Douglas Barbour: LYRIC/ANTI-LYRIC - some notes about a concept


When I began to think about this topic, I had only a few ideas, vague at best, and based on my sense of some of the most interesting directions being taken in contemporary poetry. I have since discovered that the possibilities inherent in this theme are virtually endless -- indeed, perhaps there exists an "anti-lyric" for every kind of "lyric" expression. My two immediate candidates for the category of anti-lyric were certain kinds of long poems -- especially those poems defined as "serial poems" (which, as a series of linked shorter works, often highly lyrical in character, could be taken as exemplary types of what Poe had in mind when he maintained "that the phrase `a long poem' is simply a flat contradiction in terms," and that "what we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones") -- and certain short poems which deliberately flout high lyric conventions yet have their own, wild or atonal, music.

But there are many other examples of lyrics written against the conventional concepts of lyric, and they, too, beg for attention. In these notes, I follow no specific order, nor do I cover anything like the `ground' of what I now suspect is an ever-expanding territory. I will be dealing mainly with contemporary poems in two forms: long poems which in one way or another seek to escape the confines of lyric though not necessarily by abandoning all lyric possibilities; short poems, which by definition are now considered lyric (see, for example, M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, Fourth Edition, 1981: "Greek writers identified the lyric as a song rendered to the accompaniment of a lyre. The term is now used for any fairly short, non-narrative poem presenting a single speaker who expresses a state of mind or a process of thought and feeling"), yet which in one way or another interrogate the form and concept of lyric even as they apparently display them.

Perhaps one good entrance to this literary/critical maze can be made via a comment by a fellow poet, E. D. Blodgett. In a "dialogue" with Rob Dunham, which appeared in CVII's special Alberta issue last year, the subject of lyric arises:

DUNHAM: Speaking of Orpheus, I note that most reviewers tend too easily to identify your work as lyric poems and you as a lyric poet. Do you regard yourself as the writer of lyric poems?

BLODGETT: No. I regard myself as someone who speaks one word and then another. I can't think of anything less lyrical than that. The very conception of the poem, to me, is how to move from word to word. This is present in "phoenix" when I talk of "the awful the of beginnings." It's difficult to know how to begin, and how to end. The problem is to use a lyrical form and not to be lyrical. You were quite right in talking about "breath" and "wind" as being creative signs in these poems, but in order to see those words as signs one has to cease thinking of Orpheus as a lyric poet. He is a guide with signs.

DUNHAM: But he is the lyrist.

BLODGETT: He is the lyrist, but what is his song? His song is a song about silence. That's the ambiguity of the non-lyric.

DUNHAM: The term, "lyric," has been reduced by making it merely the personal voice. I wish there were some way that we could recover the sense of lyrist as you have just described what Orpheus is.

BLODGETT: When one adopts the use of Orpheus in a poem, one has already abandoned one's self as a particular individual.

Elsewhere in this conversation, Blodgett speaks more fully of his deliberate and increasingly successful attempt, during his first three books, "to strip himself of his empirical self," that is, to rid himself of the lyric ego. That he has not been alone in this endeavour is one of the themes of much of what follows.

Obviously, one way to get beyond the confines of "the lyric ego" is to move on to larger forms; and if the lyric is often associated with younger poets perhaps it's because young writers know only their own egocentric desires well enough to write well about them. That, at any rate, is the superficial view. Ah yes, as the poet matures, he (and I note it often is a `he') puts away the easy romanticism of youth and seeks larger subjects, epic or dramatic modes. Thus the shift to large non-lyric forms is one way poets of every generation transcend the lyric limitations of their youths. Aside from the fact that some great lyric poems have been written by older poets, I am not sure that the shift to larger forms must necessarily involve a denial of lyric possibilities and impulses.

One kind of lyric which seems to have surfaced seldom if ever after the great age of Greek lyric writing is the choral lyric. Modern examples would surely appear not to be lyrics in the sense that Abrams defines the term, and to that extent can be seen as lyric/anti-lyric. In The Idea of Lyric, W. R. Johnson argues that Walt Whitman invented a choral epic for modern American poetry in the early versions of Leaves of Grass, one which sought to serve a similar function for his polis as the ancient choral poems did for theirs, but without their supports of music and dance. Johnson is not alone in perceiving Whitman's poems this way; Guy Davenport, railing in righteous anger at those who would teach poetry as "self-expression," says:

