On The Lyric As Experimental Possibility On The Lyric As Experimental Possibility
Mark Wallace
1) No statement about the final value of a form or genre of poetry can possibly be true (including this statement). It always remains possible to test the value of a form or genre again, to see what use might be made in the present moment of its historically determinable characteristics, or to alter, recombine, or change those characteristics to redefine possibilities in the present moment. One interesting possibility, for instance, would be to combine elements historically thought of as belonging to one sort of form with elements of another form, thus distorting both forms to create new hybrids. In any case, while the value of a form or genre can be determined partly by looking at all the uses that have been made of it, that determination can never be complete, not only because new readings of old uses of that form or genre can always take place, but also because the value of forms and genres can and will be changed by any new uses made of it.

2) I read Pound's dictum "make it new" ironically. There is no doubt that innovation in poetic forms continues to be of great value in a society that attempts to fix and control modes not only of writing but of living. But it is also true that the "new" itself is frought with contradictions, and is easily co-opted by the forces of capitalism and imperialism, which are both interested in extending themselves into the terrain of the "new" in order to expand their resources and control. The "new" may or may not challenge dominant social assumptions. I find the "new" useful to the extent that it challenges assumptions, but only with the ironic awareness that the challenge itself is far more likely to be co-optable than challenging. Charles Borkhuis: "you originals/are the biggest dupes." As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, as long as the ownership of materials is in certain hands, the words of a writer, however challenging, cannot do much to change power relations (372).

3) All writers have only the past to work with when they are making something new. The new is made by borrowing from, changing, refiguring, perhaps demolishing the past, out of a perception of what might possibly exist. The new is possible only because there is a past.

4) Currently dominant notions of past, present and future are expressions of western linear time and its supposed driving force, progress. While the present and future may develop out of the past, it is not clear when it comes to literature and other arts (leaving aside the vast question of social change) that new work necessarily "improves" the work of the past. Does Gravity's Rainbow represent progress from Tristram Shandy; is Charles Olson's work a "refinement" of Pound's, whatever influence he takes from Pound? As Gertrude Stein suggested in "Composition as Explanation," every art work is new by definition when it first appears, simply because it did not exist before. The concept of "make it new" seems useful to the extent that it suggests that works of literature should be as complex as their times. But such a suggestion does not imply that such works must be "improvements" of previous literature in order to be significant. To the extent that "make it new" suggests that literature needs to progress or improve in order to be significant, the concept imposes linear progress on the much more varied complexities that works of literature embody.

5) It is only when subjected to the notion of progress that the word "derivative" takes on the negative connotation it currently has when applied to literature. To call something "derivative" is to say that it has not progressed. But some level of imitation in literature and art is unavoidable. Rather than condemning all imitation as lack of novelty, it might be more insightful to think of the complex ways in which new works of literature and art are influenced by what has come before them, and to consider the extent to which new works imitate or do not imitate previous works as one response to the particular problems they face in their inevitable newness. Isn't honesty and complexity of perception, partly original, partly borrowed, and however embodied in the form of literature, the goal even of new forms of writing, indeed the impetus for new forms, and more important than the desire to simply present something new? Isn't the value of all new forms not simply that they are new, but that they can allow art to embody complex and changing perceptions?

6) Historically, one primary difference between the lyric and other types of western poetry has been the nature of address. The lyric often speaks to another person (in some case perhaps a group of persons) very specifically, rather than addressing the world in general, or a particular culture, as does epic poetry or the modern American "poem with history" (Ezra Pound's Cantos, Charles Olson's Maximus Poems, Louis Zukofsky's A as some founding examples). The history of lyric address is entirely troubling, perhaps most thoroughly in its frequent objectifying of the person being spoken to. Yet I am also troubled by the address of the American "poem with history." In many founding examples, the voice of the "poem with history" is that of the public, rational, totalizing "objective" man--never emotional, never private, never irrational or partial.

I am interested in the way the lyric suggests that address needs to be understood as specific, however troubling the specific address of specific lyric poems may be. The possibility that address might be understood valuably as specific leads me to an insight that causes me both pain and elation; that I am partial, that is to say, not total, and specifically interested. I am crucially interested in the question of who might hear me, and who, in turn, I might possibly hear. I want to contact others who are also partial.

7) If there is one thing I find most troubling about the founding examples of the modern American "poem with history," it is the assumption that a totalized view of the world--which usually implies a total containment of it--is possible. Whether this total containment attempts to present itself as coming from beyond the limits of partiality (Pound, who finally recognized the impossibility of his attempt--for which we owe him thanks) or from inside some specific but totalizing mythic stance towards the world (Olson's Maximus, although Olson, in creating a stance out of action towards the world rather than knowledge of it, does simultaneously undermine his totalizing stance), I nonetheless suspect that the desire for totalization may emerge at least as much from the desire for control as it does from the desire for liberation. Would not a desire for liberation want to see endless partial stances towards the world, abrupt and glorious contradictions, the repeated shifting of positions, the chance to change your mind on the slightest whim? Would not a desire for liberation suggest that any total view of the world might change at any moment?

