New Definitions of Lyric (A Response)



Marjorie Perloff

Published in New Definitions of Lyric, ed. Mark Jeffreys (New York: Garland Press, 1997): pp. 243-53.

Whatever the word lyric connotes in the late twentieth century, there seems to be a consensus, at least among the contributors to this volume, that the “new” lyric is no longer governed by romantic norms.  Alison M. Cummings, for example, begins her essay on women’s lyric in the 1980s with a critique of “romantic conceptions of lyric subjectivity,” that is to say, the conception of “an autonomous, coherent agent, intent on turning away from external reality and ‘inward’ toward the self” (AC 1). [1] For Christopher Beach, the “experimental poetry” of the 1980s and 90s (especially the Language model) has positioned itself against the “mainstream” poetic of transparency and “readability” (Barthes’s term),  of “a coherent formal structure and to some version of a consistent, identifiable lyric voice and stance” (CB 1).  And Michael Golston describes Peter Inman’s Language poetics as pursuing “a full-out frontal assault on conventional poetic practice,” with its “impassioned or meditative poetic voice [and] determinate setting and/or occasion” (MG 1).

Kevin McGuirk makes such assault the subject of his essay on the cultural identity of lyric in postwar Britain.  McGuirk begins with a powerful attack on the lingering Arnoldian view of poetry as the “preserve of spirit-and-art”:

The affiliation of lyric with Arnoldian culture has ensured the valorization of one             form of lyric poetry–what we call romantic lyric–and determined for the genre as   a whole a conservative agenda.  The romantic lyric has conventionally been taken as          naturally and essentially lyric–a form without a specific cultural identity. . . .     Culture is supposed not only to be transcendent . . . but also transparent, and this           requires the effacement of those visible features of race, class, and gender, which             are crucial determinants of everyday experience.”  (KMG 2)

For McGuirk, the “naturalized” romantic lyric must give way to what he calls (and Susan Vandenborg uses the same epithet) a more “communal” form in which the individual “I” is replaced by a broader “we.”  His example of such communalism is the Anglo-Caribbean poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, in whose reggae poems the “subjectivity of romantic lyric is replaced by a collective subject acting for and within a social group against oppression.”

Coming at romantic lyric from a very different vantage point, Jeffrey Walker wants to return “lyric” to its original central place in the culture.   In classical antiquity, Walker argues, the “postromantic opposition between the practical and the aesthetic” (JW 3) did not exist; rather, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus argued in the first century BC, lyric was held to be a branch of rhetoric.  The lyric poem, in this case, is simply the form of “argumentation intending persuasion of an audience” that is written in verse.  The paradigm here is the Pindaric ode in which “argument [is] suffused with music,” the poem being no more or less than “a sung oration, a verse oration.”  “The point I wish to stress,” says Walker, “is that the not-quite-linguistic, not-quite-rational and all-pervasive appeal of versification, and only that, is what makes the early Greek lyric recognizable as poetry, rather than as epideictic prose” (JW 13).  Indeed, what has made lyric theory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries so problematic is the widespread acceptance of Aristotle’s redefinition of lyric in the Poetics.    For Aristotle insisted that versification cannot be the definining feature for poetic discourse, that, on the contrary, lyric is a branch of mimesis or representation.  But–and this is Walker’s thesis– if lyric is no more than a representation of universal human experiences, a kind of mini-drama or “self-expressive outburst uttered by a speaker with his back turned to the reader / listener,” this “rhetorically restricted paradigm for lyric is, in principle, a paradigm for minor poetry” (JW 25).  The “apostrophic lyric,” as Walker calls this “minor” form, “can only re-embody, echo or duplicate what its ‘knowers’ feel already,” and the lyrical thus becomes the “embodiment of ineffable, uncommon and sacred moods to which a poetic psyche may be privy in its fleetingly recovered moments of pristine, prelapsarian solitude” (JW 26, 28).  And these “recovered moments” are, of course, the epiphanies or “spots of time” characteristic of romantic lyric.

