Poetic Genres

The vast majority of the poems we will be reading in this course will be lyric poems, and so in a sense the title of the course ought to be “Visual Lyric Poetry” rather than what you see on the banner. It might also be worth noting that the popularity and prevalence of lyrics over time has gone up and down: as I mentioned, the epic is an ancient poetic genre that is written nowadays mostly by poets wishing to demonstrate that they’re up to the challenge, rather than because there’s a rabid epic fanbase out there demanding more. This is because, at any given time in literary history, one genre is preeminent (what the genre theorist Opacki called the “royal” genre), and the other genres respond to that preeminence by incorporating some of its elements. For example, in Shakespeare’s time, the staged poetic drama was the royal genre. Shakespeare also wrote a sonnet sequence, as you may know, which alternated between a male and female figure for the beloved (a mixture of admiration and adoration), and set up a dramatic instability that you can detect if you read the entire sequence as if it were a series of monologues. Or: in the eighteenth century, poetry was once again the royal genre, but not lyric poetry. At the hands of John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and especially Alexander Pope, the heroic couplet was the most influential literature of its day – so much so, that Dryden could write a satirical poem like “MacFlecknoe” and know that enough people would read the poem, be able to figure out who he was talking about, and humiliate the other poet into never publishing it again (this actually happened), and, worse, Pope once used heroic couplets to satirize someone so viciously that the target committed suicide. Plays in the eighteenth century are written in heroic couplets rather than blank verse like during the Renaissance; and the novel, which is a baby of a genre, starting around 1715 depending on whom you ask, often seems at its inception a lot more like a prose essay than something with a plot; similarly, some of the earliest eighteenth century novels, like Pamela and Humphrey Clinker, are written in epistolary style (meaning, they’re a collection of letters).

Compare this to the mid-nineteenth century, by which time the novel had risen to preeminence: the British poets Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning together invented a new genre called the “dramatic monologue” in response to the novel’s popularity, which still involves a lyric voice speaking within a relatively short poem, but names an explicit audience and it contains an instability, and therefore a rudimentary plot. In the poetry critic Robert Langbaum’s formulation, usually we start a dramatic monologue by sympathizing with the speaker, because we’re just trying to figure out what’s going on and who this person is: but there’s a turn somewhere within the monologue that leads the reader to stop sympathizing and start judging him or her. In other words, there’s a “tell” or a reveal that lets us know that all is not as it appears, or the voice is not altogether to be believed. It’s the poetic equivalent of an unreliable narration, although the dramatic monologue usually operates via extremely subtle nuances of tone rather than huge lies or plot twists. Some do, though, and we will read Browning’s chilling poem “My Last Duchess” when we talk about tone in two weeks.

It probably won’t be a surprise to know that poetry is not the royal genre today. If I had to make a guess, I would say the royal genre (the one that sets the trends, and which every other genre has to respond to) is today somewhere between film and the HBO-quality serial TV show. But poetry is still humming along, full of potential, full of history, and full of lots of subgenres that make different types of situations uniquely possible. Partly, I suspect, this profusion of genres can make poetry seem intimidating, a bit like walking into a movie after it’s been playing for an hour already and trying to figure out what has been going on. But genre is your friend in this process because it’s like a third force that provides introductions for whoever is speaking from within the poem. If I’m reading a voice that is recognizably within a sonnet, then I can know, even before I start to read it, that other voices in the past have used the sonnet to express their love. It’s a genre that usually includes mention of a beloved, sometimes some descriptions of why the beloved is lovely, sometimes figures for how much the voice yearns for the beloved, etc. If I can tell that a poem is an elegy, even before I read it, then I know that other elegiac voices in the past have used the genre to express grief and feelings of loss, usually for a specific person, and that there are several things I should expect over the course of the poem: a dirge that explains how angry you are that the person was taken from you by death, an explanation of why they deserved to live, a ceremonial laying of flowers on the casket, and an apotheosis section in which the speaker imagines how awesome the afterlife must be for this person. And so on for other genres.

This is not to suggest that the more you know about genre, the less you have to pay attention to the voice of the poem. But it does mean that some poems operate powerfully by conjuring, and in some cases rejecting or exploding, your expectations for what some genres should do. A lighthearted or dismissive elegy would be perverse indeed, but all the more so if you know a lot about elegies, in which case it would be particularly appalling because it would be throwing your expectations back in your face.

On Wednesday I’ll post two examples of how genre can serve as a powerful introduction to poems — these will be found in the “Examples” menu link, as they will be for all subsequent weeks in the course.

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