Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Here is my longest post yet: an essay I wrote out of frustration with the Stegner workshop a couple of years ago and never found a home for (never tried that hard, really, though Rebecca Wolff of Fence was kind enough to have a look at it). I apologize for all the asterisks but HTML footnotes are as yet beyond me.


Notes Toward the Dramatic Lyric

The crucial question is whether a man escapes from the life of his time into a realm of abstraction—it is then that angst is engendered in human consciousness—or confronts modern life determined to fight its evils and support what is good in it. The first decision then leads to another: is man the helpless victim of transcendental and inexplicable forces, or is he a member of a human community in which he can play a part, however small, towards its modification or reform?
              —George Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism


Too often, in the institutionalized workshop world I [used to] inhabit, have Huffy Henry’s words occurred to me: “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” Only substitute “poetry” for “life” in those lines and you’ll see the truth of it—how dreary much of the work that confronts us in workshops and literary magazines and readings is, and how reluctant most of us are to say so. Too many of the poems I read are eager to inform me that some “I” or other flashes and yearns in the manner of the great sea. This stance strikes me as being woefully inadequate to the situation of poetry—of the human—in our times.

It would be easy to permit myself to believe that this naïve, belatedly Romantic verse serves a vital purpose in late-capitalist American society. When you live in the United States, writing anything at all upon which the status “poem” is conferred—a status that, ipso facto, has no economic value—can seem downright heroic. And yet poetry as an institution does exist in this country, and has considerable value insofar as it provides a diversion and comfort for a bourgeois audience that needs to believe that their flashing and yearning souls stand somehow inviolate and undeformed by the pressures of capitalism. In fact, what Charles Bernstein combatively labels “official verse culture” can be accurately described as a symptom of those pressures and no kind of escape from them at all. All uncritically conducted artistic genres serve late capitalism’s goal of distracting audiences (in poetry’s case, a small but significant audience of intellectuals and middle-class elites) from perceptions that might inhibit their progress toward becoming more perfect consumers. The artistic genres whose means of production are in the hands of giant corporations (music, television, film, mainstream publishing) are the most obvious examples of this, and it might be argued that poetry, which is as famous for making no money as it is for making nothing happen, is somehow less of an opiate because the profit-minded have no interest in its production.

The institutions of capitalism have no conscious interest in poetry, and yet capitalism (a hyrda-headed entity as pervasive and yet traceless as to be practically synonymous with Foucauldian Power/Knowledge) exerts an influence. The medium is the message: poetry’s apparent lack of economic value is very much a part of its attraction to the elites who consume it. That perceived purity is as carefully maintained by poets and readers as Proctor & Gamble administers the perceived purity of Ivory Soap. And so poetry enters consumer culture through the back door: picking up a copy of Poetry or The Georgia Review or any of the dozens of magazines produced by the students of graduate writing programs is an easy way to declare one’s identification with purity, sophistication, and a smugly higher consciousness than that enjoyed by the faceless suits that everyone (especially the actors in commercials for AT&T and General Motors) loves to despise. These poets reassure the harassed urban intellectual who wants to believe that it is still possible to look out into a Wordsworthian natural landscape and find one’s self magnified tenfold in it. Beside these bourgeois pleasures are offered similar reassurances for the rest of poetry’s fragmented constituencies: affirmation for the abused, empathy for the ethnic, and sympathy for the standpoints of sundry sexual orientations.

The provocations of such poetry are simplistic and its transgressions conventional and inoffensive. Even those poets who are commit to raising readers’ social consciousness are hamstrung by their commitments to narrative and the poet-identified “I.” However vibrant their language, the formal decisions these poets make confine experience to easily recognized, easily digested packages of meaning that can be swallowed without thinking. The resulting poem is anesthetized and anesthetizing. And poetry as a means of speaking the true and difficult and unspeakable is supplanted by a poetry of reassurance and distraction, of matter-of-fact mimesis, of easy identity politics. The poets that literate people (readers of The New York Times Book Review unacquainted with the fractious world beyond Poetry) are most likely to encounter have abandoned their roles as prophets and provacateurs; some of them even specialize in mocking such ambitions. Who, seeking some kind of shakeup to their ordinary perceptions, or some break from the stream of pap that tells us to pay no attention to that author behind the curtain, wouldn’t turn from the pages of Poetry to the rowdy dystopias offered by films like Fight Club or The Matrix? At least when we shell out nine bucks for these movies we know that no expense has been spared by the studios to stimulate our jaded braincases. If I must be narcotized, I’ll take the cocaine rush of a John Woo movie over the opium daze of a literary magazine any day of the week.


