Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Predicament of Modern Poetry (the Lyric at the Pinch-Gate)

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Predicament of Modern Poetry (the Lyric at the Pinch-Gate)

Article excerpt

Thesis 1: Always a genre of the wound, the lyric is now often in a valedictory state. Confessedly self-belated. Dog-dayed. Dog-eared.

Thesis 2: Done for, unless it takes its lumps, links itself to what flies off at a tangent or acts against it.

Elaboration of the first thesis. That brilliant blue-of-the-moon musician, that monger of gentle pathos, Charles Wright, provides us with an exemplary text, "Mondo Orfeo" (collected in 2002 in A Short History of the Shadow):

  Three-quarters moon, last of November,
  5 o'clock afternoon
  Acolytes of the tactile, servants of the articulate,
  The infinite festers in our bones--
  Sundown, and a drained blue from the sky so long,
  ghost whispers, lost voices,
  Dry wind in dry grass, our bitter song.

  Our song resettles no rocks, it makes no trees move, it
  Has come to nothing, this sour song, but it's all we've got
  And so we sing it
  being ourselves
  Matter we have no choice in.
  Zone wind, wind out of Thrace were we elsewhere, which we're not,

  But would be, oak trees still standing where he left them, Orpheus,
  Whose head-bobbing river tongue has no stop,
  whose song has no end.

  For us, however, it's box canyon and bad weather and what-comes-next.
  It's wind-rasp.
  It's index finger to puckered lips. It's Saint Shush.

Even those of us who've never been sure what the definition of the lyric is will probably concede that this poem must be one. At least it's about someone's mood, painted from the inside, in an apparently impelled, spontaneous utterance. What is more, it's a lyric about the historical embitterment of the lyric. It spans the gap, so as to acknowledge the divide, between Orphean lyricism, which is mythic, and the contemporary lyric, which is sourly dubbed "this sour song." For the sake of creating a deliciously hurt feeling, the poem indulges the famous rumor of a power of song that, accompanied by the lyre, the instrument that gives its name to the lyric, made rock, trees, and beasts bow to its will to harmonize the Me and the Not-me, feeling and substance. Going far into credulous complicity with the myth, Wright predicates, not without fond redundancy, that, even after the Maenads dismember Orpheus for ignoring their attractions and his head is borne away by the River Hebrus, his "tongue has no stop," his "song ... no end." By contrast, Ovid, a tougher spirit, describes the floating head as sadly singing and tells of how it washes up on the shores of Lesbos, where that tireless tongue, so understandably infuriating to the Maenads, finally quits.

If Wright erases from the myth Orpheus's mortality, if he wants to believe that somewhere else, in some other time, the will to sing could be prolonged indefinitely even in a torn-off head, the reason is to make appear pathetic "our" kind of song, his kind, song that can feel defeat in the pit of its stomach--the pronoun "our" being a faked collective, swallowing everybody, just as the word "sour," in turn, swallows "our." Our kind of song feels the loss of a solution to matter's infestation with time. With its technique of the fragment-catalogue--three-quarters moon, dry wind, zone wind--the poem hangs like a rag from the peg of sorrow. Our senses--just see how they get us down, how lowering they are--have us quartered, Novembered, sundowned. Always already, perhaps, we are hollow men, ghost whispers raised by dry wind in dry grass--for Wright is one of those grieving writers for whom, as Beckett said, birth is given astride the grave.

The poem has its merits, its all too beautiful merits; but for me, as I've hinted and as my ungenerous tone has indicated, the writing is emotionally soft and dishonest. It twists the lyric even further into its comfortable socket of misery. It may also be confused as to its real grievance, which is not that time ends our song but that we have to be articulate at all, can't simply be instantly infinite. …

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