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LYRIC COMPANIONS Susan Stewart “First Idyll”

FIRST IDYLL

A long strand of ivy wound round and round the lip

of a cup, a wooden cup carved from boxwood

that grew for a thousand years.

My cousin has a little goat, black

and white, with a delicate

hoof that looks like

onyx from a distance,

and like coal when

you come close

enough to touch it.

from CINDER: New and Selected Poems by Susan Stewart (Graywolf Press, 2017)

CONTEXT There is something prior to the determinate but not a mere indeterminacy. It has an excess more than all determinations, as well as more than we can subject to self-determination. There is a “too muchness” that has a primordial givenness that enables determinacy, that companions self-determination, yet also exceeds or outlives these. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal. P. 423

The paranoia of our “transhifting” times further isolates contemplative pursuits and to read poems for enjoyment requires apology. Guilty pleasures indeed spring from the pandora’s box of the perplexity of form and meaning. The disciplines required by this “spiritual exercise” (Hadot) once deemed irrelevant atrophy; poetry, especially the lyric, is considered antisocial.

Lyric was born contested and contesting grander genres like Epic, as we recall reading Susan Stewart’s “First Idyll.” As referring to ‘a description in verse or prose of picturesque scene or incident, esp. in rustic life’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 1967), “Idyll” is both vague in reference and energized by difference, a situation deepened by its etymology, diminuative for Ancient Greek for “form.” Compare sonnet’s root in ‘little sound.’

This contextualization of poetic form was common in the early days of modernism, and drew on the vast antiquarian learning of the Renaissance. Pound, for all his iconoclastic bull-in-a-china shop behavior, was a ‘hunter of form.’ Susan Stewart, whose life-work engages the breadth of the human sciences, has a way of breathing new life into long neglected forms of life. The seemingly one-off casual quality of “First Idyll” repays close reading.

As communicated by this poem, theres a too muchness to Idyll. The opening sounds conventional enough, a description of ivy vines carved into the wooden (boxwood) handle of a drinking cup. Drink is essential to idyllic song. There’s a too-muchness in the winding, in the drinking, in the survival of the artifact. There’s an ontological shock delivered by the mere existence of this cup— that it is at all. Moving from the opening description, which has become deeply saturated with the equivocity of its very thereness, the poem seems to leap to a new subject. Thinking about it, the “little goat” may jump out of the carved illustration on the cup.

As CONTEXT I’ve cited Desmond from the Glossary of “ The Intimate Universal, “ one of his more difficult and crucial coinages. It is relevant to the study of form as referring to the enabling givenness of a primordial energy, well characterized as “too much.” The overdeterminate upsets the modernist applecart of clear and simple truths.

Lyric narrative form teaches us patience in transitions. The poet’s cousin’s “little goat” is carefully (“objectively”) described. Care is taken with perspective. We approach the goat with aesthetic appreciation based on norms from beyond the life of the farm; “onyx” echoes “boxwood” in more ways than one. Realism has a way of surprising Idyll as any student of pastoral can attest. Here up close the onyx (we note onyx is etymologically linked to Ancient Greek for “fingernail”) hooves turn visually to coal.

Coal: the substratum of organic matter. Without missing a beat the poem, by getting closer and closer to the little goat, gains in reference to a degree of “overdeterminacy” befitting the topic of “First Idyll.” So this very small lyric has the thrust of a charged “essay” into the foundations of our thinking about thinking about form. But the poem itself escapes the self-limitations of thought with the companionable excesses of lyric. A lyric’s whole is always more than any concept of itself, which “concept as whole or principle of unity” is the tradition of academic form that lyric perpetually protests.

PRACTICING LYRIC Geraldine Clarkson “She has the words—“

from MONICA’s OVERCOAT OF FLESH (Nine Arches Press 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE Music as form that is forming and formless, as intimate and yet as more than itself, as universal speaking to all, even those who resist. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (2016), 91.

Geraldine Clarkson’s first book, as opposed to chapbook, has a breadth and depth that challenge the reader. It is a challenge posed by the more challenging approaches to what has been routinely called spiritual or religious experience. (See now Marin Dubois, Gerard Manly Hopkins and the Poetry of Religious Experience (Cambridge, 2017.) Put it this way, nobody is quite sure what James meant by “experience.” Not to mention “religious.”

