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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.

LYRIC COMPANION Edwin Morgan “The Round”

I’ve never heard a song / like that I’ve never heard // a song like that I’ve never / heard a song like that// was it peace and goodwill / to men or was it peace // to men of good will was it / peace and goodwill to men // it’s a great song if it / was clear it’s a great song // if it was clear it’s a / great song if it was clear // we only sing divi- / dedly we only sing // dividedly we o-/ nly sing dividedly // and yet it is a round / comes out and yet it is // a round comes out and yet / it is a round comes out

POETRY July/August 2020

FRAME OF REFERENCE In this troublesome decade [the Seventies], Morgan would keep up his creative spirits with poems he called songs, giving individual voice to objects and creatures. …songs make sense, somehow, if only sung alone. They are themselves communal occasions of memory or celebration, and the act of singing in chorus can bring both text and singers alive in performance. “The Round” does this, even without a tune, and is a reminder of Morgan’s essentially optimistic approach to life and art, even in time of challenge. “We only sing divi-/ dedly, “ the poet admits, fragmenting the phrase in several ways, and yet, he asserts with increasing confidence “and yet it is //a round comes out.” JAMES MCDONEGAL, Poetry, July/August 2020, 363.

Readers of this column might be scratching their heads reading the editorial by McDonegal given above. It proliferates its own questions with talk about Morgan’s confidence not to mention the giving voice and the solitudes and communal festivities occasioned by singing the poems. One can see where he’s coming from. He got the main issues onto the page.

The poem exhibits keen interest in how lyrics come to be as verbal happenings. It follows, if I may say so, with scrupulous wit, the ins-and-outs of what we call the lyric narrative. It begins with the impact of its original fresh appearance, then slides into the equivocities of the verbal flesh. This section glides into a more dialectical concentration on the “ifs”—and there’s no verdict on clarity. And yet the “yet” of the emerging form establishes the great possibility of the porosity, the flow from occasion to oh-so contested broken wholeness which breaks open the self-divisions into something beyond our capacity of thinking. The round comes out of its own gladsome self-affirmation.

Now let’s try it again and see!

LYRIC COMPANION Celan “After renouncing light”


AFTER RENOUNCING LIGHT: / bright from the messenger’s passage, / the resounding day. // The bloomhappy message, / shriller and shriller, / finds its way to the bleeding ear.

translated by Susan H. Gillespie, CORONA: selected poems of Paul Celan. Station Hill, 2013

FRAME OF REFERENCE How seriously do we take someone like the puckish Lacan when he provokes us with: “The non-duped err”? We believe ourselves relieved of the fantasy of “the Big Other,” but we fantasize in relief. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 385.

Celan is a trustworthy companion in our nihilistic times. Nihilistic? Yes, our tyrant has announced ballots don’t matter. The USA is shipwrecked.

So I opened CORONA this morning, the old tradition of Dante’s Virgil. I was not disappointed.

Celan thought in passage, in between: not only that. He thought metaxically, the between as porosity between mortal and immortal being. His poems, however “minimal,” are maximal: they flow toward the finite other which is other to thought. If you will, toward luminous silence, not unlike the poems of his friend Bonnefoy.


The poem is an uncouth riot of b’s and h’s, densities of sound to punish the puffy ear.

The lyric narrative moves this poem with astonishing precision, and yet the movements are muscular, embodied, sensuous. It gives the situation in neon. The second line establishes the between of the poem with swift clarity.

After the section break, an abyss yawns: the passage, the porosity, incorporates first the equivocities of tone (too subtle and finessed to be burden with ‘irony’) then the dialectic of degree. It gets shriller and shriller.

Our Tyrant: the ballots don’t matter. Eros Tyrannos. See Desmond on the Big Other in THE FRAME OF REFERENCE.

The ear bleeds. The flesh resists. The poem reaches into the silence of the finite other, beyond its dialectics. Its fleshly finitude, its pain, has become the voice of truth other to nihilism.

