'Telling the time'
Narrative and lyric in the poetry of Lawrence Joseph
Here is one version of Lawrence Joseph, an excerpt from the profile that appears on the St. John’s University School of Law website:
Joseph was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1948. His grandparents were Lebanese and Syrian Catholics, among the first Arab emigrants to Detroit. He was educated at the University of Michigan, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with High Honors in English Language and Literature in 1970, and received first prize in the major Hopwood Award for Poetry; Cambridge University, where he received both Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees with First Honors in English Language and Literature, in 1972 and 1976 respectively; and the University of Michigan Law School, where he received a JD in 1975. He then served as law clerk to Justice G. Mennen Williams of the Michigan Supreme Court. From 1978 to 1981, he was a member of the School of Law faculty at the University of Detroit. In 1981, he moved to New York City, where he was associated with the firm of Shearman & Sterling. At Shearman & Sterling, his practice included securities, bankruptcy, anti-trust, mergers and acquisitions, products liability, and real estate litigation. Joseph has published and has lectured extensively in areas of labor, employment, tort and compensation law, jurisprudence, law and literature, and legal theory. He has served as Consultant on Tort and Compensation Law for the Michigan State Senate’s Commission on Courts, and as Consultant for the Governor of Michigan’s Commission on Workers’ Compensation, Occupational Disease and Employment, and has received a grant from the Employment Standards Division of the United States Department of Labor to write on workers’ compensation.
And here is another biographical description of Lawrence Joseph, from the Academy of American Poets website:
Joseph was born in 1948 in Detroit, Michigan, and received his BA and JD from the University of Michigan. He also earned a BA and MA in English from Cambridge University. He is the author of the books of poems Into It (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Before Our Eyes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), Curriculum Vitae (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), and Shouting at No One (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983), which received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. He is also the author of Lawyerland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), a book of prose. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowships.
It’s not that we have portraits of two different men born in the same midwestern city in the same year. And admittedly I have taken excerpts from the two biographical sketches, although I have not misrepresented the relative longwindedness of the law school biographical sketch (four long paragraphs compared with the Academy of American Poets’ one brief paragraph). Yet although the first description does go on to mention the poetry books and prizes, while the second ends noting that Joseph teaches law, there are salient differences. Most obviously, St. John’s University is interested in letting its audience know which areas of law Joseph covers and touting his expertise and experience as a lawyer, while the Academy of American Poets is sending its readers to the literary Joseph, with less vested interest in promoting him as one of the Academy’s selling points. To use the vocabulary of literary critics, the story is the same (that is, the person, settings, and happenings) but the plots — the order in which the story is told or narrated, the representations of the story or, more simply, the narratives as well as the narrative discourse or the story-as-told — differ.
The literary vocabulary above is not uncontested, I would add, and almost all critics admit that to propose stories just exist in some way “out there” while stories-as-told are each constructed differently raises ontological, even metaphysical, problems. Even given the obviously different rhetorical ends for which the biographical notes with which I began were crafted, that is, leaving aside the question of audience, to assume the biographies tell the same story differently still raises the question of whether the “real” Lawrence Joseph is a transplanted midwestern American of Lebanese-Syrian descent who has done well both in his career (focused on labor, employment, tort and compensation law, jurisprudence, and legal theory) and in his literary avocation. Or is he a poet who — like most poets — has a day job? Or is there some other way of talking about the self that would, on one hand, allow for the fluidity of our and others’ construction of our selves without, on the other hand, denying that the stories, the facts, the dots we connect in order to construct narratives, do exist, often stubbornly and despite us as (to quote Wallace Stevens) “the gray particular[s] of [our] life”? While literary critics usually find most interesting what we come to know by looking at narrative discourses (what the speaker foregrounds or elides, the tacit implications of tropes or diction) rather than the ontological status of the stories behind narrated variants, the issues raised by narrative discourse are nonetheless ontological as well as epistemological; the very word “narrative” comes from the Latin gnārus (“knowing,” “expert,” “skillful”) and narrō (“relate,” “tell”) from the Sanskrit root gnâ (“know”), as Hayden White points out. In short, narratives always, if sometimes unwittingly, call into question both what we know and how we know it.
I dwell on the kinds of questions raised by the very mention of the word “narrative” in literary critical circles because ontological and epistemological questions inform Joseph’s poetry from the start, even as the poems become increasingly self-conscious about the ways in which the self exists precisely in narrative discourse (what Joseph later calls “the increasingly complicated ‘poetic space’ between ‘subject’ and ‘object’”) or the ways the self negotiates the stories of which it is part. Which pressures (personal, professional, poetic, and historical) form Joseph’s story, inform his questions, and shape the language in which he explores questions are what interest me here. Or, more precisely, the complexity of “the pressure of reality” (another Stevensian phrase) is what interests me, and — as I hope to indicate — what seems to be part of what interests Joseph in his poems, as well.