One can think of statements that seem to explain so wry a misunderstanding of the poet as an issuer of personal pronunciamentos. Behavioral psychology, squirted into the ears of students from Head Start through the Ph.D., can account for no action not grounded in self-advancement; it follows that the poet as a voice for other people is suspect. He must be expressing himself, don't you see? Poor Whitman. He wrote a corpus of poems for an entire nation, to give them a tongue to unstop their inarticulateness. He wrote in their dialect, incorporating the nerve of their rhetoric and the rhythms of the Bible from which their literacy came. He wrote two elegies for Lincoln, one for grownups ("When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd") and one for school children ("O Captain! My Captain!"). He tried to understand the voiceless American and to speak for him, and as much as any poet has ever succeeded, he did. Yet he has been idiotically deposed from the fulcrum he so carefully selected. He wrote not a single personal poem and yet every word is taught to students as the self-expression of an elate disk-jockey who made his scene with a poetry book, Way Back Yonder (but still pertinent, as he used symbols and sometimes undercut with irony).

Whitman's particular choral gesture is unique, but Johnson sees "the choral spirit and the choral gesture" in the work of many of the greatest modern poets: to name just a few, Yeats, Neruda, Akhmatova, Auden sometimes, Eliot in Four Quartets, Ginsberg in Howl and Kaddish and other poems, and of course Pound in many of the Cantos. Without denying that the choral impulse is present, among many others, in some of these poets, I would argue that Whitman was both beginning and end, in English anyway, of successful choral poetry, because the later poets, and perhaps even the later Whitman, could no longer believe that they spoke for all their people. Such a choral poetry requires a united polis (of the imagination, at least), and none such exists in the West today (nor, I would hazard, in the East, though some of the major Russian poets of this century wrote as if one did, and even today many poets in the USSR have the kind of followings we associate only with Rock stars; they play a clearly bardic role in their literary constituencies). So, although Johnson has his own choral Cantos, "composed of 2, 13, 45, 47, 49, 81, and 106," I would argue that Pound's massive poem can be seen as, among other marvelous things, what happens when a poet seeks to give a tongue to a nation only to find it doesn't exist, and that it probably wouldn't accept his voice for its own even if it did. But then, partly because he couldn't make it choral, and partly because of his hugely didactic purpose, the Cantos became and remains the prime philosophical/historical epic of English language modernist poetry. Yet even so, especially in some of the later moments when it begins to interrogate its own various failures, it will employ or deploy lyric against itself.


Perhaps there has always been lyric-against-lyric. Modern translations of many famous lyric poets of the deep past strike me as profoundly modern in voice and feeling. Of course, translations do tend to be for their own age (just look at the versions of Catullus by Jonson and Campion); nevertheless, the anti-lyric intention of some of these texts seems clear. We know Sappho's fragments were when whole of a formidable formal complexity. As I, like too many people today, have "small Latin and less Greek," I cannot relish the technical subtleties of her verse. Yet, when translated by someone like Mary Barnard (whose versions speak most fully to me), Sappho's poems sound extremely contemporary and very much the passionate speech of one person to another.

50              But you, monkey face

		At this, I loved you
		Long ago while you
		still seemed to me a
		small ungracious child

54              Afraid of losing you

		I ran fluttering
		like a little girl
		after her mother

If, as the critics suggest, she moved far closer to the common vernacular in her monodies than was conventionally the case in traditional Greek lyric of her day, or than she probably did in her choral poems, then we can perhaps call her one of the first lyric/anti-lyric poets. Again, the fragmentary nature of her poems as we have them robs us of the opportunity to see how complexly formal they were when complete. Nevertheless, what transcends translation in language, time, and space, is their emotional directness, a directness I associate with such contemporary poets as, say, John Newlove, Robert Creeley, or Denise Levertov, to name just a few who spring immediately to mind.

A reading of Catullus, at least in contemporary translations, reveals even more about early anti-lyric lyricism. Catullus was the gifted inheritor of what had become, in Latin, a purely literary form (as W. R. Johnson argues in The Idea of Lyric), and his success suggests that the lyric-against-itself is probably the product of a highly sophisticated if somewhat decadent civilization. I use the last term advisedly, for it's possible the anti-lyric lyric will tend to appear only after "lyric" has established itself as a tradition and only in the culture of large cities. At any rate, the voice of Catullus, as heard in the translations of C. H. Sisson or Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, would not seem out of place in many contemporary anthologies:

Caelius, my Lesbia and yours, Lesbia the great,
The great Lesbia, the very one Catullus loved
More than himself and all he ever had,
Now all roads lead to her, the city's bottleneck,
Deepthroat for suckers from Rome's noblest stem.
				(Raphael & McLeish)

Caelius, our Lesbia, Lesbia, that Lesbia
More loved by Catullus than any besides

--More than he loves himself and his pleasures--
Is now, in the alley-ways and even at cross-roads
Fucked by the noble sons of the Romans.

