Craft Capsule: Lyric vs. Narrative

Will Harris

This is no. 69 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

A few years ago I showed a series of new poems to some friends and a deflating word kept coming up: narrative. The poems involved a speaker moving through London, having random encounters. They were baggy poems that contained events, but I didn’t think of them as narrative. I had been trying to avoid some of the pitfalls of the lyric; now I worried I’d unintentionally slipped into another mode, one that was artificial and linear, associated with dead white men known—like brands of cake—by their surnames: Wordsworth, Browning, (Mr.) Kipling. 

I started thinking about the differences between lyric and narrative. Maybe the biggest one is time. According to Aristotle, narrative is the “imitation of an action,” and that requires time in which to happen. A lyric, on the other hand, if it was filmed, might flit across the screen in a second or two. Take fragment 105A by Sappho—one of the first lyric poets—translated here by Anne Carson: 

as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch 
   high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot—
no, not forgot: were unable to reach

Summary: Person reaches for apple. End of shot. 

But in that moment, the real action has nothing to do with apples. It’s internal: a swerving thought-line, folding back in on itself. Those apples—too high to pick, and thus objects of longing—represent something the speaker either forgets about (maybe wants to forget about) or chooses to remember as out of reach.

Though Sappho didn’t conceive of this as a whole poem, it feels of a piece with the contemporary lyric. “Disembodied, the poem provokes longing,” writes poet and scholar Jennifer Moxley. “The song it sings is either a lament of exile from the body or a celebration of freedom from its material prison, depending on the direction of the winds.” Or as the literary critic Helen Vendler puts it: In lyric, voice is “made abstract,” emancipated from time and space; it’s “the gesture of immortality and freedom.” By contrast, “the novel is the gesture of the historical and the spatial.” 

This transcendental view of the lyric has made some poets want to throw all conventional distinctions out the window. At a talk for the Kootenay School of Writing in 1990, Lisa Robertson identifies Bruce Andrews as one such poet who railed against, as he put it, “the intrinsic evils of narrative, lyric, identity among other traditional constructions.” Behind this rage at “traditional constructions”—tied to systems of structural oppression like capitalism—is the understandable desire to renew language by purging it. 

Though what else would that kind of purged language erase? Identity is rarely a choice; it chooses you. But writing through identity, whether I like it or not, has been my way to engage with the social and political conditions in which I exist—to reclaim, in small part, the choice that racialization takes away. This might explain why I lean on narrative sometimes, and why I’ve tried to set it—unintentionally or otherwise—against the lyric. Because my experience is “historical and spatial,” as much as it gestures towards “freedom.”

Questions still nag, though: Why bother? Why say “lyric” or “narrative”? Why not invent new forms, new genres, new terms? Why not just write

I can only respond—I’m talking to myself here—that the poles of lyric and narrative have helped me navigate the blank night of the page. They’ve helped me to think, in particular, about how time functions: With narrative, a focus on action centers time; with lyric, the suspension of time centers language. 

And sometimes I go back to The Virago Book of Fairy Tales to remember how varied and strange “narrative” can be—to remind myself that it doesn’t have to limit the work of poets at all. This is the first paragraph of a Greenlandic tale:

There was woman who was old, blind and likewise unable to walk. Once she asked her daughter for a drink of water. The daughter was so bored with her old mother that she gave her a bowl of her own piss. The old woman drank it all up, then said: “You’re a nice one, daughter. Tell me—which would you prefer as a lover, a louse or a sea scorpion?”

This could be reconstituted as a lyric. It demands—and rewards—a careful consideration of word choice and rhythm: the use of “likewise” in the first sentence; that phrase “nice one”; the ambiance of violent boredom. 

But it’s not a lyric. If you changed the words of a lyric poem—like that Sappho fragment earlier—it would become another poem altogether. If you changed the words here, the content would survive; narrative doesn’t rely quite so heavily on language itself for meaning. In this case, it’s already survived translation to reach us. And more could be added to it, taken away, spun off. 

This is the place I always end up at: The poem comes to life where lyric and narrative meet—where time and language cross over—and a possibility emerges of a poem that’s neither lyric nor narrative, but contains elements of both. Which has a body that moves through time and space, even as language tugs it skyward.


Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Charlotte Noelle