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  • In the Waiting Room:Narrative in the Autobiographical Lyric Poem, Or Beginning to Think about Lyric Poetry with Narratology
  • Stefan Kjerkegaard (bio)


Autobiographical lyric poetry seems to present three main issues for theorists of lyric and narrative: (1) how do lyricality and narrativity relate in such poems, and how does this relation relate to poetic voice; (2) where do these poems situate themselves in the fiction/nonfiction divide; and (3) how do the specifically poetic devices contribute to their signification?1

There are no one-size-fits-all answers, but the three issues, and their solutions, seem to be interrelated, and the consequences of these positions will become evident in the analysis of autobiographical lyric poems, among which I will place two—“In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop and “Autobiography” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti—at the fore in a moment. First, however, I will outline a number of solutions and discuss the theoretical implications of these in more detail.

First, we can say that typically autobiographical lyric poetry has some roots in events in the poet’s life, but the rendering of those events in poetic lyric transforms them in a few ways: (a) narrativity gets reduced and lyricality gets emphasized (otherwise we have autobiographical narrative poetry); (b) the question who speaks? becomes pertinent at the same time as this question is distorted by the lyrical transformation; and (c) the reader’s conceivable expectation of narrativity (and [End Page 185] experientiality) must be handled differently in relation to lyric poetry, as well as autobiographical lyric poetry, thanks to the way the devices of poetry contribute to the general signification of the poem. Second, Susan Lanser’s work on attachment/detachment (2005) in lyric is extremely helpful, but since we’re talking about hybridity, the important point is to work from the inside out rather than the outside in, as different autobiographical lyrics handle the questions of attachment/detachment differently (as in the cases of Bishop and Ferlinghetti). Third, Brian McHale’s article, “Beginning to Think about Narrative in Poetry” (2009), provides an excellent starting point, but there are additional things to notice, as we will see below.

Autobiographical lyric poetry is defined here as either lyric poems in which the author’s name and that of the speaker converge, or as lyric poems which through their paratext must be defined as autobiographical. The first way of defining the autobiographical poem is clearly the easiest one and could also be classified as autofictional, as both Serge Doubrovsky and later Gérard Genette (77) understood the term, although the word fiction, as we will see below, can be problematic in relation to lyric poetry. The second option is more complex and requires more in-depth examination, often involving the reading of paratextual signals and occasionally, more profound argumentation. Due to a lack of space, I will restrict myself to using only two somewhat obvious examples, one of each kind, by Bishop and Ferlinghetti.

Voice, Lyricality, and Narrativity in Autobiographical Lyric Poetry

In “Beginning to Think about Narrative in Poetry” McHale mainly argues against the tendency not to distinguish between the lyric and poetry. What interests McHale is “poetry as such” and not lyric in prose—or lyric in poetry for that matter. Still, in other recent narrative studies of poetry, by James Phelan for instance, this seems to be the accustomed way to treat the lyric. According to McHale:

Obviously, lyric in this sense is not restricted to poetry. Lyric can occur in poetry, of course, but, as Phelan argues, it can just as readily occur in prose fictions such as Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Hollering Creek,” sometimes in combination with narrative, sometimes not.

(13; emphasis original)

Although I am, like McHale, very sympathetic toward Phelan’s effort to embrace poetry in a narratological context, not least of all for his rhetorical definition of lyric, I would propose another set of considerations in addition to those conveyed by McHale. Phelan defines the lyric by identifying two main modes:

(1) somebody telling somebody else (or even himself or herself) on some occasion for some purpose that something is—a situation, an emotion, a perception, an...


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