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The poetess as a lyricist

In Tuesday’s class we listened to some moving ballads by several different bards, and it got me thinking about the relationship between poetry and song. But in Thursday’s class, the musical element was conspicuously absent, and this piqued my curiosity even further.

In our modern understanding of music, a song is essentially a lyric poem that is set to music, which is why in colloquial speech we refer to the words of songs as “lyrics”. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms gives this as the definition of “lyric”:

“In the modern sense, any fairly short poem expressing the personal mood, feeling, or meditation of a single speaker (who may sometimes be an invented character, not the poet). In ancient Greece, a lyric was a song for accompaniment on the lyre, and could be a choral lyric sung by a group, such as a dirge or hymn; the modern sense, current since the Renaissance, often suggests a song-like quality in the poems to which it refers. Lyric poetry is the most extensive category of verse, especially after the decline- since the 19th century in the west- of the other principal kinds: narrative and dramatic verse. Lyrics may be composed in almost any meter and on almost every subject, although the most usual emotions presented are those of love and grief. Among the common lyric forms are the sonnet, ode, elegy, haiku, and the more personal kinds of hymn. Lyricism is the emotional or song-like quality, the lyrical property, of lyric poetry. A writer of lyric poems may be called a lyric poet, a lyricist, or a lyrist. In another sense, the lyrics of a popular song or other musical composition are the words as opposed to the music; these may not always be lyrical in the poetic sense (e.g. in a narrative song like a ballad). 

Given this definition of lyric poetry, the poetess then seems to be the very essence of a lyric poet.

Even though the Oxford Dictionary of Literary terms doesn’t exclude the Bards from being musicians in this sense, it would seem that the idea of Poetess is much closer to our ideals of music today, given the myriad of love/heartbreak songs that make up the largest portion of the body modern music. 

Sappho and Phaon is a good example of lyric poetry; it has a high emotional content (and also happens to have love as its subject matter), and the rhyme scheme that each of its sonnets has could have a very rhythmic quality if set to the right music. I personally think that on this basis, Sappho and Phaon could make a very good song. 

Or perhaps Sappho and Phaon has already been set to music and I wasn’t aware of it?

If that is the case, or if you [the reader], have studied music before and have some sort of unique insight on this, please let me know by commenting.


2 responses to “The poetess as a lyricist

  1. The fact that Poetess was originally a term to diminish the poetry women had written is interesting to relate to today. I wonder what modern day poets or musicians would think about essentially falling into that category. I think the ideas behind “poetess” are controversial only because they may be exalted now but at its creation the word was used in a derogatory manner. Just as music and ballads have evolved over time so have the meanings of words. In class we may have mentioned the music that accompanied the songs but how much did the actual music impact the meaning and overall effectiveness of the Bards back then we won’t ever really be able to know.

  2. I also thought very heavily about the term Poetess, and it seems that people could very easily think of the term to be derogatory, I myself thought that at first, I mean the definition has very much to do with mundane “womanly,” tasks and concerns. However, after reading some of the lyrics that we had for last Thursday’s class, there seems to be political statements even in the poem about an Icebox. Not that good poetry necessarily has to make a political statement, but I think good poetry addresses concerns the poet has with the amount of freedom they hold to write whatever they feel they need to write. It is important for me to always remember not simply what the poet is saying, but why. These Poetess figures seem to mask a strong political statement within the “comfortable” confines of “womanly” poetry. It is quite sad that these brilliant writers had to do this, but at the same time makes me respect them even more.

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