Yet in the original Latin, if I am to trust the critics and historians, the lyric finesse of the language and the complex control of the form surely create an appalling abysm between the beauty of the sound and the rhythm and the barely suppressed violence of jealous anger being expressed. These English versions lack that lyric punch; the poem might be more powerful were it couched in rhyming couplets or quatrains, some traditional form where the angry obscenity of the language would carry more of the original's outrageous shock value. I'm looking for a translation by the Earl of Rochester, I suppose, and only because I'm told the Latin of Catullus was of a formidably formal elegance. Somehow the satiric aspect of Catullus's poem (one of the factors which makes of it an anti-lyric lyric) seems to demand the conventional forms of an equally cynical period in English literary history. And yet my point, that the obscene as lyrical anti-lyrical cri de coeur is not new, even if it is extremely popular today, is best demonstrated by these translations as they stand.


In his recent Poetry as Discourse, Antony Easthope argues that the English tradition, from Sidney's time to Eliot's, forms a single discourse, one of the signs of which is the attempt in poetry to deny the enunciation (the speech-event) as much as possible in order to raise to an almost perfect presence the enounced (the narrated event, which could be the act of speaking of a specified speaker), an activity designed "to offer an absolute position to the reader as transcendental ego." Whether or not one agrees with Easthope's Derridean poetics, his points invite stimulating argument. He suggests that the poetic discourse of the fixed and transcendental ego began in the Renaissance, and offers a medieval ballad as an example of a floating or unfixed I/eye. At the end of his study, he examines Pound's poetry to show how, in the grand attempt "to break the pentameter, that was the first heave" (Canto 81), Pound also broke from the transcendental ego as fixed centre of the poem's universe. And, with this break, if we turn again to Abrams' definition of modern lyric with its "single speaker who expresses a state of mind" etc., we see that Pound's "heave" was determinedly anti-lyric, even in what we might still call lyrics: say his famous haiku-like poem of 1913:

	'In a Station of the Metro'"

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Easthope contrasts this poem with Eliot's "Morning at the Window," where, though "signifiers are given license to `float' in their own autonomy" it is "only so they can be correlative to an incoherent state of mind. In Pound the effect is always more radical." That is to say, although Eliot's poem undermines "the referential effect" and is therefore evidence "that language can no longer be treated as a transparent medium through which the represented speaker knows a supposedly external reality," there is still a single speaker who lyrically `recognizes' that `subject and object [can] no longer [be] represented as reciprocally held in place," and so, although certain (Easthope would say "conventional") aspects of "the referential effect" cannot be achieved, "the poem still represents a speaker, an `I' aware of itself and its feelings, even if these cannot be confidently assigned between external sensation and internal thought." How, in Pound's poem, in contrast, is the effect more radical?

Three phrases, the title being one, are juxtaposed without verbs. They are not unified as expressions of a state of mind and the reader is led to consider how these faces in the crowd are like -- and unlike -- petals on a bough, not to identify with a speaker represented as seeing things that way. With this poem Pound is well on his way to the theory of the ideogram. Though idiosyncratic, this outlines a programme for a complete break with the inherited poetic discourse.

And, one might add, a break with the conventions of lyric, even if the acute perceptual imagism of the poem still seems lyric to us. (And, parenthetically, I would not want to be misinterpreted as arguing that Pound, or any other modern or contemporary poet, has broken entirely with either traditional discourse or with lyric as a poetic possibility. The power of lyric in its myriad forms is too great; it tends to revive and renew itself in every generation. Pound continued to create lyrics after he wrote "in a Station of the Metro," but he also embarked on projects which transcended lyric -- the Cantos -- or subverted it -- "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley", which is a set of anti-lyrics, I believe, and seeing them as such, as containing what Easthope calls a "shifting `I'" when it appears in the Cantos, is another way of comprehending them without making what Donald Davie calls the common misreading of them "as if H. S. Mauberley . . . is no more than a transparent disguise for Pound himself.")

Yet the lyric impulse remains strong, and sometimes the idea of lyric, as a voice still to be contended with or recognized for its own sake, appears in the Cantos, that massive collection of voices and eyes (`I's). "Canto 75," for example, opens with seven lines of mixed rhetoric, in which, as Easthope remarks of "Canto 84," there is neither "a coherent enounced" nor "a consistent narrator or representative speaker":

	Out of Phlegethon!
out of Phlegethon,
		art thou come forth out of Phlegethon?
with Buxtehude and Klages in your satchel, with the
Stüdebuch of Sachs in yr/ luggage
			--not of one bird but of many

The seventh line points one way into what follows, but the staves and notes signal, equally clearly, the pure lyric cry, for when music is unheard (and Keats, you will recall, told us in one of his greatest lyrics that "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter" ["Ode on a Grecian Urn"]), it is nevertheless present, by implication, in the concept of lyric; and when what is printed is only the sign of music in the text of a poem, surely we are meant, certainly we are able, to perceive `lyric' at that moment of the text. Especially when that music, which, as Pound says in Guide to Kulchur, is "out of Arnaut (possibly), out of immemorial and unknown, [and] takes a new life on Francisco da Milano's lute." In various ways, then, our foremost pioneering modern poet held `lyric' up to question in his various writings, and that's one way of creating lyric/anti-lyric.


