Lyric Knowledge

Ideas of order in poetry.
By James Longenbach

The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to be no longer constrained by oneself. As poems have testified for centuries, we become lyrical when we suffer, when we love. But like poems themselves, we exist because of constraints — cultural and linguistic ways of organizing experience that allow us to imagine we know who we are. Why, when we're driven to be lyrical, are we gratified by familiar patterns, formal patterns made by breaking words into syllables, structural patterns made by conjoining words with other words? Why do we imagine we may be liberated by unfamiliar patterns, patterns whose novelty depends on patterns we already know? Why, having experienced the pleasure of a lyric poem, do we bother experiencing it again? Why, when we're in love, can the repetition of an experience feel more fulfilling than the discovery of it?

In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates asks his interlocutors to consider a well-known epigram inscribed on Midas's tomb. "You notice," he says, "that it is of no consequence what order these lines are spoken in," implying that the poem offers merely the illusion of rigorous thought.

A girl of bronze on Midas's tomb I stand
As long as water flows and trees grow tall.
Remaining here on his lamented tomb,
I'll tell to all who pass "Here Midas lies."

What Socrates says about this epigram is half true. For while it is not organized by the inevitable unfolding of a narrative or an argument, and while its lines may consequently be rearranged with no damage to the poem's information as such, a great deal depends on the particular way in which the information is ordered.

Read the full essay on the Poetry Foundation website.