For Walker, as for the other essayists, romantic lyric  thus becomes a derogatory term; it connotes inwardness, subjectivity, monovocality, and transparency–all of these politically suspect in the age of multiculturalism.  But in making these claims, Walker, McGuirck and the others seem to be conflating two things:  the attenuated, neo-romantic lyric of the later twentieth century, as that lyric has been promoted by such leading critics as Harold Bloom, and the actual English lyric of the romantic period.  The term romantic,  in other words, needs to be historicized more fully than it is in these essays. [2]

Take Kevin McGuirk’s account of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s treatment of the “I”:

[Johnson’s poems] evade our paradigm of the lyric because they eschew the      displacement of conflict to a subjective or aesthetic plane where tensions are            resolved in a confined dramatic space.  They are not about lyric consciousness and    they display none of the textual self-containment that attracts the attentions of close           reading criticism. Typically, a Johnson poem’s ‘I’ is necessary but liminal to the      representations of the poem.   In “All Wi Doin is Defendin,’ the ‘I’ is primarily             positioned on one side of the opposition between the ruling class ‘yu’ and his own             community’s ‘wi,’  but the poet’s own identity within his community slips between          ‘wi’ and the ‘they’ of the rebels, and the ‘I’ of his own enunciative act (‘an I say’):

wi running wild

wi bitta like bile

blood will guide

their way

an I say

all wi doin

is defendin

so get yu ready

fi war . . . war . . .

. . . . In keeping with the highly rhetorical character of the work, audience plays a  constitutive role, unlike the merely overhearing reader of romantic lyric.  Johnson appeals to and speaks for his community, or admonishes the oppressor.  (KMG 17-   18, my emphasis).

Now suppose we compare “All Wi Doin is Defendin,” to the following lyric poem:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh,

Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born Infants tear

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse[3]

Is Blake’s “London,” the poem before us, primarily “about lyric consciousness,” and does it in fact “displace . . . conflict to a subjective or aesthetic plane where tensions are resolved in a confined dramatic space”?  Is it a “self-expressive outburst” uttered by a speaker whose “back is turned to the reader”?   Hardly.  The first-person pronoun appears four times in the space of the poem’s four four-line  (each line having four stresses) stanzas: “I wander,” “I meet,”  and  “I hear” used twice.   The intransitivity of these verbs is telling: the poet who uses them is primarily a witness.  What he sees in the London of 1784, smarting under the repressive policies of William Pitt, is a city where everything has become “charter’d,” the adjective referring both to the chartered rights of Englishmen as contained in the Magna Carta and now curtailed by government policy as well as to the commercial chartering of city property which impedes and inhibits even the natural flow of the Thames, just as every human being on the streets seems to bear a public brand (“Marks of weakness, marks of woe”).   The repetition of “mark,” and then of “every” (used five times in stanza 2), together with the pounding four-beat rhythm and insistent semantically-charged rhyme  (“appalls”/ “walls”; “curse”/ “hearse”) emphasizes the overwhelming force of the poet’s vision.  He doesn’t try to read meanings into “every cry”; but he hears those  “mind-forg’d manacles” as in a nightmare from which he cannot awake.  In the last two stanzas, Blake excoriates the political evils of his time: the very existence of poor chimney-sweepers casts a pall (“appalls”) the “blackning Church” which allows for such poverty.   The “hapless Soldiers sigh” is a similar reproach to the Palace that has created the army in which he must serve.  And “most thro’ midnight streets,” the “curse” of the “youthful Harlot” stands in judgment on the very institution of marriage (the “Marriage hearse”) and the baptism of infants.

Here, as in the Johnson poem McGuirck discusses, the ‘I’ is necessary but liminal to the representations of the poem,” which speak for themselves with astonishing metaphoric condensation.  Is this “I” an “autonomous, coherent agent, intent on turning away from external reality and ‘inward’ toward the self” (Cummings)?  Is his speech “transparent” (Beach)?  Is he merely a “commentator,” rather than a “doer” (McGuirck)?  And is this lyric deprived of rhetoric, of its argumentational potential, and hence “minor” (Walker)?

