Issue 7: Lyric Poetry

"What scars into the wood are bore / what fire, what plague, what of before"

If there were ever a time for lyric poetry, it’s now, on the eve of our quarantine-versaries. All we want to do is touch our loved ones and be in the presence of friends, but we might only have words. Rather than telling a story like in narrative poetry, a lyric poem expresses deep emotion or feeling, often using a first-person point of view.

Writing Lyric Poetry

There are many forms beneath the umbrella term “lyric poetry” — sonnets, villanelles, odes — but contemporary lyric poetry can also be free verse. Although lyric poems of antiquity were often put to music or the sounds of a lyre, poets today are not restricted to crafting song lyrics. Lyric poems can have a musical quality that manifests through literary devices like meter, rhyme, and refrain. As they rely less on a narrative or plot to guide the poem, most are short with less stanzas than a long, narrative poem. The main elements that define a lyric poem are:

  • a personal point of view, generally first person with a specific speaker

  • an expression of an emotion, thought, or feeling

Here is an example of a lyric poem by Louise Bogan, Song for the Last Act1:

Now that I have your face by heart, I look   
Less at its features than its darkening frame   
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,   
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.   
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show   
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read   
In the black chords upon a dulling page   
Music that is not meant for music’s cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.   
The staves are shuttled over with a stark   
Unprinted silence. In a double dream   
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.   
The beat’s too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;   
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps   
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

This poem not only uses rhyming throughout, but creates a refrain: now that I have your face, now that I have your voice, now that I have your heart. While it doesn’t use a consistent meter, this poem brings you into the world as the speaker sees it, including the way they feel and know love.

For this week’s hive poem, I wanted to hone in on expressing an existential thought that has been burdening my mind for a while. So imagine with me, if you will, that you are in a kayak on a serene lake somewhere, and the sun is high and the wind is swift—

kayaking on lake kachess

countless stumps of aged trees
a person-wide and drowned beneath
the icy waters crystal blue
clear enough to see right through:
every trunk beyond my reach,
I stop to count the rings of each.

What scars into the wood are bore——
what fire, what plague, what of before——

Then——I see myself inside the lake,
	rooted still below the wake.

	Each of my rings around and round,
	cascading down and earthly bound:

	When I held your eyes and the poison grew,
	the ice and the thaw and the light broke through.
	When the door was locked and the floodgate quaked,
	I witnessed the smoke and all that it takes;
	of the wasp and the swarm and the bark as it burned,
        as I sang your name——but you never returned.

But now—— 	ashore. 	——I cannot see
	what has all become of me?

What parts of life become rings, too?
What parts of me would circle through?

	How deep      my lake? 
			How wide      my rings?

The trees—
			the trees

					were every thing

I chose to go with rhyming couplets this week, mostly because I know I’ll force myself to write a villanelle or an ode soon (and, if I have to rhyme, I love the simple beauty of couplets). Another trope of mine you’ve probably noticed is how often I ask questions in my poems. Will I ever stop? Will I ever dare break from this terrible mold I’ve created for myself? I digress.

Write your own lyric poem

You might be saying: Megan, how do I write a lyric poem, when there aren’t clear rules? With lyric poetry, you have the chance to either write something more restrictive, like a sonnet with a set rhyme scheme, or something more free and loose. Just remember to use a first-person point of view and focus on a personal, deep, or private emotion.

If this expansive prompt leaves you feeling a little stuck, here are a couple exercises you can try:

  • When was the last time you laughed deeply and fully with your entire chest? Write about that feeling, from your own perspective. Where are you? Who are you with? What does that deep joy feel like?

  • Think about a visceral, physical experience you’ve had in the last couple years. It could be intense and traumatic, like being stung by a swarm of wasps, or it could be innocuous, like a hike or a long bike-ride. Make a list of images from that experience: how your body feels, the world around you, words you heard someone say. Describe this experience using only these images and one speaker; avoid turning the experience into a story with a clear resolution or plot.

  • Go for a walk—doesn’t have to be far, as long as you change up your environment or scenery. Find somewhere you can sit and observe, and write down some tactile images: the landscape around you, the buildings or trees or nature you can see, the sounds you hear, smells that waft past you and disappear. Choose one or all of these images to write your poem.

Like always, if you write a lyric poem, please share it with me—I’d love to see what you write.

About hive poems

Hive poems are poems I write weekly with the help of my friends on Instagram. Sometimes I restrict myself to word banks using nouns and verbs people submit to me, or I run a poll so that you can choose my poetic form of the week. Want to be a part of this madness? I’ll be posting call-outs for suggestions every Sunday in my Instagram stories.

Final Thoughts

It’s now the third week of my new job, and despite one incredibly debilitating migraine, I’ve been learning so much and am incredibly grateful to be working for a publishing house. It feels like the culmination of years of hard work and I’m so humbled to be working with other people that are just as passionate as I am about making books.

I hope you have a wonderful week, and that you aren’t dwelling too long as you reflect on our year of continued confinement. I’m enjoying some brief Oregon sunshine—our “fool’s spring”—before next week’s cool rain and possible snow. Wherever you are, I hope you’re getting some sun or taking your vitamins!

I frequently post stanzas on Instagram, as well as my thoughts on social justice, capitalism, and the literary world on Twitter.