lyric poetry definition: how to write a lyric poem

Lyric Poetry Definition: How to Write a Lyric Poem

Lyric poetry has a rich, surprising history. As one of the oldest forms of literature, the lyric poem has moved and captivated audiences with its emphasis on language, sound, and the vast lexicon of human emotion. It is also a form that is frequently misdefined or misunderstood.

What is lyric poetry? While definitions vary, a lyric poem will always move through the reader like wind rippling the waves, or like voltage running through a wire. Contemporary lyric poetry, in particular, emphasizes language and its abilities to represent our own particular experiences through accessible symbols.

We will see this in action through the lyric poetry examples in this article, and we will also discuss the elements of lyric poetry and how to write a lyric poem. But first, we need to define the lyric poem. What is lyric poetry?

Lyric Poetry Definition: What is Lyric Poetry?

Lyric poetry can be defined both by what it is and what it isn’t.

What lyric poetry is: Poetry with an emphasis on personal experience and universal human truth, with particular attention to rhythmic language and surprising word choice. Lyric poetry only has one speaker, and often focuses on a particular theme.

Lyric Poetry Definition: Poetry with an emphasis on personal experience and universal human truth, with particular attention to rhythmic language and surprising word choice.

To be clear, this definition applies solely to contemporary lyric poetry. The lyric poem today shares much in common with the poetry of antiquity, but older works, such as Elizabethan or Ancient Greek lyric poetry, have rules and elements rooted in historical context. This article only explores contemporary works.

Fun fact: it’s called “lyric poetry” because, in Ancient Greece, non-narrative poetry was always accompanied by a lyre.

Let’s look at a brief example of lyric poetry, so you have a sense of what we mean by poetry with attention to language and personal experience.

And Now It’s September,

and the garden diminishes: cucumber leaves rumpled
and rusty, zucchini felled by borers, tomatoes sparse
on the vines. But out in the perennial beds, there’s one last
blast of color: ignitions of goldenrod, flamboyant
asters, spiraling mums, all those flashy spikes waving
in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes.
The ornamental grasses have gone to seed, haloed
in the last light. Nights grow chilly, but the days
are still warm; I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck
and arms. Hundreds of blackbirds ribbon in, settle
in the trees, so many black leaves, then, just as suddenly,
they’re gone. This is autumn’s great Departure Gate,
and everyone, boarding passes in hand, waits
patiently in a long, long line.

By Barbara Crooker. Retrieved from Poetry Foundation.

This gorgeous poem captures the transition to autumn on multiple levels. At the meaning level, the poem discusses the changing of the seasons and the ways that people “line up” for these changes. At the language level, the poem meanders, like golden leaves spiraling softly from summer’s branches. The poem’s meaning and word choice each reflect its subject matter, delivering simple, beautiful lines, such as “I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck and arms.”

This is the power of lyric poetry: to use language that reflects meaning on multiple levels, moving the reader semantically, emotionally, and, in this case, seasonally.

Before we take a closer look at this category of poetry, we need to specify what lyric poetry isn’t.

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Epic Poetry vs. Lyric Poetry

Epic poetry, which is also a type of narrative poetry, is distinct from lyric poetry in that it has a different goal.

Epic and narrative poetry attempt to tell stories through verse. They utilize the elements of storytelling that fiction and nonfiction use: characters and plot and setting and point of view, etc. While a lyric poem can also use these elements, the lyric is much shorter than the epic, and the epic emphasizes story over anything else. (Epic poetry can certainly have beautiful, moving language, but again, the focus is on story.)

Lyric poetry, by contrast, attempts to relate specific emotions and experiences, connecting them to the reader through concrete imagery and our shared humanity. I often describe lyric poetry as a moment of emotion crystalized in language. Some lyric poems span longer than mere moments, but the point is that experience is emphasized over story.

Epic poetry vs. lyric poetry: Long poetry that tells a story versus short poetry that shares intimate experiences and feelings.

While the two rely on similar devices, they have different lengths and emphasize different aspects of the human experience.

For more on this, check out our article What is a Narrative Poem?

Dramatic Poetry vs. Lyric Poetry

The distinction between narrative, dramatic, and lyric poetry actually stems all the way back to Aristotle. This makes sense, as dramatic poetry was much more common in the days of Ancient Greece.

A dramatic poem is, as you might expect, a poem written for the stage. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, would be considered examples of dramatic poetry. Ancient examples follow a 3 act structure; more recent examples usually have 5 acts, following the structure of Freytag’s Pyramid.

Dramatic poetry is distinct from narrative poetry in that it is written for the stage. This brings with it a number of different craft elements. For example, the narrator of a narrative poem can be third person and unrelated to the story, but in dramatic poetry, the characters themselves are usually narrating the story, as everything is tinged by the many lenses of the people inhabiting the drama.