8) In recent non-mainstream poetics, it has been typical to point out that the lyric has been used by many poets and critics as a genre with socially recalcitrant features, perhaps the most basic feature of which is a transcendent, unified subject. For instance, in The American Poetry Wax Museum, Jed Rasula points out that in the work of critic Charles Altieri, the "lyric's duty" becomes "the emotional maintenance of a self beset by inopportune neediness" (Rasula 329). Rasula shows also how the notion of a transcendent, unified subject as the basic characteristic of lyric poetry has appeared in the work of Robert Pinsky and Daniel Hoffman (325-326, 347). Rasula does not share this essentialzing view of lyric, pointing out for instance that Adorno's essay "On Lyric Poetry and Society" wants "to preserve lyric as a site of struggle." (88) But Rasula's book does not follow through on the notion of continued possibilty for lyric, partly because his book's intentions lie elsewhere, but also perhaps partly because the "narrow proscenium of the lyric" (326) may seem too thoroughly contaminated by its misuses to be of continued value, a position commonly taken by much avant garde theorizing.

However, the lyric does not necessarily have a transcendent, unified subject as one of its basic characteristics, and various lyrics and hybrid forms of lyric have already abandoned this notion of the subject. In my own work, and that of some others, the "subject" voice of the lyric often makes clear its own partiality, lack of transcendence, and situational, contingent existence. In such a poetry, the "voice" of the poem becomes not a predetermined given but precisely a site of social and material struggle in the way that Adorno's work suggests it might.

9) I wonder about the gender implications of the lyric and the epic. As Rasula and others have pointed out, the lyric voice has often been understood as a dominantly male way of approaching and objectifying experience. Yet it might be argued that the lyric has become a repressed mode of discourse in a avant garde context in which the "poem with history" has been seen often as a necessary corrective to many troubling uses of lyric. In such a context, it's important to note that lyric's concern with the "emotional" does not have to be understood by definition as a displacement of the objective material conditions of one's circumstances onto an often hysterical subjectivity. Such a narrow notion of the "emotional" can easily, and unfortunately, refigure itself as a dominant avant garde mode in which the partiality of "emotional" response is understood merely as a lack of rigorous thinking, that is, as something which historically has often been associated with feminine behavior and phsyiology. Rasula, for instance, repeats this reductive and gendered view of emotion when he speaks of the failure of "low mimetic realism" as its "unexamined urge to find the soft emotional center of its issues" (Rasula 393).

To what extent is it accidental that in the canon of western literature, the poet taken to be the crucial founding voice of the lyric (Sappho) is female, while the poet taken to be the crucial founding voice of the epic (Homer) is male? In many of her poems, Sappho specifically rejects the universalizing male warrior code of Homer, replacing it with concern for the more ordinary and local emotions of people around her. What does one make of the fact that the American "poem with history" has been, until recently, with some exceptions a relentlessly male project? Could the answer be as simple that, historically, women usually have been denied the education that would enable them to write a poetry of complex historical reference? Or is it that such "historical reference" usually has meant reference primarily to male historical activity? Is the lyric really insufficient to handle post-structuralist problems? Isn't it true that a whole host of factors, economic, behavioral, conventional and other, have influenced both men's and women's choices to make use of lyric, epic, or the "poem with history"?

I am interested in exploring the possibility of the feminine in my writing (at the very least, exploring its impossibility in my writing) as a way to make a problem of masculinity in writing, which I do not reject but am interested in questioning. If in that questioning I find I want to reject masculinity as it is currently defined, I reserve that possibility, as I would reserve the possibility of rejecting current definitions of the feminine. The lyric has seemed one way of exploring gender dynamics in my writing, because it allows me to explore issues of my own partiality, a partiality which may use "emotion" as a multiplicity of legitimate responses to material stimuli, and not simply as the unconscious, degraded other of rational thought.

10) Uses of the "poem with history" in the twentieth century have been complex and incisive, and the "poem with history" continues to offer valuable possibilities for avant garde exploration. As Joan Retallack has pointed out, writers such as Stein, H.D., Abba Kovner, Susan Howe, Rosmarie Waldrop, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Kamau Brathwaite, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Retallack herself have all refigured the "poem with history" for a variety of necessary uses (Retallack). Anne Waldman's Iovis, Retallack argues, discusses directly the gender dynamics of the "poem with history" by both acknoweldging and challenging the "epic masters" Williams, Pound, Zukovsky, and Olson (Retallack).

