Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Lyricism

Day 3: Lyricism


Today we look at how lyricism slows down or halts the narrative flow in a poem in order to allow the poem to sing.



In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the years, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down.
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets:   chip chip. Dew:   I've forgotten.
Naked:   I've forgotten.
Ni, wo:   you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.

Other words
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn't ripe or sweet, I didn't eat
but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.

This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents' cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He's so happy that I've come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

He raises both hands to touch the cloths,
asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

By Li-Young Lee. From Rose (BOA, 1986)


Being one of the 3 classical divisions of poetry (lyrical, dramatic, and epic or narrative), much has been written about lyrical poetry. A helpful, easy-to-read article on "" summarizes the following:

  • A lyric poem is a private expression of emotion by an individual speaker.
  • Lyric poetry is highly musical and can feature poetic devices like rhyme and meter
  • Some scholars categorize lyric poetry in three subtypes: Lyric of Vision, Lyric of Thought, and Lyric of Emotion.
For our purposes, we are not so much concerned with what constitutes a "lyric poem," but rather what lyricism in a lyrical-narrative poem entails. That is much easier to describe. My definition would be a break or slow down in the flow of the narrative that focuses more on the language than on forwarding the story, usually by describing (through all kinds of prosodic devices such as simile, metaphor, repetition, meter, rhyme, half-rhyme, chiming, etc.) things from external or internal landscapes. In our eating metaphor, lyricism is slowing down the chewing and swallowing  of the story in order to savor each bite through all of the senses. 

And, appropriately, "Persimmons" is not a purely lyrical poem, but rather a poem that tells a story (or several stories) with markedly different stanzas--some almost purely narrative, and others almost purely lyrical. I say almost, because Lee's language is so powerful that even when it is forwarding the story it has delicious lyrical overtones, and whenever he halts it completely to dwell on a single flavor, it still contributes to the story. Look at the following breakdown and see if you agree:

Stanza One is primarily narrative. (By the way, notice how the opening lines grabs our attention by jumping right into the action of "...Mrs. Walker / slapped the back of my head.")

Stanza Two is primarily lyrical. The action is slowed down by naming and describing each step of peeling, sucking, chewing, and finally swallowing the sweet persimmon meat with gorgeous language.

Stanza Three resumes a narrative pace, although the scene has changed (see yesterday's comments on writing off subject), and there is a healthy dose of lyrical imagery and a metaphorical description of two lovers.

Stanza Four slows the narrative pace again with rumination, explanation, and description using metaphor. 

Stanza Five picks up the pace with the story of Mrs. Walker bringing a persimmon to class, cutting it up, and passing it around for everyone to eat a bite. More action, less description.

Stanza Six is only three lines long and stands in contrast to the previous stanza by providing the metaphor: "...every persimmon has a sun / inside, something golden, glowing / warm as my face."

Read the remaining stanzas and decide which is more dominant, narrative or lyricism. Or are any stanzas pretty much evenly balanced? What about the gorgeous final stanza? Lyrical? Certainly. Does it have any narrative element(s) at all?

I am aware that I have overly-simplified the kinds of lines in a poem. Certainly not all lines of every poem can be categorized as narrative or lyrical. Some lines are mere conversation--either actual conversation between characters or, more commonly, a conversation between the poet and the reader, such as the early lines in stanza two: "...This is precision. / Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted." Pretty much just information. However, by the end of the stanza: "...Now eat / the meat of the fruit, so sweet, / all of it, to the heart," the language is definitely lyrical--those "e" and "t" sounds really cause the lines to sing. Where does the transition occur? It's difficult to tell. And that brings up another category of language in a poem: transitional language. So, we have now discussed at least four different categories of poetic lines in a lyrical-narrative poem: 1) narrative; 2) lyrical; 3) conversational; and 4) transitional. My point in all of this has been to distinguish between the language that "tells the story" and the language that "stops or slows down the action and sings about the props and scenery and actors.


Prompt 1:

Write a lyrical-narrative poem that alternates one stanza of furthering the story with the next stanza slowing down or stopping the story and using language to provide description that uses repetition of sounds. Try to stay in the concrete rather than using abstract words such as "love" or "beauty." Play with making a strong distinction between stanzas, occasionally throwing in a stanza balanced with both narrative and lyricism.

Prompt 2:

For those of you who already write lyrical-narrative poems, go back to some of your completed poems or drafts in-progress and identity each line as either narrative, lyrical, conversational, or transitional. Then ask yourself whether you have enough narrative and lyrical lines and if they are in the right balance. How do you know? One way is to have other poets read your poem and tell you. But you can also play a game with your poem. Pretend you are reading it to an audience. When you think the audience (or you) might be possibly bored with "just the story," add some lyrical language. When you feel that the poem has lost its way and is wandering, get back to the story. Then have someone else read your poem for their reaction. 


Great River Review is Minnesota's oldest literary journal. Deadline for submissions for issue #67 is May 1st. Submit HERE.


Persimmon risotto with pancetta and goat cheese:

Course:          Main
Cuisine:         Italian

Prep Time:    5 minutes
Cook Time:   20 minutes
Total Time:   25 minutes

Servings:       2
Author:         Giulia on Jul's Kitchen


1 shallot
200 g of rice for risotto, such as Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano
1/2 glass of white wine
50 ml of lightly salted hot water or hot vegetable stock
1 Fuyu persimmon, diced
100g fresh goat's cheese
2 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
50 g of pancetta
Freshly ground black pepper


1. Cover the bottom of a casserole with extra virgin olive oil, then add the finely minced shallot. Add a pinch of salt, too, so the shallots will stew without burning, as the salt will extract their moisture.

2. When the shallots are wilted and golden, add the rice and toast it over medium heat for a few minutes, then pour in the white wine.

3. When the wine has been absorbed, gradually add the hot stock or hot water, stirring often and cooking the rice over medium-low heat. The cooking time will vary depending on the type of rice you have chosen. Usually 15 minutes should be enough.

4. Halfway through the cooking, add the chopped persimmon, then keep on cooking, adding more stock.

5. While the risotto is cooking, slice the pancetta and brown it on medium fire in a pan, then turn off the heat and set aside.

6. When the rice is al dente, remove it from the heat and stir in the grated Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh goat's cheese. Stir to cream the cheese, then add the browned pancetta with its rendered fat. Add some freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately.

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