Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 47, November 2014)

Hadara Bar-Nadav
The Post-Lyric Impulse: Appropriation and the Elegy

Lyric poets see my work as experimental; experimental poets see my work as lyric. I suppose my writing rests somewhere in between such grand sweeping categories—which include lyric, experimental, avant-garde, post-avant, hybrid, and elliptical poetry—depending on how these terms are defined. I can’t say I think much about these categories when I write, though I am intrigued by their varied definitions and how they are used. Marjorie Perloff’s article “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric” gave me the chance to reconsider these categories and their definitions. If I had to categorize my own poetry, I suppose I would call it “post-lyric.” The post-lyric is informed by or at least aware of the definitions of the lyric (and there are many, ranging from a poem that is musically-inclined to a poem that has one speaker, is personal in nature, and focuses on one often intense moment or narrative); seeks to explore, expand, and even explode such definitions; and enjoys the plurality and malleability of the lyric poem. Post-lyric reveals an interest in constructing a self that is aware of its construction, questions singularities and absolutes, and uses innovative techniques and forms. Such examples of post-lyric poetry can be seen in the writing of C.D. Wright, Claudia Rankine, Rachel Zucker, and Simone Muench, among others.

Perloff primarily focuses on appropriation as a way to revitalize the lyric, a technique I explored in my recent collection of poetry Lullaby (with Exit Sign). Like Perloff, I question the assumption of some critics that appropriation necessarily cancels out the “unique emotional input” associated with lyric poetry. Rather, post-lyric poetry combines a lyric impulse AND an innovative impulse. Feeling and experimentation can and do work together as highlighted in Perloff’s article, particularly in her treatment of the elegiac poetry of Susan Howe and Peter Gizzi. In my own writing, I have found that the elegy necessitates appropriation, that grief demands the company of other writers.

Lullaby (with Exit Sign) honors my father, who died in 2007, as well as more than sixty family members who perished in the Holocaust. My father’s death drove me to explore the very nature of the elegy as rite, memorial, mechanism for healing, and raw utterance. When writing these poems, I asked myself, what is the language of loss, its forms, silences, and sounds, and turned to poets working in the elegiac tradition, including Mary Jo Bang, Natasha Tretheway, and Emily Dickinson, who had been able to write through grief.

Most of the poems in Lullaby (with Exit Sign) are made up of “collaborations” with Dickinson. I borrowed phrases from her poems for my titles and then embedded a phrase from her poetry within my own poems. This method of appropriation not only helped me find a way to begin writing these elegiac poems, but helped me to continue. As I communed with Dickinson, with the dead, and with personal and public history, I hoped these poems would offer some comfort to readers, some vital communication whose very creation engaged, honored, and confronted death.

I should clarify that in the months following my father’s death, I was entirely unable to write. I had recently moved to Kansas City to begin a new teaching job, and my father’s death completely silenced me. Dickinson’s fearlessness in writing about death made me less afraid. Her poetry helped me realize that I didn’t need to run from the dead and that they would, in fact, help me. The dual exploration of emotional intensity combined with experimental techniques helped these poems come to life or, more accurately, to death.

In writing Lullaby (with Exit Sign)—a book I now claim as post-lyric—I was both reader and writer, both receiver and mouthpiece. The writer was many, and the reader was many (who read Dickinson and wrote Dickinson, who heard the voices of my ancestors in the mix of my own voice/voicelessness.) Perloff posits that Peter Gizzi’s recent elegiac collection Threshold Songs “avoids the unsayable by its appropriation of other voices.” In my own writing, I wasn’t necessarily avoiding the unsayable, but rather was using appropriation to help bring me back to language at all. Dickinson’s lines seemed to carry me, to hold me up and to hold the poem up, and served as generous company on the elegy’s devastating path.

In a recent interview “Poetry at the Threshold: Peter Gizzi on Lyric Selfhood and the Perils of Singing,” Gizzi states that for him “‘nothing’ is generative and opens up a dynamic space.” He continues, “I am forever fascinated by the space or threshold between seeing and feeling, knowing and not-knowing, and how the fact, and the affirmation, of not-knowing, call it doubt and discovery, can be generative . . . .” My own grief-stricken silence, my nothingness, opened up an unexpected collaboration with Dickinson. After months of not writing, I cobbled together one Dickinson-inspired poem (the opening poem of my collection, “Compose an Evening Sky”). Over the next few months, I wrote a few more of these poems, and then I had 20 and then 30 of them, and they kept coming. And these poems were terrible to write; they felt terrible to write. I was not enamored or charmed by them. Their strained music felt ripped through my teeth and was almost unrecognizable to me, strange and awe-filled. Appropriation was the only way for me to go there, to write and to continue writing and receiving.

I realize that appropriation is by no means a new technique, but it nevertheless has produced and continues to produce imaginative and exciting results. Consider the long line of artists invested in the playful remix of art, music, literature, and culture. Think of John Cage’s experiments with Finnegans Wake or Mary Ruefle’s charming erasures of a 19th century text in her book A Little White Shadow. Think of Warhol’s screen-prints of soup cans and car accidents. Think of Duchamp’s Fountain (a urinal), Trébuchet (a coat rack), or L.H.O.O.Q. (a painting that appropriates The Mona Lisa). Think of sampling songs in rap and hip hop, of Beethoven or Rachmaninoff being played time and time again, or the many covers of songs by Robert Johnson (isn’t this a kind of appropriation?). Simply stated: songs can be made from other songs, art can be made from other art, and poetry can be made from other poetry, and in doing so, can become something new.

When I sit down to write, I intuitively gather a dozen or more books around me, some by dead writers, some by living writers, and some by those in between. Right now, that list includes anything from poetry by Haryette Mullen and Cole Swensen, to letters by Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, to visual art by Francis Bacon. As I wrote Lullaby (with Exit Sign), Dickinson in particular kept me good company, but I hope that these and other writers and artists continue to keep me company for the rest of my life.

In his acceptance speech for The Georg Buchner Prize, Paul Celan insisted that the “poem wants to reach an Other, it needs this Other,” whom I would argue can include readers, the work of other writers and artists, and the voices of the dead (409). Post-lyric poetry admits such plurality by exploring the very boundaries of the lyric through the vigorous interrogation of language and rigorous play, without having to sacrifice tonal/emotional possibilities. Appropriation is only one among many techniques available for the post-lyric poem, which is, thankfully, free to borrow from whatever categories it needs to, to survive.

Works Cited

Bar-Nadav, Hadara. Lullaby (with Exit Sign). Philadelphia: Saturnalia Books, 2013. Print.

Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. John Felstiner. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

Gizzi, Peter. Threshold Songs. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2011. Print.

Gizzi, Peter. “Poetry at the Threshold: Peter Gizzi on Lyric Selfhood and the Perils of Singing.” Interviewed by Ben Lerner. The Poetry Foundation 15 March 2012. Web. 10 May 2012.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric.” Boston Review 18 May 2012. Web. 28 May 2012.