notes on lyric 7
|This anthology is an example of how diverse not only conceptualizations of the lyric are, but how malleable its co-ordinates have become.|
Stock anthologist’s claim of diversity, inclusiveness, which isn’t to say it’s false.
Each poet here is conscious of the implications of a text that might imprint itself on memory, the effects of the mnemonic, and the lyric’s power of subliminal expression.
Musicality isn’t explicitly mentioned here, but I presume that it (or patterned-ness more generally) the property that makes texts at least potentially “memorable” in that way. It’s not just the ideas/content but the words in which they’re expressed that can be recalled, and this is one of the things that makes lyric poetry an “effective…vehicle” for content, including oppositional content. This is a further specification of the argument for an instrumental account of the value of lyric technique.
[Worth registering briefly that, given this argument, it’s odd that the anthology (organized alphabetically) begins with John Ashbery, a poet who does not often pursue a “mnemonic” kind of musicality. The poems included were recent and uncollected as of the book’s 2004 publication; I think most ended up in Where Shall I Wander?. “Interesting People of Newfoundland” is a particularly prosey, even chatty poem in the “apparently linear” mode that Ashbery experiments with one or twice per book, though it contains a brief, rather ironized “lyrical” passage 2/3 in: “…It is in the place/in the world in complete beauty, as non can gainsay/I declare, and strong frontiers to collide with.”]
Musicality also lends lyric a “subliminal power of expression.” It’s not the “music” (prosody and so on) that is subliminal -- it’s a perceptible property of the text – but its contribution to making “expression” more focused, vivid, memorable. As I suggested several days ago, the contributions of prosody and pattern to expression are non-semantic and not wholly conventionalized; hence, one might go on to argue, more difficult to articulate (paraphrase, translate) into other terms. This is not quite the same thing as being “subliminal,” but I think that’s what’s behind the use of that term.
Rather than see aggressive intentionality, one might equally see a responsibility and concern about the effect the lyric has once it leaves the space of composition.
Confidence or assurance (figured as aggression) that the poet knows what he or she means to be doing, and how to do it, is the negative term here. Implicitly, what is to be preferred is a degree of doubt about how one’s poem will perceived, received, or understood. I don’t think, however, that a poet who takes the “assured” (and perhaps naïve) stance that he or she has a good deal of control over the effect the poem has on its audience is necessarily abdicating “responsibility” or “concern” for that effect. The charitable reading is that JK doesn’t mean to deny that, but to claim that such concern and responsibility are possible without (naïve?) confidence or “aggression.”
That words “change”, that meaning alters according to context, are variable factors that ironically liberate rather than the poem.
That realization sounds pretty straightforwardly “liberating” to me – I don’t see the irony. I take it that the particular change in context adumbrated is that from “the space of composition” to that of being read by an audience. So the alteration of meaning here is ascribed to the instability (radical or not) of the communicative channel. I can see how a poet who take this view on board would be prone to lose a certain kind of (naïve) “confidence), but I have to admit that I find the sudden, casual, asked-and-answered quality of JK’s appeal to this idea unearned (or, at least, of limited use in clarifying his overall argument).
Overall, I think that JK doesn’t do enough to distinguish claims about the (in)adequacy of language to (a) self-expression and (b) communication. I’m not saying the two issues aren’t linked, but the blurring leads to “crisis of language” boilerplate.
In the 1980s it was not unusual within European-language poetry communities to talk of the death of the lyric – especially within linguistically innovative circles of English-language poets.
The circumlocution is meant to indicate that these questions were not raised solely by Language poets.
Maybe what was observed, or intended, was a rejection of the exclusiveness of the self, that the poem could exist in a bubble, “ignorant” of political responsibility.
If this was what was intended (JK’s not sure), this would be an error, if JK is also correct that the lyric evolved as (or into) an especially effective vehicle for oppositional content (which, conventional understanding of the political aside, can hardly be voiced convincingly from the point of view of atomistic individualism.)
The characterization of the rejected view blurs the “isolated” character of the (Cartesian, as one says) self as conventionally posited and that of the poem, but that doesn’t bother me here, as the rejected view (if anyone ever held it) is in fact pretty confused: My poem is autonomous because I am autonomous.
Of course, poetry was never so easy, whatever form it took, but the need to express these concerns – and to test these concerns within the structure of the poem itself – was strongly felt.
JK wants to insist, roughly, that the rejected view of the last sentence is a bit of a strawman, and that a good deal of pre-“death of lyric” (and probably, pre-Modernist) poetry was, at least implicitly, more nuanced in its theoretical underpinning. At some point, a need arose to treat these concerns more explicitly, and self-consciously. This might have happened for theoretical, political, or literary-historical reasons, or for some combination of the three. How these kinds of causal factors were related (mutually supportive?) “in the 1980s” isn’t something JK offers a position on.