As I have suggested, one way of avoiding the conventional confines of lyric is to seek larger forms. Yet, for many poets, this desire is not allied with a desire to create epic or dramatic poems. This is especially true if we accept William Elford Rogers' definitions of the three genres, in his study, The Three Genres and the Interpretation of Lyric, as "modes of relation between the mind of the work and the world of the work." In Rogers' terms: in drama "the mind of the work" is given only "as the effect wrought by the world of the drama as it unfolds before us"; in epic, "the mind of the work tells instead of showing" and "we are given the things and events of the world not as self-subsistent entities, as in drama, but as thoughts in the mind of the narrator." In lyric, however, the signal "relational concept" is "community or reciprocity," which is to say "that it is impossible for the lyrical mind to present itself as detached from the lyrical world in the way that it is possible in drama or epic." I have over-simplified Rogers' complex argument; I am sure I do not usually use `lyric' as he wishes to use the term; and yet I think his version of the differences among the three genres is suggestive and potentially useful.

If Poe was the first one to call for long poems made up only of the "good parts" -- i.e., the moments of lyric intensity -- the poets have not always found the Poe poem easy to achieve. But recently a particular concept of extended form seems to come close to Poe's ideal. One of its practitioners, Robin Blaser, even calls it a narrative of sorts (which the terms of the Abrams definition would definitely make non-lyric, but not the terms of the Rogers one), in his essay, "The Fire":

I'm interested in a particular kind of narrative -- what Jack Spicer and I agreed to call in our own work the serial poem -- this is a narrative which refuses to adopt an imposed story line, and completes itself only in the sequence of poems, if, in fact, a reader insists upon a definition of completion which is separate from the activity of the poems themselves. The poems tend to act as a sequence of energies which run out when so much of a tale is told. I like to describe this in Ovidian terms, as a carmen perpetuum, a continuous song in which the fragmented subject matter is only apparently disconnected. Ovid's words are:

	to tell of bodies
	into new shapes
	you gods, whose power
	worked all transformations,
	help the poet's breathing,
	lead my continuous song
	from the beginning     to the present world

	"In nova ferat animus mutatas dicere formas
	corpora:  di, coeptis (nam vos mutastia et illas)
	aspirate meis, primaque ab origine mundi
	ad meo perpetuum deducite tempora carmen!"

The sequence of energies may involve all kinds of things -- anger may open a window, a sound from another world may completely reshape the present moment, the destruction of a friendship may destroy a whole realm of language or the ability to use it -- each piece is in effect an extended metaphor (another word is probably needed), because in the serial poem the effort is to hold both the correspondence and the focus that an image is, and the process of those things coming together -- so that the light from a white linen tablecloth reflects on the face of one's companion, becomes light, fire, and the white moth which happens to be in the room is also light in the dark around the table, and is thus both the light and the element of light that destroys it. I ask you to remember that every metaphor involves at least four elements -- which are a story, and the bringing them together is an activity, a glowing energy if stopped over, if entered. If the joy one feels in the sunny morning comes out as: the boat on the fire of the sea moves slowly to burn out -- the story is of a boat on the sea -- the fire is the sun on the water and the movement is of the boat, of the flow of the sun, and of the passing of the sun toward night. The joy of the movement is held a moment, then unfolds the story of the four elements, the boat and where it is, and the sun and what it is doing.

It is interesting to note that Blaser's final remarks here seem to hint at precisely the reciprocal relation between the mind and world of the work which Rogers speaks of.

In a statement on his own "The Moth Poem," which is a fine example of the serial poem, Blaser argues that "such poems deconstruct meanings and compose a wildness of meaning in which the I of the poet is not the centre but a returning and disappearing note." This is certainly true of "The Moth Poem," in which, though often in larger blocks than the often line-by-line shifts of focus in, say, Pound's "Pisan Cantos," the reader's sense of a "speaker" is continually subverted. So one of the purposes of such a poetic form is to rid the poet of "the lyric ego," a persona perhaps too powerfully conventionalized through four hundred years of English poetry to have much that is new left to say.

