Occasional poetry

Occasional poetry is poetry composed for a particular occasion. In the history of literature, it is often studied in connection with orality, performance, and patronage.


As a term of literary criticism, "occasional poetry" describes the work's purpose and the poet's relation to subject matter. It is not a genre, but several genres originate as occasional poetry, including epithalamia (wedding songs), dirges or funerary poems, paeans, and victory odes. Occasional poems may also be composed exclusive of or within any given set of genre conventions to commemorate single events or anniversaries, such as birthdays, foundings, or dedications.

Occasional poetry is often lyric because it originates as performance, in antiquity and into the 16th century even with musical accompaniment; at the same time, because performance implies an audience, its communal or public nature can place it in contrast with the intimacy or personal expression of emotion often associated with the term "lyric".[1]

Occasional poetry was a significant and even characteristic form of expression in ancient Greek and Roman culture, and has continued to play a prominent if sometimes aesthetically debased role throughout Western literature. Poets whose body of work features occasional poetry that stands among their highest literary achievements include Pindar, Horace, Ronsard, Jonson, Dryden, Milton, Goethe, Yeats, and Mallarmé.[2] In the 18th century, particularly in Germany, occasional poems were often written by women, a phenomenon that has been the subject of feminist literary criticism. The occasional poem (French pièce d'occasion, German Gelegenheitsgedichte) is also important in Persian, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese literature, and its ubiquity among virtually all world literatures suggests the centrality of occasional poetry in the origin and development of poetry as an art form.

Goethe declared that "Occasional Poetry is the highest kind,"[3] and Hegel gave it a central place in the philosophical examination of how poetry interacts with life:

In the 19th and 20th centuries, newspapers in the United States often published occasional poems, and memorial poems for floods, train accidents, mine disasters and the like were frequently written as lyrics in ballad stanzas.

A high-profile example of a 21st century occasional poem is Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day," written for Barack Obama's 2009 US presidential inauguration, and read by the poet during the event to a television audience of around 38 million.[5]

See also

Selected bibliography

  • Sugano, Marian Zwerling. The Poetics of the Occasion: Mallarmé and the Poetry of Circumstance. Stanford University Press, 1992. Limited preview online.


  1. Marian Zwerling Sugano, The Poetics of the Occasion (Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 5. For an example of literary criticism contrasting public occasional poetry with "more intimate … lyric," see Nanora Sweet and Julie Melnyk, Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the 19th Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p. 5 online.
  2. Sugano, The Poetics of the Occasion, p. 5.
  3. Quoted by David Herd, John Ashbery and American Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), p. 54 online.
  4. Hegel as quoted by Sugano, The Poetics of the Occasion, p. 2.
  5. The audience for the televised inauguration averaged 37.8 million people; see Inauguration of Barack Obama: Television audience. The decision to include a poet was covered by media not normally devoted to contemporary poetry; background at Elizabeth Alexander.
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