To what experience of words does Clarkson’s She had the words refer? The opening of the poem provides a rich sense of this. We get a snapshot of this sense of the word “words” in the title— like when you find your self saying “I have the words, I know what I mean, but …” THAT experience of words.

It’s an experience of words assumed by, say, The Four Quartets, so it’s not peculiar to Clarkson. That said, her way of imagining the subconscious life of words seems distinctly her own, which is important because readers of lyrics expect that. The narrative here has many “values” in the sense assumed by the wine taster’s palate. These words experience the seasons, shrink back from summer/fall’s liminal (that sill or threshold) abundance to winter’s groggy, skeletal shroud. They experience fits of resistance to oblivion, waving ambiguously but vigorously (take the word order, to what realm of experience does it belong?).

So from the acknowledgment of the tenuous claims on sense exerted by words to the rather brilliant image of their quite proper self-love in most keep their sugar/for themselves (not only to but for themselves), we face the abyss. It’s just possible for the poet to rest in the chaos of the words themselves. Some poets do. That is a way of defining the ultimately senseless poetic that seems to credential numberless poets today.

But Clarkson follows the lyric narrative by imagining a new life for words, that we call the metaxu. This space disavows the certainties of deterministic concepts and, on the other hand, the narcissistic life provided by the poet’s self-determined autonomy. The last five lines of the poem are predicated by “unless.” That is, on condition that someone / else may be counted on. Not the public, not the tradition, not the poet’s self….

Now the poem invokes the metaxu. The imaginative space of creation as invoked by the word order. If Clarkson were W. H. Auden we might know what she means by order, to wit, something out of the chummy catholic tradition. The metaxu has no index to such Meaning. Whatever order means in this poem’s between flows from the unconscious life, threatened by disasters underground that force them to the surface (her reframing of Plato’s cave?) to the promise of this singular word order. That is, to the metaxical openness to what is other to thought thinking itself. To the finite singular other as imagined by the poet in this poem as the voice of if not of the poet herself then of her poem. To this intimate universal referred to in the FIELD OF REFERENCE as “music.”

So in light of She has the words what she has is belief in the music of the words she has.

Rock on, Geraldine!

PRACTICING LYRIC Geraldine Clarkson “caress”

your touch/more darkly styled/than your kiss/twists/my insides/like table linen/in the red handed grip/of Irish washerwomen

from Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh (Nine Arches Press 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE Determinate beings have an overdeterminate singularity that speaks of the marvel of the “that it is at all” of their being. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL 165

This very small poem carries an electric shock far beyond its look on the page. How so?

Clarkson has crafted a flow of connections out of human consciousness: the flow looks and feels spontaneous. She wasn’t thinking of metaphysics when she wrote the poem. Still: The flow is from the determinate — “your kiss” — about which there is no doubt; to the indeterminate —“more darkly styled than”; through the self-determinate (“my insides”). It ends in the metaxu.

These categories belong to philosophy, namely that of William Desmond, a contemporary Irish philosopher (see FIELD OF REFERENCE). The agon between philosophy and poetry is as old as Plato and as new as post-modernism. It adds relish and a profound originality to one’s enjoyment of lyric.

The ending of caress enters a fourth dimension of being: the finite singular other. Here it is introduced as a simile— once again, the quick finesse of the poet assures the reader’s receiving the shock of immediacy. There is literally no way to anticipate the particulars of the simile. The visual and tactile impact is sudden and wrenching. Desmond has a word for this mode of being, the overdeterminate. He takes the prefix “over” from philosophical and mystical traditions. It refers to the incalculable, the giveness, the singularity of the finite other. One might almost say its infinity. The phrase “red handed grip” comes out of the blue (and red)but fulfills the job and then some: to express the “that it is at all.”

Such exegesis is the pastime of the lover of lyric. It eventually brings the lyric within one’s practice of living. (Close reading has roots in what Pierre Hadot presents in his life work as spiritual exercise.) Reading lyric mindfully restores one’s awareness of having a home for oneself in the metaxu, the between where one’s finite nature opens toward an awareness of thinking the other than thought. The last piece of a lyric is often an image of of the “that it is at all.”

The elaborated nature of the final image has a polyvocal spread. Consider, it seems to say in its lavish particularity, the behavior of linen in water. Absorbent. Resilient. As bodies wracked by Eros. As tablecloths in the red hands of washerwomen. The speaker glancingly reveals a bit about herself, perhaps. The simile fills the moment to overfilling. This is the sign of metaxu: the between space a space of passionate encounter as of the original lovers Lack and Plenty in Plato’s myth in the Symposium.

