Putting your poem in the right box

David giving brief remarks

Hi everyone,

A friend and I were discussing the issue of how we categorize poems. We know when we’ve written something that rhymes or doesn’t, so we can easily recognize verse from free verse. And there are numerous established forms such as the sonnet, limerick, haiku, ballad, and villanelle. However, there is another way to examine poetry and place it into one of three broad groupings. I’m not sure how important it is to know this. It could be like memorizing ancient dates in history: interesting but often without an immediate application. Anyway, here are the three that I’ve used and outlined in the book I wrote with Bernice Cullinan, EASY POETRY LESSONS THAT DAZZLE AND DELIGHT.

LYRICAL POETRY
Musical, can almost be sung and sometimes is. Example:

LOVE
(performed in Byron Biggers Band)
David L. Harrison

Said the green-eyed beetle
To his honey doodlebug,
“You’re sweeter than a rose
And I want a little hug.”
So they hugged and they giggled
And a little later on
They had a thousand kids
Called Green-eyed Beetle
And Honey Doodlebug,
And they all lived together
In a snug little rug.

NARRATIVE POETRY
A narrator, in first person or omnipotently, relates a story. Might be humorous, might be serious. Classic poetry tends to fall into this category, particularly in novels in verse and holy works. Example:

PRACTICE
(from A Thousand Cousins)
David L. Harrison

Since Mama bought this stupid horn
I hate the day that I was born
‘Cause nothing makes me more forlorn
Than practice practice practice.

Other guys are playing ball
But Mama doesn’t care at all,
She’s going to drive me up the wall
With practice pracrtice practice!

I deserve to go to jail
For murdering this B flat scale
And sounding like a dying whale
From practice practice practice.

I tried to tell her I’m not bright
So I could practice half the night
Forever and not get it right,
Why practice practice practice?

But nothing helps, not even tears,
I’m doomed to play this horn for years
With Mama yelling in my ears,
PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE!

DRAMATIC POETRY
Think Shakespeare: “To be or not to be!” Some poetry is written to be performed, with dramatic flair, with raised voice, clinched fist, deep pause, hysterical babbling, intense introspect. We’ll all think of some of our better performance poets who can read a soup can label with that same sort of dramatic delivery. Example:

MY BOOK
(from Somebody Catch My Homework)
David L. Harrison

I did it!
I did it!
Come and look
At what I’ve done!
I read a book!

When someone wrote it
Long ago
For me to read,
How did he know
That this was the book
I’d take from the shelf
And lie on the floor
And read by myself?

I really read it!
Just like that!
Word by word,
From first to last!

I’m sleeping with
This book in bed,
This first FIRST book
I’ve ever read!

You may or may not agree that my three examples go where I’ve placed them and you may not agree with these three umbrella categories for all poems. You can see at once that there is overlapping, which can be confusing. My example of a dramatic poem (placed there because of its intense personal journey which lends itself to dramatic presentation) also tells a story; therefore is it a narrative poem too? Instead of?

And my example of a narrative poem has also been arranged musically and chanted as a number in the repertoire of Byron Biggers Band. Does that make it lyrical? Can there be such a thing as a pure lyric poem or pure narrative poem or pure dramatic poem? Maybe, but many (most?) poems seem to wear more than one hat and I therefore tend to pay lip service to placing poems into groups that are difficult to clearly define.

Even more confusing, not everyone agrees on what the major phyla of poems should be. I went to just one place on the Internet, checked the first source I came to, and found this.

LYRIC POETRY
A lyric poem is a comparatively short, non-narrative poem in which a single speaker presents a state of mind or an emotional state. Lyric poetry retains some of the elements of song which is said to be its origin: For Greek writers the lyric was a song accompanied by the lyre.

NARRATIVE POETRY
Narrative poetry gives a verbal representation, in verse, of a sequence of connected events, it propels characters through a plot. It is always told by a narrator. Narrative poems might tell of a love story (like Tennyson’s Maud), the story of a father and son (like Wordsworth’s Michael) or the deeds of a hero or heroine (like Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel).

DESCRIPTIVE AND DIDACTIC POETRY
Both lyric and narrative poetry can contain lengthy and detailed descriptions (descriptive poetry) or scenes in direct speech (dramatic poetry).
The purpose of a didactic poem is primarily to teach something. This can take the form of very specific instructions, such as how to catch a fish, as in James Thomson’s The Seasons or how to write good poetry as in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism. But it can also be meant as instructive in a general way.

I find “didactic poetry” to be rather an artificial category but it’s out there and someone uses it. I suspect that if everyone reading this post were to list their own pet classifications, we would discover other ways of dividing the poetry pie. If you tell me to write a poem four lines long with four accented syllables per line and with end rhymes on lines two and four, I’ll do it. If I write a poem first and without regard to any preset notion of category and then you tell me I must decide where it belongs, I might decide to put down my pen and go bowling instead.

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