And yet, if one of the signs of lyric is, as W. R. Johnson suggests, its alignment with music, either by being written to be performed to music or else by being full of allusions to music, then "The Moth Poem" almost self-consciously insists on its lyric connections (even if the music alluded to is closer to that of John Cage than that of Fredric Chopin):

	'The Literalist'

the wind does not move on
to another place

bends into,
as in a mirror,

the moth in the piano
will play on
frightened wings brush
the wired interior
of that machine

I said, 'master'

The I/eye/s of this, the second poem in the sequence, watch what cannot be seen -- one kind of absence-in-presence -- and hear (barely) what can only be magic music issuing from the unlikely encounter of nature and machine; a `speaker' enters the poem clearly only in the final line, and then only to deny his normally privileged position by announcing the `other' and its power -- which is perceived only in the unseen and the almost unheard. Nevertheless, I think most readers would `hear' a lyric poem in this section, and in the other sections of "The Moth Poem," if only because we conventionally call a short poem full of physically apprehended details of perception and sensuous rhythms by that term.

What do we have in such a serial poem, then? Lyric straining against itself, perhaps, and a poetic discourse very much of that modern "heave" against the consolidations of what "the pentameter" stood for.


In his quick overview of modern lyric in the first chapter of The Idea of Lyric, W. R. Johnson argues that what has gone wrong with lyric in modernist literature is the loss of "a speaker, or singer, talking to, singing to, another person or persons, often, but not always, at a highly dramatic moment in which the essence of their relationship, of their `story,' reveals itself in the singer's lyrical discourse, in his praise or blame, in the metaphors he finds to recreate the emotions he seeks to describe." As he sees it, two kinds of poem have replaced this pure form of lyric: meditative poetry, "in which the poet talks to himself or to no one in particular"; and a poetry "in which the poet disappears entirely and is content to present a voice or voices or a story without intervening in that presentation directly." One thing is obvious here: Johnson's notion of the person in the poem is precisely that which Easthope seeks to call in question in his study of Poetry as Discourse. However, whether or not we perceive the person in the poem as a fixed or constantly shifting entity, it is possible to see the meditative poem, which Johnson associates with the Romantics through to Eliot and his inheritors, as having changed the grounds by which "lyric" was judged.

Johnson does not deny that lyrics of the "I-You" type he prefers have continued to appear, but he seems to feel they are in a distinct minority and appears unaware of recent developments, pointing instead to the creation of a "fiction of the singer and his audience" in the poems of Yeats, and to the self-conscious death of lyric in the poems of Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. Yet, it seems to me that we can see in much contemporary poetry a striking return to pure lyric, and to the kind of anti-lyric lyric I have provisionally associated with Catullus. Which is to say no more, perhaps, than that one way of defining lyric/anti-lyric is to note that such definition can only occur in contrast to a rather sentimental definition of lyric.

It is in this context that the often savagely honest poems of Robert Creeley or John Newlove, for example, might be treated as lyric/anti-lyric. Yet one of Newlove's toughest such poems deliberately calls attention to the lyric qualities it simultaneously denies and affirms. It continues "the old pronominal forms of solo lyric" and insists that it is song, yet its "songs" are, one might say, atonal, deliberately flat, denying the conventional `music' of traditional verse. The personal emotions it expresses are anger, frustration, despair, and, of course, the lyric emotion, desire.

		"No Use Saying to Whom"

No use saying to whom these
four songs are addressed.

1.      Even being near her eases me;
	away I am distraught and sick,

2.      All my friends are my enemies,
	they want her to stay with that man,
	knowing nothing.

3.      No use blaming them, because they
	do not know what is happening
	in this house.

4.      When you are gone my face falls
	into its natural frown; you are
	the bitterness left in my mouth.

No use saying to whom these
songs are addressed; you know.

In fact, the first three "songs" try to maintain a distance from Johnson's "old pronominal forms" by insisting on the third person of both friends and lover; but the final "song" and the coda, a near-repeat of the opening lines, focuses the pain which has suffused the whole.

The next poem in Moving in Alone seems to follow up the hints of illicit love in "no Use Saying to Whom." Of course, illicit love has been a moving force in lyric poetry from time immemorial, and at least from the Troubadours to modern Country & Western music (and the question of popular music's lyric qualities is an important one, although pop song lyrics are not usually studies as examples of poetic speech). Illicit love is given something of a new, and anti-lyric, twist in "Nothing Is to be Said," where intensely physical sensation crashes into the poem leading to a series of recognitions on the speaker's part, the final one of which is savagely, painfully, comic, and brings into focus a figure usually kept out of such love poems:

Everything ends once
and cannot be recovered,
even our poor selves

Your tongue thrusts into my mouth
violently and I am lost,
nothing is to be said.  I am plunged
into the black gap again.