Surely shifts in legal theory inform Joseph’s developing poetics. However, despite the fact that this essay originally appeared in a law review, I am not here concerned with comparing literary and legal theories of narrative, even if it is worth noting that Joseph himself offered just such a comparison in his 1993 essay “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law.” Still, what I want to discuss here is how the ways in which people were able to talk about “what is” shifted over the course of Joseph’s literary career to date. In particular, it is significant that Joseph’s first two books — Shouting at No One (1983) and Curriculum Vitae (1988) — appeared in the 1980s, when in the world of American poetry at least three theories about poetry’s task and about poetic language competed for poets’ attention. In other words, not only would Joseph’s professional c.v. have been different in 1983 and 1988 — the poems that appear in his first volume were written while Joseph was in law school and first entering the legal profession, while the poems in his second volume were largely written after he moved to New York City, first as a practicing lawyer and then as a teacher of law — but expectations about how poetry should sound and what it might hope to accomplish were at the time in flux and in contention. This would have been especially obvious to someone whose poetry was first published, as Joseph’s was, by the University of Pittsburgh Press, known in the 1980s for its championing of lyric poetry and especially of so-called poetries of witness, or testimonial poetry, which is to say poetry grounded in or representing the gritty experience of the less privileged, responding to calls heard more broadly in the academy as well as in poetry circles for previously underrepresented voices to be published, anthologized, and taught. Certainly to write the kind of poems Joseph wrote in the 1980s was to take a certain position on how poetic language should work as well as on what it should talk about.
Some background, then, on the literary battles of the late 1970s and the 1980s is useful here, before looking more closely at the work in Shouting at No One and Curriculum Vitae. There was in the period what many (some with praise and some with dismay) called a “mainstream” lyric style, sometimes called the style of the “scenic” lyric, meaning descriptive poems that become occasions for crafting intense, emotionally charged scenes or that aim at the effect of intensity. Richard Wilbur’s “Poetry and Happiness,” for example, remarks on poetry’s origin in the need for “deliberate human meaning,” and sees in poetry “a longing to possess the whole world, and … to feel it,” “to produce models of inclusive reaction,” and, at the same time, to offer a “discovery and projection of the self,” linking all of these impulses centrally to description and further linking descriptive power to a quest for “conversancy or congruence between self and world.” Wilbur goes on to address that which he thinks poetry arises from and nourishes in its readers, namely “a vital sense of community” and a “model of felt experience.” Between the mid-sixties and the mid-to-late eighties, Wilbur’s poetics (like the style of many of his poems, also closely allied with the scenic lyric) would hardly have surprised readers attuned to expressive theories of poetry in confessional verse, American versions of surrealism, or so-called deep image poetry, represented variously, along with Wilbur’s ideas about poetry, in Donald Hall’s anthology of essays on poetics, entitled Claims for Poetry, by writers such as Sandra Gilbert, Richard Hugo, W. S. Merwin, and Charles Simic.
On the other hand, Ron Silliman’s seminal piece “The New Sentence” — despite that fact that a shortened version of the 1979 essay is included in Hall’s collection and despite Silliman’s genealogical claims, looking back to the writings of William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein among others — sounded new in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At first blush, “The New Sentence” seems simply to dismiss Wilbur’s poetics, questioning the idea of selves, of reference, and of ordinary procedures for constructing human meaning, arguing for the “limiting of syllogistic movement [and for writing that] keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below”; Silliman thus promotes the ways in which what is now called Language poetry resists — even as it calls attention to — more typical or less self-conscious forms of reading that involve “linguistic integration.” Yet Silliman also insists on the ways the poetry he admires can “suggest the internal [i.e., syntactical] presence of once exteriorized poetic forms” and “incorporate [while defamiliarizing; Silliman might add rematerializing by recontextualizing] “ordinary sentences of the material world.” There are also implicit truth claims made about Language poetry’s representational power, however stylistically unconventional; of Stein’s “Custard,” for example, Silliman writes: “The portrait of custard is marvelously accurate.” This is in part a joke, since custard is a perfect emblem of instability, despite Silliman’s skepticism about language as stable or referential. It is also in part an act of defamiliarization, since the literary style of Stein’s portraits is not what we think of as representational. Yet the claim to “accuracy” remains. Finally, too, Silliman’s essay focuses on “the collective work and interinfluence” of his poetic community’s endeavor, which, he implies, thus connects writers with one another, while the community’s “new sentences” are meant to refashion readers’ awareness not so much of the languages of the everyday world but of how reading normally moves from language (or away from language) to integrative meaning.
The above précis flatten Wilbur’s and Silliman’s poetics in some ways while, I hope, still making clear that Wilbur and Silliman have quite different responses to “integration” or “congruence” or “feeling” in or as the goal of poetry. Most distinctively, perhaps, in opposition to Wilbur’s emphasis on feeling (or “felt experience”), Silliman replaces the rhetoric of feeling or emotion with that of “ambiguity and polysemy,” features of language, or of the interaction of language and reader, not of individual subjective states. At the same time, both Wilbur and Silliman focus on the tendency to move toward integration or meaning, especially while reading or writing poetry, even if the former wants to celebrate and the latter to resist this tendency. Further, although Wilbur proposes a range of projects for poetry (from praise of the outside world to self-discovery) and Silliman focuses how language is processed by readers, a more overtly interactive image of the relationship between worlds and selves, both see the border between worlds and selves as poetry’s territory (even if speaking of “world” and “self” introduces a vocabulary Silliman’s early writings eschew). Indeed, Silliman’s “world” — that with which poetry connects a reader — is first linguistic, not that toward which language might be understood to gesture. Nor is Silliman’s “self” Wilbur’s, but closer to what Jed Rasula — also associated with Language poetry — describes when he writes that “subjectivity is simply the most acutely engineered of … our technologies.” Still, even Rasula’s use of the personal pronoun (“our”) and his assumptions about the political work done by Language poetry, as that which unmasks the internalized operations of late capitalism, make claims about how agency and truth-telling are central to poetry, claims — unlike the poetic style promoted by Silliman and Rasula — with which Wilbur would not wholly disagree.
