Rachel Galvin on “Lyric Shame” and Modern Poetics

by on Feb.18, 2014

I think Ravel Galvin’s response to Cal Bedient’s essay “Against Conceptualism” is very thought-provoking. In particular, I am interested in her depiction of “lyric shame” in modern and contemporary poetics:

I’d like to add to Yankelvich’s observation by arguing that casting authorial intent as an “embarrassing indulgence” is symptomatic of the very dynamic that Gillian White identifies inLyric Shame: Producing the “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry. This embarrassment congregates around poems seen as offering abstracted, “personal” expression—particularly Romantic, Confessional, and “mainstream” poetry—belonging to what is assumed to be the transhistorical genre of lyric poetry. From the twentieth century onward, such poems have been criticized by scholars, critics, publishers, and writers for their “expressivity,” which is understood as narcissistic and often politically conservative. White tracks how being associated with lyric poetry has become a source of shame in many literary circles. It is disparaged for being monological and oppressive, for relying on a lyric first-person speaker (a coherent “I”) to guide the reader and articulate the perspective of her single subjectivity, or for offering closure. The lyric poem is accused of being so directive as to put the “author” back into “authoritarian.” White argues, however, that such lyric poetry doesn’t actually exist as a form or a genre, but rather is called into being through reading practices. She persuasively explains that the dynamics of shame, and lyric-expressive reading (nineteenth-century constructions of lyric codified as reading methods by twentieth-century critics), have combined to denigrate some poetry as “retrograde, politically conservative, self-indulgent.”

While affect studies have become fashionable across several disciplines (anthropology, psychology, literary theory), “lyric shame” has continued to thrive, and Goldsmith has brought Conceptual poetry to the White House and to The Colbert Report. At the same time, in academia, the question of whether the lyric may be considered a transhistorical genre is producing influential reflections (such as in the work of Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, Jonathan Culler, Meredith Martin, White). The entry for “lyric” in the new Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, written by Jackson, specifies thatsince the eighteenth century, “brevity, subjectivity, passion, and sensuality” have been associated with lyric poetry, but that “lyric” has not always named the same thing throughout history. She writes, “The story of the lyric charts the history of poetics.” The current conversation about conceptualism is part of this larger-scale history of poetics. It has struck a nerve with poets and critics alike, because we are at a moment of category fracture, when it is clear that the old terms won’t do, but we don’t have any new terms yet. Where are we to go after Hegel’s assertion that lyric poetry expresses personal feeling, and John Stuart Mill’s idea that poetry is an utterance overheard? And should poets also be activists? Commentators? Outsiders? Visionaries? Media mavens or PR wizards?

Today’s conceptualism debate is not really about constraint or procedure and their relative merits for writing poems, although that is the way Bedient’s piece leans. It is about the fraught notion of the lyric, the “lyric I,” and the possibility of emotional sincerity in art. It is predicated on polemical distinctions between sources of poetry (rational and planned, or “method” poetries versusirrational and “inspired” poetries), which all derive from a metaphysics of origin. Today’s debate once more asks the fundamental, mystifying questions, Where does poetry come from? How is it made?

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