Notes on Lyric Poetry; or, at the Muse's Tomb

By Heller, Michael | Chicago Review, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Notes on Lyric Poetry; or, at the Muse's Tomb


Heller, Michael, Chicago Review


Translating the language of things into that of humans entails not only translating silence into audibility; it means translating the nameless into the name.

- Walter Benjamin

One of my close friends, also a worker in the mine fields of the poetic, says to me "the lyric is dead." I cannot but agree, if by lyric we mean that private self-regarding effusion of language, that romantic mea culpa by which a world is nostalgically recalled, privileged and measured against what is. Likewise, I would emphatically add, poetry is dead or at least dying out of a swoon of novelty if it subscribes too closely to those collocations of contemporary thought we call theory or cultural studies, studies which invoke other nostalgias for certainty, for "rightness," for order.

Another way of putting this might be: the lyric is dead primarily as it reinforces a masked ideology, including the myth about the "myth of the personal." But, as well, the typical critique that the lyric is "subjective" ought to be juxtaposed against the sub-rosa reality, more difficult to enunciate in the face of avant-garde tribalism (do we know of anything more tribal, more nationalistic than the poetic clique?), which reminds us that poetic bandwagons are never merely matters of aesthetics, indeed, may involve many more "subjective" dimensions than we'd care to explicate.

What can be stated concerning the theory- or philosophically driven work is that it is clearly a product of statism and would-be statism, what Deleuze and Guattari point out in Towards a Minor Literature as those "styles or genres or literary movements, even very small ones, [which] have only one single dream: to assume a major function in language, to offer themselves as a sort of state language, [an] official language." On the grounds Deleuze and Guattari are making, the lyric as judged by a post-modem mentality, can never be sufficiently political; it is not doing a man's job, lifting the weight off the masses, creating utopias, etc.

But a case can be made that, in this century, this is precisely the lyric's strength, that strictly speaking, the lyric is neither a product of thought nor of intention but rather comes as a recognition of a gap or rupture in one's thought and intention. (My use of the impersonal singular pronoun is meant to suggest that the lyric qua lyric has no hope of ever becoming a kind of group-think.)

Casting the lyric against other poetic forms, one finds something that is more than merely interesting. The narrative mode, the rhetorical mode and the gnomic mode, even the purely private or expressive mode of the lyric (with its hidden ideological baggage) as well, have a kind of self-sufficiency. The reader participates by wandering around the entities created by such forms. Indeed, a form is erected that in some way does not depend on a reader - as in the case of story, a form which, even as it wants hearers, is ultimately enclosed and folded in on itself. Not so much interactive as presentational. The self-containment of such forms, the polished-egg quality of either story or poetico-logical structure may already seem anachronistic when set against the polyvalent and even fuzzy operations of the mind. And the old romantic lyric, especially that poetic trace of delicate impressions caught on the wing, now strikes the reader as orotund and even unsympathetic to contemporary awareness and consciousness.

So we must admit that if we are to talk positively of a lyric moment, of a moment for the lyric, we must acknowledge that while presenting itself as something gathered out of the flux of existence itself, it is no more free of the contingent, the historical or philosophical than any other form of life or thought. And yet, the function of lyric, and by implication poetry's first principle, is that it exceeds or modifies the very conditions it arises from. Even in the minims of speech or figure, it is always the unplanned, unaccountable supplement. …

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