Because the lyric reconnects our minds to orders of being that get lost in chaotic times, the lyric is enjoying new popularity. Where there is smoke there’s fire. Great lyrics— from Sappho to Horace down to Baudelaire and Celan — are rare, but they are trustworthy. They repay ardent attention with an overwhelming gift of understanding oneself.

LYRIC REFLECTIONS Geraldine Clarkson “His Wife in the Corner”

from MONICA’S OVERCOAT OF FLESH (Nine Arches Press 2020)


Lyric deserves more critical attention. It is clearly the genre of the moment.

On reflection, a great lyric embodies the experience of threshold, or attention to transitions within an aesthetic (open) whole of poetry. Minor as it presents itself, His Wife in the Corner presents multiple thresholds that comprise the poem’s dynamic. Thresholds include aspects of the poem’s voice— present, past, self and other; temporal frame (then, now, and a narrative past —that vodka bottle); and attitudes or aspects, distinguishable here in terms of the points of view of the poet as prismatic for man, woman, and (inner?) child. Not to mention the fang-dang urgent message.

The concept of threshold helps us with the old idol unity. There’s a heterogeneity to lyric that defeats the expectation, nay hope, of perfectly expressive communication. But the plurivocity of lyric also defeats the cop-out of nihilism. The self or suchness of the poem, however complex, selves, to paraphrase Hopkins, and that movement, as articulated by the thresholds, is a matter not of determinate knowledge of, say, certain modes of self-consciousness, but of finesse, even of desire.

Some readers will detect in the complexity of His Wife in the Corner a blank from which to settle the scores between the parties. For example, confronting the most obvious option, in what sense is this a “feminist” poem? Indeed, ask that question of the whole book. Or try this: does this poem, this book, assume an authorial point of view inseparable from Christianity?

One final point: The concept of Threshold, indebted to the ultimate notion of plurivocal wholeness, seems to keep the given poem open to the reader’s own “selving.” However we frame it, Clarkson’s poem recapitulates the art of lyric as practicable in light of post-Romantic developments. I like to think of it this way: in light of contemporary debates, the lyric has a dog in the fight with nihilism, boredom, anti-intellectualism, and other popular diversions. For the critical reader, it’s an exciting thing to see. We seem to be in a revival of lyric. Lyric may be the genre par excellence of reflection on limits of our ability to express ourselves satisfactorily.

LYRIC PERFORMANCES Geraldine Clarkson “You taught me a new way of singing”

the words thick in my throat— like birds caroling, cat calls, badger / jazz, and all manner of tunes squirreled away / for the future. The lessons burned in my gullet / until in my tum I had taught them to others—/ and the two, three, four, seven of us/ were singing together and jamming—/ thrumming and humming, stipple-/ tonguing in clots and gobs of sound–/ dribbling and sliding, colliding in chords / and climbing, seven-handed, a knotted / bat’s-cradled tree-house skirling with hymns—/ us busking in Basque, arabesque —/ you bosky, you buzzing, you clopping in time.

from Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh (Nine Arches Press 2020)

FIELD Of REFERENCE For autonomy can take a rhapsodic form, as in Nietzsche, as well as a rational form, as in Kant. The moderating power of genuine friendship, its qualitative “evening,” proves important once again. It rescues freedom from both rationalistic calculation and the anonymous universal. The friend is a singular human, and the friendship of excellence can also keep us from the baser equivocities of some rhapsodic forms. Why? Because it is bound to a personal name. The personal name of friendship gives anchor or ballast to the rhapsodic energies of joy. There are no anonymous orgies of friendship. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL (Columbia University Press 2016)

Geraldine Clarkson’s first book MONICA’S OVERCOAT OF FLESH is receiving rave reviews. There are many things to praise here: a searing compassion, a many-colored technique, a complex but confident music comparable to Celtic song. Above all is the choral nature of the praise: this book is a happening.

To go deeper into this phenomenon I’ve chosen one of the shorter poems, a sort of ars poetica. Readers of this blog will recognize some of the structural themes, starting with the second person pronoun, but also the increasingly charged interplay of verbal equivocity and conceptual dialectic.

So, who’s this you? It’s instantly followed by me—my throat. But not before some playful equivocity: the reader may do a double take at “thick in my throat.” Not “stick in my throat”? Well, yes, that too.