And, of course, both are distinct from lyric poetry, in that they relay stories with characters, rather than experiences and emotions from a poet or speaker.

Some of these definitions have changed since the times of Aristotle. Certainly, the lyric poem today is not what it was 2,500 years ago. For example, Ancient Greek lyric poetry was always set to music, but today’s poetry is more rhythmic than it is musical. To learn more about this, you might be interested in this article from the University of Chicago.

Types of Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry can take a wide array of forms. A lyric poem can also be a sestina, a villanelle, or even a cinquain or haiku. Many lyric poems are free verse.

Some poetry forms emphasize exactly what lyric poetry seeks to accomplish. These are:

  • The Ode: a poem that seeks to praise its subject.
  • The Elegy: a poem that expresses sorrow for loss, particularly for people who have died, but also for other things lost (like a lost set of keys, or lost childhood).
  • Occasional Poetry: Poetry written for a particular occasion, like a wedding or a presidential inauguration.
  • The Sonnet: 14-lined lyric poetry about love, though contemporary examples sometimes dwell on other topics. The poem includes a “volta,” or twist, that complicates the topic.
  • The Monologue: a poem where the speaker communicates to an audience, sometimes speaking particularly to another person. This may be a facet of dramatic poetry, but can also stand alone as its own lyric poem.

To examine more types of lyric poetry, or to explore the many possibilities of contemporary lyric poetry, check out our article What is Form in Poetry?

Elements of Lyric Poetry

What devices do poets use to construct lyric poetry? Later in this article, we discuss how to write a lyric poem. But, before we dive into some lyric poetry examples, familiarize yourself with these elements of lyric poetry.

Elements of Lyric Poetry: Accessibility

A lyric poem needs to be understood by its reader. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to write at a first grade level. A poem requires work from both the poet and the audience. But it does mean that the reader needs to have some context for the poem itself.

If the language is too obscure, or the subject matter too opaque, then instead of lifting the reader off the ground, the poem is simply hot air.

Elements of Lyric Poetry: Brevity

Poetry is language at its most fundamental. It distills words to their most meaningful. Lyric poetry generally isn’t long—at its longest, a couple of pages, maybe 60 lines, though of course there are exceptions.

When a poem gets too long, then it starts to tell a story, which makes it more narrative than lyrical. Additionally, a poem loses its rhythmic qualities, as well as its power, when it uses too many words. For advice on how to keep things short, check out our article on omitting needless words.

Elements of Lyric Poetry: Emotionality

Lyrical poetry explores interiority. The poet’s intimate emotions are often displayed for the reader, as though the poet were transmitting something vital from their heart to the hearts of the audience. Intensity and poignancy, when written with intent and craft, will serve the poet well.

No, a lyric poem doesn’t need to be a grand, sweeping poem about life’s most intense feelings. But it does need to convey something true and deeply felt about the human experience. No wonder so many poems are about love, death, hope, politics, identity, religion, sacrifice, parenthood, etc.

Elements of Lyric Poetry: Form

Form and language are inextricably linked in poetry. We’ve already looked at some types of lyric poetry, so you know that a sonnet or an elegy have specific requirements in form and subject matter.

Outside of this, however, the poem’s length, line breaks, stanza lengths, and experimentations in forms all contribute to how the poem itself is interpreted. What happens when you mash a bunch of events together in an isometric poem? What if you convey your messiest truths in neatly defined tercets? How might a poem offer new ways to read the repeating lines of a villanelle? Form creates new windows for understanding, while also letting the poem push language to its boundaries.

Elements of Lyric Poetry: Imagery and Metaphor

The building blocks of poetry are imagery and metaphor. Imagery creates visual experiences that we can each connect to. Humans are inherently visual thinkers, we think in images before we apply language to those images, so the work of crafting imagery helps reach the human brain at its most intimate, its most primal.

Metaphor, similarly, helps poets represent their ideas and feelings in imagery. It also helps create shared experiences. Take this excerpt from Ada Limon’s poem “After the Fire”:

You ever think you could cry so hard
that there’d be nothing left in you, like
how the wind shakes a tree in a storm
until every part of it is run through with
wind?

Not only does the reader understand the subject matter, but the metaphor and imagery helps us feel the subject—as though we, for a moment, have emptied our eyes and hearts of tears. Note that this excerpt contains a simile, which is a form of metaphor.

Elements of Lyric Poetry: Musicality

Language, rhythm, meter, rhyme, consonance, assonance, euphony, cacophony and various other poetic devices all conspire to make lyric poetry musical. Not musical in the sense that it can be accompanied with piano and violin, but musical in that the poem is a pleasure to read—that its sound reflects something essential about the poem itself.

