The scholar's blush

Shame as method in 'Lyric Shame'

Photo by Anthony Easton, via <a href=
Photo by Anthony Easton, via flickr.

Lyric Shame: The ‘Lyric’ Subject of Contemporary American Poetry

Lyric Shame: The ‘Lyric’ Subject of Contemporary American Poetry

Gillian White

Harvard University Press 2014, 360 pages, $46.50 ISBN 978-0674734395

Lyric Shame (2014), a method-driven reappraisal of the mid- to late-twentieth-century “lyric” poem, looks to readers’ shame as an interpretive device. Shame: that blushing state that finds us thinking of what others must be thinking and/or self-caught in the act of wanting something (something others do not think we should be wanting); an awareness of exposure or of being seen by others; a social signpost; a readable heat. These are just a few ways of evoking, if not quite defining shame, as an effect of sociality: an “importantly mobile, intersubjective emotion,” in White’s description, which can attach to almost anything.[1] In a move that leaves her study vulnerable to critique, White does not define the concept “shame” so much as she positions its effect — the intensification of meaning and of meaning’s recognition — as a method for assembling “a more varied and richer canon of twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetries,” a move I find compelling, though in need, as I suggest in this review, of further grounding in the insights and the lessons of queer studies (16).

Lyric shame, according to White, is what attaches to the so-called lyric poem. It arises when a poem seems to speak directly to the reader, its “I” expressing or confessing or describing what it sees — the sort of reading that, in White’s account, has been unhelpfully idealized by New Criticism, on the one hand, and un-idealized by avant-garde antilyricism, on the other. Yet for White, the reader’s shame can be productively disruptive, that is, more than just a symptom of a way of reading poems as expressive, talking missives from a self that knows you’re listening. White devotes one chapter each to Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, and Bernadette Mayer, each of whose work is thought to court (for shame) this readerly awareness, and concludes that each subverts such lyric norms as a discrete, expressive speaker; subverts, in fact, the very notion of coherent lyric norms. The source of shame, that is, the object to which readers’ shame attaches, is revealed to be “missing.” There is no lyric there, in White’s analysis, only poems found to be playing with the reader’s expectations. And yet White does not attempt to reposition either Bishop or Sexton, each a “putatively mainstream” poet (6), as an avant-garde or antilyric writer. Instead, White deftly shows the insufficiency of binaries like lyric/antilyric in the reading of their work. In faulting Bishop, Sexton, and Mayer for being personal and/or descriptive poets, that is, for crafting subjectivity by way of (self-) observation and reportage, White argues that the avant-garde critique of lyric reinstates the self it was intended to dissolve: “In the shaming of a lyric text, we are asked to identify with a self, and a version of selfhood, that we are also supposed to be giving up” (29).

At its most ambitious and enabling, then, White’s book insists on something other than a lyric or an antilyric way of reading poetry (the latter, White suggests, may be “the latest form” of lyric reading) and proposes shame as one particularly promising way forward — or rather sideways. Lyric shame becomes not just an object of analysis but also an interpretive position, a site for something close to critical embarrassment: “a method and a mood in which to read” (35). The shame induced by so-called lyric poetry, in short, is good to read with. Left unredeemed and untransformed, it lets us ask new questions of the way we read: about projection and identification, vexed attachment to the “disavowed,” and the pull of “backward” structures like the speaker, rhyme, and plot — what Bishop called, in an unpublished meditation on the work of William Carlos Williams, “the older tradition of and reverence for likenesses” (52).[2] Throughout the book, White flags the shame dynamic driving her inquiry: the author sees herself being seen by the “savvy” poets whose work she is reading. It is important to “admit,” for example, that reading Mayer’s turn to more expressive work as a rejection of the antilyric dictates of the Language movement “is, in part, a fantasy inspired by my own lyric shame” (156). In these moments, we could say, the poet has the scholar’s number, and the scholar (with her fantasies!) has much to learn by blushing in the face of poetry’s own keen understanding of the politics of literary interpretation and of academic reading cultures. Significantly, the “hybrid” mode that emerges in White’s fourth and final multiauthor chapter on the “lyric shame poem” of the 1990s and beyond (and in the work of Olena Kalytiak Davis in particular), is not lyric mixed with antilyric but a poem mixed with criticism: a text informed by an awareness that its “possible horizons are defined by critical intervention in the first place” (263). The hybrid poem that can shame, not least because it has been shamed, must be (perhaps less critically) reread.