LYRIC COMPANION Mark Fiddes “7 Days”

It’s snowing David Bowie / one humdrum Sunday later. / Slow ashen clown drops / unsettling everywhere / over South London. / Death’s the kabuki next door / with its masks and mime, / its dark carpet demanding / you scatter more stars / so the end makes sense / which it will if you’re there / standing by the wall.

from THE RAINBOW FACTORY Templar Poetry 2016

FRAME OF REFERENCE In truth the work Is not just instrumental in that manner: not just a means to an end, it is an end in itself in one way, though not again as an entirely immanent self-circling whole. It incarnates a certain perfection in the respect not of an indefiniteness overcome by self-determination but as an overdeterminacy — a superfluity, an too muchness, a fullness more than full, a pluperfection. It is a brimming happening that exceeds the brim. … It is of the nature of agapeic fullness, of overfullness, rather than the self-containment of the pantheistic universal that pivots away from any reference beyond itself. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal, 86.

This elegy for David Bowie always gets to me. Yes I have memories of meeting Bowie through his Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels, or rather Reeves introduced my teenaged son to Bowie after a concert in Boston. Gabrels helped the shape-shifting Bowie shift yet again. Depending on your musical point of view, Tin Machine was either a too-muchness overflowing from musical genius or a louder than loud travesty. Bowie was superbly himself and very loving to my son, a legally blind high school student from the Boston suburbs.

Fiddes’s elegy is perfect in its excess. It moves from terrible absurd loneliness to ontological companionship. Hear me out! It is about ontological excess, the possible impossibility of the moreness in death itself.

It pulls this off by fulfilling the lyric narrative. It starts with the humdrum of the horrible days—aftermath of death. The humdrum bears down with mocking unsettling clown drops. Equivocities reveal how death unsettles as well as confirms our worst fears. Human feelings are open sores. Loss is spilt everywhere you go.

To use Geoffrey Hill’s concept, Fiddes first gives judgment (Bowie’s death and its immediate effect on us); we can’t escape it. Then he involves us in the condition of the judgment. The poem doesn’t escape the judgment but makes us aware of our part in it as an event beyond our feelings. The narrative moves from the crazy appearances into the dialectical darkness of death. Masks. Mime. Art. Alienation. Death is the mother of beauty maybe, or at least its plurivocity —the poet’s indirections finding direction out for the increasingly frenzied self.

We need the end to make sense of our condition in this between of life — what a life!— and death. Death makes no sense. There’s more to the end than death. We look to the dead for help. We write poems for them; one of the first uses of lyric! We INVOKE them. Scatter more stars, beautiful Bowie! You have always pulled through— pulled us through our depression, boredom, despair.

At the end, lyric often turns to other voices than the poet’s. The voice of the lyric itself.

The poem has reached the edge, dialectically exhausted its tropes. Then something happens “aesthetically,” which does not mean artificially unless you consider the flesh artificial. Bowie in the flesh, “standing by the wall.” That line draws on several voices relevant to the finiteness of the other. It is perfected out of these senses. There is no “pantheism” here. Bowie is mortal like us. The wall of finitude is there— no wishing it away. Bowie is there beside it. In the flesh, to the flesh. Fiddes nailed the Bowie slouch—elegant, narcissistic, self- mocking. The metaxical doubleness of the image fulfills the narrative with a worthy end. The poem can now be enjoyed as a porosity between the mortal and the immortal, which is what metaxical means in our recovery of the narrative of lyric.

Fiddes like the rest of us may return to his small, elegant “elegy,” which draws on energies deep within the English lyric, and wonder how he went beyond genre to ontology. He had help. Lyric moves poet and writer to zero and beyond/back, but the lyric beyond is the created, finite other.

LYRIC COMPANION Geoffrey Hill “The Orchards of Syon, LXIX”


Heavy, post-cloudburst, slow drops, earthing, make / dibble-holes under the crouched evergreens. / So far I’m with you, conglomerate roots / of words. I wish I could say more. Even / this much praise is hard going. … / Nonetheless it’s here: sodden, glaucous / evanescence; ridged ‘impasto.’ I sense / revelation strike obliquely in, / thwartways, to our need.
…..

Dig the—mostly uncouth—language of grace.

FRAME OF REFERENCE The [Kantian schema of the imagination] somehow partakes of both the understanding and the sensuous, and it is neither one or 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 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 through itself alone. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 77

Hill’s later poetry includes passages of description that invoke, in passing, a mix of Romantic and religious influences. They pour through the gaps between the often garrulous argument. The voice—the mask—is often inseparable from an irritable, self-justifying flaneur in the China-shop of criticism. We wince to hear the whine and miss what’s at stake.