This is one of the hardest skills in writing poetry to master, but also one of the most rewarding. By reading poetry like a poet yourself, you learn how to craft poems with rhythm, tension, playfulness, and musicality.

Elements of Lyric Poetry: Spontaneity

Spontaneity is an ineffable quality in the lyric poem. It is difficult to point to a passage of poetry and say “this, this here is spontaneous.” And yet, some of the best lyric poetry was wrought from moments of inspiration, hastily transliterated, and revised so that the poem glimmers as a gem.

A poet should embrace poetry with a sense of playfulness. They should also allow themselves to be surprised by what they write. Leaning into the mystery of poetry and letting the work dazzle allows a poem to capture something rare, fleeting, and essential about the human experience. If we don’t let ourselves be spontaneous, we may never cup our hands around what we mean to say.

Elements of Lyric Poetry: Subjectivity

Lyric poets aren’t trying to be universal. In fact, just the opposite—they’re trying to share their most intimate personal experiences, then finding doorways to connect their experiences to shared or universal truths.

Don’t try to be grand in a lyric poem. “Love is always” will never ring true, because your experience of love is not like anyone else’s. “Love is” is enough—the readers will see themselves in the work, using the poem as common ground between themselves and the poet.

Lyric Poetry Examples

Let’s see the elements of lyric poetry in action. The following lyric poetry examples all come from contemporary, living poets.

“Friendship” by Chen Chen

Retrieved here, from Mud Season Review.

Friendship
is a mean curl
of moon
coming at
you in roller-
blades. Let our
pelvises listen
to friendship’s
bright criss-
crossing of night
& terrible futons
too many miles apart.
Let our pelvises
be wrapped in
a silver blanket made
possible by celestial
collaboration:
the sun lending
itself to the moon’s
face. Friendship
is a face
rollerblading &
wearing short-
shorts & handing
out hotdogs
in the midst
of spiky roaches,
leaky rooms.
Friendship waits
till everyone has
a hotdog & is ready
to put on their
own rollerblades.
Friendship’s hotdogs
are indeed
the moon’s hotdogs
& don’t taste all that great.
But friendship doesn’t
expect you to take
every bite, to finish.
Friendship wants you to
have what it can make,
what it is trying
to make, with its
small moon hands, its
crescent hands criss-
crossing the night
& our cities swollen
with dream.
Friendship travels
at the speed of heat
& one bite of mustard-
dripping hotdog.
Friendship travels
at the speed of a favorite
music video never
loading on Safari
while we wait
& wait. Friendship
is the crashed browser,
the honey of not
going to bed at
bedtime. We are busy
listening to friendship
in the softest part
of our pelvises.

Chen Chen has a knack for writing and rewriting images over and over in his work. This playfulness with language and image is readily apparent in “Friendship.” With each new examination of friendship, and each new modification on the images and metaphors he spins, Chen analyzes friendship’s multifaceted nature, delivered in stunning and energetic lines like “Friendship wants you to / have what it can make, / what it is trying / to make, with its / small moon hands, its / crescent hands criss-/crossing the night / & our cities swollen / with dream.”

“This is the Poem” by Arda Collins

Retrieved from her collection Star Lake

This is the Poem

An illustration of a peach
that says peach at the bottom;
the Armenian word for “bed,”
“angoghin,” which means something more
Like a large cradle that flies
out into a dream or a dark
sleep; several driveways after it rained
in places I’ve lived; made-up scenes
of oceans and savannahs;
late winter with a damp white sky,
God nearby; the time I wanted to jump straight through
my black mind.
Put your cheek
Against an animal’s fur. Tell me what you think about
the different kinds of light
you saw today. You can give them names.
You can hear the end
of time right here inside this cloud,
where there’s a tube of lightning,
a minuscule
revolving echo
like a drive through a tunnel.

A surprising twist on the Ars Poetica, “This is the Poem” offers a series of mini poems juxtaposed by semicolons. It then urges the reader to craft their own poems simply by considering light, the passage of time, the little images that construct each of our days. With gorgeous attention to detail, Arda Collins finds poetry in the quiet quotidian.

“Half-Hearted Sonnet” by Kim Addonizio

Retrieved from Academy of American Poets

Half-Hearted Sonnet

He’d left his belt. She
followed him and
threw it in the street.
Wine: kisses: snake: end

of their story. Be-
gin again, under-
stand what happened; de-
spite that battered

feeling, it will have been
worth it; better to
have etc…
(—not to have been born

at all—Schopenhauer.)
But, soft! Enter tears.