It may be objected at this point that Blake’s is not a representative case.   Let us look, therefore, at a second Romantic lyric, this one usually taken to be the epitome of Romantic subjectivity:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course

With rocks, and stones, and trees.   (HBLT 154)

Here is the “impassioned, meditative poetic voice” (of the poet who formerly “had no human fears”),  the “determinate” occasion (“now,” when Lucy is dead), and the “recognizable ‘musical’ quality” (two ballad quatrains) Michael Golston attributes to romantic lyric.  The poet, far from appealing to an audience, as does Linton Kwesi Johnson, is “overheard,” trying to come to terms with death–a death unanticipated, unprepared for, and thus all the more terrifying in its finality.

Yet although Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” (1800) is indeed a “personal” (rather than a public or political) poem, no one, I think, would maintain that it has the “transparency” or “stability” now regularly ascribed to romantic lyric by advocates of the “new” poetry.  No eight-line poem, I think, has been subjected to more intense scrutiny and debate than this one: witness Paul de Man in “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” and earlier commentators from Cleanth Brooks to J. Hillis Miller and Harold Bloom.  From the word “seal” in line 1 to “Rolled round” in line 7, every word, image, and syntactic construction here can be construed in more than one way.  If, for example, the poet is saying he originally cared deeply for Lucy, how is it that, even in the past, Lucy “seemed a thing”?  And how does the “now” of line 5 relate to that past “seeming” or “Earth’s diurnal course” in line 7 to the “earthly years” of line 4?  What, in short, is it that happens in the gap between the two stanzas?

In romantic lyric, Kevin McGuirk complains, “Culture is supposed not only to be transcendent . . . but also transparent, and this requires the effacement of those visible features of race, class and gender, which are crucial determinants of everyday experience.”  How does this caveat apply to Blake’s “London” or Wordsworth’s Lucy poems?  “I wander through each chartr’d street”: it is true that here Blake claims to speak not from a particular class, race, or gender position (although of course we can read his working-class background and maleness back into the poem), but for the London dweller of his time, and, beyond that time, for the rebellious post-revolutionary individual who is suspicious of all man-made institutions, especially the Church.   As for Wordsworth, here too the poet writes as “a man speaking to men,” in this case, a person who contemplates another’s unexpected death from the perspective of agnosticism, the notion of an afterlife here supplying no comfort, indeed making no difference.  One might argue that, as in Blake’s poem, the speaker who remarks on his former indifference or insensitivity to the beloved’s fate, is characteristically male: he is the one who ruminates, she the mere occasion for that rumination.  But one would be hard put to find this a patriarchal poem, for the graphing of the poet’s emotions, coupled with a particular set of assumptions about the relationship of the human to the natural, makes issues of gender seem somewhat beside the point.

Beside the point, perhaps, because Wordsworth and Blake are writing at a moment in history when the individual was held to be unique and was generally believed to be speaking for others, when, therefore,  the lyric “I” could claim to be a representative “man speaking to men.”  An ordinary rustic, Wordsworth insisted in the famous “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads, would have the same feelings the poet was expressing in his lyric but the ordinary rustic couldn’t articulate them as can the poet.   The same is true for “London”:  Blake is only telling his readers what they should already know about the “mind-forg’d manacles” that threaten their lives, but the poem can make the case more vivid, intense, and inexorable.

From our own vantage point, these claims for representativeness may well be found specious:  the illiterate peasant, after all, does not have the same “feelings” as the Cambridge-educated poet, especially if we hold, as I do, that there are no feelings or thoughts outside of language.  Then, too, neither Wordsworth nor Blake can be said to be “speaking” for women, much less for the inhabitants of China or Africa.  But early nineteenth-century England knew none of the sense of multiple communities that characterize our own poetry world at the end of the twentieth century.  An Englishman “spoke for” Englishmen, who, in turn, represented mankind.  And therefore the poets really believed themselves to be representative, and to be, according to Blake and Shelley, minor prophets.

