I have been like lyric.
—Lisa Robertson, R’s Boat
I like to write about celebrities because I am curious about resemblance, mashups, adaptations; I like poetry that capitalizes on our attachments to mass culture, taunts us for our desires in the way only lyric can do: by treating us with both disdain and affection.
Much has been said recently about the exemplarity of that word, lyric. We have considered the ways in which lyric’s conceptual flexibility can accommodate both the vague utopianism of poetry’s Otherness and poetry’s reactionary individualism—or, worse, an aloof formalism. The exemplarity of lyric becomes as shaky as its status as genre, form, mode, history.
But lyric also seems like something else. We haven’t been able adequately to historicize lyric, so we lean on its tendency toward resemblance, even as we point to its differences and variations and failures. I am thinking of the slippage between lyric as a noun and lyric as an adjective, a slippage we find also with poetry. Lyric as an epithet, too. That’s so lyric.
Given this messy morphology, is it even worth asking whether the lyric can ever be avant-garde?
I am more interested in a different genre: history. In 1923, Gertrude Stein wrote a piece titled “If I Told Him: a Completed Portrait of Picasso.” At the end, Stein’s “Portrait” splits into two sentences:
Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches. (193)
Stein invokes a specific discourse, history, said to be made up of facts, dates, concrete information, clarity, and conclusions—or so my students tell me when we reach the last lines of the “Portrait” in my classroom and I ask them to define ‘history.’ When I ask my students whether history is neutral, they tell me no; when I ask them how we know history is not neutral, they usually tell me it is because of the way it is written. History, they tell me, is filled with bias, error, and prejudice; we know history as much by its omissions as by what it includes. In Stein’s lines, history literally repeats itself, reproduces its own error-ridden discourse. My students usually point out that Stein’s history also seems to be empty—the lines I have quoted come after other lines that gesture to the form of history without including any content, such as these: “Now to date now to date. Now and now and date and the date.” Stein cites not the content of history but the structures of its temporality.
When students reflect on the way poetic language can offer this kind of critique in the materiality of its language, they begin to ask questions about how language shapes the teaching and learning practices in the very classrooms in which they sit. The text itself helps them do this. Of course the text comes to them mediated, through the page, through the sound file, through me and the power I have in the classroom, etc.: it may even be ‘lyricized’ at any of those points. And it manages to do a certain kind of cultural work whatever its mode of transmission.
This is a pedagogical example of how language gets used and what properties it might possess to do a certain kind of cultural work, how language can help readers change the way they encounter their world, how it can empower them to resist, for example.
But Joshua asked me to write primarily about poetry’s imperatives. Imperatives to me suggests that we are dealing with an assumption about poetry and progress. The history of post-genre writing is often depicted in terms of a progress narrative, whereas genre writing is a sort of backsliding; old-fashioned or reactionary, to use a word from earlier in this essay. Lyric as either progress or regression. That’s so lyric.
In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe takes up something she calls “ambiguous progress.” She suggests that Dickinson, the arguable forerunner of a twentieth-century lyric tradition as well as a protomodernist, struggled throughout her work to reckon with the forces of a literary inheritance that made it seem impossible to exist as a female poet. The critical commonplace about Dickinson’s terse, emblematic poem “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –” is that it serves as the defiant anthem of a frontier feminist subject who writes against her own object status. We tend to read the author of this poem as one who takes the tools of power into her own hands and reworks them for a new kind of poetic identity. Howe shows us that Dickinson’s poem actually depicts the way the forces of creative power and literary indebtedness split poetic speech. That speech cannot fully reconcile formal indebtedness with the impulse to break free of it. Dickinson’s poem actually expresses profound anxiety around poetic origins: it is a feminist poem deeply indebted to the literary and spiritual traditions whose “antique imagination” gave rise to a great ambiguity of progress.
This is the kind of ambiguity lyric is said to resemble. There is no subjective ‘break,’ only a gesture toward it, to cite and rework Adorno’s well-worn formulation. There is no natural ‘genre’ called lyric, only the inevitable crossing of genre, to recall Derrida. Resemblance is a kind of gesture toward what we think poetry might be capable of. Is there a genre called lyric, or is there not? Do certain poetries do a kind of sociopolitical work, or not? The problem of resemblance, however diaphanous, ambiguous, or ephemeral, will always hold more interest for me than these questions.
Adorno, Theodor W. “On Lyric Poetry and Society.” Notes to Literature. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. 37-54.
Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Acts of Literature. Translated by Avital Ronell. Edited by Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge, 1992. 223-52.
Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions, 2007.
Stein, Gertrude. “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso. Gertrude Stein: Selections. Edited by Joan Retallack. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 190-93.