The verbal thickness of the style requires successive performances: at first, second, third… glance there is no way to master this text conceptually. As a proper lyric it pushes off the terra firma of the opening: I mean it says that singing lessons from many species “burned in my gullet”— the past tense and an autobiographical hook offers a narrative before from which to launch the future (of) song.

Not pausing that sentence becomes the flow to the end. It is a flow of others. Others conceived as specific non-verbal, non-rational expressions of individual voices. The ache in the throat releases two, three, four, seven of us… Then an extraordinary chaos of voices imitating the selving (via Hopkins notably and Joyce and…) of voices.

It is no blur. It is loud perhaps but not pointless. Clarkson’s vision of this new way of singing draws on the oldest “forms” or purposes of selving sounds: praise. Say: Poetic sound is originally and terminally liturgical. Its “end” is not the pure concept or the individual self refolded into an original unity. It is the sound of the finite, singular, intimate other. As in a riff on Augustine’s identity crisis in Confessions. Intimate because more “inner” than any conceptual outer. But also higher than any one you.

Clarkson “shows” what she means but can’t say in so many words (a move crucial to lyric concluding): busking in Basque, arabesque invokes the hooked cross of the Basque “lauburu” or four-headed cross, which is immediately compared with/to another cultural pattern, the arabesque. This epiphany of form suddenly took me back to my youth in the big den chair in Bakersfield exploring word origins in my foxed Partridge and dazzled and numbed by Celtic interlace as a universal voicing of me.

AND FINALLY: the lyric “you” behind the all-performing mask. Who? Bosky, buzzing, clopping— that’s who. See the FIELD OF REFERENCE for a philosophical gloss. This “you” is more intimate than any name, in friendship with mortal others it makes music out of potentially riotous energies of selving. Lyric unity is irreducibly plural, harmonious. Clarkson’s ars poetica is all about friendship.

LYRIC PERFORMANCES Andrew Wynn Owen “Sand Grains”

Almost not anything at all, this particle // Of disconnected shell, /yet squirreling and shot / Through with a chutzpah fit for Frank Lloyd Wright.// Sheer angled mell, // A plankton’s cot, / It chuckles mischief, challenging the light. //A mineature motel, / Where some deceptive plot // Might stumble, after rambling on an article

Of lace, to solve its long-pursued conundrum. // Eureka. Awe. A crux / Hounded between the trees // For donkey’s years, corroborated. Truly, / Eternal flux / (Whatever wheeze // We try to pull), although it seem unruly, / Yields reverence redux. / As everybody sees // Sooner or later, nothing here is humdrum.

from New Poetries 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

NB Double // signifies a flush left return. Sorry. The poem is beautifully self-conscious in the respect of line action as in all others. Buy the book and see.

FIELD OF REFERENCE Such a practice of philosophy asks a porosity of mindful thought to what exceeds complete determination in terms of finite immanence alone. It is a participant in this middle, does not overreach it from the outside, and if it is, as it were, lifted up from within, it too is always defined by passages in the between. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (Columbia University Press 2016), 167.

Desmond’s phrase ”lifted up from within” suggests the dynamic of Owen’s poetry. The armchair physicist contemplating the quantum paradigm will feel the pull of this dynamic, as will the lover of lyric saturated with English poems from Thomas Traherne to Auden to now. Owen is excessively charged with the givens and gifts of a tradition too easily categorized as mystical. (The reconsideration of the mystical after William James and the experiential hypothesis is one of the more massive eruptions/disruptions of the post-post symbolic era.)

Reconfiguring Blake’s grain of sand might be considered the daydream of a fictive country parson but following Owen’s syntax draws on intellectual and emotional competences rooted in the performative practice of lyric.

Shaping the lines — an aspect not well served by my format — is a mindfulness in excess of Marianne Moore’s laconic style. Swerving in its references from obscure etymologies — mell as in honey— to narrative exempla on the scale of Frank Lloyd Wright— Owen’s oceanic flux of verbal energy follows what we refer to as the lyric chiasm, the inside/ outside vortex that grounds the poem in the honesty of “whatever wheeze / we try to pull.”

Owen’s voice includes the outside skepticism of the inside wonder. Teetering on the edge of inanity is one of his specialties and lifts his poems up from within while acknowledging the frailty of the flesh of the chiasm.

