Thursday, August 27, 2009


‘We can put up with someone’s narcissism providing it makes interesting reading and it doesn’t run on too long.’–Charles Simic, ‘The Power of Ruins’ (review of Louise Gl├╝ck’s Averno in NYRB)

Lyric poetry is an acquired taste, and I wonder sometimes why I’ve acquired it, or to what extent I have. Song lyrics are easier to remember and more ubiquitous. Fully realized depictions of the life of any era can be found in novels, in films. The quirks of individual character are more fully realized in those narrative forms as well. To say that lyric poetry is ‘about language,’ in a way that no other form of writing is, does make a case for it, but it’s a claim that is reductive rather than expansive -- unless, that is, you happen to think like a lyric poet and believe that ‘language’ includes everything. And that’s the jist of it all, I’d say: ‘thinking like a lyric poet.’ That’s the knack that must be acquired; so let’s say lyric poetry is an acquired knack, and that, once you’ve got the knack of believing language is everything, then you can develop a taste for it.

But what will your taste in lyric poetry be determined by? Your ear, certainly. Your sense of rhythm, yes. But also your sense of the possibility that language can represent something, make perceptible something, that otherwise could not be apprehended, that is simply not available in any other use of language. And, it seems to me, that that ‘something’ depends upon a lyrical self, an understood, implied enunciator of the poem. Even if we trust that the poem simply consists of words arranged strategically on a page, we accept a phenomenological given that the words did not appear there by chance. Someone arranged them that way, and that ‘someone’ remains present, inferred as what we sometimes call ‘the voice’ of the poem, sometimes ‘the speaker’ of the poem, sometimes, ‘the poet.’ But whatever we call this entity, we understand that we mean that part of us that sounds the words of the poem internally, that responds to a previous shaping of language and a transmission of content, and that our grasp of that -- the shaping and the transmission and the sounding -- constitutes an experience of the poem and, if we can focus, a performance of the lyrical self the poem manifests. And if the poem was created ‘by chance’ by a machine or logarithm? Then the lyrical self we infer is the ‘ghost in the machine,’ that part of consciousness which simply inhabits language, or, if you like, is forever ‘haunted’ or ‘possessed’ by language, for no use of language is ever ‘innocent’ of complicity with human utterance, or denuded of the power of speech as we first experienced it in some daze-shattering moment when words were addressed to any one of us, and there was no escape, nor any denial of the fact that we heard and understood.

And ‘taste’ comes in as the extent to which we feel ourselves addressed by the kind of utterance we find in the poem, and whether or not we feel ourselves -- our lyrical selves -- to be stimulated or challenged or upbraided or intoxicated or mystified or whatever state you desire (for your desire, as reader, is always at stake). In my own case, ‘thinking like a lyric poet,’ when it happens, bypasses ‘thinking like a literary critic,’ which is to say that those lyric poets who ‘score’ most with me make me forget my own taste, my own intentions for language, my own limited grasp of myself. They remake my relation to language; they add to what I can imagine words doing. And when this doesn’t happen, then all I can see is how someone has willfully distorted the perfectly suitable relation I had to language and to lyricism and to beauty and to all those other things I assume to be the aesthetic occasion of the lyric poem, or, worse, how someone has tried to approximate something I’ve already experienced, processed, understood, and has not done it well enough for me to recognize it, or has done it so poorly or erratically that I don’t want to recognize it. There are so many ways that language -- as rhetoric -- fails to achieve its intentions, it’s a wonder any poems succeed at all. But that precisely is the tightrope walk, the difficult task of trying to speak in an unprecedented way, and of trying to convey an originary idea, a shaping occasion for a definitive performance.

What Charles Simic suggests in the line I’ve quoted as epigram is something I do indeed recognize, for I’d say that, deep down, I concur with this view. My critical cavil at any particular lyrical poem will have to do, ultimately, with the degree to which I find it narcissistic, which is to say, fixated upon the lyric self to such an extent that it forecloses my participation. To read the poem, I have to believe emphatically in the self that the poet displays, and my skepticism will keep rising accordingly. One could say such a poet, like Whitman, says ‘what I assume you shall assume,’ and I’ll admit that Whitman’s presumption of my interest and pre-emption of my own fledgling narcissism made me keep a distance from him for quite some time. It was only when I recognized that what Whitman was defining was the necessary act of ‘thinking like a lyric poet,’ that I ‘signed on’ as it were, boarded ship and took to the high seas with him. But that’s a big step, a leap as existential as any one can make, because it happens at the level of one’s individualized grasp of language as, whatever else it may be, one’s own tool for making oneself understood. If I have to assume what Whitman assumes, then I have to accept that his language is my language.

That kind of concession is not easily given, and that’s why I agree with Simic here: if I’m going to concede at all -- if I’m going to accept the willful narcissism of self-display in language -- then the self on display in the poems better be interesting, and not wear out its welcome. Or, as Simic says in his review of Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems: ‘there are not many poets, even among our best ones, who are likely to have more than eighty pages worth reading.’ I like that phrase ‘worth reading,’ for the minute one thinks, when reading a poem, ‘why am I reading this?,’ it’s all over. The spell is broken. The difficult attention will not come back. The pleasure in the liberties taken turn to irritation or boredom. The great affair is over. All one sees is a showy bravado; at best one is grudgingly entertained at the notion of the poem as an experience -- as for instance in that smile of embarrassed refusal that can be seen on the face of a young weaned child at the notion of suckling the maternal breast. As if!

All of this is preamble to talking about a book of poems I read this summer -- Mark Strand’s New Selected Poems (2009) -- but I’ll get to that next time.

(The quotations from Simic are taken from a collection of his reviews: The Renegade. Writings on poetry and a few other things, George Braziller, NY, 2009)

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