There were other positions about what good poetry should do and sound like staked out in the eighties, schools that saw themselves opposed to both Language poetry and to at least some scenic lyric. For my purposes here, the most interesting was the short-lived (or at least short-lived theorization of the) school of so-called New Narrative poetry, related to New Formalist poetry, and featured in Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell’s journal The Reaper (published from 1981 to 1989), which resisted what was seen as the “navel-gazing” of free verse scenic lyrics and promoted images used in service of what Jarman at the time thought of as more accessible or populist poetry, poetry that could memorably tell stories (by which Jarman and his coeditors meant that poems could and should capture their readers’ attention by paying more attention to characters and story than to narration). The exchanges between proponents of these different schools tended to be acrimonious. Still, looking at the ways in which Jarman, Wilbur, and Silliman or Rasula locate poetic power actually underlines how their claims are not only that poetry concerns “what is” (aiming at some form of “accuracy” or truth telling) but also that “what is” finally involves the meeting of what might be called an agent with a world (social, linguistic, or material), a meeting arrived at — or described — in terms of feeling or seeing, even if seeing, in Silliman’s case, is most often related to seeing through the usual ways in which we represent inner and outer worlds.
So what has the above to do with the poetry of Lawrence Joseph? I began with two portraits of Joseph in order to talk about literary definitions of story and narrative, as well as to discuss how these definitions raise ontological and epistemological questions. I then turned to a different genre, poetry rather than biographical sketches. I noted, first, that rhetorical style in poetry comes with its own entailments insofar as poets and poetry readers explicitly attribute different kinds of significance to different poetic styles. While I also argued that there was some perhaps surprising agreement among poets about the ends of poetry, it is also almost certainly true that most of those on whose essays I have drawn would not accept my sense that they agree with one another. And they certainly did not in the 1980s agree on how poetry should work or sound, even if they all assume that poetry is a site for negotiating between individual selves (however the self is defined) and some outside world (however that world is defined). In short, I proposed that there seems to have been agreement about what poetry is for, namely to negotiate — or model the negotiation — between individual subjects and the world in a way that centrally involves feeling or insight. At the same time, textual practices distinguish different types of poetry, and — although these different practices may move different communities of readers in similar ways — the style of poems matters. Finally, I offered the above short digression on American poetry in the 1980s in order to show that the way in which style matters is culturally defined, shifting over time as well as over cultures. So, to read Shouting at No One and Curriculum Vitae as they were first read requires knowing that both volumes would have been seen by their first readers as forms of scenic lyric and as involved with the identity politics of the period, and that Joseph would have known this.
I will concentrate here on the first volume, not because Joseph’s first two books are indistinguishable but because it is the book that first set readers’ expectations about the kind of poetry he wrote and because both of the first two books were written and circulated in roughly the same literary world. The poems in Shouting at No One most obviously root themselves in Detroit, with references to factory work, to class and racial divides, and to the Detroit riots. We are invited to read the poems as at least quasi-autobiographical, despite the fact that the first person is not always used. Still, the very first poem of the volume, “Then,” tells the story of Joseph Joseph fleeing Joseph’s Food Market while “fire was eating half / Detroit” (7). The story told (or as told) is not simply that of Joseph Joseph, however, nor of his father, who is also described. It is more broadly a poem about the breakdown of civic order in Detroit. “Had you been there,” the poem says, “[y]ou would simply have shaken your head / at the tenement named ‘Barbara’ in flames / or the Guardsman with an M-16 / looking in the window of Dave’s Playboy Barbershop” (7). Including sites from “Dave’s” to “Van Dyke Avenue” or “UAW Local 89” (in “Driving Again,” 9) to “the 7-Up Cadillac Bar” (“I Had No More To Say,” 11), the poems consistently mention the particulars of working-class or lower-middle-class life in a working- or lower-middle-class city. On first reading, then, the details establish the poems’ ability to bear witness to the broken lives and the broken city, as well as proposing a connection between lives and places.