The fractured, fragmented structure of this poem might seem cacophonous, but pay close attention to its use of punctuation. The way ideas are connected by colons and cleaved by hyphens reflects the fractured nature of relationships—a series of stops and starts punctuated by intense feelings. Interspersed with references to Schopenhauer and Shakespeare, Kim Addonizio’s poem might seem disjointed, but really, aren’t break ups disjointed too?

How to Write a Lyric Poem

Writing lyric poetry requires the poet to hone their spontaneity, while also controlling their use of language. Such balance—spontaneity versus control—isn’t easy to master, but these tips will help you lean into poetry’s mystery.

1. How to Write a Lyric Poem: Study Poetry

Read poetry, and read it extensively. There are many places to discover contemporary poets producing meaningful, exceptional work. You can, of course, peruse the poetry section of your local bookstore, but if you can’t afford poetry books, you can also sign up for poetry newsletters. The Poetry Foundation has a Poem of the Day, as does Poets.org.

Most social media sites have poetry communities. You can find them on Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. Follow poets you like, and keep up with the work they produce. Often, contemporary poets are publishing in literary journals—keep tabs on those, too!

Finally, we frequently cite contemporary poets in the articles we write on poetry. These articles also offer craft lessons on the construction of good lyric poems. There are countless other resources online, and there might even be poetry groups and book clubs at your local library. Stay engaged, read often, and spend time deconstructing how poets craft amazing work.

2. How to Write a Lyric Poem: Be Playful

Lyric poetry relies on playfulness with language. Notice how Chen Chen plays with each of his images, or Kim Addonizio uses punctuation to complicate the meanings of the words she uses. Such examples showcase the many ways that poetry experiments with words to produce new, surprising meanings.

The keyword is “experiments.” When you’re crafting lyric poems, don’t try to get things right in the first draft. Play with words freely, openly, and without self-admonishment.

You might think the first thing you write down makes zero sense, but what if you play with that idea? Poetry lets us push the boundaries of language and meaning, so lean into this playfulness, and you might surprise yourself by what you uncover.

 3. How to Write a Lyric Poem: Focus on Personal Experience

Writers of lyric poems usually stick to their own experiences and feelings. There are exceptions, of course; persona poetry is poetry written from another person’s vantage point, and these can be lyrical. But, the majority of lyrical poetry is written from the “I”.

Poets are only authorities on their own experiences. As such, it might seem redundant to publish poetry. Why would anyone want to read about another person’s deeply intimate experiences?

But, we read and write poetry precisely because the personal is a bridge to the universal. When we examine our own lives and feelings, we often uncover truths that are applicable to a wide audience. While your poetry should focus on your lived experiences and emotions, your poems will likely find ways to connect to readers of different backgrounds.

4. How to Write a Lyric Poem: Form & Language Develop Together

Many poets worry about how to meaningfully use form in their work. Should this poem be a sestina? A ghazal? Free verse? Do I use rhyme? Meter? Different sections?

First: just as you should play with language, you should also play with form. You might write your poem in a series of tercets, then revise it to be a series of cinquains, or make it a sonnet, a tanka, or, dare we suggest, a contrapuntal. Notice each time how the play with form affects the meanings of the words. Pay close attention to which meanings feel right.

Second: form and language develop together. How you choose your line breaks impacts which words are emphasized, and how they’re emphasized. It affects rhythm and rhyme, and can also create double meanings in the words themselves.

Third: notice how line lengths impact the ways a poem can be read. Chen Chen’s poem uses short lines; Arda Collins uses longer lines, but there’s a “twist” in the center when she pivots, briefly to shorter lines.

All of these considerations impact the relationship between form and language. Don’t fret about “getting it right” the first time; notice how form and language interact with each other, then write and revise accordingly.

5. How to Write a Lyric Poem: Spontaneous Now; Revise Later

The first draft is rarely perfect. What matters is getting it down on the page. There’s a famous quote by William Wordsworth that goes:

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

In other words, let yourself be moved by your feelings, emotions, and experiences. Set those things down on the page without judgment or self-editing, following the tradition of “first thought, best thought.

The revision process is where a lyric poem takes its final form. You might revise the poem twice; you might revise it 100 times, or more. Some poems take minutes to write, others take years. The point is to be patient with yourself and with language; let what emerges, emerge on its own time. Above all, stay playful, tinker constantly, and don’t be dissuaded by arbitrary ideas of “perfection”—if anything, a poem’s imperfections might also create windows for the reader. “Done” is better than “perfect.”

For more on writing poetry, check out our guide on How to Write a Poem Step-by-Step.

Courses on How to Write a Lyric Poem

We offer the following courses regularly, each of which will help you master how to write a lyric poem.

Craft Lyric Poetry at Writers.com

Wield your words, find your form, and push the lyrical limits of language in the poetry courses at Writers.com.

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