Lyric Poetry and Subjectivity

By Aviram, Amittai F. | Intertexts, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Lyric Poetry and Subjectivity


Aviram, Amittai F., Intertexts


It is a commonplace of the criticism and history of lyric poetry to associate this genre with subjectivity--from Wordsworth's "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (1800/1802 Preface, Lyrical Ballads 246) to Nietzsche's comments on Archilochus (48-56) to Easthope's materialist history of English lyric metrical genres as expressions of the rise and later teetering of bourgeois subjectivity (30-47). In his excellent "lyric" entry in his Glossary of Literary Terms, even the sober M. H. Abrams finds at the core of the modern sense of the term "a speaker who expresses a state of mind or a process of thought and feeling" (97-8). The notion of "lyric subjectivity" is crucial to Theodor Adorno's account of the power and attractiveness of lyric in his essay, "On Lyric Poetry and Society," and the simultaneous "reflection" and "production" of subjectivity--i.e., bourgeois subjectivity--is the primary function of literature in general according to Marxist critics Pierre Macherey and Etienne Balibar. In this essay, however, I shall argue against the idea of "lyric subjectivity" as a useful concept, especially in its Marxist version, and shall urge, instead, a concept of lyric that maintains an allusive connection to its etymological origins in song. Insofar as lyric poetry is a kind of game involving the recognition of the semblance of a speaking subject, and at the same time the unreality of that semblance, lyric poetry works to the contrary of subjectivity, enabling the listener or reader momentarily to step outside the sincere--and transparent--realm of subjectivity, contemplating and enjoying its paradoxes as aesthetic structures of wit rather than as psychological or social problems. In order to define and understand this game of imitation and recognition in greater detail, I shall draw upon one of the first and still one of the greatest thinkers on this matter, Aristotle. Accordingly, my discussion of the nature of imitation and verbal art will necessarily stray at times from the path of lyric subjectivity, as I develop my critique of this concept by way of its contrary, the game of lyric poetry.

Wit, play, and paradox are by no means restricted to lyric poetry, but inhere in everything we call art. We find a comparable wit, for instance, in representational painting, insofar as the mere shapes and gradations of pigment on a surface manage to look like something else. The traits that make lyric poetry distinctive among the arts include, first, that it is a verbal art, the imitation of a communicative utterance, and hence a kind of fiction (see my "Literariness, Markedness, and Surprise in Poetry"). What we call poetry or verse, then, is that kind of fiction designed to draw attention simultaneously in the contrary directions of sense and sound. What we sometimes call the content--that is, what the words would mean if they occurred in an actual communicative utterance rather than a fiction--demands our focus, but the mere physical features of those same words and how they are arranged distract us playfully, sometimes by means of the additional game of the sound (or visual appearance) somehow pretending to mimic the sense, even though such a thing is impossible according to the real logic of signs and meaning (see my Telling Rhythm, 43-57). It is this tension between sound and sense that helps alert the listener or reader to the very fact that the text at hand is a work of fiction, to be enjoyed rather than questioned, answered, or obeyed. The phonemes, rhythmic contours, words, and syntactic structures of the poem are thus comparable to those shapes of paint on the canvas that somehow "become" flowers--and yet remain mere paint. This divided attention between sound and sense defines poetry or verse in general. What sets lyric poetry off from other kinds of verse, then, is the placement of focus, relatively speaking, primarily on qualities of song--that is, precisely, on the game of tension and paradox between the sense and the sound that both expresses that sense and distracts us from it.

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