How to bear witness is a question that is not explicitly raised, but it is a question that the poems might lead us to ask, especially in light of the above-mentioned arguments in national literary circles about poetic style and about what might count as “accuracy” when it comes to language or to representing worlds and people. For example, the narrator tacitly provides us with one of his purposes in “It Will Rain All Day,” which asks:
do I want, driving through streets
past bars where fifty-year-old
truck drivers sip whiskey
and don’t feel like talking,
past houses where chimney smoke
reveals fires and rooms I will
never know? (17)
The narrator in the passage above explicitly says there is some knowledge about others — other lives or ways of living — he does not have. At the same time, he knowingly states the age of the truck drivers in their cups, and he knows how they feel (they “don’t feel like talking”). While the latter gesture both shows the narrator’s empathy and draws us in precisely by not claiming to know everything, one can still say that the truckers essentially serve as telling details just as the various named Detroit bars, factories, and streets do. There is a larger cast of characters in Shouting at No One: not just truckers or Joseph Joseph or immigrant memories of Lebanon (see “The Phoenix Has Come to a Mountain in Lebanon,” 25–29) — details that we are again invited to associate with Joseph’s personal history — but others like “Thigpen” (15), “Lopez” (21), “Louie, Son of Hanna Francis” (31), “Youmna” (33), and “Khatchig Gaboudabian” (36) are named. Again, this is a form of testimony, yet at the same time we, like the narrator in “It Will Rain All Day,” encounter the marginalized people of Detroit as part of the urban environment’s resistance to meaning, part of what we “will / never know.” Indeed, “It Will Rain All Day” ends:
I want to look
into the black eyes of the lone woman
waiting for a bus and say
something. I want my memory
to hold this air, so I can make
the hills with white hair
and the clouds breaking into blackness
my own, carry them with me
like the letters and icons
immigrants take in suitcases
to strange countries. (18)
The narrator here gives voice to one of the book’s desires (and that it is described as a desire suggests it is unfulfilled), namely the desire to look others in the eye, to be able to speak to as well as about others (“to say / something” instead of, as the title poem has it, “shouting at no one” ) and to lodge what is witnessed in the speaker’s and the reader’s memories. That is, in effect, the speaker’s feelings not only testify to his response to urban blight, but also are offered to the reader, feelings that range from rage (the first poem ends with a “voice howling” ; see also “Not Yet” ) to despair — a fog erasing the details witnessed “says, / Who will save / Detroit now?” (33), as if bearing witness could be a form of salvation — to hatred and fear. In “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much,” the narrator says: “I was a system of laws / I hated, a boy / afraid of burning / in a city that was burning” (47), presumably drawing on Joseph’s own Catholic upbringing but also referring to the various codes — religious, civic, and legal (if not yet explicitly stylistic or linguistic) — that seem to do no good.
The book’s poems, however, do tacitly propose to do some good precisely by bearing witness to both the speaker’s inner “burning” and to Detroit’s other burnt-out citizens, and in calling attention to what has set these fires burning. The poetics, further, are closely tied to the way visual images and local details are used, familiar from the work of other poets like the early poems of Galway Kinnell (for example in The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World) or of James Wright, as well as of Philip Levine, another poet whose work is commonly identified with Detroit. As an example, let me take one of Levine’s best known poems, “You Can Have It,” which chronicles the speaker’s brother, age twenty in 1948, home after a late shift at an ice plant with “hands / yellowed and cracked” and “crusted with dirt / and sweat” (64). Following his references to Detroit as a (Ford) company town, and to idiomatic speech (the title draws on the brother’s verdict on his life), toward the end of Levine’s poem he offers images that — like the images of hills and clouds and the simile comparing a sense of having a place to other more physical signs of personal contact like icons or letters at the end of Joseph’s “It Will Rain All Day” — give us a moment of urban pastoral:
The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,
and that grass died. (65)
With a nod to Whitman’s leaves of grass (as well as to Wordsworth’s London seen from Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802), Levine’s transparent speaker most obviously stands in for a larger sociopolitical class. Still, Levine’s snow and ice, his stagnant pools, gutters, cracked pavement, and dead grass, are offered as images of themselves, as metonymic. If the “gutter” and the “cracks” tempt us to more metaphorical articulations — these are the lives of people who have fallen through the cracks or into the gutter — the sheer amount of detail allows readers only a momentary glimpse of a symbolic register. To draw for a moment on psycholinguistics, at the stanza break we perform a “breadth-first search” (gathering the ways in which ice and sun, a sleeping city, a river, and “bright grass” might invoke Wordsworth’s London all “bright and glittering,” its “river glid[ing],” and its “very houses seem[ing] asleep” or Williams’s frozen dirt and grass in poems like the 1930 “The Flower” or, again, Whitman’s leaves of grass) before the syntax pushes us on to a “depth-first search” that “gambles … about the alternative most likely to be true.” Poems like Levine’s (perhaps all poems) depend on the fact that some of the alternatives ruled out will nonetheless resonate in a reader’s consciousness. But finally Levine’s gutters and cracks are from Detroit, not from Williams or Whitman or Wordsworth, although the way in which such details are used is drawn from earlier poets, especially when the idiomatic American expression — the working-class voice and gesture — of the title are taken into consideration. That is, Levine’s language is identifiably poetic language in large part because it sounds (and works) like the language in other poems (in Levine’s case, especially Williams’s language), including the ways in which it both flirts with and resists certain modes of symbolic identification. Many of the details in Joseph’s early poems, like “the barbed wire, rusting / scraps, stacks / and stacks of pallets” (from “Fog,” 33), work similarly.
