplets, began to appear in Arabia. Around the 11th century, troubadours started making their way through Europe. As with the ghazal, the troubadours’ lyric works often concerned courtly love. In 12th-century Italy, the poet Petrarch developed the sonnet, a 14-line poem that Edmund Spencer and William Shakespeare would modify and popularize in the 15th century.
The popularity of lyric poetry saw peaks and lulls from that point up to the beginning of the 20th century, when modernists like T.S. Elliot and William Carlos Williams began to criticize the genre. In the 1950s and ‘60s, confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton brought lyric poetry back into fashion and made it almost a form of activism by discussing sex, mental illness, and other taboo topics.
Types of Lyric Poetry
An elegy is a poetic lamentation, typically beginning with mourning the loss of the narrator’s beloved and moving through the stages of grief. Traditionally, these poems are written in quatrains of iambic pentameter with an ABAB rhyme scheme, but modern poets take different approaches. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” is an elegy.
There are several types of sonnets, including Shakespearean and Petrarchan, but typically, all sonnets are 14 rhyming lines written in iambic pentameter, and a dramatic turn occurs somewhere in the poem. Shakespeare may be the poet most associated with sonnets due to his impact on the literary world, as well as his prolific collection of sonnets—he wrote more than 150 sonnets. “Sonnet 18” is one of his most famous poems in the form.
An ode sings the praises of any person, place, or thing the speaker deems worthy of celebration. The tone is classically serious, sincere, and reverent. In Anne Sexton’s “In Celebration of My Uterus,” she begins from a place of relief after learning she does not have to undergo a hysterectomy. Sexton celebrates how the doctors who said her womanhood was defective were proved wrong and exalts her general womanness. Some sources consider the ode to be a subgenre of lyric poetry, with forms like the sonnet and the elegy falling under its umbrella.
The ghazal, as mentioned, is one of the first types of lyric poetry. It’s an ancient and complex form composed of couplets, wherein every couplet is a complete expression—nearly poems in their own right. The first line of every ghazal poem is end-stopped—or paused—typically with a punctuation mark. The poet’s name is slipped into the couplet, sometimes surreptitiously and sometimes as an opportunity for the poet to speak to themselves in third person. Many modern-day poets write in this form, among them Agha Shahid Ali, who wrote “Even the Rain.”
Similar to the ghazal and its complex construction, the sestina is a seven-stanza, unrhymed, fixed-verse form with repeated end-words. This French-based poem is often criticized for its strict boundaries, but poets like Ezra Pound—who wrote “Sestina: Altaforte”—continue to compose in this form.
The villanelle is another repetition-based form, this one with five three-line stanzas and one final four-line stanza. The rhyme scheme for the first three stanzas is ABA, while its final stanza is written in an ABAA scheme. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop is a villanelle.
A pantoum, which originated in Malaysia, is a poem comprised of a series of interlocking quatrains. The second and fourth lines of one quatrain become the first and third of the next. Unlike a sestina or villanelle, there is no restriction on the length of a pantoum. The rhyme scheme is ABAB. Donald Justice’s “Pantoum of the Great Depression” is an example of the form.
Some consider the Japanese haiku to be a type of lyric poetry, though these poems are often written in third person and meant to convey a scene—typically one in nature—without any emotion or opinion. Instead of an exploration of a feeling or concept, haiku essentially act as a written snapshot. Aristotle might cast haiku as dramatic poetry instead of lyric.
Meanwhile, the tanka, which shares some elements with haiku, was designed for emotional expression. It often focused on the connection between lovers. One example is Takuboku’s “Lying On the Dune Sand.”
This is another contentiously categorized poetic form. Again, Aristotle would call it dramatic, while some scholars consider it a lyric work. As such, dramatic monologue seems a category broad enough for both distinctions to apply. Two famous dramatic monologues are Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and Silvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”
The Elements of Lyric Poetry
There are many different aspects that come into play when composing lyric poetry.
Rhyme occurs when two stressed words or syllables share a vowel sound and (when applicable) an ending consonant sound. For example, love and above rhyme because the stress on above’s second syllable shares the same vowel and ending consonant sounds as love. Rhyme and rhythm help words get stuck in the reader or listener’s head, making them useful devices for a poet who’s writing about complex emotions. This ensures the reader or listener will ruminate on the lyric long after they initially experienced it.
Meter is the way rhythm functions in poetry. It is a system of stressed and unstressed syllables. Metrical feet are individual units of measurement. The metric feet most used in lyric poetry are iambs, trochees, pyrrhic, anapests, dactyls, and spondees. As pyrrhic feet—two unstressed and short syllables—would be nearly impossible to sustain for even a single line of poetry, their primary use is as substitutions within different types of meter, like iambic pentameter. Similarly, dactyls and spondees are difficult to maintain throughout a poem, as the former was not created with the English language in mind, and the latter would be the poetic equivalent of shouting an entire work.
When a lyric is part of a performed work like a song, it is often broken up into several repeated sections: verses, choruses, and refrains. While these can be part of a written poem as well, they are more associated with songs.
A verse is a somewhat uniform but dynamic grouping of lines. Typically, songs have several verses where each one is made up of a different grouping of lines, but every verse in a song will almost always follow the same rhyme scheme and rhythm. Choruses are a separate grouping of lines, but they appear several times during the song; choruses are thus a type of refrain. A song’s structure can put these groupings in any order, though most listeners anticipate a verse-refrain-chorus organization.
Lyrics can make use of multiple literary devices and conventions. The use of any of these devices engages the reader or listener’s sense of imagination as well as cements their connection to the work.