Nothing in my critique thus far will be news to readers aware of the numerous innovations and challenges offered to “official verse culture” by the avant-garde movements of the past thirty years, most especially that of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their fellow travelers. I find much to admire here: relentless formal innovation, disdain for the sentimental, awareness and application of literary theory, and deep political engagement. At the heart of this poetry are two inextricably intertwined concepts: a direct engagement with Wittgenstein’s inescapable language game, and a profound suspicion of the integrated speaking self presumed by traditional lyric. The first has been cogently summarized by the proudly pomo Joshua Clover:

This riddle is the riddle of our century's philosophical investigations. Husserl's phenomenology and Einstein's relativity offer much the same revelation as Cubism: we exist not in g-d's green meadows but within our own perceptive boundaries. Language proposes and vows to bear experience across such thresholds, but this solves nothing; if we're not trapped within ourselves, we're still trapped within language itself.*
These poets have made, in their work, a declaration of equivalency between the words they use and the objects in the world those words usually refer to. They follow Gertrude Stein’s famous proposition: a “rose” (letter R, letter O, letter S, letter E) is an object equivalent to a “rose” (a thorny flower of the genus Rosa colored on a spectrum from aspirin white to arterial red) which is an object equivalent to a “rose” (symbol of passion, of romance, of cliches about romance, of the ephemeral) which for that matter is an object equivalent to “rose” (past tense of “rise,” to move from a lower to a higher position, to get out of bed, to come into existence). Language poets wrestle with, bemoan, and celebrate the Word’s tangible mutability or Protean concreteness. A Language poet, or any poet who writes in full consciousness of what the 20th century’s disasters and innovations have made possible and necessary, sees the Word as being like the thin wall between rooms at a cheap motel. Through the wall comes the unignorable, obscure sound of an Other talking, fighting, making love. The wall prevents us from a complete experience of the Other’s subjectivity, but it is also the agent, the connector, the transmitter that makes it possible for us to recognize the reality of the Other’s subjectivity in the first place. We can’t get out of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, but we can at least put our ear to the wall.

The yearning for contact with others, for intersubjectivity, is identical with the yearning for unmediated contact with reality, for what Emerson called an original relation with the universe. This rootedness in the subjective leads us to the other dominant strand in Language poetry: viewing the traditional unified self posited by lyric as an untrustworthy vehicle for speech. These poets contradict the assumption made about the self in mainstream lyric poetry: that the self is an integrated whole in the world, capable of addressing reality within the hearing of a listener. That the self is not an integrated one is something we’ve known since Freud (though today’s conventional lyric flouts that knowledge in its evocation of a singular speaker as if Modernism, much less postmodernism, never happened). I have already discussed the impossibility of unproblematized speaking; the Language poets have set out to write in full awareness of the paradoxical implications of Wittgenstein’s notorious tautology, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Finally, and for me most admirably, the Language poets are suspicious of the monocultured self as a necessary precondition for speaking. Where mainstream narrative lyricists imagine they enjoy unquestioned the American creed of individualism (as if the extra-linguistic Real were achieveable without struggle), the Language poets see a solipsist without any metaphysically secure home in the world. They recognize that narrative lyric, in its relentless representation of the poet-self’s experience, resists intersubjectivity or any sympathetic identification with others that is more than fleeting or sentimental. Even Elizabeth Bishop, hardly a Language poet, felt the poignancy of this:
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
         — “In the Waiting Room”
These suspicions have shaped much of the avant-garde work produced in the post-Language era, and I find their intellectual adventures, informed by Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Derridean deconstruction exciting, at least in theory. It is in fact that “in theory” that is so gratifying—the willful ignorance of theory (part and parcel of the generally rampant anti-intellectualism) prevalent in creative writing programs is utterly disheartening, a spectacle of so many ostriches smothering the potential of otherwise fine verbal gifts in the sand. But the manifold pleasures of avant-garde poetry can sometimes fall into the same solipsistic trap as mainstream poetry, with only this slight improvement: the poet is fully aware of the situation. Worse, their sense of language as tangible can fail to produce tangible language—the conversion of theory into praxis overrides the poem’s need to become itself through following the paths of music and association.** Hewing to a particular party line, as many self-conscious experimentalists do, can result in language that is so abstract, convoluted, and divorced from verbal pleasure that one can scarcely locate the thought, much less the feeling, that was the occasion of the poem’s cry. I’m not speaking of the kind of pregnant mystery that delights and instructs in a nonlinear, nondiscursive fashion here, but rather of the kind of flat obscurantism that is every bit as dull to read as the heartfelt banalities of conventional lyricists. Poetry should create a state like dreaming in the reader, but if at all possible it should not put the reader to sleep first.