I’ve given only the beginning and very end of this text. The middle deserves close attention to the dialectics. One of the sources of difficulty in these poems is the dialectical noise and how it may overwhelm the structure. I give the last brilliantly complex line in earnest of a fuller commentary.

What I give of the opening plus shows the situation and reflections of the equivocities of the middle. The intensities of the word choices, reflected in the heavily stressed mix of description and personal discourse, moves the reader swiftly from the equivocal (“conglomerate roots/ of words”) into. the dialectic.
We need to slow down to appreciate the given. (In Hill’s poetry, there’s a tendency for the given to be reconfigured as gift.) The setting is both specific and charged with extreme values (“earthing”). The description is indeed hard going because it is moved by the desire not just to describe but to praise. We see in the omitted dialectics just how contested the urge to praise is.

In the FRAME OF REFERENCE I’ve referenced (horrible fashionable word) the philosophical problem Hill wrestles with, the problem of the imagination. It is an endowed not constructed power surging between mind and flesh. This “metaxical” notion of the between is suggested by Hill’s description of the plurivocity, the thick impasto, “sodden, glaucous/evanescence.” All is passage in the metaxical imagination. But the lyric mask of Hill’s eracible, embattled voyant rises to the emergent occasion. “I sense / revelation strike obliquely in/thwartways, to our need.” The swerve of that sentence from discursive to dramatic and profound inscribed the lyric narrative from outer to inner, from lower to higher, in Augustine’s version of the chiasmus of the finitude of flesh. The imagination flares in the rare if not original “thwartways.”

As for the last line—“Dig the—mostly uncouth—language of grace”— the voice of the poem doubles back on the poet’s contested and contesting voice with an acknowledgment of the unearthly play of the endowed imagination. I’m so glad Hill raised and risked the ambiguity of uncouth “dig.

LYRIC COMPANION Basho “Composed on Horseback”

The roadside hibiscus has been eaten by my horse.

translated by Hiroaki Sato, ON HAIKU (New Directions, 2018), p. 42.

FRAME OF REFERENCE The best definition of the traditional haiku I’ve seen says that it is a one-line poem with two main descriptive elements that can’t be divided into lines. HIROAKI SATO On Haiku, p. 67.

The anglophone public resist Sato’s definition of haiku, which is based on Japanese practice. The history of Haiku in English translation has been until now dominated by the pioneering work of scholars and poets steeped in the sounds of English verse. The 5-7-5 convention recuts the traditional unit of English verse but retains its rhythms and syntax. Sato, by far the most authoritative translator of Japanese poetry into English, argues for a one-line poem with this complication: that it resist being divided into lines. That is, the very essence of haiku is a unity of thought. Since it comprises “two main descriptive elements,” the principle of unity is not … obvious? Is this where Zen creeps into the conversation?

I find the hibiscus poem cited above fun to read. I think it’s a good poem, not because it satisfies Sato’s definition but because it satisfies my take on the lyric narrative. Apparently these two definitions are complementary in my mind’s eye. The roadside hibiscus is clearly THERE (roadside adds the crucial touch of contingency). The predicate HAS BEEN EATEN satisfies the narrative’s need for opening the aspectual range of the nature of hibiscus (it is good to eat, which reveals its place in at least one scheme of things, one which the reader should find interesting in several senses).

The picture is completed by the last bit—by my horse. Picaresque? Realism? Zen “shit happens”? What’s the point? But in our study of the lyric narrative the point is MORE than the completion of the thought. The poem’s whole is beyond the individual reader’s sense of the whole. The poem packs an extra, excessive punch. That energy fuses the syntactic bits into a radiant whole beyond the subject/object divide.

I’m spending today rereading Geoffrey Hill’s final critical writing as preserved in COLLECTED CRITICAL WRITINGS. I think his argument about “to get within the judgment the condition of the judgment” is really important. It speaks to the mindfulness of the poem (and allows me to give that battered dulled word some edge). Basho’s hibiscus poem resists easy reduction to principle or sentiment. Rather it honors what is beyond our mind’s circuitry. Horses and hibiscus get along in ways we can’t ever quite grasp. My horse judges that THIS hibiscus would make a good snack on the journey. We often forget about our horse’s horsy needs. My horse makes a judgment, Basho’s poem supplies the condition of the judgment, which I call “the finite other.”

