Thursday, January 19, 2006

The question of heteroglossia and lyric has come up in a couple of places: in a discussion between Jasper and Johannes and in the comments field of Kasey's Collins vs. Moxley post. I am very sympathetic to the notion of a decentered, heteroglossic lyric, and my understanding of the major shift that happens in the career of Pound (for example) is from a hierarchical poetics of masks (personae) that Johannes associates with Eliot toward a more open and fragmentary poetic (in the Pisan Cantos and the Drafts and Fragments) in which different registers of language are allowed to represent different aspects of the self. But the self is still there as an organizing principle, which perhaps prevents perfect heteroglossia in the Bakhtinian sense. I used to think Bakhtin's indictment of lyric as monoglossic was either the positing of a straw man to make the novel look good, or else the result of his being forced to deal entirely with pre-Revolutionary nineteenth-century texts. But there does seem to be some truth to the idea that a lyric poem can never fully forsake its role as the expression of a single subjectivity—though it can and does profitably challenge that role, and some of the most interesting lyric poetry is that whose claims to subjective expression are entirely formal, whose voice(s) are all "minor" (a good example is this hyper-fragmented idyll by Michael Greenberg—part of the remarkable Order + Decorum project, which in itself is an experiment in fragmented epic heteroglossia—poems named for or in honor of members of Congress, necessarily failing to cohere into a mosaic of our Grand Old Flag). Still, the self is the stake to which every lyric expression is tied: the latter might peacefully graze in the grassy plot allowed it, it might strangle itself on the lead, it might simply squat there dumbly like Kafka's hunger artist. I am increasingly interested in the long poem or epic as that which nominally expresses a collective subjectivity—still not the novel (which is best, according to Bakhtin, at representing competing subjectivities) but that which (again, at least formally) requires or reaches toward some kind of unity, without reaching it—as though Stein's "Act as though there were no use in a center" had to be re-enacted and rediscovered again and again. A line of Derek Walcott's comes to mind: "Either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation"—poetry that straddles that Odyssean line fascinates me. Speaking for a capacious self, fragmented from the outside (from the habitus), without resorting to rhetoric or ideological main force. Letting language take the lead.

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