I like distinctions, categories, naming things. But then if I think too much about them, categories, they fall apart. I’ve been thinking again about this idea of “narrative” poetry and “lyric” poetry. Many intelligent things have been said about those categories, I’m sure, none of which I can remember at the moment.
But I’ve been thinking too about time, as I often do, and time seems to be the primary distinction between the narrative and the lyric poem. A narrative unfolds over time; a lyric is of a moment. Is that true?
I was asking a friend recently about a poem of hers that unfolds over a short period of time but is focused on the feeling of a moment. She describes what she’s been up to in her work recently as “trying to use fragments of narrative as part of an attempt to creat a non-narrative experience.”
Is a narrative poem just a long way toward a lyric moment? I don’t know. Maybe. Isn’t the whole point of telling a story to give that moment of impact? When all the notes of the song come together in a resonant chord?
But that idea of music is the purview of the lyric, isn’t it? The etymology of narrate is gnarus, meaning knowing. Not much is known about the origin of the word lyre, or Greek lyra or lura, that stringed instrument of long ago, but made its way to the French lyrique or short poem expression emotion suited for singing to the lyre. Or something like that.
Does a lyric poem by definition have to be short? If you go on and on does it become a narrative? If your narrative poem is too short, is it a lyric? What if it takes place over a century, but does so in three lines? You see how Swiss cheesey these designations get?
And then there’s this idea of imagery and its role. Imagery seems more apparent in a lyric poem, because, hey, there’s usually not much else going on. But a good narrative poem must also do some strong image work, doesn’t it? I mean, what would The Raven be without the…er…raven? Does imagery work the same way in a narrative poem as a lyric poem?
My friend said of her poem that what she was showing was the shift in focus and perspective of the narrator’s mind. But interesting to me was that what also shifted was the central image, from one at first hidden and revealed, then to one seen and disappeared and sought for, all indicative of the narrator’s mind. Quite brilliant. So now I’m thinking that what is of central concern in a poem, any poem, is not the change of time but change itself in some form or another.
The physicist Carlo Rovelli had this to say in The Order of Time: “The entire evolution of science would suggest that the best grammar for thinking about the world is that of change, not of permanence. Not of being, but of becoming.” He wrote: “The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events.”
A poem may use an image thing or an event thing, but what it is really attentive to is the changing, and what we’re drawn to is that awareness, however long it takes, a moment or an epic passage, and whatever transpires along the way. I think.