Lyric poetry in English has been midwife to the creation of the modern self. It has traditionally been an individualistic and Cartesian mode (though efforts to resist individualism and dualism within lyric have been productive). I do not really expect that any kind of communitarian lyric is possible or even desirable. Insofar as genre distinctions are useful, I expect that writers will continue to be drawn to the lyric because it is produced by an individual’s voice. But that doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as the individual's voice; nor is it necessary for the speaker of a poem to be identified with the poet’s “I” in order to reflect his or her subjectivity. The subjective remains the ultimate and exclusive territory of the lyric: it enacts a human voice’s attempt to create a relation to the world outside him or herself through the hopelessly flawed, exhilaratingly concrete medium of language. That human voice usually belongs to an individual; in the lost genre of epic poetry it belongs to a culture; in religious scripture it is institutionalized and lies waiting for those willing to break open the tomb and give new life to it with their own living voices.

It is difficult for the pure lyric to escape the trap of solipsism, and almost impossible for the narrative. One possibility for lyric subjectivity today is what I’ll call the dramatic lyric, which originates within the Shakespearean soliloquy. In these soliloquies, as Harold Bloom observes, a kind of self-overhearing takes place: the Shakespearean hero speaks from the heart only to hear his heart being changed by what he speaks.*** There is a sense of discovery and exhilaration in the representation of this kind of thought, even when that thought leads to frustrating or frustrated conclusions. This kind of poetry, which is as critical of self as it is revelatory, strikes me as being a brand of lyric that needs to be revived. Its vitality seems in part to stem from the genre paradox of “lyric” statement within the framework of dramatic poetry. The speaking self gets a valuable shot in the arm from being a player in a larger dramatic community, conscious of his or her place as one voice in the simultaneous babble of poetry from Beowulf to The Tennis Court Oath: the speaker is one character among several who also get to speak (and transform) their minds. This mode refuses, or at other times directly engages, the solipsism that encumbers most contemporary lyric poems. It is a mode of self-declaration that manages to be other-aware, if not other-directed. Most compelling for me is this mode’s engagement with matters of the heart: in the speeches of characters like Lady Macbeth, Lear, Cleopatra, Gloucester’s sons Edgar and Edmund, and above all Hamlet, we are privileged to hear powerful intellects applying all their verbal cunning to the task of baring, even transforming,**** a complex heart. There is a richness of feeling here that I don’t find in the transparent, sentimental, “authentic” language of the narrative lyricists.

Of course I’m not making a bid for the resuscitation of iambic pentameter.***** I am only suggesting that the richest and strangest poetry being written today comes out of an awareness of all that both Bloom's canon and the canon of the postmodernists (vividly represented by the New York School, the Black Mountain Poets, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Language poets, and what might be the newest kids on the block, the Ellipticals******) have done to make it possible for us to confront our 21st century predicaments. Within the locked room of language the self fragments and re-coalesces in the presence of the world, achieving, against tremendous odds, an original relationship with the universe.

The Lukács quotation at the beginning of this essay represents my yearning for some next step that will bring artists out into community with one another. The camaraderie of a university workshop, however valuable, is only a synthetic gesture toward the free and elective communities artists were forced to create before the institutionalization of creative writing. It is not too exaggerated to say that the atomized individual poet, flitting from teaching job to teaching job, publication to publication, is forced into Lukács’ “realm of abstraction” where his or her autarchy is diminished. All we have to fight this trend with is each other. We can create a space outside the university, well outside state sponsorship, where real interaction and intersubjectivity becomes possible. We need to create our own magazines and small presses and nonhierarchical writing workshops. We need to fight boring poetry. There’s a criticism abroad today that says poets write only for other poets. I say turn that on its head by finding a way to turn more readers into poets—to somehow lend readers our negative capability, our freedom to play, our secret judo holds. We need to create what Oscar Wilde called “the temperament of receptivity” in our readers.******* Poetry isn’t difficult. Poetry only exerts pressure on the language (of politicians, of advertisers, of churches, of power) that otherwise obscures experience of the Other and the Real. If we can’t create readers willing to apply that same pressure, it’s not poetry that’s doomed. It’s our whole sense of reality. As Wordsworth wanted a poetics of “a man speaking to men,” I want a humanism of poets creating poets.