It is important, also, not to oversimplify the nature of address in male use of the poem with history. Zukofsky's hermeticism in A, for instance, thoroughly complicates the issue of whether his address is public. Ron Silliman's long poems always complicate the nature of address. And much of the male "poem with history" is weaved through with an intense lyricism; think of the role lyric plays in both The Cantos and A.

However, uses and refigurings of the lyric have been equally as complex as that of the poem with history. Consider the uses of lyric, of interpersonal or "subjective" concerns, or of and the narrative "I," all of which critique in various degrees the notion of a transcendent subject, in the work of Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Allen Ginsberg, Bernadette Mayer, Kathleen Fraser, Alice Notley, Lyn Hejinian, Hannah Weiner, Lee Ann Brown, Susan Schultz, Elizabeth Burns, Jean Donnelly, Jennifer Moxley, Lisa Jarnot and many others. I am interested in undermining the general dichotomy of address between the lyric and the "poem with history" because of the ways in which challenging limited notions of address, whether of the lyric or of the "poem with history," can create a more specific understanding of who poetry can reach and why. Why not use both the tradition of the lyric and of the "poem with history" to explore complex social and aesthetic questions?

11) If a social collectivity of experimental artists and others interested in those experiments can have any effect on the social dynamics of the present moment, such effect must be active on the level of day-to-day, specific encounters between individuals, and must arise out of the perceived concerns of those individuals on a highly specific, day-to-day basis. Any attempt to impose a totalized collectivity is, I think, doomed to failure. I am reminded here of Gramsci's concept of "organic intellectuals," whose ideas and concerns arise from direct material contact with all the complexities of their environments. Such intellectuals form direct relations with others, out of which collectivity can perhaps emerge.

Although it seems to me that only large collectivities of such artists could help counteract their decreasing power to influence western culture, I am skeptical about the possible existence of many such collectivities, or of their ability to gain power. As a book like Guy Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (a later reflection on his well-known text of 1967) makes perfectly clear, optimism about the possibility of change may be a great mistake, may in fact even prohibit its successful realization, if it is not entirely prohibited already.

Yet I don't want my skepticism to stand in the way of achieving meaningful social collectivity, should it be possible. In a society in which useful discussion about the relation between individuals and groups almost never takes place, I'm willing to concede that my own thinking on this subject may not be sufficiently complex. In that insufficiency, refigurings of lyric address have allowed me a mode of writing through which to think towards significant contact with others. But at this point in time I, like many others perhaps, have little or no such contact.

12) Refigurings of the lyric mode have helped me write a "situationally specific" poetry, one that deals with material, interpersonal, political, detailed situations in as specific a manner as possible. This was one of the primary intentions of my books Complications From Standing In A Circle and Every Day Is Most of My Time. I wanted to write a poetry that was as materially specific, localized, and partial as I could. I am aware that there can be a huge gap between what one wants to write and what one writes.

13) My sense of lyric as partial, specific, situational, contingent and local in no sense suggests that I think of lyric as "local color", that is, as presenting a "slice of life" for audience satisfaction. Rather, it seems to me that in addressing, responding to, recognizing others in the most specific possible way, the refiguring of lyric I am suggesting presents a mode of world address that is potentially more useful than a more generalized, public address that speaks at (and therefore past) everyone. The sense of lyric I am suggesting here potentially provides direct and meaningful material contact much of the sort that William Carlos Williams was striving for when he began a magazine called Contact. The possibility of this contact, theorized in relation to Gramsci's concept of "organic intellectuals," is one aspect of the lyric mode that has a definite social and collective significance. Again, however, I can't avoid my skepticism about the extent of that significance.

14) According to many strict definitions of lyric poetry, I have, in fact, written very few lyric poems. In my work, languages of politics, technology, media deception and credentialed "expertise" frequently disrupt any attempt to narrowly define the subject matter or narrative voice of the "lyric poems" I have written. But even a lyric poem that fit past definitions of the lyric might be interesting, and I have written some such poems. I see no necessary opposition between the personal and the political, the confessional and the collective, the enacted and the theoretical. But I do see that overly narrow definitions of these possibilities dominate discussions of poetry at this particular time. I see more danger in overly narrow definitions of form and genre in poetry than I do in any form itself. Forms and genres are possibilities, and as such, it always remains to be seen what can be done with them.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990)

Rasula, Jed. The American Poetry Wax Museum (Albany: Refiguring English Studies Series, National Council of Teachers of English, 1996)

Retallack, Joan. Private Letter, November 1995.