notes on lyric 3
|Typically, a poem gives the reader or listener something to take away from the text – an emotional gravitas, whimsical joy, intellectual connection or awakening.|
Is this typical of all poems, or only of those that are lyrical in one or both respects so far discussed (musical, subjective)? Most of the other readerly effects that I can think of offhand probably do fall under one of the categories given: persuading the reader to share rage or dissatisfaction (or shame or complicity) would come under “emotional gravitas,” imparting information, under “intellectual connection.” “Whimsical joy” strikes me as a moderately patronizing way to letting pleasure into the equation. We can be almost certain that the notion that poems should have a “takeaway” or “upshot,” or that this should be why poems are valued, will soon come in for some hard knocks.
These expectations have been challenged and undermined overtly through the stages of Modernism, but such challenges are the proto-typical concern of the poet regardless of age or context: that is, the relationship between the originating words or strings, and their intended audience.
First reference to “Modernism” in this text. (The subtitle of the book is “New Modernist Poems”; the preface’s emphasis on the category of “the lyric” is not announced there.) The capitalization is a choice. One immediately reads it as associating the overt challenge alluded to with a specific historical moment or formation, but “stages of” takes this back a bit, suggesting that some (not necessarily) later developments and “post-“s are further moments within M/modernism.
[In the context of an anthology like this one, this by-now familiar question – “Is post-modernism just more modernism?” – becomes, roughly, “Is language poetry modernist poetry?” To their credit, I don’t think the editors’ answers can be read straight off the table of contents. The only canonical language writers in the book are Susan Howe (always an odd fit) and Lyn Hejinian (represented by the relatively discursive “The Beginner,” 2003), whose presence points up obvious omissions; on the other hand, it would difficult to read selections by (at a glance) Tony Lopez, Drew Milne, and Marjorie Lopez competently without taking into account their reliance on lang-po devices and procedures.]
Back to the sentence. The upshot is: Modernism explicitly questioned some assumptions about the communicative potential(s) of poetry, but all poetry, Modernist or not, has had to deal with these questions in some way. I don’t find this contentious, though I’d add (and I’d bet that JK would agree) that a good deal of poetry just assumes an answer and goes about its business. I’d paraphrase the last bit as: “the relationship between the words constituting the poem and their effect on an intended audience.”
“Strings” is a bit annoying – if it’s short for “strings of words,” we don’t need it; otherwise, the informational-theoretical connotations are unmotivated. I don’t know that we gain anything, given the kinds of work JK is discussing, in conceiving of the words constituting poems as uninterpreted character strings. There are better ways to invoke “the materiality of language,” if that’s what’s being bruited.
The ceremonial chant, the private utterance scribbled on a prison wall, the paternalisms of a society’s laureate; it’s a question of where the packages of word, or words, disseminate, take on lives of their own though the context of each individual or group encounter with the moment of utterance.
Very dense, and the false precision (“word, or words”) and comma splices don’t make it easier. I take it this is meant to support the previous assertion that the “challenges” foregrounded by Modernism have been there along, but how, exactly? The “question” seems to be primarily one for audiences or interpreters, not producers, since the chanter, etc. need not frame it self-consciously in order to perform his or her linguistic act. I agree, though, that an audience, especially one different from the immediately intended one (if any – note the prisoner case), has to negotiate this gap in some way – precisely because what they encounter is not “the moment of utterance.” “Lives of their own” is a dead metaphor meaning that the effect on these unintended audience may not correspond to the author’s intentions; this is also true, and a commonplace.
The choice of examples is puzzling, given the previous emphasis on lyric. The laureate’s poem is as likely epic or honorific as lyric; the chant has an entirely distinct set of instrumental purposes (some related to the deity it assumes as primary audience, others for other participants in the ceremony); the prison scribble has, by hypothesis, no intended audience beyond its producer. (The case of a “practically” private utterance in a presumably public language has nothing much to do w/ Wittgensteinian private-language issues; not that JK suggests it does, but the confusion is common enough to forestall.) Poems might also be written that purport to be ritual utterances or prison writings – but this has more to do with a motivating theatrical or dramatic conceit that the operations of lyric as such. I suppose we can just say that the poet who intentionally produces a lyric poem faces the questions of audience and re-interpretation as much as any other language-user – though note also that a poet who writes “for posterity” or even for a contemporaneous audience of unknown dimensions faces the relevant “challenge” or “question” in a distinctive way.