* Joshua Clover, “The Rose of the Name,” published in Fence, v. 1 n.1., Spring 1998.
** Clayton Eshleman has recognized, in Harold Bloom’s schematic of the agon between a strong poet and his (always his, of course) forebear, something more useful: a schematic of the creative process. In that process he identifies the stage Bloom calls Kenosis, or Emptying, as the moment where the poet clears away the conventional (received) ideas as to how the poem’s theme should be completed. He calls this Emptying the “willingness to introduce contradiction and/or obscurity via sound-oriented or associational veers” (emphasis mine). When I find Language poetry unsatisfying, I can usually attribute it to a failure of Kenosis: the contradiction and obscurity that the poet introduces derives not from music (tangible word as phoneme) or association (word as node in a web of both linguistic and referential associations) but from some received theory, however interesting, that the poet is force-marching his or her lines out of. See Eshleman's Novices: A Study of Poetic Apprenticeship (Los Angeles: Mercer & Aitchison, 1989), p. 24.
*** Bloom’s obsession with the so-called “School of Resentment” has made him tiresome and shrill, and he has always been shockingly narrow-minded as to what he will admit to be poetry. He remains a shrewd and enlightening critic of Shakespeare and the Shakespearean, which is as good as to say poetic process. Bloom’s central insight about Shakespeare derives from an unpacking of Hegel’s famous remark about Shakespeare (“he confers on [his characters] intelligence and imagination; and by means of the image in which they, by virtue of that intelligence, contemplate themselves objectively, as a work of art, he makes them free artists of themselves”). He has also usefully assigned two poles of selfhood which may stand as fundamental attitudes for the speaker of a dramatic lyric, represented by Hamlet and Falstaff: “For Hamlet, the self is an abyss, the chaos of virtual nothingness. For Falstaff, the self is everything.” From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), p. 5.
**** “Some good I mean to do, / Despite of mine own nature.” King Lear, 5.3.244-45.
***** The New Formalist approach is neither here nor there in this discussion; it is merely the most dogmatic and conservative strain of the dull poetry that I’ve been deploring. Whatever credit they get for their rigorous study of the tradition (as opposed to the slack ignorance of many free verse lyricists) is quickly dissolved by how narrowly they conceive that tradition (it seems to begin and end with late Auden) and by the poverty of the sentiments they enclose in their received formal straitjackets. I am not opposed to traditional forms, but they only make sense to me when the form is as tangible an object in the world as individual words, phrases, and lines are.
****** See Stephen Burt, Robert Mueller, Claudia Keelan, Cole Swensen, and Edwin Frank in American Letters & Commentary, Issue 11, 1999, pp. 45-76. Burt's invention of this group, to which he assigns a number of disparate poets (Liam Rector, Mark Levine, Lucie Brock-Broido, Susan Wheeler, C.D. Wright, Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, August Kleinzhaler, and Thylias Moss), is problematic. But many of them are favorites of mine and I believe that they practice what I’ve chosen to call the “dramatic lyric.” Compare what I’ve been saying to Burt’s summary: “Elliptical poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. They believe provisonally in identities (in one or more ‘I’ per poem) but they suspect the Is they invoke: they admire disjunction and confrontation, but they know how a little can go a long way. Ellipticists seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don’t believe in, or seek, a judicious tone” (46-47). The Ellipticals as Burt describes them strike me as being largely the love-children of the New York School and the Language movement.
******* “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Speaking of the ideal audience for art, Wilde writes about a playgoer: “The honest man is to sit quietly, and know the delightful emotions of wonder, curiosity, and suspense. He is not to go to the play to lose a vulgar temper. He is to go to the play to realise an artistic temperament. He is to go to the play to gain an artistic temperament. He is one who is admitted to contemplate the work of art, and, if the work be fine, to forget in its contemplation all the egotism that mars him—the egotism of his ignorance, or the egotism of his information” (emphasis mine).

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