White’s first chapter on Elizabeth Bishop unfolds with striking freshness, in part because the claims made here crop up again in readings both of Sexton’s and of Mayer’s work (in chapters two and three, respectively). Familiar poems feel, when housed in White’s close readings of them, almost new. Dispensing with Bishop’s dubious persona as perfectionist, White suggests that Bishop mastered an ashamed performance of the poet’s “trying and failing” to renounce the lyric subject, the “I” (and “eye”) of her admired observations and descriptions. “The Bight” (1949) is a poem as textual as it is talking, and keen to emphasize its textuality; it is thus in tension with the apparatus of New Critical interpretation, which would have the reader think about it as a form of speech. Bishop’s poems, far from cleaving to the norms of this agenda, clear “interpretative space” for something to the side of lyric subjectivity. Her poems’ “familiar language” serves to broaden, not lessen the gap between the poet (who is seeing, even speaking) and the text, which is in certain moments radically unvoiced.

This fact does not “align her with the avant-garde who has dismissed her,” White is careful to point out (57). It rather shows her poems’ ordinary language to have been, all along, “an object of social analysis,” and one to register Bishop’s critique, even “revolt” against the businesslike, mechanical, and “boring” work (that’s Bishop’s word) of her contemporaries and of a poetry world she felt to have been stultified precisely by New Criticism, and by American consumer culture, at midcentury. A poem “need not disrupt syntax or retreat from normative forms to be read as multivalent and critical of normative language,” which in Bishop’s (as in Sexton’s and in Mayer’s) case includes the critic’s language for what poems are (48). White’s blushing mention of her “eagerness” to do the very thing her project is refusing — to reinstate the lyric/antilyric binary by aligning Bishop with the avant-garde — bespeaks how hard it is to think without this binary; after all, it explains what poems are. It could be said that White’s assiduous awareness of her shame diminishes her quite compelling claims to open questions, yet I would say instead that her admittedly “ashamed desire” to position Bishop’s poems as “discursive theater,” self-aware of their enmeshment in the norms of lyric reading (which, like any norms, are not unbending, but leave space for variation, contradiction, and refusal), lets us read these poems differently, to read with greater openness to “what they teach … in moments of interpretation” (83, 46).

One of the terms that came to light within that space, as I read White’s take on Bishop and the “subject” of lyric, was queer. John Vincent’s book Queer Lyrics (2002) thus became a kind of shadow interlocutor for Lyric Shame. Notably, White does not engage or cite this book (in which the author reads the work of Bishop’s cherished friend and mentor, Marianne Moore). In the reading of queer lyrics, and perhaps of lyric poetry writ large, Vincent suggests, all bodies, subjects, and/or speakers are imagined to be “penetrable,” and no voice is sovereign.[3] Queer lives “impel themselves” toward lyricism, and the lyric form transmits queer meaning, offering “performances” more so than lucid records of queer life.[4] One such performance or performer, following Vincent’s definition, is the “I” in Bishop’s “The Bight,” which, in White’s description, “stagily outs itself as the source of the poem’s implicit metaphors” (72). Bishop’s “signature gesture” on display in this poem, “the emphasis on textuality,” even theatricality, “at the moment we are supposed to hear a voice,” could be a consummately queer one: an outing, so to speak, that is unvoiced (74). Whatever else the poet’s “I” may be, in Bishop’s case (and/or the case of my own “fantasies about authorial intent,” as White would have it), “I” is queer, a disappearing or receding “voice” reluctant to lend words to sexuality, in particular lesbian sexuality, to “out” itself. Bishop’s work goes unexamined in Queer Lyrics; however, Vincent locates a “device” akin to Bishop’s “I” in poems by Hart Crane and Moore, in which “the speaker has stepped back from the utterance of the poem,” presenting a “nonspeakerly voice as closure,” of a kind.[5]