More importantly, what is at stake in the style of such lyrics is the tacit claim that the poem can make its audience feel how the aesthetic and the social complement (or perhaps voice) one another. To quote Robert Kaufman, left critiques of less accessible poetry tend to rest on “an essentially Enlightenment and progressive notion that useful presentations of social, political, historical, and cultural reality should be offered in as clear and communicable a manner as possible — so that the greatest possible number of people can share in such knowledge (and so that they can, should they so decide, attempt to use that knowledge to change the world).” In part, the poems in Shouting at No One fulfill such calls for clear, accessible presentations with the further hope that readers share the feeling of the speaker, that they, like the speaker, feel angry about how the city offers its citizens no redemption outside of places like the “Resurrection Lounge” (“Do What You Can,” 57), with the corollary that they feel themselves able to act on their felt knowledge. There is, however, also another way of reading the poems, as attempts to restore passions deflected or repressed. On this reading, we, as readers, eavesdrop on a more intimate conversation, although presumably with similar results for us, namely that through an act of compassion we feel with the dramatized speaker for the disenfranchised, including at times the speaker himself, made human and humanly engaging in the poems. Like the style and the poetics, the ideological underpinnings, or hopes, of these poems are that the aesthetic and the process of writing can open a new subject position for both writer and reader. Such hopes about what poems can do are perhaps most succinctly stated in a passage from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” where William Carlos Williams insists: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
When Curriculum Vitae appeared in 1988, it seemed to operate similarly, although, as the first poem of the volume makes explicit, the primary setting changed to “New York City, / during the nineteen eighties” (66). Cambridge, London, and (again) Detroit also appear in some of the poems. The sense of personal, scenic lyric still remains, however. The title poem opens, “I might have born in Beirut, / not Detroit” (69) and continues on to say “I remain many different people / whose families populate half Detroit” (70); “In This Time” returns not only to Detroit but to Catholic school Latin lessons (84) while issues of race, class, and personal identity circulate even more explicitly through lyrics like “Sand Nigger” (90–92). “Let Us Pray” begins, starkly, “My name is Lawrence Joseph” (108). At the same time, the world of Curriculum Vitae is larger than that of Shouting at No One, not simply because of the multiple settings but because there are more references both to what might be called the national news — interest rates, war, television broadcasts, bits of overheard speech — and to what might be called an interior life, that is, among other things, to books and authors, such as Céline (97), Simone Weil (100), Saint Augustine (102), and Baudelaire (107). Whereas the focus and language of Shouting at No One appear bound to the poet’s Detroit, Curriculum Vitae, at least tacitly, seems both to align itself with issues we would now say are issues of identity politics in the style of the scenic lyric and, at the same time, to question that alignment. Or at least this is the effect when we return to the quotation from Wallace Stevens that prefaces the volume: “Both in nature and in metaphor identity is the vanishing-point of resemblance.” Stevens did not quite mean by “identity” what we might mean by talking about personal or ethnic identity. His is a more metaphysical claim, among other things about the differences between things and things as seen, like the difference between story and narrative, which Stevens saw as opening a gap that sparked the imagination and so poetry. Joseph’s knowing adaptation of Stevens’s aphorism is itself an example of Stevens’s point, which is to say it opens a gap between what Stevens presumably meant and the connotations brought to mind by the use of the word “identity” in the US in 1988, when the book appeared. The poems, the style of the poems in the late eighties, and the very title of the volume first focus us on the problem of defining a social or personal self, but they also show us a world where one’s past and one’s social identities (as Lebanese-American, as lawyer, as formerly lower-middle-class) do not seem easily summed up; the book thus questions the way biographical sketches or curriculum vitae seem to freeze and so misrepresent selves that are not captured by bare or static lists of facts. These poems do still present themselves as a form of bearing witness, but with an increasing emphasis on the ways world and narrator are in flux in themselves as well as in relationship to one another. In other words, the pressures of reality and the language of individuals pressing back are not represented as unchanging.
In the nineties, moreover, things again changed in the world of poetry as in the actual world. Ideas about the fluidity of the self and styles seen to acknowledge that fluidity were suddenly everywhere. In 1998 and 1999, Stephen Burt was asked to introduce recent American poets to British readers and challenged “to invent a school”; half tongue-in-cheek, he introduced the term “Elliptical poets” to characterize younger American poets. On Burt’s account, Elliptical poets are those centrally concerned with questions of epistemology and language, who avoid straightforward narratives or confessional lyrics, and yet who use Language writing of the sort Silliman champions, or at least “a ‘Stein tradition’ of dissolve and fracture,” as a resource, rather than to bolster or embody a theoretical position. When Burt’s essay “The Elliptical Poets” first appeared, it circulated widely not so much because it announced a new school (despite the question under the title of the article on the journal’s cover, “new school or new spin?”) but because it seemed to affirm what most readers of journals featuring American poetry in the nineties already heard: a shift in younger poets’ practices, which no longer were informed by (even if many were aware of) the more theoretically driven battles over poetry in the eighties between New Narrative, New Formalist, Language, and so-called mainstream poets. If, then, Joseph’s third book, Before Our Eyes — published early in the decade — sounds a bit different, one might speculate that he was not only developing his thinking about the questions of self and identity first framed in his earlier volumes but also well aware of the new options abroad for what poetry raising such questions might sound like.
