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What Is Lyrical Poetry?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Lyrical poetry is a deeply felt, personal style of poetry that is romantic in subject matter and strongly emotional in delivery. This type of poetry cannot be defined strictly in terms of a formal structure as a sonnet, villanelle, or sestina can but rather in terms of tone. Some formally constructed poems, however, also fall into the category of lyrical poetry. Most experts agree that the songlike qualities are a defining characteristic and point to the name "lyric" as related to the ancient Greek musical instrument with strings, a lyre.

Able to assume a wide range of forms, lyrical poetry takes its definition from the combination of subject matter and the treatment of that subject by the poet’s choice of language, perspective, and poetic voice. Odes, or poems of praise, often have a lyrical component, as do some sonnets and ballads. As with the ancient Greeks, modern lyric poets continue to celebrate human relationships through description of emotions and actions on a personal stage rather than through the sweeping grandeur of epic events or chronologically lengthy narratives.

Ancient Greek lyric poems as described by Aristotle in his Poetics, the first known work of literary criticism, were at that time exclusively performed with the accompaniment of musical instrumentation and sung with metric precision. Romans inherited the form but erased its musical accompaniment and flattened the sung phrases into spoken ones. Modern definitions of lyric poetry have since abandoned metrical requirements as well as the ancient Greek expectation that it be performed together with a stringed instrument, although its musical birthright remains in repeated lines or the presence of a refrain.

By the Renaissance, fascination with personal experience and with individual, heartfelt emotions regarding these experiences had developed deep roots within the culture at every level. Court intrigue as well as peasant love is applauded in lyric poetry of that time period. These poets often spoke in the first person, either offering a narrator with experiences familiar to the poem’s audience or reflecting the poet’s own personal experiences.

When considered in terms of subject matter rather than historical influences, lyrical poetry is not limited to the Western world. While Europe struggled through the Middle Ages, Persia was popularizing the tenderness of the ghazal. Ghazals are rhyming couplets that include a refrain. In China, the chains of the highly restrictive structural requirements of classic poetry’s four-character poetic lines were thrown off by a new kind of poetry that allowed lines that were both shorter and longer, leading to the creation of poems whose forms were responses to personal subject matter.

So popular has the lyric in poetry become over the last several centuries that it has gone full circle. Today, most young people hear the word lyric not as a poetic style but as the words in a piece of music. Their forbears no doubt listened to a lyric poem performed on a stage or in a coffeehouse and discussed the subtly of its meaning, while today’s celebrants of the lyric poem bring the same careful analysis to the meanings hiding in the words of a song.

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Discussion Comments

By rosequartz — On Jul 02, 2011

@sobeit - I'm no expert but my guess would be Maya Angelou. Her lyric poetry has captured many people's attention who might not have considered themselves to be poetry lovers.

By sobeit — On Jul 01, 2011

Lyric poems can still have a strong sense of cadence and musicality, even without formal end rhymes.

If lyric poets of the the early 20th century who expressed their feelings in melodic language, like Rabindranath Tagore (one of my all time favorite poets) and William Butler Yeats, and poets like Sylvia Plath of the mid-twentieth century were the voice of their age, then who is the 'voice of the millennium' or today's favorite lyrical poet?

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