 It is not to be endured
easily, unthought of, never
to be dismissed with ease.

What can I do.  My hand
shakes on the page.  Knowing
I am criminality, there is '
nothing I can do.

Ah, I can't go home
and make love to her either,
pretending it's you.

Both these poems are lyric by either Abrams' or Johnson's definitions -- or are they? What distinguishes them and other poems like them from what we have conventionally taken to be lyric is their refusal of so many of the traditional rhetorical properties of verse -- especially the various tropes? Aside from Newlove's obvious delight in flouting lyrical thematic conventions, the minimalism of such poems clearly asserts their anti-lyric nature, and yet, in their "measure," as William Carlos Williams uses the term, they achieve, for me, a real and often intense musicality, not attached to metre but to the flow of the large rhythmical unit of the stanza, or the verse paragraph. As in this poem by Robert Creeley:

 `The Language'

Locate I
love you some-
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little.  Words
say everything.

love you

then what
is emptiness
for.  To

fill, fill.
I heard words
and words full

of holes
aching.  Speech
is a mouth.

As Thom Gunn points out, Creeley "has gone beyond, or behind, the classic twentieth-century split between image and discourse: he does not attempt sharpness of physical image, and the discursive part of the poetry is more aptly termed `assertion'." The real course such a poem follows "is that of the mind, wandering, but at the same time trying to focus in on its own wandering and to map a small part of its course accurately and honestly, however idiosyncratic that course may seem to be -- idiosyncratic in its pace, in its syntax, even in its subject-matter. In attuning our voices to that mind, in paying our full attention to the way it moves and shifts, we become part of its own attentiveness and can share in `the exactitude of his emotion'." Is such idiosyncrasy lyric? Anti-lyric? Yes, and no. It is the kind of poetry I had in mind when I first thought of this topic, and it still seems to me to fit the concept. Moreover, Creeley is but one of many contemporary poets who have subverted the modernist aesthetic of separate persona and who must be read, at least in part, as speaking for themselves, however `open' and `free-flowing' those selves may be. If "modernist lyric" is what Johnson perceived it as, a form of poetry without an "I" which speaks directly to a "thou," contemporary lyric in poems like Creeley's insists upon the poet's speaking self. And in their retrieval of the poet's self as poetic speaker, such poems attack the idea of a modernist lyric.


In his essay on the contemporary Canadian Long Poem, Robert Kroetsch re/calls a poem whose lyric intensities seldom fail to impress the reader/listener, and whose affinities to the passionate lyrics of the greatest woman poet of Greece are not hard to trace. Our interest in the discrete, in the occasion.

Trace: behind many of the long poems of the 1970s in Canada is the shadow (Jungian?) of another poem, a short long poem.

1965: Phyllis Webb, Naked Poems.

A kind of hesitation even to write the long poem. Two possibilities: the short long poem, the book-long poem. Webb, insisting on that hesitation. On that delay. On nakedness and lyric and yet on a way out, perhaps a way out of the ending of the lyric too, with its ferocious principles of closure, a being compelled out of lyric by lyric:

the poet, the lover, compelled towards an ending (conclusion, death, orgasm: coming) that must, out of love, be (difference) deferred. Kroetsch is, of course, pursuing his particular poetic passions here. Webb is simply pursuing passion, to speak or sing it as clearly as possible. I am interested in what he says about her poem because he points to its lyric/anti-lyric aspects. Naked Poems is (in my opinion) a serial poem of sorts, but though it breaks away from lyric (love) song in its final three sections, the first two "suites" are exquisite in their (sometimes literal, always deliberate) mouth music. Yet, if the voice of these two "suites" is fairly stable (while in the final three it disappears or dissipates into a chorus of possible "I"s), it can be tenuous in the extreme. Not "Sappho" nor "Catullus" pleading; just a body (in time) timelessly speaking/making love:


and here and
and over     and
over     your mouth

The merest abstractions, except for the final word: a conjunction; an adverb of place(ment); an adverb expressing temporal repetition, yet also figuring its other meanings of height, and "in excess" or "beyond what has been said"'; a possessive pronoun (carefully unfocussed insofar as nowhere is the second person ever identified any further) expressing by this point in the poem an extreme possession -- but on whose behalf; and one noun, very physical, yet with the implications of speech (indeed, the specially privileged speech of love/making) definitely there. That one concrete word is itself abstracted in the music of this poem. Like all the other terms it tends to float free of signification, to become pure signifier-in-action. All the words in this poem are things-in-themselves, and, as Antony Easthope would argue, the enunciation, the speech-act, becomes far more important than the enounced, the narrated event. Or rather, the narrated event exists only in the speech-act, this intensely physical fragment of broken song which is not simply song but dance.