An interest in language per se and an awareness of debates about the significance of poetic style clearly surfaces in Before Our Eyes. The first poem, also the title poem, is in conversation with then-current theories about poetry. Before Our Eyes opens with a striking visual description of sky and weather and the look of a landscape, including the “pink flesh” of fish in a fish shop, but then turns explicitly to talk about both social and poetic linguistic codes:
The point is to bring
depths to the surface, to elevate
sensuous experience into speech
and the social contract. …
By written I mean made, by made I mean felt;
So you will be, perhaps appropriately,
dismissed for it, a morality of seeing[.] (125)
In this passage, what is “before our eyes” as readers is speech, which we are told is itself sensuous: felt and constructed. As “Admissions Against Interest” puts it, the narrator of these poems is “late at [his] singing, / too much to the point, but now [he’s] seeing / words are talk and words themselves / forms of feeling” (134). That is, the words of the poems no longer simply focus us on description or use telling details as they were used in the first two volumes. We have, at least as often, details about the act of telling. On the one hand, this is no surprise. Before Our Eyes appeared in the nineties; it was not a University of Pittsburgh publication but from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York; and it addressed readers whose ears were by then attuned to what Burt later called poems centrally concerned with questions of epistemology and theories of language. On the other hand, the book neither gives up on subjectivity (in the sense of representing interiority) nor abandons the suggestion that however difficult to represent or malleable they might be, there are both social and physical worlds with which subjects interact and by which they are formed even as they reform what is seen in language. As Joseph puts it in “In a Fit of My Own Vividness”: “It’s hard to throw off what you’re subject to” (157), presumably including both the sense that there is a world that impinges on you and the sense that you are a subject. Importantly, this is not the left-leaning Enlightenment view, with its prescribed style seen by Kaufman to inform scenic lyrics. As Joseph writes in “Movement in the Distance Is Larger Up Close”: “Enlightenment? I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours” (173). But it is not quite Language poetry, either. It is “too much to the point.” Nor is it Burt’s Elliptical poetry (which Craig Arnold cuttingly characterizes as “Language-Lite”) insofar as it is committed to representation and to skepticism — and to thinking about both commitments. The poems say that “[t]hat language doesn’t work / anymore, its century is over,” that “[o]nly money / and credit move around, part of the future,” and that if money is what counts, poetry may not: “never expect to make hard cash from a poem” (“Just That,” 169). Yet the poems nonetheless press back against such skepticism with their insistence on “the morality of seeing” and their refusal to deny that there are moments when self, world, and language seem (even for skeptics) to converge.
It is not skepticism alone but a “violence without” — Stevens’s phrase — against which the poems found in Joseph’s fourth book of poetry, Into It, most clearly “press back.” At the same time, pressing back against the world’s political and socioeconomic violence after 9/11 increases the worry heard in Before Our Eyes that conditions do not seem auspicious for poetry:
I am constantly aware of,
in making the poem, Brecht’s point, to write about trees —
implicitly, too, to write about pleasure —
in times of killing like these is a crime;
and Paul Celan’s response, that for Brecht a leaf
is a leaf without a tree, that what kinds of times
are these when a conversation — Celan believed a poem
is a conversation — what kinds of times are these
when a poem is a crime because it includes
what must be made explicit.
What is seen, heard, and imagined
at the same time — that truth. (“Inclined to Speak,” 12)
Joseph’s syntax in this passage presents the poem itself as a conversation, or as conversational, not as descriptive per se, although there is also a distant echo of Pound’s definition of the image (“that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”). More explicitly, pleasure (tacitly, beauty as well) is offered as what the times may need and even, insofar as what is “seen, heard, and imagined” is what is truly known, as a form of truth. Yet the violence of the times does not disappear from view or from consideration in these poems, by any means. In the title poem that opens the volume, “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In,” a woman’s voice, in Williamsesque plain speech, asks why “the weight of violence / is unparalleled in the history / of the species” (4), even as the next poem, “When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” counters: “So what else is new? … Nothing but the same resistance / since the time of the Gracchi” (6).
Indeed, the epigraph to Into It comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “give me the voice / To tell the shifting story.” Joseph thus focuses on what could already be heard in Before Our Eyes, namely a metadiscourse on image and narrative in poetry, even as the poems themselves do sing, do remain lyrical. More precisely, although Into It still uses and is still concerned with image (“clear, painted language”) and with those “places where the narratives began … there, / too, in the rain” (“The Bronze-Green Gold-Green Foreground,” 9), the poems are as focused on voice — offering a kind of rigorous meditation on history and the self’s ability to thrive — as on image or on story or storytelling.
