Enjoyment of lyric poetry, like enjoyment of any other genre, depends in part on knowledge of its conventions. To what extent are these familiar or unfamiliar? What do we already know that can make us very comfortable with reading a lyric poem?
We are in fact familiar with two kinds of popular "texts" that bear some similarity to and have some of the same "feel" as lyric poetry. We also know how to recognize a lyric poem when we see one (more important than we might at first think), as well as how, in general, we are expected to read it. Finally, we know more about two of its special conventions, "stanza" form and the "speaker," than we may realize.
Lyric Poetry and Familiar Popular "Texts"
Lyric poetry makes its impact in a very brief space. It stresses moments of feeling. It is often quite memorable. In these and several other ways, lyric poems resemble two other kinds of "texts" with which we are quite familiar: ninety-second popular songs and fifteen-second television commercials. Both of these aim, in extremely brief time, to capture moments of feeling. Both aim to imprint themselves in our memory. To achieve this, besides repeated air play, both use internal forms of repetition.
In pop songs, there is a strong emphasis on rhythm, on "the beat," a very basic way of using repetition to aid memory. The best songs also use striking images and are about subjects that concern us. They may relate a memorable incident and tell of its lasting emotional implications. Refrains, catch phrases, and other verbal devices invite us to remember the specific words so that we will sing them--as the record is being played, afterwards to ourselves, and finally on our way to the record store.
Television commercials also present striking images, sometimes in very quick sequence--a series of "poetic" fragments that try to associate the particular product with a feeling or goal that is highly valued (friendship, health, social status, or love). Some of the best are like mini-dramas, telling brief, emotionally appealing "stories." A first-born child, disturbed by all the fuss over a newly arrived baby, says plaintively, "I have blue eyes too"; he is taken by his father to MacDonald's, for a "man-to-man talk," where a new role is offered to him, to be a teacher of the younger child. A teen-age girl complains tearfully to her friends about her mother--"She's so much prettier than me"--until she smiles, realizing that at the same age, her mother looked "exactly like me." Accompanying these commercials, there is also a strong musical element, either as background or as a catchy tune with catchy words to it. To sell the product, story and music and verbal devices all aim at being memorable.
The earliest poetry of every culture also aimed at being remembered. It had to. Without the resources of mass printing, it could only survive through oral transmission. There were many repeat performances. Mnemonic verbal devices, a "story" which engaged the concerns and values of the culture, and strong musical elements existed here too (the poems were sung or chanted to musical accompaniment). Medieval popular ballads were not printed until the fifteenth century. These were generally story-songs that used refrains, as well as "incremental repetition" (lines that change only slightly in each appearance).
Our pop songs and commercials today are in part the inheritors of ballad and other popular traditions. But they also echo more consciously "literary" forms (in literary history, there is constant exchange). In particular, they use two conventions of lyric poetry which developed in the nineteenth century. First, as the lyric moved "up" in the hierarchy of literary genres, the objects and situations it described "descended," became more commonplace, more everyday. This was one of Wordsworth's major innovations. Second, the place of "action" or "story," of primary importance in literature since Aristotle, shifted. Feelings became primary. Wordsworth said that feelings gave importance to the action and situation, not the other way around. Both of these conventions of the nineteenth century lyric-- emphasis on everyday events and on a "story" that exists mostly for the feelings it expresses--may be seen operating in a great many commercials and popular songs today (think of any Country and Western song).
To sum up, because we are familiar with these brief, popular "texts," we may, in a general way, be more familiar than we realize with the conventions and codes of lyric poetry.
--Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©Brooklyn College.