The poem’s essential lyric argument opens at last on not the self-serving wholistic self but on the syntax of “sooner or later, nothing here.” The otherness of the finite other beyond thinking is well within sight. Owen is among the few poet’s today who know how to reach that pitch without self-conscious (and self-defeating) irony. We recall perhaps with a mixture of chagrin and gratitude how, in the words of the author’s preface, “wrong it would be to forget how to be loving.”

In a word, at our best, we are all “passages in the between” as envisioned here.

LYRIC PERFORMANCE Horace “To the Poet Tibullus”

Albius, honest reader of my poems, / What shall I say you are doing, out there in the country? / At work on a poem to outdo Cassius? / Taking a calm salubrious walk in the woods, / And thinking thoughts that are worthy of yourself? // You never were a body without a soul./ The gods gave you good looks and they gave you money, / And gave you the art of being pleased with their gifts. / What more could a governess want for the sweet child she raises, / Than that he should know and that he be able to say / What’s honest and right, and that he should act upon it, / And that he be granted favor and fame and good health, / And the money to live an agreeable kind of life? // Between hope and discouragement, fears, and angers, and such, / Treat every new day as the last you’re going to have, / Then welcome the next as unexpectedly granted. / / When you want a good laugh, you’ll find me here, in the pink, / A pig from Epicurus’s sty, fat, sleek, well cared for.

from The Epistles of Horace translated by David Ferry (FSG 2001)

FIELD OF REFERENCE The incognito generosity shows a surplus of affirmative “to be” as good that is always at work, though it be driven out of the foreground of our picture of things. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal (Columbia University Press, 2016)

NB: in all my writing about lyric I owe so much to my Berkeley teacher W. R. Johnson and his indispensable book The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (California, 1982)

The voice in lyric is a problematic thing and gets a lot of attention on this blog. Modern lyric since Baudelaire has featured the alienated, ironic, voice. Which means in practice that the first person and second person pronouns lack a foundation in the Common sense world of the reader. So coming upon the “epistles” or literary letters of Horace (65-27 BCE) can be a shock to the system and inoculate the reader from any challenge to it. We instantly file it under irrelevant.

A quick google check will discover that Horace has always been considered thanks to his Odes a master of lyric. We may learn that after publishing his monumental three-volume book of Odes, he turned to a new form of short poem. They drew on philosophical traditions of conversation. Looking at one closely reveals lyric form as we discuss it at Lyric Investigations.

Indeed, my dear reader (!) will recognize many of the essential moves of lyric. The opening scene defers in some key way to the world shared by poet and reader. Then the loosening of our hold on that world as our language loosens into its equivocal status. As that move deepens our sense of our own fragility along with the poet’s and her language, a dance of dialectics takes over: if not this, how about that. The pieces are sharply defined and determinate and open to challenge. As a eddying flow of language it sweeps through, by us. In this section the lyric expands its references to more abstract but no less relevant material that tends to replace the poet’s voice with a more universal but no less intimate voice.

This lyric narrative shapes Horace’s letter to Tibullus, one of the young or “new” poets of his times. He speaks with the authority of the author of the Odes, which were not particularly popular though they had the imprimatur of the emperor Augustus and his minister of culture, who was Horace’s dear friend. He is avuncular and a little awkward in his new persona of the real Horace up close and personal.

After a catalogue of possible images of his addressee, slightly edged at the end with a suggestion of Narcissism, Horace cuts to the chase. Self-knowledge depends on one’s circumstances, and Tibullus had the good fortune not shared by Horace, whose struggles to achieve independence were dependent on the powers-that-be. The passage is both general in a textbook-way and, in its rhythms and warm tone personal. Horace rejoices with Tibullus in his good fortune. As the passage ripens, what moves front and center is Tibullus’s freedom. It was his good fortune to be able to say “what’s honest and right” and moreover that he was free to act on it. He had been granted “favor” AND money and could do whatever he pleased.

The image of Tibullus’s freedom Is obviously ideal, but no less real for that, at least in this letter. We get a glimpse here of the ancient practice of philosophy as spiritual exercise, in this case giving voice to the school of Epicurus. To us it goes down easily (according to our modern Epicurian ideals we believe in the universality of the pursuit of happiness. To Horace and Tibullus it probably had more of the smell of the academic exercise in the gardens of philosophy, and some of the fun was in how Horace could turn that into poetry.

