Like all other creative disciplines, poetry has difference genres. Some times genre that can easily be confused with form. The differences aren’t always that easy to define or separate but if you thing of form in this way – form has to do with structure while subject matter is a specific trait of genre.
For instance, a sonnet is a form and it can be about any subject from love to death while, an elegy is a genre because it is specifically a mournful kind of poem, a lament.
The other challenge in understanding genre is because sometimes definitions will overlap. So this little article will offer some definitions to get you started in understand poetry genres.
We classify genre by looking at subject matter, style and various literary characteristics that may have to do with structure as well as rhyme scheme and rhythm.
Main genres include – Epic poetry, Elegy, Lyric poetry, Narrative poetry, Dramatic poetry, Fable, Satirical poetry. In this article, we look at three genres – Epic, Elegy and Lyric.
Epics and Narrative poems are similar in that they have a plot and tell a story. The difference is that an Epic is a longer version that usually has a hero who we follow on a great journey spanning various nations in pursuit of a great goal. When one thinks of Epics, the Greek Classics come to mind with offerings such as the Iliad, Odyssey (both by Homer), Beowulf (was made into a spectacular animated film a few years ago), and Derek Walcott’s Emeros (published in 1990). Epics are a sub-genre of Narrative poems. Other narrative poems include Ballads, Idylls and Lays. Here’s an example from Beowulf which is now available in it’s entirety online:
Hrothgar answered, helm of the Scyldings:
“I remember this man as the merest of striplings.
His father long dead now was Ecgtheow titled,
Him Hrethel the Geatman granted at home his
One only daughter; his battle-brave son
Is come but now, sought a trustworthy friend.
Seafaring sailors asserted it then,
Who valuable gift-gems of the Geatmen1 carried
As peace-offering thither, that he thirty men’s grapple
Has in his hand, the hero-in-battle.
An Elegy is a melancholic kind of poem – “mournful, melancholic or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead” (Wikipedia). An elegy does three things, it laments then praises and ends with consolation. This example is from A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning by John Donne.
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
‘The breath goes now,’ and some say, ‘No:’
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Lyrical poems are personal in nature. Unlike the epic, they look inward and sometimes are set to music. In contemporary times, lyric poetry is closely related to confessional poetry. Poets to consider in this regard include Sylvia Plath and Allan Ginsberg. Here’s an example from Emily Dickinson’s I Felt a Funeral in my Brain:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a
Drum -Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
Since this is only a glimpse at how genres work, we will continue to look at these other genres in depths on poetrypotion.com with the aim to inspire greater poetry.
article first appeared in Poetry Potion 2013.01 On Being Human