What is the place of lyric in modern and contemporary poetry?

Lyric, meaning "of or pertaining to the lyre," has a concertedly interdisciplinary origin rooted in its practice of bringing poetry together with music. As many critics—including those responding below—have shown, the lyric has had a long and complicated history, the term evoloving over the centuries to take on different valences, connotations, and even denotations. So what does lyric mean today and in our recent past? Does lyric retain in some way its relation to the lyre, pictured above in Henry Oliver Walker's Library of Congress mural Lyric Poetry (1896)? Where do we find lyric in modern and contemporary poetry? And what might the future of lyric look like? —Katie L. Price

Respondents: Jennifer Ashton, Julia Bloch, Virginia Jackson, Susannah B. Mintz 

A response by Jennifer Ashton

In the first essay of True-Love: Essays on Poetry and Valuing (2009), Allen Grossman links to poetry in general — what he refers to as “the poetry of our time" — several properties that have come to be associated with the lyric:

In lyric there is never another who speaks – only the speaking self, the subject who says You. Formal lyric is, precisely, not dialogic. The other, in the lyric convention, is silent . . .  The "you," other to the "I," orients the "I," as the muse of tradition (Sing, muse!) orients the singer and produces song in him. But the muse never sings.  . . . This search for response and the endless deferral of response is a salient characteristic of the poetry of our time-right now. (10-11)

Thus, we might simply say, the salient characteristic of poetry was the salient characteristic of lyric. More controversially, we could say that poetry at that moment (and for several decades before) was synonymous with lyric, and that lyric had become synonymous with “the speaking self” and its struggles for expression. Even the challenges of persona, the “decentered” subject, the “sobject,” have failed to loosen the ties between lyric and self-expression; what has remained at stake is “the speaking self.” (As I’ve noted elsewhere, the conjunction of lyric with “subjectivity” and the “personal poem” has been retained in student textbooks and handbooks since the ‘teens in the 20th century.) 

What hasn’t changed since Grossman’s “right now” and our own “right now” is the degree to which lyric and poetry have remained synonymous.  And not surprisingly, that tendency then and now has been grounds for resistance, insofar as it has also led to a number of important attacks on the lyric. The most prominent of these arose from the Language movement in the decades before the turn of the millennium, while in the decade and a half since 2000, the most prominent assault, flying under the banner of “conceptual writing,” has arrayed itself “against expression.” In the wake of the former and (maybe) at the crest of the latter, we’ve also seen renewed, if sometimes ironic, attempts to defend against these attacks by defending the value of self-expression as such (for example, the various briefs on behalf of a “new sincerity” in poetry in the mid 2000s). In short, whether one thinks of oneself as a practitioner of lyric or a combatant against it, the axis around which these battles are fought is the same: the framework of contemporary poetry is “the speaking self.” 

In this respect, lyric and anti-lyric, “the speaking self” and its repudiation, have been, and continue to be, two sides of the same coin. And in a period in which it has also been possible to say both that “money…is a kind of poetry” (Wallace Stevens) and “poetry is a kind of money” (Vanessa Place), this coin has carried a political as well as an aesthetic value. This period has coincided, after all, with the expansion and liberalization of markets (whose growth thrives on ever new possibilities of self-expression), and at the same time (we might say, as a result), it has coincided with what Nicholas Brown has called the “real subsumption of the work of art under capital.” In this respect, the place of lyric in contemporary poetry seems to be one of functioning perfectly in the service of neoliberalism.  

But in at least one very recent effort to reimagine the aesthetic and political value of poetry, we can begin to get an idea of what it might mean to remove poetry, precisely by way of lyric, from this service to the status quo. Ben Lerner’s 10:04: A Novel, in which the deployment of the novel form is really just a means of creating conditions hospitable to poetry that are not available within the prevailing understanding of the genre, succeeds in this effort by translating Grossman’s poetic “I” and “You” from the framework of intersubjective relation between speakers and hearers (or even overhearers) into that of an objective relation to art. Which is to say that he reminds us that art is not what any given subject makes of it, but is what it is by virtue of the principles of arrangement that inhere within it, principles that can be seen when “You” and “I” look at it together, but also (because they belong to it not to us) when we’re not looking at it (or each other) at all. 

