The subject of all art is passion, and a passion can only be contemplated when separated by itself, purified of all but itself, and aroused into perfect intensity by opposition with some other passion.—W. B. Yeats, “The Irish Dramatic Movement”

And one of the three great things in the world is gossip, you know.—Robert Frost

Not long ago, around the middle of the last century, it was possible for a poet to have a play on Broadway. Archibald MacLeish’s verse play J.B., directed by Elia Kazan, ran for nearly a year in New York and received both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play in 1959.1 Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days, a verse drama about Anne Boleyn and Henry viii, was a smash when it opened with Rex Harrison in 1948, and later became an Oscar-winning film with Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold (though only snippets of blank verse were retained for the film, such as Anne’s Tower speech.)

Leafing through Kenneth Tynan’s reviews of the 1950s reveals that, far from being a high-brow writer of closet dramas, T. S. Eliot was a noted British playwright of his day, regularly produced on the London stage. It would not be going too far to say that W. B. Yeats, whose groundbreaking verse plays include the Noh-inflected At the Hawk’s Well (1920) and the bleak and stirring Purgatory (1938), helped to found modern Irish drama. Indeed, a great many twentieth-century poets saw drama as an essential part of their project: Thomas Hardy, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, Robinson Jeffers, Dylan Thomas, Frank O’Hara.

Today, a steady stream of verse translations of classic plays continues to trickle forth, but relatively few original verse dramas are written, let alone produced. A few stragglers remain—Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Tony Harrison, J. D. McClatchy (who has written thirteen opera libretti), and, in the younger generation, Glyn Maxwell—but mainly it is a preoccupation that poets no longer view as necessary or perhaps even possible. The loss for contemporary poetry is greater than it first appears. Beyond the absence of viable poetic dramas (for which, I suspect, the economics of the commercial theater are greatly, but only partly, to blame), the dramatic impulse seems to have receded from poetry in general.

This may say something particular about our age, in which the lyric has become the go-to mode.

This may say something particular about our age, in which the lyric has become the go-to mode. One finds, collected in book after book, an ever-expanding universe of short poems, typically by a solitary speaker, ruminating remotely on individual experience. Perhaps the brevity and pith of the lyric mode holds a special fascination for the information age: it’s Twitter-brief, a terse announcement of the personal, full of news that may, but more likely will not, stay news. As Eliot writes in The Sacred Wood, dramatic poetry has disappeared at various times in the past, and long before the closing of the London playhouses:

The epic, the ballad, the chanson de geste, the forms of Provence and Tuscany, all found their perfection by serving particular societies. The forms of Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, served a society different, and in some respects more civilized than any of these; and in the society of Ovid the drama as a form of art was comparatively insignificant. Nevertheless, the drama is perhaps the most permanent, is capable of greater variation and of expressing more varied types of society, than any other.

Where Eliot describes a broad range of poetic forms, of which dramatic poetry is perhaps the most enduring, Yeats in his turn boils all poetry down to two basic kinds. Yeats’s theory, like so many of his notions, strains credibility, yet it is interesting for the distinction it makes between lyric and dramatic poetry and the cycles by which these pass in and out of favor:

There are two kinds of poetry, and they are commingled in all the greatest works. When the tide of life sinks low there are pictures, as in the Ode on a Grecian Urn and in Virgil at the plucking of the Golden Bough. The pictures make us sorrowful. We share the poet’s separation from what he describes. . . . [B]ut when Lucifer stands among his friends, when Villon sings his dead ladies to so gallant a rhythm, when Timon makes his epitaph, we feel no sorrow, for life herself has made one of her eternal gestures. . . . In Ireland, where the tide of life is rising, we turn, not to picture-making, but to the imagination of personality—to drama, gesture.

If Yeats is correct that the imagination of personality, the social muse (Eliot’s “varied types of society”), participates at least in part in the greatest works, then most contemporary poetry must be sorely wanting. The bulk of poetry written at any particular time tends to lack sufficient red corpuscles, but never is poetic anemia so apparent as when the element of drama has been removed. As the work of Hardy, Eliot, Yeats, Frost, Robinson, Larkin, Thom Gunn, Anthony Hecht, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Merrill, and others makes clear, lyric poetry may avail itself of the dramatic impulse, by including opposing voices and view points, character, situation, dialogue. Since the lyric is called upon to do so much of the heavy lifting in poetry these days, it would do well to remain flexible, even conquer new territory not normally associated with the form. Instead, one too often encounters the same forays onto the same narrow ground.

