notes on lyric (1 of ?)
|(Commentary on John Kinsella's "Preface" to Vanishing Points: New Modernist Poems ed. Kinsella and Rod Mengham [Salt, 2004].)|
It could be argued that the lyric in poetry is a fait accompli, that it is generic across languages and cultures.
A hypothetical claim. By “generic,” JK means something like “universal.” Not, explicitly, “natural” or “essential” though the cross-culture reference suggests that. At a minimum, the claim is that poetry is generically marked by a relationship to the lyric (as yet, a completely undefined term). Is poetry a genre?
If musicality and the register of song inform the line of poetry, or are worked against, then the lyric becomes a truism.
This is presented less hypothetically – JK seems to hold that this is correct. (The whole if/then statement, that is, not necessarily the antecedent.) “The lyric becomes a truism” is poorly phrased, a bit of a category error. A truism, by definition, has propositional content. What is meant is something like “The assertion that poetry is always lyric is a truism.” or “The assertion that all poetry has lyric elements is a truism.” Anyway, given the rest of the sentence, “tautology” might be better than “truism.” This is obvious, but the sloppiness bothers me.
The logic of the sentence suggests some of the intended freight of “lyric”: that which displays “musicality” [cf. Guest’s poem of that name] and/or is written in “the register of song.” What, in turn, is the content of these phrases? Which properties of a text do we point to when we discuss its musicality? Prosodic and phonetic features/relations/patterns, one assumes; the properties that can be sounded. But any text has a prosody and (if spoken) a phonetics (so the “truism” is even emptier than it appears). Are particular kinds of prosody or sound patterning inherently “musical,” or is music [like beauty] where you find it? The “register of song.” meant to evoke Zukofsky’s “upper limit,” implies the former.
But what, again, is that “register”? It’s most obvious that we’re “in” it when the poem (strongly or subtly) resembles previous song or (to be recursive) earlier lyric poetry. Interesting to think of “song” as a historical or conventional category – and this isn’t to say that it would be an unchanging one, or that it wouldn’t operate differently in different poetic cultures. But this historicized conception is probably not what unexamined appeals to musicality and lyricism wish to foreground.
[Can other qualities of a poem also make it “musical”? Relations between ideas/represented content? Pound’s “dance of the intellect” – why not also its music?]
Finally, the “or are worked against” is the most interesting move here. Are we to say that poetry that is too (a) fragmentary to allow a consistent music to develop (some Bruce Andrews, perhaps, though long exposure certainly makes one recognize his rhythms) or (b) aggressively prosaic while still claiming “generically” to be poetry (Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies, because Lin is very concerned with what kind of work something is, and because I just heard him read from it) is also “lyric” to the extent that it positions itself against (a conventional conception of) “the register of song.” (How is this positioning achieved? Within the text, or through contextualization?) If so, the truism/tautology becomes emptier yet. Perhaps the only “poetries” that would not count as lyric would be (a) “purely” visual or plastic poetries (cf. Jessica Smith), esp. those that are so graphic (even non-linguistic) that they can’t be sounded or (b) other attempts to do an end run around the phonetic/prosodic elements of language. All texts, as already noted, have these; but one can claim more or less explicity that those elements are not to be attended to – that they are not relevant to the work.
The analogy I have in mind here: One claim some early conceptual artists made for their work was that, even though the presentation of the work inevitably took a material form, even if the “object” was nothing but words typed on a page, any aesthetic properties of what could actually be seen in the gallery (or wherever) were – by declaration – beside the artistic point. (Surely this is at work in Kosuth, Barry, etc. etc. – it’s also a strong element in work with photographic elements that attempts not to be art photography.) Of course, this has hardly prevented critics from treating these elements as legitimate parts of the work, or from recognizing that conceptual art had a “house style” (preferred formats and typefaces; a “clean,” undecorative look). Whether all that is a critical error depends on one’s views about artistic intention. Does the artist get to control what is and is not active in the work? If not, what does? (And of course, Felix Gonzales-Torres and similarly sophisticated post-conceptualists re-aestheticize many elements of their formal models.)
This is a digression (one that could be much longer), but the point is: Given that writing (almost?) can’t help but be “musical” in the very broadest sense, are conceptual poets who distance themselves from lyric values, and the critics who accept their claims, involved in a similar set of problems? (I haven’t read enough of Perloff’s new book to know if she handles this, or how.) None of which is a major concern of JK’s text, but “…or are worked against” raises this set of issues.
Who will be (or is) the F G-T of conceptual poetry? Or did Bernadette Mayer, among others, beat everyone there decades ago?
But the lyric is more than that.
To be continued.