Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words

By Mutlu Konuk Blasing | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
THE HISTORICAL “I”

THE MOTHER TONGUE'S “I”

What kinds of noise assuage him, what kinds of music plea-
sure or repel him, what messages the receiving stations of his
senses are happy to pick up from the world around him and
what ones they automatically block out—all this unconscious
activity, at the pre-verbal level, is entirely relevant to the
intonations and appeasements offered by a poet's music.

Seamus Heaney

Even when two persons of taste like the same poetry, this
poetry will be arranged in their minds in slightly different
patterns; our individual taste in poetry bears the indelible
traces of our individual lives with all their experience
pleasurable and painful.

T. S. Eliot

QUESTIONED ABOUT WRITING in German after the war, Paul Celan responded: “Only in the mother tongue can one speak one's own truth. In a foreign tongue the poet lies” (Felstiner 1975, 46). “One's own truth” would seem to be distinct from the propositional or factual truth content of what one says, which one can say in any language. The truth spoken in the language in which one undergoes the transition into words is “one's own truth”; it is who one is. The lyric “I,” which has no reality other than its audibility as an “I,” re-sounds the originary mediation of the mother tongue that makes for the socializing/individuating history of a subject. The cultural institution of the lyric safeguards the site for the re-cognition of that lived history. The poet's personal memories and associations in the mother tongue are formalized and thus socialized as a generic discourse of a virtual “I,” so that other speakers with other, different, memories and associations can recognize their “own truths” as socialized/individuated subjects in language.

The entry into symbolic language, which constitutes one's lived history as an “I,” is a “passage” from the semiotic to the semantic system of language. It is a historical process, a “crossing” of what in theoretical retrospect becomes a “gap.” In Emile Benveniste's terms, the semiotic and semantic are two “discrete and contrasting signifying modes” within language: “The semiotic (the sign)

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