E 395M • POSTLYRIC POETRY
2:00 PM-3:30 PM
"Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of a void but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded . . . ." --Mary Shelley, Author's Introductio to Frankenstein (1831)
When talking about the practice of poetry, the first question is always what "materials," as Mary Shelley calls them, are available at any given place and time. The general aim of this course is to assess, through the study of assorted contemporary poets, what Robert Pinsky calls "the situation of poetry." I would suggest that the great triumph of Modernism, that period which Hugh Kenner has labeled "The Pound Era" and which spans roughly the first six decades of the twentieth century, was the establishment of the lyric as the dominant poetic form. The final ascendancy of the lyric in the modern period is particularly apparent when one considers the modernists' quest for what Pound called "a long--a really, really long--poem." Again and again, the modernists discovered that the long poem was an extended lyric or extendable, serial lyrics--bridges to epic vastness, notes toward a supreme fiction, cantos in search of a commedia, "fragments I have shored against my ruin." What these modernists were trying to combat was the lyric's legendary monologism, which these artists finally annihilated by doing the police in different voices--that is, by trying to reinvest lyric voice in the language of the tribe, in "others," or in personae (the title of Pound's groundbreaking book), hoping that by so doing they would break the back of the dialogic novel, which was rapidly assuming poetry's claim to cultural supremacy.
In the end, the triumph of the lyric signaled its defeat. "Lyric became the dominant form of poetry," the scholar Mark Jeffreys writes, "only as poetry's authority was reduced to the cramped margins of culture." Worse, the lyric gained its authority by becoming equivalent to poetry as such. As Jeffreys has documented, the term "lyric" has been rarely used in the titles of poetry anthologies for the past thirty years, and yet there are more poets being published today in America than ever before, being read by an audience that is itself vanishing, perhaps, as quickly as the flora and fauna of our actual biospheres. But these contemporary poets do not write lyrics; they write poems. The present course begins in these various erasures, the enabling gestures of our postmodern modernity. I say "enabling" because the loss to verse practitioners of the generic category of "the lyric" has opened to poets the possibility of investigating, defining, and reinvesting the origins and kinds and uses of lyric, though under different names and different generic categories. The "materials," one could say, have changed. Lyric has become the genre that cannot speak its name, even as contemporary poetry has moved toward a poetics that is founded almost exclusively upon "voice."
For me, the involuted quest for the disappearing lyric is dramatized in Marianne Moore's three versions of her most famous poem "Poetry," published in 1919, 1925, and 1967, each a temporary, and, as it happens, temporizing, definition of "lyric." One also notices how many contemporary and near-contemporary poets underwent a "lyric crisis" in their careers, usually involving an abandonment of one sort of formalism for more "open" compositions--poets as diverse as Theodore Roethke, James Wright, Adrienne Rich, and W. S. Merwin. Among a younger generation than these, there has been an almost exact conversion the other way, as Anne Finch and Timothy Steele have documented, with poets abandoning "open" forms for a so-called "new formalism."
I will let the students taking this course determine which poets will receive the most attention, but I begin the process by nominating a few works for critical inspection:
--Thomas Hardy, "Poems of 1912-13," a separate section of "Lyrics and Reveries," part of the volume called Satires of Circumstance, a title supplied by the publisher Macmillan
--Melvin Tolson, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953)
--Galway Kinnell, "Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" (1960)
--George Oppen, three volumes: -The Materials (1962), note the title; This in Which (1965), my candidate for the most underrated volume of poetry in American letters; and Of Being Numerous (1969).
--Basil Bunting, Briggflatts (1965)
--Lyn Hejinian, My Life (1980)
--Harryette Mullen, S*PeRM**K*T (1992) and Muse & Drudge (1995)
--John Koethe, Falling Water (1997)
--Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998)
--Robert Creeley, "Histoire de Florida" (1998)
In addition, I am highly recommending The Sighted Singer by Allen Grossman and Mark Halliday as background. The photocopy packet also includes assorted critical essays.