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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Theories of Lyric

At last month’s MLA conference in Boston, Stephen Burt appeared on a panel convened by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, the editors of the forthcoming collection of essays, The Lyric Theory Reader, which also included Rob Kaufman and my wife, Ingrid Nelson. Burt opened the panel with a dazzling account of lyric that focused on its locodescriptive properties. The examples he cited were plentiful, indeed, encyclopedic, ranging from Whitman to Housman to Larkin, Olson to Pound and C.D. Wright, and delivered at a breathless, slightly manic pace that was rich with references, but somewhat short on argument.

Burt’s straightforward, not to say, reductive, thesis was that lyric arises from the specificity of place. Because I stand in this place here, and feel this feeling, I can connect myself imaginatively to someone else who may have felt the very same feeling here a hundred or a thousand years ago.

There’s something very appealing about this. It speaks to the very real power of lyric to save the person speaking from oblivion, as Allen Grossman might put it (and indeed, Burt nodded to him): to project a human voice across time and reach out to another through what is essentially the ability to imagine that other. Lyric, by this account, becomes a kind of empathy. It’s certainly why Catullus or Tu Fu still strike us as our contemporaries. As Pound put it, in 1912, “All ages are contemporaneous.” But to say so risks collapsing those ages into the present moment, flattening out significant differences. Benjamin warns against the narcotic of historicism, by which the present doesn’t actually see the past as something distinct, but reduces it to mere heritage, yoking it to its ideology.

Among his examples, Burt argued that “The Pisan Cantos” represented the summa of Pound’s poetry precisely because of how they draw on the locodescriptive. But while their pastoral power is considerable, as fine as anything EP ever wrote, they are not notably different from say, “Canto XX,” his extraordinary evocation of Provence as the earthly paradise, modeled after the closing sections of The Purgatorio.

But the real source of pathos in “The Pisan Cantos” comes from the way Pound moves back and forth in time, contrasting his current abject state of defiant, yet humbled, incarceration to his glory days in pre-war London. It is a measuring of things lost, and a life’s work misspent. Among other things, “The Pisan Cantos” lament the unfulfilled promise of modernism. They may be named for a place, but their affective power comes from analepsis and recollection. The flashbacks to London, to Ford and Lewis and Yeats, all offer images of the poet contemplating his past with regret and asking for a kind of forgiveness that is mingled with a bitter refusal to acknowledge his greatest error – supporting Fascism. "The Pisan Cantos" are prison poetry, written with the example of one of Pound's heroes, Villon, in mind. Their subject is time and its wreckage: "dove sta memoria" runs the recurring refrain -- where is memory to be found?

An account of lyric which hinges on the locodescriptive can’t be made apart from the temporal. For the real work of the locodescriptive is not only, I think, to provide the details of place in their granular specificity, but to make those details capable of traveling across time. The horizontal axis of place must intersect with the vertical axis of time. As Sharon Cameron observes in her book, Lyric Time, lyric is also a working through of time; poems can be considered events in time, both in the sense of the time it takes to read them, which in effect causes us to experience time differently, and in the sense that they play with temporal sequence within the line, the stanza, even, I’d say, the syllable. Lyric, Cameron writes, is what arises out of “a contradiction between social and personal time…the lyric both rejects the limitation of social and objective time, those strictures that must drive hard lines between past, present and future, and must make use of them.”

The locodescrpitive lyric is nothing without either an analeptic movement toward the past or a proleptic movement into the future. As Heidegger said of Dasein, lyric poems might be thought of as constituted by and through time. A lyric poem is a kind of time machine: it gives us a concentrated form through which we might experience time, both as duration and evanescence. This is how lyric rescues the speaking voice from oblivion.

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