The Truth of Lyric, with a poem by Mary Oliver

Lyric is attached by definition to the individual self (as opposed to epic or choral) and suffers from low self -esteem. And yet its growing popularity is evident on social media and the frequency of public readings. We used to argue whether or not Bob Dylan was a poet.

Yet the lyric poem is traditionally connected to the search for truth— personal truth. And THAT was a problem for Plato. Ancient criticism had no place for Lyric until Callimachus and the Roman ‘new’ poets (present in Ezra Pound’s Propertius). Still no ‘theory’ of lyric.

There is however a ‘narrative’ pattern that one can find in short poems that explains the endurance of the ‘personal’ poem or lyric. The pattern that holds it together is a sequence flowing from dialectical search, to mindfulness, and finally to self-transcendence in community.

Lyric is not used to such heavy critical armor. But its popularity today suggests its relevance. We live in a time of the breaking of nations, of the dissolving of norms — much of this dissolving and breaking consonant with the rise of ‘democratic’ fascism. Social media destroys our capacity to concentrate on fact, nonfiction prose— including journalism. We prefer sound bites.

Short poems do a specific job of work. And the pattern, discernible in the annals of ancient lyric, persists.

Poets master the pattern as they perfect their personal voice. Here is a poem by Mary Oliverfrom her 2012 book ‘A Thousand Mornings.’

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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