Articles - February 2012

Shifting stories, codes of violence

Two perspectives on Lawrence Joseph

Joseph's 1966 senior portrait, University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy; lines from "Sentimental Education."

“… give me the voice / To tell the shifting story”: With Ovid’s words as an epigraph, Lawrence Joseph begins Into It, his 2005 book of poems. Since the beginning of his work, the “story” of Detroit, “a city” in Joseph’s poems has undergone constant metamorphosis. Like other Detroit-born writers, Joseph gained an intense experience of radical change.[1] Detroiters from every background learn early that radical change is a fact of life; that change is often punctuated by violence that can erupt at any time; that human life is precarious; and that any sense of social wellbeing is transitory, any hope of prolonged economic prosperity illusory.Detroit’s writers convey the sense of having witnessed changes of great significance: something in this city has gone fundamentally wrong, and they connect this, either literally or figuratively, to larger systemic issues in our nation and world.

'Why not say what happens?'

Modernism, traumatic memory, and Lawrence Joseph's 'Into It'

In his 1993 poem “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am,” Lawrence Joseph describes the narration of his poetry as both a subjective “mixing” of “emotional perceptions and digressions” and a more objective “transparent eye, the need, sometimes, // to see everything simultaneously / — strange need to confront everyone // with equal respect.”[1] This “mixed” mode of narration accentuates the visual as well as the moral clarity that Joseph’s poetry seeks. It also recognizes the inherently intersubjective — and intertextual — nature of poetic composition, the “metathetical imagination / we’re all part of, no matter how personal // we think we are.”[2]

Notions of poetry and narration

Wallace Stevens, in his 1951 introduction to The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, writes: “One function of the poet at any time is to discover by his own thought and feeling what seems to him to be the poetry at that time.”[1]

Gertrude Stein: “You know how much I have always meditated about narration, how to tell what one has to tell. …”[2]

Robert Lowell on Elizabeth Bishop’s North and South: “One is reminded of Kafka and certain abstract paintings. …” A Bishop poem “will usually start as a description or descriptive narrative, then either the poet or one of her characters or objects reflects. The tone of these reflections is pathetic, witty, fantastic, or shrewd. Frequently, it is all these things at once. Its purpose is to heighten and dramatize the description and, at the same time, to unify and universalize it … in her marvelous command of shifting speech tones …”[3]

Ground zero Baudelaire

'Into It' and the poetics of shock


The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word for “to uncover,” and one of the most apocalyptic passages in Lawrence Joseph’s Into It (2005) is the first section of “Why Not Say What Happens?”

I to eye

Self and society in the poetry of Lawrence Joseph

For most of his career as a writer, Lawrence Joseph has stood outside the prevailing schools of poetry, but his uniqueness has been hard-won, and is the product of his evolution as a poet. Reading his four books of poems chronologically reveals not just the important continuities — his concern with identity, religion, language, and politics — but the important changes, all of which will come to define his exceptional place among his contemporaries. Hardly a static poet with a closed system of ideas and imagery, Joseph emerges over time as a poet with a clear sense of the world outside himself. In short, his poems begin with a hypersense of the self, expressed in numerous poems with the poet (the “I” of most of the early poems) at the center. But, as even a cursory reading of Joseph’s later books shows, the “I” has almost disappeared, replaced in effect by what Joseph calls in one poem (the title of which lends itself to the title of this Symposium): “the transparent eye.”[1] That poem also provides a template of sorts for Joseph’s entire work, against which we can measure his shifts in voice and vision: “Some sort of chronicler I am, mixing / emotional perceptions and digressions, // choler, melancholy, a sanguine view. / Through a transparent eye, the need, sometimes, // to see everything simultaneously / — strange need to confront everyone // with equal respect.” The poet makes clear that his vision is democratic, looking up and down society with respect for all. And he wants to see it all at once: a synchronicity of experience that encompasses both the street and skyscraper. He will accomplish all this with many emotional responses and plenty of pertinent digressions, and we can expect little humor or exuberance, but lots of somber, sober thought. As he tells us in an earlier poem, “Not Yet,” in words reminiscent of Saul Bellow’s Augie March, himself another urban ethnic: “I want it all” (21).