In late twentieth-century U.S. culture, such faith is hardly possible; indeed poets don’t even make a claim for the “universality” or “representativeness” of their individual visions.  For one thing, the “correspondent breeze” of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Emersonian belief that nature always wears the colors of the spirit, far from being an article of faith, as it was for the romantics, seems curiously out of place in the post-Einsteinian, post-atomic universe in which we live.  Yet critics continue to assume the presence of romantic continuities, as when Helen Vendler compares Jorie Graham to Keats or Harold Bloom speaks of A. R. Ammons as a Wordsworthian poet.  And the situation is compounded by the fact that, as various essayists here ahve noted, the dominant poetic discourse itself does not call the romantic paradigm into question.

Consider the following lyric, published in 1995 by one of our most admired and frequently anthologized poets, Denise Levertov:


The crows are tossing themselves

recklessly in the random winds

of spring.

One friend has died, one disappeared

(for now, at least) leaving no address;

I’ve lost the whereabouts

of a wandering third.  That seems to be,

this year, the nature of this season.

Is it a message about relinquishment?

Across the water, rain’s veil, gray silk,

flattens the woods to two dimensions,

While close at hand

the crows’ black fountain

jets and falls, jets and blows

this way and that.

How they scoop themselves

up from airy nadirs! [4]

Like “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” this is a meditation on death and the relation of human life to the natural cycle.  It begins with description, the first-person speaker observing the wild motion of crows in the “random winds / of spring.”  Their reckless “tossing” recalls, perhaps, Yeats’s “cold and rook-delighting heaven”; here, as in “The Cold Heaven,” the sight triggers thoughts of love and death: “One friend has died, one disappeared,” and so on.  The very landscape seems to be sending out “a message about relinquishment,” the “rain’s veil, gray silk,” “flatten[ing] the woods to two dimensions.”  But–and the turn comes in line 12 of this free-verse poem, the “crows’ black fountain,” which “jets and falls, jets and blows / this way and that” also provides intimations of renewal: “How they scoop themselves / up from airy nadirs!”  I, too, the poet implies, will experience new life, another chance, another spring.

How is the reader to respond to this hopeful conclusion?  Can we agree with Levertov that the death of loved ones is, after all, part of a larger natural cycle?  That, so to speak, what goes round comes round?  And if we do agree, what assumptions must we make?  First–and here Kevin McGuirk’s analysis is especially apposite– that lineation and the use of concrete nature imagery are a guarantee of some form of poetic transcendence.  The poet stands outside and above the everyday world; she need tell us nothing about herself, the friends who have died and disappeared, the actual natural setting of rainforest.  It is evidently enough that the “I” is sensitive to her surroundings even as she is to her deprivation of others.  And further, the poem’s “tensions” are indeed, as McGuirk puts it about the romantic paradigm, “resolved in a confined dramatic space.” (KM 17).  We know nothing about this woman who speaks, nothing about those who have died or left the scene, nothing about the actual setting.  We only have, in Jeffrey Walker’s words, “a sort of purple patch, an interlude, an elegant attitudinal display which derives its significance from the implied or given narrative-dramatic frame” (JW 25-26).

To put it another way: the rhetoric of “Crow Spring” suggests that there is no such thing as cultural construction, no social class, race, or gender.   Her universal “I” simply addresses other such abstract selves.   The assumption made is that such voice-and-address is a form of poetic license.  For if Denise Levertov were writing a letter or an essay or a philosophical meditation, her generalized thoughts on wind and rain, the loss of nameless friends, and the promise of at least some “fountain” of renewal, would gain little credence.  Unlike Wordsworth, whose every word contrasts human affect to physical, material reality (e.g., the “slumber” that “seals” the “spirit” to the state of being “rolled round in earth’s diurnal course”) in what is a complex pattern of ironies (“she seemed a thing who could not feel / the touch of earthly years”; now she really is a “thing”), Levertov relies on the mere appearance of poeticity (“Look! I’m a lyric poem!) to assert a relationship to nature that is nowhere convincingly rendered.  “Crow Spring” is very skillful in its choice of adjectives and verbs, but it finally leaves the reader with a “so what?” feeling.  So what if these unknown “friends” are gone?  So what if the poet sensitively describes the crows’ movements?  Who really cares?