With metaphors, a writer refers to one thing or person as another, dissimilar thing to help the reader understand a complex or unfamiliar concept. This can be especially useful in lyric poetry, where sometimes the narrator themselves can’t seem to make sense of their feelings. When Alicia Keys sings “This girl is on fire,” she’s not being literal. She is using a metaphor of flames and heat to convey that the subject of her song is a force that can’t be easily stopped.
First-Person Point of View
The events of a narrative told in first-person point of view are experienced or witnessed firsthand by the narrator; the personal pronouns used within the story are I or we. The narrator restricts the reader’s understanding of the events because they are limited to the single viewpoint. Thus, the information may not be as reliable as if it were told in third person because the narrator is inherently biased when recounting the events of their story. With lyric poetry’s emphasis on personal feeling, first person makes it easier for the reader or listener to relate to the narrator because their inner monologue is being shared.
In this style of writing, the first-person narrator uses the work as a diary of sorts, sharing their deepest fears and hopes, as well as their darkest memories. A writer may take this approach as a means of catharsis or healing, or they make use it to draw in a reader. Just as someone might share a personal secret to cement a friendship, a poet might do the same to gain a reader’s trust.
A character, poet, or lyricist is using dramatic irony when they say the opposite of what they really mean, feel, or believe. This device is used to great effect by a poet trying to explain feelings they’re not sure they want to have or deal with.
Song Lyrics as Lyric Poetry
Many people are more familiar with the term lyric as it applies to a song rather than with the concept of lyric poetry. Though contemporary song lyrics don’t typically hold to classic poetic forms, much of the same effect on the audience is achieved using many of the same elements and devices.
1. Drake, “Little Bit”
In this remix of a song by singer Lykke Li, R&B artist Drake expounds on the complications of love.
And I will never ever be the first to say it
But still I, they know I
I would do it, push a button
Pull a trigger, climb a mountain
Jump off a cliff ’cause you’re my baby
I love you, love you, a little bit
I would do it, you would say it
You would mean it, we could do it
It was you and I and only I, mmm
The song’s narrator loves “you,” but saying this aloud is difficult for him. He uses metaphors (“pull a trigger,” “climb a mountain”) to express his feelings because he has never been able to say the bare truth. As such, he attempts to temper the impact of the words “I love you” with the qualifier—“a little bit.” This, in a case of dramatic irony, makes the strength of his feelings more evident.
2. Macy Gray, “I Try”
Compared to Drake, Macy Gray’s lyrics are a bit more straightforward—or at least self-aware. She doesn’t understand why, but she recognizes that she can’t bring herself to break ties with “you.”
I try to say goodbye and I choke
I try to walk away and I stumble
Though I try to hide it, it’s clear
My world crumbles when you are not near
The listener understand the narrator’s thought process clearly. But because they are steeped in the narrator’s confusion, they too are unable to make sense of her devotion.
3. Elton John, “The Last Song”
This song, written by John’s close friend and longtime collaborator, Bernie Taupin, was inspired by Freddie Mercury’s 1991 death from complications of AIDS. In the lyrics, Taupin takes on the persona of a gay man dying of AIDS whose father can only now accept his son’s sexuality.
Because I never thought I’d lose
I only thought I’d win
I never dreamed I’d feel
This fire beneath my skin
I can’t believe you love me
I never thought you’d come
I guess I misjudged love
Between a father and his son
The chorus juxtaposes the young man’s conflicted emotions: the anger of being cut down in his youth and the surprise and relief of his father’s presence.
Examples of Lyric Poetry
1. Ocean Vuong, “Toy Boat”
In this elegy dedicated to Tamir Rice, Ocean Vuong uses strophes of terse lines, none more than four words and some only one. With this technique, he invokes the breathy staccato that affects speech when weeping:
no shores now
to arrive — or
no wind but
this waiting which
2. Randall Mann, “The Mortician in San Francisco”
This sestina eulogizes queer icon Harvey Milk through the lens of Mann’s own sexuality. He uses queer, hands, White, Milk, years, and shot as the repeated end-words, adopting the persona of the mortician who worked on Milk’s assassin—who was also a gay man.
This may sound queer,
but in 1985 I held the delicate hands
of Dan White:
I prepared him for burial; by then, Harvey Milk
was made monument—no, myth—by the years
since he was shot.
3. Margaret Walker, “Love Song for Alex, 1979”
This sonnet has the characteristic turn, signaled by the word but, where the first-person narrator recognizes that she and the unnamed loved one are bound together indefinitely.
but all my days of Happiness and wonder
are cradled in his arms and eyes entire.
They carry us under the waters of the world
out past the starposts of a distant planet
And creeping through the seaweed of the ocean
they tangle us with ropes and yarn of memories
where we have been together, you and I.
4. Sappho, Fragment 31
Because only one full poem of Sappho’s survived the Alexandria Library fire, her other works exist only in fragments today. Sappho’s style often uses enjambment—when a thought spills over from one line to another without punctuation. Here, it works to convey someone fawning over someone else.
and my tongue stiffens into silence, thin
flames underneath my skin prickle and spark,
a rush of blood booms in my ears, and then
my eyes go dark,
and sweat pours coldly over me, and all
my body shakes, suddenly sallower
than summer grass, and death, I fear and feel,
is very near.
Sappho uses metaphor to describe the strangely invigorating discomfort that her attraction inspires: it’s so strange and unfamiliar that it invokes visions of her own death. These are complex and extremely personal emotions to explore, which is a staple of lyric poetry.
Further Resources on Lyric Poetry
Contemporary poets breathe new life into an ancient form in the journal Contemporary Ghazals.
Encyclopedia.com offers a thorough exploration of the history of the lyric poem.
Jacket2 offers commentary on lyric poetry’s place in the poetry world today.