Indeed, I have always felt that the first two suites of Naked Poems were a series of exquisitely turned gestures, which is surely one possible definition of dance. Many of these gestures could be defined as "lyrical," of course, but their appearance, here, in the midst of a series of fragmented moments of perception and insight, in the midst that is of a continuing serial narrative of enunciation, makes them something else as well. still the central movement of the following section of "Suite II" surely deserves the adjective:

In the gold darkening

you dressed.

I hid my face
in my hair.

The room that held you
is still here.

In this tiny pas-de-deux, the focal gesture is one lovers would recognize at any period from at least Sappho's to our own. In "Non Linear," Webb shifts focus and, in a typical post-Cantos move, floats the "I," the putative speaker, so that from fragment to fragment no particular voice speaks. The same is true of "Suite of Lies" (the title of which once again alludes to music), which is gnomic in the extreme as it moves to this ambiguous finale:

the way of what fell
the lies
like the petals
falling drop

In "Some Final Questions," Webb seems to offer us a duet and therefore two `fixed' voices, but there is music on only one side and that is part of the lyric/anti-lyric point. Moreover, who, precisely, speaks? The questioner is legion; the respondent is any poet; and since to question poetry's impulses is to deny the possibilities of poetic speech, only one voice achieves lyricism here, and it finally seems to disappear in silence -- or do "we disappear" instead, "in the musk of [the Priestess of/Motion's] coming," as the text prayed earlier? Either way, Naked Poems is, for me, not only the poem in whose shadow so many later Canadian long poems stand, but also the poem which taught us once again how we might write (sing) love without being trapped by what Kroetsch calls the "ferocious principles of closure" of the conventional lyric.


An instance of what might be called "specific intertextuality" -- that is, what a number of contemporary writers have agreed to call "homolinguistic translation" ('translation' by a variety of methods from one language into the same language) -- definitely denies the lyric impulse as we generally understand it, even when the results may appear lyric, upon first reading. This denial of lyric is especially obvious when the original text is a lyric.

Steve McCaffery has given us a series of homolinguistic translations of Mary Barnard's Sappho (which is itself a `real translation from another language) in Intimate Distortions: a displacement of Sappho. His number "Fifty" has a lyric feel which some of his other ones clearly deny, yet the very fact that its `voice' emerges from some point intermediate to Barnard, McCaffery, and, yes, Sappho, means that that `voice' is no longer truly that of a lyric individual but rather that of a contemporary deconstructive process:

Same's not similar

& long ago
is now

in this remembering.

i'm remembering
your childhood &
i'm facing that in you

facing you
facing your face

as then i did you did so

long to come to be
come now.  

In their much more stringent refusals of traditional lyric modes, "Twenty Three" and "Sixty Two" achieve an even greater distance from both their originals while simultaneously providing a contemporary commentary on them:

23              And their feet move

		Rhythmically, as tender
		feet of Cretan girls
		danced once around an

		altar of love, crushing
		a circle in the soft
		smooth flowering grass

		in      crete
		dis     crete

		con     crete
		indis   crete

		in      crete

		on      crete

		dis     crete
		con     crete

		in      crete

62              The nightingale's

		The soft-spoken
		announcer of
		Spring's presence

		nightingale on

		M.C. of

In "Sixty Two," McCaffery plays wittily with contemporary connotations of English words. His "Twenty Three" is much more radical in both form and playful wit. It insists on the concrete-presence-as-enunciation of the words on the page; it plays with both English idiom and Greek and Latin echoes in the words. I find these poems delightful in their lightly born iconoclasm, but they make lyric itself no more than a trace of original texts, to be detected, if at all, only as literary artifact, ingeniously "artifantasized."

Somewhat similar in effect, though in intensity it is much closer to what we expect form lyric, is the following poem by one of Canada's foremost experimental writers, Christopher Dewdney. As its title implies, it too exists between voices: as the speaker is only the "Poem using lines spoken by Suzanne" (my italics), so too the "you" of the text floats free from particular signification, or else is no more than an absolute signifier, trapped forever in the dream of language which is the poem:

'Poem using lines spoken by Suzanne'

What you feel as your body
is only a dream.  The mind also
is a slave.  You are asleep.
You are asleep, what you feel
as your mind is only a dream.  The
dream also, is only a slave.
You are a dream, what you feel
as your slave is only a mind.
The body also is a mind.  You
are asleep
in the gentle theft of time.     (time)

"Boreal Electric" is more a `standard' Dewdney poem, if such a term can be applied to his work. Here the epigraph (significantly a graffito, as if to say, only on walls will we now find a conventional lyric speech of any sincerity) recycles the lyric ego and his suffering, but the text itself, though it contains some "I"s and some "she"s which could possibly signify people or voices, is an extreme case of self-conscious enunciation swallowing all of the possible enounced:

"Boreal Electric'

For my lady, keeper of my wound.


