Academic journal article Chicago Review

"Post-Language Lyric": The Example of Juliana Spahr

Academic journal article Chicago Review

"Post-Language Lyric": The Example of Juliana Spahr

Article excerpt

In the "Note" introducing her sixty-page "Poem Written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003" from This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, Juliana Spahr observes that after September 11, 2001, she felt a need

   to think about what I was connected with, and what I was complicit
  with, as I lived off the fat of the military-industrial complex on a
  small island [in Hawai'i]. I had to think about an intimacy with
  things I would rather not be intimate with even as (because?) I was
  very far away from all those things geographically. This feeling made
  lyric--with its attention to connection, with its dwelling on the
  beloved and on the afar--suddenly somewhat poignant, somewhat apt,
  even somewhat more useful than I usually find it. 

The unease suggested by Spahr's qualifying "somewhats" is not surprising given her relation to Language writing and its suspicion of lyric subjectivity, particularly as manifest in recent personal lyric. Spahr, after all, earned her PhD in the Poetics Program at SUNY at Buffalo, where she studied with such noted figures associated with Language writing as Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe. She is deeply familiar with documents like the 1988 "Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto," coauthored by Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten, which attacks "the personal, 'expressive' lyric [that] has been held up as the canonical poetic form" and complains that its "authorial 'voice' lapses into melodrama in a social allegory where the author is precluded from effective action by his or her very emotions." Spahr has expressed gratitude to Language writing for freeing her from just such conventions: "As language writing showed me that language is a tool, it also showed me that poetry need not be merely about intimacy or personality," she writes in "After-Language." Noting especially the crucial role women writers have had in Language writing, she adds, "language writing's self-aware roots in modernism and, to use Hejinian's word, 'inquiry,' rather than confessionalism, felt to me to be a way out of the sad poetess model."

However, Spahr, like others of the "post-language generation," has not been bound to the practices of her Language mentors; her relationship to lyric, while still fraught, has come to be less antagonistic. In her prose memoir The Transformation (2007), Spahr amusingly recalls the youthful thinking of her cohort in the Buffalo Poetics Program:

   A work that was radical was a good work. At the time it was difficult
  to describe what being radical meant. It meant more a feeling, a
  hard-to-read reeling. ... Eventually they would define what they had
  meant by radical as writing that used modernist techniques of
  fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical
  syntax, and so on. A work that was radical used more modernist
  techniques than other works. 

Wry mockery here indicates that her subsequent understandings of what constitutes a "good work" have departed from Language orthodoxy, and her "Poem Written from November 30, 2002 ..." suggests that an openness to the resources of lyric, has, despite those "somewhats," become crucial to her poetics. The lyric she looks to, however, is not the postconfessional lyric that the Language poets derided. Instead, she looks back to earlier approaches to lyric, and in this particular poem (which demonstrates debts to Gertrude Stein and alludes to multiple earlier lyrics, including Matthew Arnolds "Dover Beach" and W.H. Auden's elegy for W.B. Yeats) relies especially on Sappho and Ezra Pound to help her convey the value of lyric for our time.

Robert von Hallberg's recent book Lyric Powers (2008) distills from across the centuries aspects of lyric practice that account for lyric's authority; consequently, his work suggests some reasons why post-Language poets might be reluctant to relinquish the genre's resources. …

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