The problem–and it is by no means just Levertov’s problem–is that the basic human-natural correspondence no longer has much meaning, that the pathetic fallacy cannot be maintained.  We now know only too well that meanings cannot be read into the landscape.  That people die of AIDS or cancer or in automobile accidents, whatever configuration the birds outside the window may make.  That there is no “message about relinquishment” in the random wind.  Indeed, “nature” in the greater part of the globe has been so massively destroyed, so polluted by industrial waste, pesticides, and automobile exhausts, that the “veil” is no longer the “gray silk” of rain but an air system much more threatening.  More important:  “nature,” for most people is now mediated by celluloid and pixels: even the photographs of crow flight we see in magazines have been heavily manipulated, digitalized, enlarged or reduced in size.

Hence the hesitation expressed by the essayists here about stable identity and “autonomous, coherent agents.”  How is it that Levertov’s “I” can speak so coherently and logically about the shape of things now and to come?  Why is her identity  not conditioned by the same reckless “tossing”?  And how does this “I” relate to an actual audience?  I am not sure Alison Cummings is right when she suggests that women poets like Sharon Olds, Joy Harjo, and Susan Mitchell solve the problem:  the selections Cummings cites may be about “split subjects” and “fragmented models of reality,” but their language is at least as straightforward as that of the male “free verse lyric” Cummings descries.   Again, I am not sure that McGuirk makes a strong enough case for the (to me) fairly flat and one-dimensional rhetoric of Linton Kwesi Johnson.  McGuirk argues elegantly that Johnson avoids the self-consciousness that weakens Tony Harrison’s working-class lyric, but in the end his unqualified praise of Johnson’s dialect poetry may be itself slightly romanticized.

A more accurate formulation, it seems to me, is that of Susan Vandenborg who puts forward the notion that the palimpsest may well be the lyric form native to our poetic moment.  A palimpsest is “a parchment or other writing material written upon twice, the original writing having been erased or rubbed out to make place for the second; a manuscript in which a later writing is written over an effaced earlier writing” (SV 1).  Using this definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, Vandenborg examines Susan Howe’s poetry, finding that in this poet’s work, erasure and “writing over” never quite effaces lyric subjectivity, even as the found text “increasingly becomes the decisive influence over the new message and form” (SV 2).  It is a complex two-way process.  On the one hand, as Vandenborg shows in great detail, Howe is squarely in the romantic tradition, her very choice of found texts bearing witness to her particular individuality, even as she uses language and visual constructs to problematize that lyric self.  “By displacing the self to the printed word, “ Vandenborg concludes, Howe creates a traceable tradition for her audience to follow” (SV 37).  The palimpsest form thus allows for the “communal” that McGuirk also talks about.  But in Howe’s complex verse-prose sequences, it avoids the Scylla of excessive plain speaking (Johnson’s dilemma) as well as the Charybdis of what is perhaps Peter Inman’s too blanket a rejection (see Golston’s very interesting essay) of even a modicum of “normal” intelligibility.

These are, of course, issues that can and should be argued.  But what need no longer be argued, it seems to me, is that lyric poets writing at the turn of the twenty-first century need do no more than record “sensitive” responses to a generalized outer world. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater: romantic poetics itself remains one of the highpoints of Western lyric– a poetics whose very violation today makes it an especially interesting object of study.

[1] All parenthetical references to the essays in the volume use name initials and page number of the manuscript.

[2] I have myself tried to deal with this issue in a number of the essays collected in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge 1985), and Poetic License:  Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990).   But these were written before questions of culture formation were as prominent as they are today.

[3] William Blake, “London,” in Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling (eds.), Romantic Poetry and Prose (The Oxford Anthology of English Literature) (New York: Oxford, 1973), pp. 26-27.

This anthology is subsequently cited as HBLT.

[4]Denise Levertov,  “Crow Spring,” American Poetry Review, 24 (September-October 1995): 4.