Friday, July 15, 2005

Where lyric meets language, or the corner of Irving Park and Sheridan

Part of my reading for this week includes selections from a book called American Women Poets In the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Like any thorough scholar (hehe), I began with the Introduction, which strived to define the lyric but never really took the next step to define the language aspect. The intro is by Juliana Spahr, a poet and critic of and about, mostly, language poetry. She says many things that perplex me about the lyric tradition- they seem too abstract in the context of something that has become so abstract itself (I'm devoting a whole PhD list to figuring out what the freakin lyric tradition is, for crap sake!). On the first page of the intro, she says, "Some argue that lyric's intimate and interior space of retreat is its sin" (italics mine). She follows it with "because the lyric retreats, it resists," which I just really have a hard time contextualizing, especially because she presents these statements in an effort to DEFINE the lyric. Does it retreat from the outer aspects of the world to focus inward on the speaker of the poem? I would say no. How does a lyric resist? What does it resist? So vague. She later goes on to say something a little more useful: "Many poets here (as in the collection) speak of lyric as the genre of and about impossibility and difficulty," or, in other words, the structure of the lyric gives a firm ground with little room to play, which is an especially arousing aspect for the most experimental writers in this collection. After reading on a few more pages, we figure out that a lyric has one speaker which most people may assume, but is not always anymore a definition of the lyric. . .I often write lyric poems which speak out of a fragmented or divided subjectivity- more than one voice, but it looks like Spahr isn't accounting for this, which seems to be an oversight in my perspective. That's about all we get. And there literally is no mention of the tradition of Language poetry- she seems to be taking this knowledge for granted. I suppose by doing a poet-by-poet account of each aesthetic, she accounts for a lot of the holes in the argument, but I'm still left to wonder a bit about how these voices all connect in this project. Where does Lyric meet Language? At the intersection of "invention"? I suppose if the reader takes the time to truly map out how each poet (Rae Armantrout, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Susan Howe, Ann Lauterbach and Harryette Mullen) manipulates or executes these two traditions/genres (?) and finds the point of intersection in each poet, this could be interesting (sounds like a plan). Maybe Spahr is leaving the connections open for the reader to make them, which I suppose is an interesting tactic in terms of a sort of rejection of closure.

I do applaud the way this book contextualizes each poet and really creates a picture of each poet, more so than most books like this. I find that most books like this highlight the critics, not the poetry, whereas in this book the poets are the critics. The book has three sections about each poet: a selection of their poetry, a chosen critical "poetic statement" and another critic's take on their poetry. It is so well balanced and harmonious. . .maybe a bit too harmonious even. It is pretty common knowledge that a lot of the poets in this collection are a bit ambivalent to any kind of label, and poets like Lucy Brock-Broido wrote an essay called "Myself a kangaroo among the beauties" which is essentially a critique of more experimental writing and an attempt to define herself in the context of that tradition. Kudos to the editors for including this essay in the book, but should there be more of a HEATED dialogue as opposed to being "hopeful about the lyric in the beginnings of the 21st century." I mean, there's nothing wrong with being hopeful, but the hope should come out of the reality of the connections of these texts and poets, not a fictional anthologetical (how do you like that neologism?) harmony.


Scott Glassman said...

Thanks for pointing this volume out. I'm going to look for it. From what I've read, I also think the lyric within the language school is NOT for the most part constricted, roped in, singular of voice and rigidly slim. In fact, the very indeterminacy of language, this truth, when it is placed under the heartscope, and as it becomes front and center, is perhaps better suited for the multiple voices, angles of perception, and associative expansions that bring the lyric alive in more traditional camps. When Spahr says "genre of difficulty and impossibility" she implies that language poets who compose lyrics are frozen in the headlights by pain, trauma, etc and this manifests primarily in their emphasis on what's "not there" vs. what is. I'd prefer to look at it as a practiced precision, rather than an impairment, closing off, or narrowing of the compositional field. Like a word turned over with a tweezers, so are the poet's internal truths-- emotional urgency and exactitude and musicality are achieved in a broader framework-- the whole world can more readily come to bear on his or her particular plight, because the naked elements of language want that too, beg it, in fact.

poetzie said...

Thanks, Scott, for the great insight. I'm so often perplexed by people's use of the term "lyric" because of the negative bend put on it by the Language Poets- the famous LP manifesto pokes famous fun at William Stafford's poem "Traveling in the Dark" and ridicules the lyric speaker who "thought hard for us all." I actually agree with their critique, especially in this poem (once called "the greatest poem ever written" by one of my College professors. . .I beg to differ) but am so reluctant to agree with the complete concept as it relates to power structures, semiotic structures, etc etc. I'm a big fan of infultrating the culprit from the inside out, like Bernadette Mayer does in her sonnets, adopting the tradition and exploding it from the inside out. A lot of language poetry seems to be working from outside in, and so much of it just isn't working because there is no point of crisis- there's no climax- an open text is, for the most part, a homogenous text. These are ideas I still need to develop, but I'm working on it.
Surely you are right that the "genre of difficulty and impossibility" calls into question this moment of crisis- the moment that drives the poet to write, it is clear to me now- thank you! Her definition of the lyric just seems so vague, though perhaps that's part of the problem in general. The lyric voice has come to represent many voices (yippee) and there are only now a few things that hold together such a wide range of subjects.

Scott Glassman said...

I've got to check out this Stafford poem-- see for myself what a prof thinks as the greatest poem written. Some candidates for me: Plath's "Daddy," Eliot's "Wasteland," W.Carlos Williams' "Paterson," Ginsberg's "Howl," Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck"