"I'm Nobody": Lyric Poetry and the Problem of People
Baker, David, The Virginia Quarterly Review
Life is an affair of people not of places.
But for me life is an affair of places
and that is just the trouble.
-Wallace Stevens, Adagia
That we mourn. That we ache. That we want. That we lie. That we forget. That we fail. That we kowtow. That we deceive. That we covet. That we love. That we die. That we remember.
Our symposium is entitled "Lyric Poetry and the Problem of People." My list, of course, denotes the problem, some of the problems, with people. I want to press on with this proposition for a moment before I turn my attention more fully to another part of the title.
The problems with people have provided poets with their subjects for millennia. In our own investigations of three primary lyric modes, we have previously considered the love poem (and the problems of passion, heartbreak, betrayal), the elegy (and the problems of death and loss or forgetting), and the ode (and the problems of social rhetoric and lyric progression). In parsing these three categories into more specific rhetorical modes or landscapes, we have looked at other problematics within the lyric: pastoral poetry (thus, the problem of nature), the sublime (the problem of beauty), and narrative and syntax (the problem of time). Our present issue finds its focus in lyric meditation and the problem of people. Wallace Stevens prepares us in Adagia: "Life is not people and scene but thought and feeling."
To be sure, people are a real problem for the lyric poem. Conventional definitions of the lyric poem generally abide by Roman Jakobsen's assessment: "lyric poetry speaks for the first person, in the present tense-a present toward which lyric always impels any past or future events." Isn't this the case? I turn to works of literature for many things, in many needs. But I seek lyric poetry specifically for its meditation, for the example of its music, the solace of its radical interiority. Harold Bloom goes so far as to assert that the main value of literary study is to "enlarge a solitary existence." Such is the dream of the lyric in particular, that the self shall be revealed and enlarged.
Immediately, a problem. In a narrative of self, what is the place of the other, of others, of people? From here the problem extends in many directions. Does the lyric possess a political aptitude? Can it protest, criticize, convince? What is the place of the popular in a seemingly hermetic site? How do communities, indeed how do urban and technological constructions, fit into the private or pastoral space of the lyric? These are real and delicious problems to tackle, for don't we want a lyric poetry capable of cities, populations, politics, testimony, exchange, social engagement?
I am going to limit my own discussion to a more basic problem of people and the lyric. I wish to consider the center of both the social and lyric cosmos: the self, that conscious or self-conscious entity speaking from the singular and personal present. If a lyric poem is a song of oneself, what is that self? What is its relation to the collective? Has the lyric poem always extended outward from the center of the solitary self to the "others"? The answers range vividly.
Sometimes we hold that the self is an autonomous and independent entity, a body and a psyche of measurable dimensions, the fixed hub around which our perceptions and relationships orbit. This is consistent with Bloom's notion of the lyric's function: to enlarge a solitary existence. Emerson identifies this version of the self in its most pure and central state: "I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me."
Sometimes we think of the self as a more fluid or deconstructed thing: an artifice formed by convenience and language, a social construct, a fiction. This attitude dissolves the self into the social collective. Likewise, Anthony Easthope disperses the genre of lyric poetry into the overall category of discourse; hence, all exchanges engage equally in "a process of enunciation. …