But we are not done, or the lyric narrator hasn’t completed his moves until he can broaden the view beyond the dialectical to the intimate universal. Horace, or the poem, shifts the scene to the “between” or metaxu. Life is lived between the extremes of life and death. This between is porous to one’s individual universality, not the academic universals of the textbooks. The temperature of the language has now risen to lyric intensity. Whatever we receive in the future is excess. Unmerited. A gift of eternity’s beloved Time. Though a gift it shouldn’t be taken for granted. We live in contradiction. Now that’s poetry.

The last lines fulfill the lyric’s endowment of freedom in Horace’s self-image. As finite particular being beyond the scope of thought thinking thinking (Aristotle’s unforgettable phrase), Horace achieves an image of his own true self, grateful for his endowments, which include his gentle if not genteel sense of irony.

So the lyric narrative comes to a definitive end in Horace’s new poetry. As master of lyric, the status he achieved in the Odes, Horace performs lyric in a new non-lyric genre, which is the perfect move for his commitment to personal freedom. In Desmond’s 21st-century philosophical language, lyric is among other things the expression of the “to be” of incarnate free being.

LYRIC PERFORMANCE George Oppen “In Memoriam George Reznikoff”

who wrote / in the great world // small for this is a way // to enter / the light on the kitchen // tables wide- // spread as the mountains’ / light this is // heroic this is/ the poem // to write // in the great / world small

from New collected Poems edited by Michael Davidson, Preface by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions 2008)

FRAME OF REFERENCE When one refers to something neither universal nor particular, one thinks of the schema in Kant (in the Critique of Pure Reason) as a between in that regard. The schema somehow partakes of both the understanding and the sensuous, and is neither one nor the other. If we fixate on these two, and if we fix them, we fail to realize that more important is the power that passes between them. This has something to do with the imagination. This is a threshold power that is not a self-determining power— it is an endowed power, an enabling that itself is secretly enabled by a source it cannot enable by itself alone. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (University of Columbia Press 2016), 77

George Oppen (1908-1984) remains after a spectacularly varied life a poet’s poet. Throughout his life — which included a long silence preoccupied by ideological struggle within the new international Communist movement—he fashioned poems that had a personal purity about them. “Sincerity” captured what he valued in the modern American movement starting with Pound, whom he visited in his thirties and with whom he honorably and openly disagreed.

His late poem for fellow “Objectivist” Charles Reznikoff suggests both the virtues and vices of the style. For all its simplicity of outline it asserts propositions and depends on universals, assertion and dependence being a little contrary to the devotion to objective things. (Oppen loved mechanical things, especially small boats which he sailed with his wife Mary, and once built a car that was also a boat.)

From the metaxical point of view explored in this blog, perhaps too much has been sacrificed. The lyric narrative here lacks the characteristic energetic shaping of the sequence from equivocity through dialectics. Call it minimalism, it draws on the logic of will: small for this is a way // to enter/ the light … The little word for is the load-bearing member.

Performance is essential to this poetics; indeed it must be taken on faith as presented. It serves the lyric’s central figure of speech. And the per-formance reveals that, like many lyrics, the poem depends on analogy for its power: the kitchen tables — note the lack of apostrophe—wide-/spread as the mountains’ / light… (Note the apostrophe.) The comparison by virtue of the incomparability of the lights, we are entering the “widespread” by writing small, so something in light must be the unknown in the suppressed analogy. This is obscure but tantalizingly heroic.

The image is of tables widespread as mountains. The poem implies the light they share makes the difference. As the tables are to the mountains, the light on the tables is to the light on the mountains?

The value of “small” is not differentiated through the lyric narrative: it is asserted and illustrated. Historically this might be classified as “imagism.” Philosophically? In a poem which literally “points,” the climaxing word “heroic” is served by the self-affirming gesture “this” (see Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §45).

In its final lines the poem reasserts its theme not by lyric going beyond thinking (the poem in some sense only gestures towards the finite other) but by literal repetition, which perhaps draws on “repetition of” formula as performed in heroic rhetoric.

But as devoted, as it were, to “the small” in the great world” this poem addressed to his comrade exhibits the characteristic modesty of George Oppen himself. And his metaphysical chops. The devotion is real, the poem charming, the chops an untold story in the history of American lyric, and Oppen a poet worth returning to for what he does and doesn’t say.

Finally, the FRAME OF REFERENCE provides the most generous context for appreciating Oppen’s imagination as more than gesture. It has something to do with imagination, though that’s not part of the program.