“Packages” – glancing relationship to “strings,” in pushing the “materialist” line, now with an extra connotation of commercial exchange. I’m not always sure how useful these kinds of suggestions are when they’re not central or consistently followed up on. Why? Because the descriptive ontology that governs our practices regarding poems (not to mention words) isn’t the same as the one we apply to material objects. (Nominalists like Goodman want to reduce one to the other, but recognize that our ordinary practice of treating poems and other multiple artworks as abstract need to be explained or explained away. Won’t expand on this here.)
In a sense, the lyric is lost in the moment of realization: it is that engagement with “self” and articulation, the many possible engagements of the lyrical “I” with signifier and signified.
This is a new paragraph. I assume the air of paradox in the part before the colon is intentional. “Lost” seems multiply ambiguous. My guess is that he’s saying something about the relationship between the two “faces” of lyric: The musical, asemantic qualities of lyric utterances are “lost” (submerged, effaced) in the act of communicative engagement. Just a guess.
The rest starts looking like a definition: “the lyric…is that engagement with…” “That” engagement – which engagement? One feels as though one has missed an antecedent; the reference to a whole other set of additional “engagements” (which, no doubt, are also in play) complicates things further. Now, though, it sounds more like the lyric finds itself in these necessary engagements.
Why is “self” scare-quoted here when it wasn’t in the opening paragraph (“a declaration between self and text.”)? A contemporary tic. We haven’t been offered any view of self or subject so far that would require that the term itself be treated provisionally. That said, I know perfectly well what JK means by “the lyrical ‘I’,” and wouldn’t object to something everyone has figured out by now: a poem can have a “subject” in a more or less traditional sense whether or not the word “I” appears. (So much for strings.)
Can’t say I’ve had much luck getting to the bottom of this sentence.
Modernism in poetry maps this frustration of self-expression.
Another difficult antecedent. But, actually, this helps a bit: the situation described in the previous sentence (esp. around “lost”) is a the site of a tension or frustration. The lyric subject attempts to use the language to represent experience for some communicative purpose (perhaps in an uncritical way), but is frustrated in the attempt by the complexity and contingency of the relevant relations. (And perhaps also by false ideas about the relata, especially the self.) Pre- or non-Modernist poetry shrugs this off (so it is claimed); Modernist poetry worries it, faces it, makes these concerns part of its project. I still think his description of the troubled character of the relations has not, so far, been perspicacious, but I get the stance.
Note that reference to the “musical” face of lyric has fallen out of all this; at least, it doesn’t seem germane to the position JK is developing. I was probably wrong to attempt to horn it back in while glossing the previous sentence. (But I’ll leave it, as this isn’t attempt to be right, but to read.) We’ll see how and when it comes back.
Finally, to repeat a bit, there’s an implicit “always already” hovering in front of much of this, from the copula in "The lyric...is that engagement" onward. The “self” was never unproblematic; the relations have never been as transparent as they’ve seemed. Modernism noticed this. Contrast this with another kind of view, on which specific historical, economic, and/or cultural changes induce changes in the very nature of the subject, and/or of language, which require poetry to change as well in order to remain authentic, serious, or legitimate. (I.e., language was transparent and could be used for communication once, now it’s been damaged and its relation to the world has been sundered, whether one traces the shift [fall] decisive for one's poetics to WWI [Dada] or Vietnam [Andrews, Watten] or the 1973 oil crisis [Clover via Harvey] or the rise of dessicated Internet language [flarf] – many variants are possible.) As so far formulation, JK’s is a philosopher’s Modernism, not a historian’s or a historical materialist’s. (Which stance is taken is something I always ask myself about philosophical accounts of the fragmentation or fictiveness of self/subject/person – I don’t always find a clear answer.)