The final stanza of “The Bight” begins with sound: “Click. Click. Goes the dredge, / and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.”[6] “The Bight” was written (or is set) “On my Birthday,” as Bishop’s epigraph reveals. A poem billed, however truthfully, as personal, as if it were a kind of birthday gift or missive (from Bishop, on her birthday), nonetheless “foregrounds the ‘voice’ of the figured dredging machine,” White notes, a choice that emphasizes the “textual production of ‘voice’” (73, 74). Would it be hearing things to find in Bishop’s clicks a queerer note than textuality, or that which “voice” is not? The next and final lines: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” White notes parenthetically that “untidy activity” refers to writing poetry, a labor Bishop likens to the dredge’s rude up-scooping of loose sand and sedimentary rock. White does not consider Bishop’s dredge as having anything to figure with respect to sexuality, to readers’ (ashamed?) interest in it, or to its effect on the construction of a “voice.” “All the untidy activity,” to me, could just as readily and shamefully refer to readers digging up the “marl” of an unspoken homosexuality, or to the fact that Bishop’s “voice,” if she had kept it in the foreground, might have risked a very different kind of outing: “The bight is littered with old correspondences,” with not just connections (now no longer private) but also, and more tellingly, old notions of equivalence or sameness, this means this. My symptomatic reading of “The Bight” is not one I would advocate. I perform it nevertheless (and feel my shame in wanting, always, a queerer Bishop, a lesbian poet) because White’s reading opens a space in which to think about the textual production and performance of a lyric “voice” together with the shame dynamics of the closet and the problem (at midcentury) of public homosexuality.

Lyric Shame is not a queer studies project. At the same time, there is something very queer about a book on shame and reading. White’s brief mention of queer work and its attention to “the productive possibilities of shame and shame dynamics” helps to situate her project with respect to recent interest in bad, ugly, and backward affects (30). It presents the kind of “queer” that travels widely within literary studies to mean different and resistant, contrary to the normal, sometimes slanted, sometimes failing, always brimming with potential and “productive possibilities.” Lyric Shame, though it has “benefited from” developments in queer and affect studies, does not explore the queerness of the lyric form itself, or the way that poets’ and/or readers’ queerness may attach to forms of lyric shame: the shame, I mean, of speaking but not telling, feeling absent or unread; the shame of telling without really speaking and of feeling (perhaps violently) illegible, misread.

Queer lives are bound to painful histories of telling and not telling, of the unsaid and the “said” unsaid. Coming out (“Foundational narrative designed to confer existence,” Frank Bidart has put it, in a poem titled “Queer”) does not simply or completely shepherd someone (someone speaking) into selfhood, someone’s hearer into knowledge.[7] “Everybody already knows everything / so you can / lie to them. That’s what they want,” Bidart writes, perhaps addressing (shaming?) “each gay kid whose adolescence / was America in the forties or fifties,” when Bishop was already middle-aged; addressing himself, queer poets now (18). Does “everybody” already know that “you” are queer? Or is it that, in spite of knowing this, or thinking that they know it, they know nothing, can hear nothing? Further work on queer poetics and its affects (shame included) is still needed. So too is literary scholarship that takes the blush as a productive thing with which to read. “If you don’t care, then attempts to shame won’t move you,” Elspeth Probyn writes, in a book called Blush (2005), “whatever it is that shames you will be something important to you, an essential part of yourself.”[8]


1. Gillian White, Lyric Shame: The ‘Lyric’ Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 1. White arrives at this description via Bishop’s 1974 poem “Five Flights Up.”

2. White is quoting from an unfinished draft of an essay, “Unsuperstitious Dr. Williams,” in the Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Vassar College Library Special Collections. White is the first to examine Bishop’s grappling with Williams’s poetics in this document.

3. John Emil Vincent, preface to Queer Lyrics: Difficulty and Closure in American Poetry (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), xix.

4. Vincent, preface to Queer Lyrics, xiv.

5. Vincent, Queer Lyrics, 84.

6. Elizabeth Bishop, Poems: North & South — A Cold Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955), 67.

7. Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 19.

8. Elspeth Probyn, Blush: Faces of Shame (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), x.