Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words

By Mutlu Konuk Blasing | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
THE LYRIC SUBJECT

Sounds, Sense, and the “I”

I or me are the words associated with voice. They are like
the meaning of voice itself.

Paul Valéry

Implicitly or explicitly, the speaker in a lyric poem is an “I.” This figure is a generic “I,” not to be confused with an extralinguistic entity. The “I” in discourse is a universal, an indexical function. In Hegel's terms, “when I say 'I,' 'this individual I,' I say quite generally 'all I's,' every one is what I say, every one is 'I,' this individual I” (1967, 154). Yet the poetic “I” is also heard as an individuated voice, for we can “hear” the distinct voices of different poets working in the same language and at the same historical moment, with the same linguistic and cultural necessities and resources. The audibility of a distinctive written voice is a remarkable phenomenon: how does an individuated “I” become audible through the universal “I” of language in poetry, a discourse that foregrounds conventions and rules? Clearly, the generic “I” and the individuated “I” cannot to be understood as oppositional: the “I” in poetry is both the generic “I” of language and an individuated “I” sounded by the materials of language. My argument is that the experienced effect of an individuated speaker lies in an experience of linguistic materials that are in excess of what can be categorically processed—an experience guaranteed by the formality of poetry.

The lyric works with the material experience of the somatic production and reproduction of words as sounds and sounds as words, whether spoken, written, or read.1 Formal schemes that abstract and stylize the distinctive sonic and grammatical shape of a language serve to foreground its material reality and put up an organized resistance to meaning, both as sense and as intention. Sounds are not without semantic resonances—whether associations specific to a particular poet and/or a given language, or “universal”2—but their formal system operates independently of signification and keeps in constant view the intractably nonsensical, sensory basis and medium of meaning, of sense and intention. We are not allowed to forget or “overhear” the nonmeaning body of words, the somatically produced and processed material events. Lyric language presents—to the ear3—that which resists communication and the will of an

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