So, despite the controversy about lineation, if you ask me, this haiku is a good poem.

LYRIC COMPANION John Burnside “Dundee”

The streets are waiting for a snow / that never falls: / too close to the water, / too muffled in the after warmth of jute, / the houses on Roseangle / opt for miraculous frosts / and the feeling of space that comes / in the gleam of day / when you step outside for the milk / or the morning post / and it seems as if a closeness in the mind / had opened and flowered / the corners sudden and tender, the light immense, / the one who stands here proven after all.

The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah, edd. 2000, p. 508.

FRAME of REFERENCE One might think that sublimity will bring us back to this sense of intimate otherness. It does but in the shattering of form proportionate to our measure. …Something exceeds that form of universality. It is intimate because it strikes through to our own deepest intimacy with a kind of violent formlessness. There is a more hyperbolic sense of the universal in its otherness, communicated in the breakdown of the proportionate universal. The intimate universal is in this breaking in; more, there is a breaking down, and hence a breaking through and a breaking beyond, and this in no subjective, or objective, sense. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 100.


America ‘s sorrows now include the death of Ruth Bader Ginzberg. The crisis will now include her replacement on the Supreme Court. More ghastly polarization in the body politic. We need our poets even more. We need the quiet, the sharp, animal sense of the finite other in the midst. That need is difficult to fill. There’s always John Burnside.


Burnside’s key narrative, shown here in an early poem, depends on a performance using a mask of a regular Joe covering the face of a Rilke. Sounds like a bad joke.

But his narrative cleaves to the basic Lyric narrative. It starts outside, goes inside, meanwhile going down then, paradoxically, up. You see this, feel this, as you read around in Burnside. In our need for a deep sense of possibility, he pulls it off.

Outside there’s an unfinished feeling, a waiting for transformation. Snow. The waiting perdures, stretching our sense of things to include a sense of nothingness. The old existential gambit. Burnside nails it down in plain details of extremity: too this, too that. Makes sense.

He goes deeper into the equivocities of the moment, of the language. The moves are crisp, dialectical, proper names splitting common sense: the houses on Roseangle! Rose/angle!

The very houses “opt” for the ordinary sublime. We may become aware of the slight tension in the syntax, unending, just commas, the short “free verse” phrases building a thickness like thin, translucent washes. The poem turns inward and down/up.

To fetch the milk left by the milkman — the ordinariness of tract housing, suburbia; to fetch the morning paper. Who lives like this now? The power of the lyric narrative absolves this uncertainty in the greater whole of the unfolding poem. We play along. We like this guy, this moment mid morning, midlife, mid everything. He’s us. He needs more than his life has on offer. And in stepping outside, he opens up. The space is fluid.

The tense of the verb changes from the generic lyric present to the past of the “as if.” We know in our guts this move in the narrative. It’s OK. We accept without hesitation Analogy. Much is at stake. Our self hangs in the balance on the edge of despair.

Burnside’s vision has a hard edge to it. This is more than the sublime. He follows the lyric narrative through the final difficult stage. It’s make or break for the poet. How go beyond despair? The suburban self is out of gas, but salvation comes with the milk and the morning post. A closeness in the mind / had opened. Just like that.

No snow, just a change of aspect, a Blick to Wittgenstein. Duck/rabbit. No, no. More than that. The corners sudden and tender, the light immense…Then the final, unauthorized move, a gift of the poem itself: the one who stands here — HERE! After all— a gift of the ambiguity of the vernacular. But the center of this boundless moment is the word “proven.” Is THAT what has been going on? A trial?

I need to think about that. This moment fits Desmond [see Frame of Reference] on the sublime: A thorough breakthrough. I need to think about that.

LYRIC TRANSFORMATIONS [New Series] Michael Longley “Starlings”

Sitting up against a sea wall, / Eating fish and chips, we count / The starlings, a dozen or so / Swaggering opportunists / Unexpected on the shingle. / Shall we throw them leftovers, dear brother? Greasy fingers. / Spangled iridescences. / Is this Bangor or Ballyholme? / A blink and they attract thousands / And thousand more starlings, a shape- / Shifting bird-cloud, shitlegs / Sky-dancing. No collisions. / Wherever you are, Peter, / Can you spot on your radar / Angels? There’re starlings, really / Heavenly riffraff flocking / Before they flap down to roost.

