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. The most publicized occasional poem in the first decade of the 21st century is Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day," composed for and read by the poet at the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2009 before a television audience of millions.
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".
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. 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.
|“||Poetry's living connection with the real world and its occurrences in public and private affairs is revealed most amply in the so-called pièces d'occasion. If this description were given a wider sense, we could use it as a name for nearly all poetic works: but if we take it in the proper and narrower sense we have to restrict it to productions owing their origin to some single present event and expressly devoted to its exaltation, embellishment, commemoration, etc. But by such entanglement with life poetry seems again to fall into a position of dependence, and for this reason it has often been proposed to assign the whole sphere of pièces d'occasion an inferior value although to some extent, especially in lyric poetry, the most famous works belong to this class."||”|
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.
- Sugano, Marian Zwerling. The Poetics of the Occasion: Mallarmé and the Poetry of Circumstance. Stanford University Press, 1992. Limited preview online.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sugano, The Poetics of the Occasion, p. 5.
- Quoted by David Herd, John Ashbery and American Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), p. 54 online.
- Hegel as quoted by Sugano, The Poetics of the Occasion, p. 2.