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Literary works

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.