A response by Julia Bloch


A response by Virginia Jackson

What is the place of lyric in modern and contemporary poetry?  This question supposes that lyric is something that could have one place or another, though since there is no definite article, I guess we could think that lyric is an adjective here, in which case the question would be asking about the occasions in which lyric is used as a modifier. But when Dan Chiasson wrote recently in The New Yorker that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen:  An American Lyric challenges “our sense of the lyric’s natural territory as exclusively personal, outside the scope of politics,” the use of the word as a noun that is so established it can claim “natural territory” makes “lyric” into something definite indeed.  As I’ve written elsewhere (most recently in the definition of the lyric in the new Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics and in The Lyric Theory Reader, which I just co-edited with Yopie Prins), I don’t think that the noun is a person, place or thing, exactly, and I have my doubts about our common uses of the adjective.  I’d say that contemporary discourse about the place of lyric may stabilize both the noun and the adjective much more than either use of “lyric” was stabilized at any point since the late eighteenth century.  It seems to me that by the time that lyric became part of Goethe’s tripartite system of genres (along with drama and epic), the adjective began to become a noun—but a noun that stood for a wide range of possible referents and that often shape-shifted back into an adjective.  So, Lyrical Ballads weren’t yet nominative lyrics, but they weren’t exactly ballads, either.  What I’ve called the gradual and uneven process of lyricization spanned the long nineteenth century (from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth).  In this process, various stipulative verse genres (ballads, hymns, odes, elegies, epistles, epitaphs, songs, etc.) were abstracted into a lyricized version of poetry as such.  By the third decade of the twentieth century, this lyricized version of poetry was just called Poetry.  By the 1980s, certain groups of poets began to press back against what they complained of as the “norm” of the “personal, expressive lyric,” and that resistance served to fix the lyric (often referred to in this phase as “the romantic lyric,” as if it had been fixed in the nineteenth century) into an enemy camp.  From the longer historical perspective of lyricization, this is a false divide.  Once the process of abstraction that turned particular verse genres into one big lyricized genre of Poetry reached a certain peak in the twentieth century, it kept going, and that movement toward abstraction eventuated in a poetics that defined itself as anti-lyrical.  In fact, this latter development is an effect of lyricization, and the retro-projection of the lyric as a pre-existent norm is a fantasy.  When Rankine subtitles her remarkable recent book “An American Lyric,” she is reclaiming the noun, in its decadent historical form, for her own purposes—-not because anything that could be called “the lyric” ever had “natural territory,” but because what we now call lyric is a collective project of invention.  For the last two and half centuries or so (if that's how you define "modern"), the place of lyric has been unfinished business.

A response by Susannah B. Mintz 

Mulling this over—the place of lyric in modern and contemporary poetry—I find myself repeatedly reframing the question. What is the place of poetry, I want to ask, in contemporary attitudes toward pain? For is not the outcry of pain a lyrical tear in the narrative fabric of self, the body eructing into sound and shape? Is not the compressed, affective immediacy of lyric a needed antidote to cultural narratives about pain as only ever estranging and rupturing, a violence to self? Yet poetry has always embodied physical pain. The Anglo-Saxon scribes of the Beowulf saga gave lyric utterance to the agonies of battle. Donne wrote pain as a matter of lyric ingenuity, his speakers’ suffering assuaged in direct proportion to the admiration of poetic audiences and interlocutors. Vassar Miller, who had cerebral palsy, harnessed her pain in lyrical structures; she manipulated the tightly controlled prosody of her work to guarantee her own continuity through rhyme, repetition, and rhythm. Nancy Krygowski, in the 2006 volume Velocity, eulogizes her late sister Annette in poems that transform pharmaceutical drugs like morphine and Percodan into aspects of the poet’s own song, and even animate them as body parts rather than foreign substances that we have been trained both to crave and to fear.

This is lyricism that aestheticizes pain not to deny it but to install it at the very core of poetic language, of the language of making. Lyric becomes not a description of pain but the verbal equivalent of a cry of pain. Lyric rebuilds bodies in measured lines.

Consider Larry Eigner’s lyrics, which sprawl and stretch across a page—“oddly unstable,” in Michael Davidson’s words, as they “shift from one location to another.” Eigner’s is a poetry that redefines what we mean by movement or even how we understand distance, and thus challenge our complacencies about proper embodiment, or poetic form, or beauty. Without any obvious organizational principle, lines and stanzas threaten to fly apart, move backward as easily as forward, become meaningful only in their relation to whatever precedes and follows. Eigner (who also had CP and for years viewed the world from the vantage point of his wheelchair at his parents’ Massachusetts house) concentrates focus so intently that we lose all sense of stable perspective. This is lyric of pure perception in which the painful experience of being “in little pieces” is redressed by the meticulous arrangement of verbal fragments as well as a reader’s understanding that searching for story is beside the point. Lyric is essential, literally speaking, to the poet’s conception of, and reconciliation with, his body.

Pain—it is inevitable in fleshly life, apparently antithetical to agency, rumored to be inexpressible in words. Yet by insisting on the vitality of I, lyric poetry responds in the most direct of ways to the needs of the self-in-pain.