A Noble Attempt

Radiant Lyre: essays on lyric poetry

edited by David Baker & Ann Townsend
[US$15/ Can $18.95, Graywolf Press, 2402 University Avenue, Suite 203 Saint Paul, Minnesota 55114, USA]

The first best thing about Radiant Lyre, from a British viewpoint, is that its essays progressively expose the reader to many snatches of American poetry, past and present, from Whitman's wonderful 'Song of Myself' to, say, Robert Hass's 'Meditation at Lagunitas'; and, of course, the more we see of Emily Dickinson, the more one realizes what a wonderful American counterpart to G.M. Hopkins, her British contemporary, she was and is: a unique style and metaphysical preoccupation. That said, however, for whom can a book like this be designed? Mostly, I feel, for the academic market. All its essays are written by professors and, while its writing is limpid and free of needless jargon, its tone is that of earnest inquiry, that of a fairly limpid textbook. So, in a sense, I - a non-academic - may not be the best person to review it. On the other hand, I can be said to be someone who is always on the lookout for the critical insights so, while I may not be able to assess its classroom-value, I can appreciate the quality of its focus on various aspects of the lyric. An observation like, 'Berryman's poems give us the experience of living in the midst of perception. This is a feature of his lyric personality. It's the well-spring of both pain and the beauty that emerges from pain.'; for those who are familiar with his Henry, this will resonate immediately and in an illuminating way. Or a supporting quote from Octavio Paz in one of the essays, 'eroticism is first and foremost a thirst for otherness. And the supernatural is the supreme otherness.', makes one feel that this lengthy investigation into what is, after all, something of an abstraction which, it is admitted at one point, centres round a hopelessly ambiguous term 'lyric' that is, from one point of view, like the word poetry itself, virtually meaningless now. Again, elsewhere, I find a statement like, 'This process of discovery, of uncovering an emotion we didn't know was there, is perhaps the central driving impulse of making poems.' Thought-provoking.

One of the most troubling things in life is politics and especially in its relationship to poetry. So it is helpful to be told in one of the essays that, 'In a world enslaved by "things", Emerson seems to argue, the poet has a more important role to play than that of political activist, however worthy the cause; his function as exemplar and public conscience exceeds the mere exigencies of topical engagement.' A timely reminder not only of the poet's correct role but also, by extension, of why those poems
- especially but not exclusively - praised for their satirical and/ or contemporary relevance soon date and lose much of their poetic 'charge'. Though it is invidious to pick out topics as of especial interest in such a many-sided discussion of the lyric, I did think the investigations of 'the pastoral' and 'the sublime' very good, though I was far from convinced at the end of the essay entitled 'The Pastoral: First and Last Things' that, 'The pastoral is not our dream. It is our nightmare.' Of course, such a suggestion certainly has value as stimulation to further intellectual speculation. Yet I wonder who amongst the obvious academic target audience for such things would find the following the most intellectually shocking statement in the book, made by one Stanley Plumly in his essay 'The Intimate Sublime'?:

- now that the Irish poets have become American poets - that greatest of
     modern American lyrics, “Among School Children”, is founded on the least of
     things: a face, an image and a memory of a face
- on an isolating walk among
     the future and the past, and on a daydream...

Was it Auden who said of poets' uses of quotes that 'minor poets borrow, great poets steal'? But I have not encountered before one nation appropriating another nation's poets so blatantly. I mean, one knows that the likes of Heaney and Muldoon have become poetry professors in American universities, but even so I'm sure they'd be surprised to read this little touch of American literary imperialism. And as for Yeats, the author of 'Among School Children' and a poet who struggled greatly against British imperialism, I feel the old cliché about turning over in graves would probably apply.

Another good aperću from that great philosopher-poet Emerson (one of the first poets to write a truly ecological poem, though the fact is not mentioned in this book) when he says, 'It is not meters, but meter-making argument that makes a poem'. Some of the essays make their points through poems, not by explaining poems (c.f. the first two essays in the book, where Baker tends to explain poems, Jackson giving them more as illustrations of his viewpoints.) And how about this for yet another thought-provoking observation?:

     Only grief will bend nature to a will beyond indifference. Grief is the humanizing of
     nature, love's picked flower placed on the funeral bier. Whether it is Lord Byron's
     Lament for Adonis, John Milton's Lycidas ,Percy Bysshe Shelley's Adonais, or Alfred
     Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam, nature, harmonized nature, becomes the deep
     emotional collaborator of the poet's need for correlative... What the pastoral elegy
     gives to lyric  poetry is a piercing identification with longing, like the song of the
     nightingale, thorn at the heart.

I could, of course, go on quoting from this book, but that is to deprive the reader of his or her own discoveries. Just one last because it seems to me philosophically important, and I am attracted to the relationship between philosophical ideas and poetics, 'Even in a lyric poem whose ostensible subject is something else
- love, death, or...the angst of faithful intensity - the subject of time underwrites the experience. Time is subject, story and style of the lyric poem.'

Earlier I referred to the excellent discussion of beauty and the sublime. But, as ever in academic treatises, the matter of the aesthetic success of poems and poetry is largely avoided, for this would involve qualitative judgments that academia rarely makes. Yet aesthetic quality is inseparable from the success of a lyric poem as, equally, song-element is essential to the 'meter-making argument that makes a poem'. In the traditional lyric poem there must be music and that counts out from consideration a number of the poems cited in this book, several of which are nothing more than discursive prose. Nevertheless, the book is a noble attempt to explicate a difficult genre. The simpler a thing is like a lyric poem
- and one of the characteristics of the lyric is simplicity - the more complex it turns out to be upon examination.

               © William Oxley 2007