Explore the glossary of poetic terms.
An occasional poem is a poem written to document or provide commentary on an event. It is often intended to be read or performed publicly.
In this interview between the Library of Congress and Juan Felipe Herrera, Herrera discusses the relationship between occasional poetry, community, and history:
“The occasional poem is a poem of direct emotional power: it is accessible, and it fosters a public relationship. It is the place were we all can meet—to offer our words, the news, and the heart of our lives—in a time of crises.”
History of the Occasional Poem
Originating in ancient Greek and Roman culture, occasional poetry continued to play a consistent role throughout Western literary history. The bodies of work of poets such as Horace, Jonson, Dryden, Milton, Goethe, Yeats, Dickinson, Whitman, and Auden feature acclaimed occasional poems. Occasional poems also played a large role in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Japanese, Korean and Chinese literature. Poets such as Gibran, Hafez, Faiz, Basho, and Li Po wrote occasional poems embodying key events of their cultures and histories.
Occasional poems are often lyrical due to their origin in performance and music accompaniment. Historically, they have appeared as wedding songs, dirges, elegies, hymns, and odes. Juan Felipe Herrera the role of lyric in occasional poetry:
“Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, Middle Eastern and Aztec poetics offer magnificent traditions. Being raised as a Farmworkers child, on the outskirts of towns and cities, gave me the lenses to wander and wonder about things-as-themselves, not as they should be… We must search for the core of things and respond to it, to the center of being—the place where we all are one, any place we happen to be, where at times we hesitate to truly meet each other.”
One of the most famous contemporary occasional poems is Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day”, written for Barack Obama's 2009. Only five inaugural poems have been read at United States presidential inaugurations.
Other famous occasional poems include “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, written about the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War; “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe about the American Civil War; and “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O'Hara about the death of Billie Holiday.