From Angel Hill (Cape, 2017)

FRAME of REFERENCE Returning more directly to the erotics, what is at issue is the self-surpassing energy of the human being. We must connect this with the porosity of being. Recall, once again, that ‘poros’ is one of the parents of Eros in the account of Diotima-Socrates in Plato’s ‘Symposium.’ ‘Poros’ sometimes is connected with ‘resource,’ but one could stress it as offering a way, a way across. If ‘penia’ or lack couples with it, there is a paradoxical mixture of poverty and plenitude, and one could see in both the ‘poros’ and the ‘penia’ an alternate opening. For just as ‘poros’ is not this or not that, it seems to be like a nothing—and yet it is the opening of the possibility of passage. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 315 f.

Like many, I trust the lyric to help me out of everyday depression. Lyric takes my world and opens it up. If I read a lyric carefully my sense of hope will be restored, my energies refreshed. Why?

Not because the lyric offers an escape from human limitations. Often read to shore up a predisposition to pure ideas over the world of flesh and bones, the lyric will fail. Lyric returns us to reality. But reality that requires transformations of key cultural assumptions. Reality happens between our neediness and the supernatural abundance of creation. If you read this poem in the modernist way of resentment at religious imagery (angels) you will not experience transformation but microwaved nihilism.

Technically, Michael Longley’s “Starlings” is full of lyric transformations. Readers of this column may expect shoptalk here but this is a New Series. Suffice it to say, the upshot of lyric is not idealistic. The transformations serve an intenser awareness of what Desmond calls the paradox of poverty and plentitude. It guides me through these transformations to a rejuvenated appreciation of the promiscuous mix that constitutes human reality.

LYRIC COMPANION Zbigniew Herbert “Tenderness”

In the end what can I do with you—tenderness / tenderness for birds and for people for a stone / you should sleep in a palm in the eye’s depths / that’s your place may you be woken by no one // You spoil everything you get it back to front / you contract a tragedy into a pocket romance / you change the high-toned flight of a thought / into sobbing and exclamations into moaning // To describe is to murder because it’s your role / to sit in the darkness of a cold and empty hall / to sit solitary where reason blithely rattles on / with mist in a marble eye tears running down

Trans Alissa Valles The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (Ecco, 2007)

FRAME of REFERENCE This poetry is about the pain of the twentieth century, about accepting the cruelty of an inhuman age, about an extraordinary sense of reality. And the fact that at the same time the poet loses none of his lyricism or his sense of humor—this is the unfathomable secret of a great artist. ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI, from the Introduction

Herbert’s complexity of tone has been teased out by Zagajewski as a proportion with undefined quantities of realism, lyricism, and humor. This bit of applied poetics however vague is worth pursuing given the importance of Herbert to our reception of lyric. Herbert’s poetry challenges our assumptions about the relative value of lyric to modernity.

“Tenderness” is a late lyric it would be tempting to overlook. It opens with a Personification, a figure typical of Romantic lyric, an address to a “universal” or abstraction; one thinks of Keats. It is not one of the big names but it names a human quality that is central to our outworn picture of humanity as such. “Tenderness” has been in short supply in modernity: it is irrelevant to the capitalist march of progress as we subdue the earth for our utopian purposes. (Trump’s strategy of sacrificing a certain number to the virus so “we” can attain herd immunity is a current example.)

Personifying abstractions fits the lyric program and has been roundly discouraged by our masters. No wonder Herbert’s “Tenderness” has low self esteem. The poem opens characterizing it as misplaced concern for beings like birds, people, and stones.

That random list alerts our well-honed expectation of irony. The prominence given to Tenderness as the theme of a poem can’t be serious. Tenderness should be reduced to the recesses of human being. But the language used in this rather banal proposition is too interesting. You should sleep in a palm or in the depths of the eye. Tenderness is flesh. It has a place in our bodies. Like other aspects of the human self, it is best left alone. It’s like other passions, anger or lust.