The critic David Orr was, I believe, talking about the current state of the lyric when he characterized “the trendiest contemporary style,” which

relies heavily on disconnected phrases, abrupt syntactical shifts, attention-begging titles . . . , quirky diction . . . , flickering italics, oddball openings . . . and a tone ranging from daffy to plangent—basically, two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein. It’s not hard to write acceptable poetry in this mode, which is one of the reasons so many people make use of it. After all, poets need jobs, and for those, they need books—and for those, well, they need poems.

Such careerist aesthetics are hardly new; they are the shopworn conventions of the avant-garde, which may have shocked and thrilled in the 1920s but now seem borrowed and mildly soporific. Every generation faces the challenge of discovering something both authentic and fresh in the lyric, without which it lapses into homogeneity and period clichés.

The poet William Matthews, in an essay from his prose collection Curiosities (1989), narrows the field of most lyric poetry to four basic themes from which the dramatic impulse is absent: “1. I went out into the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious. 2. We’re not getting any younger. 3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey. 4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent and on we know not what.” Matthews was a poet of intelligence and poignant wit; he means his characterizations as a joke, but he’s not far wrong. In other words, there’s the nature poem with spiritual aspirations (think Coleridge, Hopkins, Mary Oliver, et al.); the tempus fugit motif of Herrick and Marvell, to name just a couple; the odi et amo seesaw ridden by nearly every poet before and after Catullus; and the last which is just a mix-and-match of the previous three themes.

The quality of the voice tends to be internal and contemplative, not to say plaintive and wistful, a private communication uttered to the self or to a single listener that we are allowed to overhear. Such communications are striking in their intimacy, in their quiet beauties and skipping reveries. But the world is a loud and boisterous place, especially in urban settings. City-dwellers are less likely to notice the film fluttering in the grate than the subway rumbling beneath their feet or a cheer emanating from the sports bar on the corner. City-scenes are populous not private, social not personal, polyvocal not interior. What is contemplative poetry’s answer to the voluble argument, the casual exchange, the marketplace, the mingling of the solitary “I” with a crowd of others? If you are Keats, the answer is simply withdrawal.

Some poets have drama in their bones; others develop a knack for it over time. Hugh Walker, in The Age of Tennyson (1897), reminds us of what he calls Tennyson’s dramatic period. “When we come down to later years the principle change visible in Tennyson’s work,” he writes, “is the development of the dramatic element.” Tennyson, he continues, “gradually put more and more thought into his verse. In doing so he felt the need of a closer grip of reality, and he found, as other poets have found too, that the dramatic mode of conception brought him closest to the real.” By contrast, Tennyson’s “youthful character sketches are not in the least dramatic. Neither is there much true humor, a quality without which true dramatic conception is impossible.”

Kingsley Amis champions both humor and the real in his introduction to The New Oxford Anthology of Light Verse. Amis is describing the virtues of the light style, but he might as well be talking about all verse: the poems he most valued, as is clear from his own poems as well as those of his Movement compatriots Philip Larkin and Robert Conquest, are “realistic . . . close to the interests of the novel: man and women among their fellows, seen as members of a group or class in a way that emphasizes manners, social forms, amusements, fashion (from millinery to philosophy), topicality, even gossip.” Amis’s barrooms and Larkin’s bedsits and railway stations are teeming with voices, with the blunt shocks of people jostling other people, of the day-to-day interactions that constitute our lives.

Of course, this notion of bringing lyric poetry closer to the concerns of the novel must have come naturally to Amis, whose Lucky Jim (with its dedication to Larkin) is the finest of his painfully funny novels about hard-drinking, shag-fancying, sour-sweet men and women in Austerity Britain and beyond. (It should be noted that Larkin, who was far and away the best poet of the Movement, also wrote a couple of very good novels.) Amis and his cronies clearly agree with Alexander Pope that “The proper study of mankind is man.”

The infusion of novelistic virtues into mid-century poetry was meant as a counter to the more mystical and orotund effusions of Kathleen Raine and that bête noire of the Movement Dylan Thomas, not to mention the talismanic Crows of Ted Hughes. Appropriating aspects of the novel—descriptive detail, narration, dialogue, and the emphasis on social customs—went a long way toward capturing real people in real situations, toward depicting the lives we lead, toward the way we live now. In similar fashion, drama gets at the reality of life but with even greater immediacy—in drama, action replaces narration, gesture replaces description.