She is the twilight intangible, a thin instruction
burning within the envelope generators.  Alter
sublime in the cenozoic asylum.  And
I am case-hardened.  Natty causal an
auto-facsimile.  Denoting cold fire.
There is nothing sentimental
about these rocks.  I am
the envelope generator growling
in the shifting code facsimiles of night.

Zone traces.  Indigo.

I would have her mouth the words
'statutory rape' slowly.  Arrested
for intent to denote this line.
This lodestar being visible only
to the discerning eye.

The disconcerting eye.

As these examples demonstrate, and I could find many more like them in contemporary Canadian and American poetry, the outward forms of lyric are infinitely capable of what McCaffery calls distortion and what I might call formal subversion: lyric/anti-lyric in another of its guises.


Christopher Dewdney showed great perspicacity in suggesting that graffiti are one home for conventional lyric texts today. The other home is popular song, of course, which traverses quite a ground, from the sophisticated lyrics of Cole Porter and his ilk to the high romance of Smokey Robinson and his. Yet, who would dare to suggest that "Ooh, Baby, Baby" or "The Tracks of My Tears" are not lyric in the grand tradition? Not I. In so far as popular music has become the common home of lyric sentiment, it has also developed its own kind of anti-lyric material. The Rolling Stones have given us examples of both kinds, though they are mostly associated with anti-lyric. And where would we place one of the best and most popular songs of the past year, The Police's "Every Step You Take," whose message Catullus would have no problem identifying (with)?

What is most interesting about contemporary rock music at its best is that it is a kind of technological folk art. Some songs, like certain of Bob Dylan's or David Bowie's, to choose two highly crafty manipulators of conventions, say "I" but present no specific "I" to see with. Rather, such songs speak (or sing) for an everyman (everywoman) who is whichever person happens to be listening to or singing them at any one moment. It is too easy to dismiss all pop music as cynical exploitation of its audience's feelings, for the best and most interesting examples speak for a whole `community' as folk music once did. In so far as the "I" therefore slides away from its writer's ego to embrace the unknown throng, it slips the reins of conventional lyric to become a kind of vox populi. No transcendent ego, of the kind Easthope sees in traditional English lyric discourse, remains, but rather an open, sliding voice we can all slip into if we so wish.


A short list of potential contributors to a possible anthology of lyric/anti-lyric: these are some of the recent writers in English whose poems, or some of whose poems, fit into this elastic category (I would not attempt even a short list of such writers in languages other than English for I do not know the literatures of such languages well enough, yet it's obvious there must be many potential contributors to a possible international anthology: Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, Jorge Luis Borges, C. P. Cavafy, Paul Celan, Eugene Gomringer, Ernst Jandl, Stephane Mallarmé, Francis Ponge, Tristan Tzara, to name but a few of the most obvious): John Ashbery, Paul Blackburn, E. D. Blodgett, Basil Bunting, Wayne Clifford, Frank Davey, Diane di Prima, H.D., Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Brian Fawcett, Artie Gold, Ronald Johnson, Robert Kroetsch, Dennis Lee, Denise Levertov, Daphne Marlatt, Jackson MacLow, Gwendolyn MacEwan, David McFadden, Michael McLure, W. S. Merwin, Marianne Moore, Stephen Morrisey, Erin Mouré, bp Nichol, John Nold, Michael Ondaatje, Frank O'Hara, Charles Olson, Michael Palmer, Marge Piercy, Al Purdy, Monty Reid, Adrienne Rich, Jerone Rothenberg, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, Gertrude Stein, Sharon Thesen, John Thompson, Fred Wah, Diane Wakoski, Wilfred Watson, John Weiners, Jon Whyte, Jonathan Williams, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, plus of course the poets whose work I have already mentioned. And there are many more.


If Robert Kroetsch was right to point to Phyllis Webb's endeavour in Naked Poems as an attempt to evade lyric's "ferocious principles of closure," then perhaps what my exploration of the concept of anti-lyric has led to is a form which attempts to slip the "ferocious principles of closure" of the traditional literary essay. "Lyric/anti-lyric" now seems to me to be best understood as a signifier with a myriad of floating signifieds, some of which I hope I have indicated in these notes. Since I have refused the temptation of a conclusion, I can only hope I have opened up some possibilities worth exploring further.


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An edited version of this article appeared in Line.