LYRIC PERFORMANCES Toby Litt “Awaying”

When we are by ourselves, somewhere/ alone —as rarely happens—we/ are awkward with the double lack. / We miss the two who are elsewhere/but also the identity/we have in them. When we go back,/ we think, will we have lost the knack/of being who we are? The pair, / the parents, you and me, / who hold and fix, who cope and care./ But we remain that anywhere/ we go. It is us, finally./ Absence is absence, not attack / by nothingness. And we are free / to travel far, to pack, repack, / to take ourselves off anywhere. / We will be here when we come back.

from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE. Such a practice of philosophy asks a porosity of mindful thought to what exceeds complete determination in terms of finite immanence alone. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (Columbia University Press 2016), 167.

Toby Litt’s metier is prose fiction but lyrics sometimes happen to him, according to his head note in this anthology. That of course caught my attention. He tells us that “Awaying” “is one parent speaking to another, reassuring them they still exist.”

Thanks to how pronouns work in lyric, this poem needs no such explanation. We can consult the habits of performance of lyric. First the “we.” Traditionally double-focused, “we” often refers to a creature of the lyric moment of immanence, inseparable from the performance of the poem by the reader. Yet it speaks for the poet.

When we are by ourselves, somewhere / alone— as rarely happenswe are awkward… That could serve as a generic opening for any lyric. As opening situation it’s pure poetry, both sensible and looking forward to a narrative explanation. We don’t have to wait long.

“…we / are awkward with a double lack. / We miss the two who are elsewhere / but also the identity / we have in them.”

“Double lack” reminds one of Auden the paraphraser: it has a Platonic ring to it, perhaps the double identity of Eros as offspring of Lack and Plenty. No matter. What this lacks in specificity it makes up for in dialectical clarity. It makes the necessary moves. Jumping so quickly into the dialectical middle of the poem follows on the ambiguity set up by “the two who are elsewhere” so we can follow the moves of the game, which is gradually building speed and tension as a song/lyric, and Litt is eloquent in his note on the doubleness of lyric.

The generic setup yields to the need for knowing “who we are” which has emerged as the issue at this point. The answer has become part of the question, the ambiguity not to be banished by certainty. The reader is being asked by the occasion of the happening of the poem to keep on going on at a level of metaphysical style pushing the limits of her patience, but then as a parent she’s patient.

And has company. The lyric “we” picks up the rising energy as the poem turns. It is all beautifully phrased — Absence is absence, not attack / by nothingness. I love to say that. Too cool, so I back up: But we remain that anywhere / we go. It is us, finally.

Just wonderful, go on!

In Litt’s oeuvre this poem belongs to his case on parenting, as we gather from the notes in the anthology. “But I have kept writing about parenthood and its losses.” But qua-lyric, “Awaying” has that special lyric voice distinct within the sound of HIS voice— open to all the doubts of mindful use of language AND a singability that has everything to do with following the rules of the lyric road. (See FRAME OF REFERENCE.)

Repeat again: from outside to inside, from down there (the anywhere of absence) to the “here” at the very end of the road. That here is the going beyond thinking, the more than can be thought, the finite singular intimacy that is the gift of lyric.

So, yes, Toby Litt, master of many trades, even the impossible one of lyric, come out for a curtain call. We know what you mean when you say, “Very often, I have no idea where what I’ve written has come from; almost always, though, I know exactly where it’s going.”



LYRIC PERFORMANCE Vala Thorodds “Naked Except for the Jewellery”

You sketched a shelf / for all your imaginary things. Plants and records. /outlines of books that exist only in your future, best life.// Offered to add something of mine, whatever I liked.// But I couldn’t think / of what I cared for. So I said, ‘Jewellry.’/ Sweaters and shoes.’// When I meant, ‘My bike lock./ Procrastination./ The lies I told.’

from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE In ordinary language there are reserves to the language of “doing justice” that are helpful for our reflections. WILLIAM DESMOND, THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL (2016)

Vala Thorrods was born in Iceland. She says her first great love was disco. She lists her current activities as poet, publisher, editor, translator, and literary curator. I mention this because the poem I’ve chosen exhibits the qualities essential to what gives me hope about the short poem in our time. These qualities are often overlooked. They involve performing conceptual capacities more associated with ‘doing justice’ and ‘telling the truth.’ Thorrods’ conception of lyric as dance enfleshes the scheme. It’s deceptively minimal-looking.

Anyway….It’s good to have such a distinguished person on our side.