Why shouldn’t lyric poetry, then, learn a trick or two from playwriting? The truth is it always has, not just in dramatic verse, closet dramas, and stage plays, but in a variety of lyric forms that might be thought of as dramatic lyrics—rather like mini plays, with characters, situations, dialogue. Like the lyric generally, dramatic lyrics tend to be brief, no longer than a page or so. One such is Frost’s “The Telephone,” from Mountain Interval (1920), which consists entirely of dialogue. The speakers are (it seems to me) a husband and wife. It is the husband who speaks first, though I suppose a case could be made for it being the other way around:

“When I was just as far as I could walk
From here to-day,
There was an hour
All still
When leaning with my head against a flower
I heard you talk.
Don’t say I didn’t, for I heard you say—
You spoke from that flower on the window sill—
Do you remember what it was you said?”

“First tell me what it was you thought you heard.”

“Having found the flower and driven a bee away,
I leaned my head
And holding by the stalk,
I listened and I thought I caught the word—
What was it? Did you call me by my name?
Or did you say—
Someone said ‘Come’—I heard it as I bowed.”

“I may have thought as much, but not aloud.”

“Well, so I came.”

Part of the poem’s charm lies in the different tones of voice. So much of the couple’s relationship is captured by his freewheeling stops-and-starts and her calming and wry one-line responses. He is effusive, she somewhat skeptical. The event itself—the husband hearing his wife speak to him through a flower, the very one that he brings home and places on the sill—is mysterious and suggestive of the uncanny communication that can develop between long-married spouses. Character and situation are delineated without the interference of an outside narrator or the biases introduced by a subjective one.

Frost once observed that his poems were full of talk.

Frost once observed that his poems were full of talk. He even demanded copious dialogue from prose fiction. If a novel or story didn’t obviously contain long sequences of people talking, he said, he wouldn’t read them. He wanted writing “to be broken with talk”: “I want drama in the narrative—a lot of talk. I suppose mine just runs over with these things. There’s always somebody—nearly always somebody—talking.” In 1957, Frost elaborated on the point in an interview with C. Day-Lewis for the BBC:

LEWIS: . . . in the country you’re in a close circle of a community, and anything that happens there is potential drama and story.

FROST: Yes, I’ve picked up many of them all my life. And they’re all dialogue, aren’t they, nearly?

LEWIS: Quite a lot of them.

FROST: Yes, there’s a story implied in every case. They are rather the sort of thing you speak of; they’re gossip. And one of the three great things in the world is gossip, you know. First there’s religion; and then there’s science; and there’s—and then there’s friendly gossip. Those are the three—the three great things. Philosophy is just a thing that trims religion, you know—that prunes it and all that. And you’ve got science. And you’ve got this: the biggest of all, is gossip—our interest in each other.

Gossip: Frost uses the very word that Amis later uses to describe people talking. The word, from Old English, denoted a kinsman or intimate friend, as well as, more recently, “rumor or talk of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature.”

In a lecture delivered to the National Book League in 1953, Eliot identifies the dramatic element as the “third voice of poetry”:

The first voice is the voice of the poet talking to himself—or to nobody. The second is the voice of the poet addressing an audience, whether large or small. The third is the voice of the poet when he attempts to create a dramatic character speaking in verse; when he is saying, not what he would say in his own person, but only what he can say within the limits of one imaginary character addressing another imaginary character.

Character voices have, at times, permeated lyric poetry; just look at the ballads. “Sir Patrick Spens,” one of the most popular of the Child Ballads, contains the immortal lines that Coleridge later took as the epigraph for his “Dejection: An Ode”: “Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,/ With the old Moon in her arms;/ And I fear, I fear, my master dear!/ We shall have a deadly storm.” As the ship is sinking, one of the sailors calls out:

“Go fetch a web of the silken cloth,
Another of the twine,
And wap them into our good ship’s side,
And let not the sea come in.”

They fetched a web of the silken cloth,
Another of the twine,
And they wapp’d them into the good ship’s side,
But still the sea came in.

Ballads abound with speech and dramatic tension, but they are not dramatic lyrics exactly. Ballads foreground a story, out of which dialogue and character emerge; dramatic lyrics begin with character and dialogue and suggest a story.

Here are a few more qualities of the dramatic lyric: it will be brief.

