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Poetic Form: “Epiphanic Lyric”

“[Tomas Tranströmer] has perfected a particular kind of epiphanic lyric, often in quatrains, in which nature is the active energizing subject, and the self (if the self is present at all) is the object.”

Katie Peterson, Boston Review as quoted by Poetry Foundation; italics mine

When I was researching Tomas Tranströmer, I came across this quotation and simply had to consider the term epiphanic lyric. To understand this adjective, it is important to understand the noun. What is an epiphany? For this particular usage, we would refer to the third definition.

3 a (1): a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something

(2): an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking

(3): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure

b: a revealing scene or moment


“Alcaic” is an example of a two-stanza quatrain that Peterson describes. We sense the interaction that nature has with the narrator. Personally, I have experienced mosquito bites, so seeing their larvae can provoke a certain foreboding of when. But, it isn’t until the last line that we see–and can almost miss–the true reason for the poem. Here ends one life and another begins because of something unnatural within the narrator’s natural world–a moving van. The foreboding is not in the when of the next mosquito bite. It is the bittersweet knowledge about missing the next hatching altogether even if it is a mosquito swarm.

The poem “Kyrie” is another example of epiphanic lyric in that it describes a moment of illumination. It literally as well as figuratively describes the realization that happens during the darkest, lowest periods of life when we notice the glimmering light of morning’s hope.

In his later years, his work gradually shifted from the traditional and ambitious nature poetry written in his early twenties toward a darker, personal, and more open verse. His work barrels into the void, striving to understand and grapple with the unknowable, searching for transcendence.

The beauty of Tranströmer’s epiphanic lyric poetry is the epiphany extends to the reader’s experience. There is a pensive smirk in nearly every one of his poems. At least, that is what I feel myself doing every time I read one.

More examples of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry can be found here.

Categories: Poetry poetry month

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Book Reader and Reviewer
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