Articles for Teachers & Students

Epic, Drama, Lyric: Be Plural Like the Universe!

by Edward Hirsch

There is a lively history of poetry, and poetry keeps engaging, fulfilling, and transgressing that history. Each of us becomes a more effective and responsive reader as we learn more about poetry’s past and its forms. Literary works have conventionally been divided into three generic types or classes, dependent upon who is supposedly speaking:

epic or narrative: in which the narrator speaks in the first person, then lets the characters speak for themselves;
drama: in which the characters do all the talking;
lyric: uttered through the first person.

This useful but flawed textbook division evolved from Aristotle’s fundamental distinction between three generic categories of poetic literature: epic, drama, and lyric. All were radically presentational: recited, spoken, chanted, sung. “Like all well-conceived classifications,” the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa writes in “Toward Explaining Heteronymy”:

[T]his one is useful and clear; like all classifications, it is false. The genres do not separate out with such essential facility, and, if we closely analyze what they are made of, we shall find that from lyric poetry to dramatic there is one continuous gradation. In effect, and going right to the origins of dramatic poetry—Aeschylus, for instance—it will be nearer the truth to say that what we encounter is lyric poetry put into the mouths of different characters.

Pessoa himself wrote poems under three different “heteronyms,” creating three distinct bodies of work, all distinguished, under the signature of three different fictive “authors.” He also wrote poems under his own name—equally dramatic, equally personal. I think we ought to take to heart his Whitmanesque motto, “Be plural like the universe!”

Aristotle’s traditional groupings more or less held until the eighteenth century, but since then the epic and the novel, the drama, and the lyric have continually shadowed and shaded each other. They have blurred, transmuted, crossed boundaries. Readers experience how the narrative or storylike element drives lyric poems; how the musical element, the rhythm of emotions, charges narrative poems; how the element of dramatic projection empowers many narratives, many lyrics. These varieties are continuous, like the universe. All have their origin in religious practice and ritual.

Poetry never loses its sense of sacred mystery. Poetry emerged with the chant and the dance. As Sapir puts it, “Poetry everywhere is inseparable in its origins from the singing voice and the measure of the dance” (Language). Written poetry is for the most part no longer part of a communal religious practice. It is the medium of individuals for individuals. I myself am mostly interested in the existential experience of reading poetry, in the kind of private exchange that takes place between writer and reader. I emphasize the magical effectiveness of words as words, but I’m also aware that poetry has a strong relation to music on one side and to painting on the other. It has a musical dimension, a pictorial element. Poetry and music are sister arts. So are poetry and painting. It’s as if the eye and the ear were related through poetry, as if they had become siblings, or lovers.

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Originally Published: January 23, 2006

COMMENTS (6)

On November 13, 2008 at 2:54pm Jordan Dodderer wrote:
Humans are obsessed with naming, and organizing, and grouping. It is a part of our nature, we are obsesssed with putting things in their place. Personally, I think it is because we are unable to know the "right" place for anything; so by giving it a name and putting it there and making it belong, we are creating a scenario in which we can understand. However, the world can never truly be understood. Art represents this. Art represents the mystery in the world. When we can not name it, or express it, or group it plainly, what do we do? We dance, we sing...we write a poem. The world seems to think we need order for civilization, but I think our art is representive of our primal nature to return to dissonance. There, lies true beauty.

On November 13, 2008 at 8:33pm Emily wrote:
Yes. I do believe also that poetry (literature), painting, and music are one in the same. Each is a medium of expression for the presenter. And depending on the presenter, decifers the type of expression. If one chooses writing, that is their medium. While one chooses that, another may pick painting to express him or herself. As far as epic, drama, and lyric, I believe that it is once again the artsist's digression. They will write in the way the see fit, or enjoy more. Each of the three is just as important. Though sometimes the way it is written, epic, drama, or lyric, the story or poem is that much greater.

On November 13, 2008 at 9:08pm Candace :) wrote:
After reading this essay, I cannot seem to pinpoint a concrete idea that Hirsch was trying to introduce us to, so I will just comment on the two different topics that stood out to me the most.---Any types of rules we set for anything these days have exceptions or are justified as being okay in a certain situation, from our English language to sports to the law. So it doesn't surprise me that Hirsch says that narrative, drama, and lyric poetry have intertwined with each other and have almost, but not quite, become a whole. Hirsch also says that poetry is mysterious. I believe that the mystery is the fact that the reader is left to infer the feelings and motives of the writer; the questions will never be answered. The reader's interpretation of the poem is based on the impact it has given the reader, therefore the true meaning in which the author was initially aiming for will never be reached, at least without knowing for sure.

On November 13, 2008 at 9:49pm Maggie wrote:
What keeps poetry, literature, and all other forms of art interesting is that there are no real rules. There are illusions of rules--haikus, limericks, and other forms of poetry do have a set structure--but there aren't any repurcussions for breaking those rules. In fact, breaking the rules is quite like being "plural like the universe;"each alteration, each variation creates an entirely new kind of poetry and with it a new universe.

On November 13, 2008 at 10:41pm Chelsea wrote:
I agree with Jordan that human nature is to judge creations and place them into the groups we feel they fit. Hirsch makes a significant point when he talks of poetry never losing its mystery. I enjoy poems more when they don't tell the reader what they are emphasizing. Poetry sparks stronger interest when the poem is difficult and you have to look past the obvious and process the words into their significant meaning. There are times that I wonder what poetry was like when it was chanted and sang because it seems as the poetry would be stronger and create a stronger impact on the listen.

On November 15, 2008 at 3:12pm Kristin Siders wrote:
Although a complete disregard for rules can ultimately destroy a society, I feel that a lack of rules in art forms truly adds to it's greatness. Art allows people to run wild, to be chaotic, to mingle all of their thoughts into one masterpiece. I think that a lot of people do not appreciate modern art for this reason. Some people do not know how to interpret something that is disorderly and crazy. People in general do not like something that is not organized and lacks specifics.

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 Edward  Hirsch

Biography

Poet and author Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry. Over the course of eight collections of poetry, four books of criticism, and the long-running  “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post, Hirsch has transformed the quotidian into poetry in his own work, as well as demonstrated his adeptness at explicating the nuances and shades of feeling, tradition, and craft at . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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