Here are a few more qualities of the dramatic lyric: it will be brief. It will have multiple characters engaged in a dramatic situation, which might be as slight as an idle chat or as charged as an assassination plot. Regardless of the situation, there will be conflict, either mild or heated. The lyric drama need not consist entirely of dialogue, but it will typically contain dialogue, either actual or reported.

What it is not: a lyric drama is not a dramatic monologue or a soliloquy, it is not what some have referred to as a dramatic narrative, which tends to be longer. There are no omniscient third-person narrators, as in many of Frost’s longer dramatic poems, or, if there are, editorializing is kept to a minimum. The dramatic lyric tends to be a combination of Eliot’s second voice (the poet talking to an audience) and third voice (characters talking to each other). In such poems, the poet himself will often function as a character.

The poems of Thomas Hardy, for example, frequently progress though dialogue; many are, like Frost’s “Telephone,” wholly dialogue, and a few are even written out as miniature scripts with character names appearing above the speeches. Hardy began with ballads and ended, much like Frost, with the music of neighborhood gossip in his storied Wessex. In his hands, the dramatic lyric is varied and flexible. If his dramas tend toward the real, they are by no means bound by it.

In Hardy’s “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?,” for example, neither of the speakers should be capable of speech—one is a corpse and one is a dog. After a series of questions in which the dead woman discovers that it is neither her family nor her husband who has come to visit her—they have all, she is told, deserted her—we get this hilarious (and finally horrible) admission from her poor pooch:

—“O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
Have not disturbed your rest?”

“Ah yes! You dig upon my grave . . .
Why flashed it not to me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
A dog’s fidelity!”

“Mistress, I dug upon your grave
To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
It was your resting place.”

Humor buoys the poem, but its subject was one of great seriousness to Hardy—the obsequies owed to the dead. Worries about his own debt to his deceased first wife, Emma, haunted him (dogged him, you might say) and prompted some of his finest poems.

For Yeats, drama isolates an action from all other actions and presents that action in a “moment of intense life”: “The dramatist must picture life in action, with an unpreoccupied mind, as a musician pictures hers in sound and the sculptor in form.” But if this is the case, he wonders,

has art nothing to do with moral judgements? Surely it has, and its judgements are those from which there is no appeal. . . . [The] character who delights us may commit murder like Macbeth, or fly the battle for his sweetheart as did Antony, or betray his country like Coriolanus, and yet we will rejoice in every happiness that comes to him and sorrow at his death as if it were our own.

In drama, each character believes himself to be in the right at any given time, even when he commits atrocities. This poses a problem for certain readers who seek in poetry the kinds of beauty we equate solely with goodness. John Crowe Ransom, in The World’s Body, offers a description of the moral function of the poet that leaves dramatists out in the cold:

All the poets famous in our tradition, or very nearly all, have been poets of a powerful moral cast.

So I shall try a preliminary definition of the poet’s traditional function on behalf of society: he proposed to make virtue delicious. He compounded a moral effect with an aesthetic effect. . . . The name of the moral effect was goodness; the name of the aesthetic effect was beauty.

For Ransom, a poem considers the beautiful with a loving eye and thereby suggests the good. Can Shakespeare, then, be a moral poet if he looks on sin, on evil, and brings us so wholly into sympathy with it? By Ransom’s lights, it would seem that drama is not only off-base; it’s immoral. Ever clear-eyed and cranky, Yvor Winters defends the dramatic poet against Ransom’s dismissal:

Shakespeare wrote plays in order to evaluate the actions truly; and our admiration is for the truth of the evaluations, not for the beauty of the original objects as we see them imitated. And how, one may wonder, can Shakespeare evaluate these actions truly except from the position of a moralist? To evaluate a particular sin, one must understand the nature of sin.

As Winters was always quick to point out, poems are statements about human experiences that take particular care with the emotions attached to language. For him, in a sense, emotion is the subject of all poetry. This view of poetry almost necessitates the dramatic approach: introspective lyrics by a single speaker can take us only so far. An untold number of our experiences are social, involving the interactions of our intentions and emotions with those of others. Contemporary poetry is woefully limited by its over-reliance on the lyric form, but the lyric itself is today further reduced by the absence of the dramatic element, by the loss of voices (and of milieux) other than the poet’s own. Doubtless a great deal of our lives as we experience them has failed to make it into our poems as a result.

  1.  An earlier version of this essay was delivered as the annual Craft Lecture on Poetry at West Chester University, West Chester, PA, on October 27, 2009.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 7, on page 19
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