Our side? Really? How gauche! But “Naked except for the Jewellery” (a line borrowed from Jack Gilbert) is exactly that, a revelation of a hidden side of, or perspective on, lyric. The poem begins in a situation defined as an aspect of “you.” The equivocity, indeed plurivocalism, of pronouns is exploited without apology: this is perfected performance of one aspect of lyric. I/you.

We naturally think this refers to an other. Exactly. And here that other is defined by its favorite things.

As we noted, Thorrod’s imagination is rooted in dance, and the movements of the lyric have a disco-like clarity. The second section “performs” this dialectic of selfhood with bright energy.

That movement is consolidated as the poem follows its pattern by opening to the murk of the inner self. This movement is executed by a random list of ordinary things. The list descends ‘kenotically’— this is spiritual striptease—in value. Thus the verbal moves reveal a naked self. That self can’t say what it means. It is frustrated in its efforts at free expression.

It can’t help itself.

So the self turns toward another list starting at even a lower level of conventional self-expression. But no, we might say, now we are getting somewhere! Confession!

Perform it! Perform the singularity of your most true imaginary things. Bike lock— perform the velar stops. The lanky, self-indulgent Latinate syllables — they always lie— of “procrastination.” And finally the self-exculpatory admission that, yes, in the past, I’ve told some lies and they cost me dearly.

Oh please!

What a poem!

LYRIC PERFORMANCE Penelope Shuttle “the colour rain in the lavender”

I’m past thinking/but I think about colors all the time / how each one / has its everyday name / red blue green/ but also its underground name/red is a first edition of Pushkin/blue is chief mourner of the sky/ green is the reading age of the forest/ these s3cret names/ are known only to the dead/ in their flipside world/of long ago and not-now/not to us the living know very little about colors or the rain

from FATHER LEAR (Poetry Salzburg 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE If the dualism of imitation and self-creation does not work, the matter is also not one of dialectical subsumption of one into the other, since such would make it a higher form of self-mediation, self-creation. It is metaxological: it is a between that is beyond the universal and particular. There is a sense in which these two terms lose any fixity they seem to posses since it is just in the passage that this metaxu comes to articulation. The passage shares in both the intimate and the universal. This passage as metaxological shows the doubleness of self-relation and other-relation. Art is especially rich in sensuous communication. WILLIAM DESMOND, THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL (2016)

An exemplary lyric! Lots of negative thinking— I mean NO punctuation, NO capitals, NO stanza breaks, NO rhymes!

But one feels the pull of something, call it barbarously the “argument,” the pull of grammar, through the situation named at the outset: I’m past thinking.

So in place of Cartesian certainty the equivocity of language will have to do. As opposed to thinking there is thinking all the time. This distinction depends on a radical shift in point of view. Can you conceive of the other to thinking AS thinking all the time?

No? What about color?

To think about color one must consider its doubleness, a color has a place in the color wheel—red blue green—and also its association with things in your life.

So the poem turns from semantic dialectics to little stories, the ancient grammarians (shoutout!) called them “exempla.“ In poems they ranged from a few words to a major narrative. The exemplum is related to the figure of figures, analogy.

Notice how Shuttle uses the so-called linking verb “is” to set up her exempla: red is a first edition of Pushkin. The “mind”: NO IT’S NOT!

And yet “it is!” Thinking about “red” what comes to (my) mind is a first edition of Pushkin. And so on, blue and green are exempla too.

Examples of what? They are “secret.” How secret? Now we face the abyss towards which the poem has been “unconsciously” leading us (it’s what lyrics do, they finish the passage more-or-less without us) to the other world, the land of the dead.

It’s a glorious extended (that’s relative) narrative of the most ancient story, passage to the other—“flipside” Shuttle happily says)—world. I love the lyrical “nots”: of long ago and not-now/not to us.

Now the music of now, not, and know blends into something rich and strange. A radical distinction upon which the meditation and the exempla depend, breathlessly. An assertion, a fragment, a proposition, a memoir of our passage from black& white abstractions to the world of color. The living know very little/about colours or the rain.

OR THE RAIN?

One of the secrets of lyric eternal life is repetition with a difference. Lyrics always desire another reading. The ontology of “more.” So we start from the top. This poem, it may be, started in Shuttle’s wonder about the mysterious color of rain in the lavender.

As Desmond says (see FIELD OF REFERENCE): “Art is especially rich in sensuous communication.”