At the same time, throughout the book, there remains a self-consciousness about how, more specifically and more contemporaneously, the stories-as-told of Americans with Arab backgrounds (like Joseph) shifted and are still shifting after 9/11. As “The Pattern-Parallel Map or Graph” — a poem that opens with images of detritus on Canal Street, but also includes Apuleius’s story of Eros and Psyche and cites Stevens’s commonplace book on necessity or fate — puts it, the poems attempt:
a linear polyphony forming harmonies in strange
developments. All kinds of different stuff, mixed
and fused, is where it’s at, chunks of vibrato …
Simultaneity requires the use of a topological
The “stuff” in question is not simply the aftermath of the World Trade Center’s collapse or the “strange / harmonies” of New York after 9/11, Apuleius, and Stevens. It is also the stuff of language, of the languages with which we position ourselves in the world. Throughout the volume, the voice of Into It tries on a series of personal, public, and literary languages, from the caustically dismissed “turgid language / of pseudoerudition (thugs, / … false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks / who think not at all about what they bring down)” (“When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” 6–7) to the descriptive language that paints urban beauty closely observed in a Precisionist manner — “half dark blue moon, half copper, / black stripes across it, above a round / neon clock next to the red and white / billboard in the shape of a toothpaste box” (“August Abstract,” 22) to the plain diction and largely end-stopped lines of Wordsworthian, Levine-like memory or testimony, reminiscent of Joseph’s earlier poetry:
My father? — my father was a worker. I can still hear him
getting up in the morning to go to work.
Sadness, too, has to be learned,
and it took my father time to learn it[.] (“Why Not Say What Happens?,” 29)
As Joseph writes in “Woodward Avenue”:
Like the man said. So many selves —
the one who detects the sound of a voice,
that voice — the voice that compounds
his voice — that self obedient to that fate,
increased, enlarged, transparent, changing. (18)
The self and its languages may be constantly changing in a changing and fractured world, the fractures by 2005 a matter not just of ontological or epistemological doubt but of historical fact. Finally, it is unclear whether the angle of vision in such a world determines truth or whether “[t]ruth determine[s] alchemies of light” (22). That is, as the question is posed in “Unyieldingly Present,” which speaks of those who fell from the twin towers: “Is it that reality, disjointed, / cannot be discerned, or that consciousness, / disjointed, cannot discern it?” (36). Joseph’s project is thus not just to write a poetry of “light and sorrow and dream … / [and] discourse” (50), all in flux — although it is that. What Joseph seems also to want to see “into” are the workings of the public and historical realm, even if (in an echo of Baudelaire’s or Eliot’s “unreal city”) he writes that it is “unreal, the extent to which / all political discourse is the same. Legal relations / arising out of economic relations — Engels, isn’t it?” (60). Engels appears not to explain but to show the poet trying on languages that might seem more real, more explanatory, only to conclude that “the era of after, or postmodernism — has proven / more difficult to configure” (“History For Another Time,” 60). The attempt to forge a poetry that can simultaneously think about and resist that unreality is most clearly framed in the poem that returns us to the epigraph from Ovid, “Metamorphoses (After Ovid)”:
Sometimes I feel a little dizzy, even
structurally unstable. The world once more
the means by which the meek are to be
brought to their knees, Not the poet
shifting simplicities, shifting the props. (52)
And yet, Joseph adds, “I compose as I feel” (52). In other words, these poems record the work of connecting the self to the world (both moving targets) feelingly. For Joseph in this book, as opposed to the testimonials of his earlier books, the “code changed” (9) and (in the penultimate poem) “The Game Changed.” The stakes seem to have been raised by such changes:
The intent is to make a large, serious
portrait of my time. The sun on the market
near Bowling Green, something red, something
purple, bunches of roses and lilacs. A local
issue for those of us in the neighborhood.
Not to know what it is you’re breathing
in a week when Black Hawk helicopters resume
patrolling the harbor.
Neither impenetrable opacity
nor absolute transparency. I know what I’m after.
A continuity in which everything is transition.
To repeat it because it’s worth repeating. Immanence —
an immanence and a happiness. (64–65)
The pun in “I know what I’m after” is telling; that is, Joseph writes after modernism, after 9/11, but also knows what he wants, which might be characterized as the contemporary equivalent of what Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” calls for in modern poetry: “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” “It Must Give Pleasure.” The immanence to which Into It keeps alluding seems to be the merging of the eye and ear and feeling mind with the realities, the stories, that have escaped public and political discourse. One suspects this quest for a poetic world and language sufficient to resist or press back against the pressures of the times informs the persistent use of the deictic in these poems, as in the final poem, “Once Again,” which points us to “the sky / a current carrying us along, / heavy with that green and that black” (66, emphasis added).
Although Joseph does not mention Adorno’s skepticism about whether after Auschwitz — now, we might add, after 9/11 or postmodernism — lyric poetry can be written, he tacitly suggests a response to that skepticism, tracing how in the world of violence and (to use his post-Yeatsian term) disjointedness, poetry must be written to salvage an economy of feeling and reflection, one that can be set against larger intractable, inhuman, forces. In “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law,” Joseph wrote that the “modernist self is partly constituted by language. Subjectivity does not exist on the surface of mirror-like language, but in the recesses of meaning expressed by new forms.” In light of his renewal of received styles in Into It, one might say that Joseph’s work is “after modernism,” which is not the same as being postmodern; the act of constructing the self (not the self or world narratively constructed or deconstructed and not self or world lyrically staged) is what the poems feature. As he puts it in the previously quoted passage from “The Game Changed”: “The intent is to make a large, serious / portrait of my time. The sun on the market”; this is a new, more self-conscious version of Adorno’s claim, from which I take the title of this essay, that lyric poems are “philosophical sundial[s] telling the time of history,” precisely by letting us read the shifting shadows cast by the pressures of reality. In Joseph’s poem, we read the act of reading, as well.
4. Indeed, the “what” and the “how” — “how to tell what one has to tell” — forms Gertrude Stein’s definition of “narration,” quoted by Lawrence Joseph as the second of his “Working Rules for Lawyerland” in the Columbia Law Review, vol. 101 (November 2, 2001): 1793.
7. The description of the circumstances under which the poems in Joseph’s first two volumes were written is taken from David A. Skeel Jr., “Practicing Poetry, Teaching Law,” Michigan Law Review 29, no. 6 (May 1994): 1755–56.
9. Richard Wilbur, “Poetry and Happiness,” in Claims For Poetry, ed. Donald Hall (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982), 470–71, 476, 480. Although Wilbur’s essay was written in 1966, it nicely encapsulates assumptions informing what was celebrated or deplored as “mainstream poetry” through at least the 1980s.
12. Ibid., 394, 396. Those associated with this school would include Clark Coolidge, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, and Charles Bernstein, who coedited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (published from 1978 to 1981 and collected by 1984 in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, in which a longer version of Silliman’s essay “The New Sentence” appeared).
13. Silliman, “The New Sentence,” 391. Stein’s portrait of custard — from Tender Buttons and quoted by Silliman on page 390 of “The New Sentence” — reads in its entirety as follows: “Custard is this. It has aches, aches when. Not to be. Not to be narrowly. This makes a whole little hill. It is better than a little thing that has mellow real mellow. It is better than lakes whole lakes, it is better than seeding.”
17. See D. G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996), 163. See also Vernon Shetley’s trenchant analysis of the most audible debates of the eighties in After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), especially 19–20, 26–29, and the concluding chapters.
18. Shouting at No One appeared in 1983 from the University of Pittsburgh Press; it is reprinted in Lawrence Joseph, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). Although, as I have noted, publication in the eighties by the University of Pittsburgh Press would have called forth different expectations from readers than would publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2005, citations are from the latter, more readily available volume.
19. “You Can Have It” was first published in Antaeus 30, no. 3 (1978): 113–14, and collected in the 1979 7 Years from Somewhere (New York: Atheneum), 64–65, from which I quote here. It also appears in the fourth edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy (New York: Norton, 1996), 1650–51.
21. See Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995). Pinker’s work was first brought to my attention by Ellen Bryant Voight, The Flexible Lyric (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 123, from which I quote. William Wordsworth’s lines come from “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”; William Carlos Williams’s “The Flower” appears in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, vol. 1, ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986), 322–25. The reference is to lines 11–22 of “The Flower.”
22. Robert Kaufman, “Sociopolitical (i.e. Romantic) Difficulty in Modern Poetry and Aesthetics,” Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (June 2003), Romantic Praxis Series, ed. Orrin Wang, para. 6.
26. I am not, I would add, suggesting that Joseph was specifically influenced by particular writers in the nineties. Rather, I’m suggesting that he knew his readers could hear what Burt calls a style of Steinian (for Joseph this would also be Stevensian) “dissolve and fracture” without immediately hearing the kinds of theoretical assumptions, including challenges to the very idea of subjectivity or feeling, with which such a style had earlier been associated. At the same time, it seems clear that the changes I find in the style of the poems in Before Our Eyes owe something to Joseph’s reading of John Ashbery’s poetry. He describes reading Ashbery’s poems in a 1992 review as follows: reading Ashbery is “like listening to an intriguing conversation, or returning to a piece of music whose powers you’re convinced of, to listen to parts of it, or the whole in relation to the parts — like focusing, for example, on the interstices between abstraction and figuration in a Modernist painting.” See Joseph, “The Real Thing,” The Nation 254, no. 15 (April 20, 1992): 531.
29. Lawrence Joseph, Into It (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). All quotations are from this edition. The discussion of Into It that follows draws on Lisa M. Steinman, “So What Is Poetry Good For?,” Michigan Quarterly Review 45, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 544–59.
31. Baudelaire’s 1857 “Les Sept Vieillards” appears in “Tableaux parisiens,” part of Les Fleurs du Mal, and is cited in Eliot’s footnotes for The Waste Land (line 60). Eliot’s poem is widely reprinted, for instance in The Norton Anthology, where the passage in question appears on 1238.
34. I take my title from Theodor W. Adorno’s “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” reprinted in Adorno, Notes to Literature, vol. 1, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 46, where Adorno’s reading of two poems in order to illustrate his sense of how lyric poetry works is prefaced by his warning that “we are concerned not with the poet as a private person, not with his psychology or his so-called social perspective, but with the poem as a philosophical sundial telling the time of history.”