So the opening neatly and powerfully sketches the situation. That prepares us for further description of qualities: after the initial naming and touching on the interesting aspects—the equivocations that cling to the word “Tenderness”—we are prepared for a more robust dialectical description of the sides of this dangerous aspect of our being. The ad hominem attack, the trial (Herbert grew up under Nazi and Soviet regimes), continue. In short, tenderness transvalues our values. We say tragedy, you find the makings of romance; we say our soaring thinking, our spiritual exclamations, you transform them to eruptions of ungovernable grief.

You debase our inner life; you drag us down. We’ve seen how lyric often reframed basic themes, how it reconfigures culturally accepted narratives by the power of its own narrative. Its narrative submits socially accepted schemes to verbal and dialectical analysis, concluding with the deconstruction of the social “I” constructed by these schemes in light of what is other to thought, the finite (not abstract) Other, the Intimate not the determinative Universal.

The final stanza is devoted to a description of the role of Tenderness. Pushing off from the axiomatic “to describe is to murder” (a reconfiguration of Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect”?), Tenderness is pictured as it witnesses the drama of reason’s self-presentation. The description is itself hyperbolic: the suppressed response of Tenderness is compared to weeping marble. The exaggeration is the point, the too-muchness of Tenderness was always the point.

So in this minor-looking lyric we find the elements Zagajewski singled out for praise, the balance of qualities, descriptive, analytical, lyrical, that taken together explain Herbert’s position in our rogues gallery of 20-th century poets. As we rediscover the integrity of the lyric in its narrative we can more fully appreciate the finesse and elegance of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert.

LYRIC COMPANION David Schubert “A Successful Summer”

The still small voice unto / My still small voice, I listen. / Hardly awake, I breathe, vulnerably, / As in summer trees, the messages / Of telegraphed errands buzz along / July’s contour of green.

American Poetry, The Twentieth Century, vol 2, The Library of America, 2000.

FRAME of REFERENCE The universal is the sourcing power that communicates itself, that comes to form, and the form that has come is universal in a derivative sense, only because the forming power is the ‘nec plus ultra’ of bringing to be—the ultimate creating power. This is again less like a technical making and is more suggestive of an origination from nothing. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 78.

This slight seeming poem is easily dismissed as one ruffles through the Library of America volume dedicated to more nearly contemporary poets, E. E. Cummings to May Swenson. David Schubert remains obscure despite the praise of luminaries. His story is largely unhappy In its outline. You should Google him.

The poem is certainly an attractive one in a conventional sense; key conventions of American poetry click nicely: the reconfiguration of Biblical themes, the image of the poet as passive, vaguely aware of his surroundings, his lush green surroundings buffering his sensitive ego, the pantheistic buzz.

That’s one way to put it. There’s also the home-made feel of the joinery, the seams of multiple themes nicely finished. We listen, with the poet, to the buzz of Nature, the length and syntax of the lines swelling gently in the middle. The lyric narrative is conscientiously served in big and small ways.

It opens with a reference to a moment in a biblical narrative, the isolated and beleaguered prophet reaching zero humanly as God Himself resumes his sense of self as a voice. A still, small one, we all know the phrase if not the context, which quickly fades in THIS context.

The lyric playfulness with pronouns as regards the poet’s self-consciousness is nicely executed in the opening lines. The biblical voice of YHWH finds an other or double in the poet’s voice. A handoff as it were, reconfiguring the original text followed by two compact parallel “I” statements: I listen, I breathe. This dialectical move fulfills the choreography of the lyric narrative. From the opening focus on an original I-Thou moment the poem pivots through the equivocity into an intenser sense of autonomy.

The self “breathes, vulnerably…” With that the narrative shifts to a Romantic landscape or rather inscape. AS: that phenomenal shifter so crucial to analogies of self. AS IF X were Y, or just a temporal marker: WHILE, establishing a new foreground.

As this second three-line half unfolds, the interpretation narrows to construe the sense of vulnerability. Not as in the Ur-text, vulnerable to responsibilities towards YHWH, but vulnerable to the immanence of communicative white noise. White in its presumed fundamental groundedness, this immanence is thick with voices—insects, birds, the sense of the sound horizon is expanded as the poem concludes with crisp-sounding metaphor (telegraphed, errands, contour) which complete the reconfiguration of the biblical scene into the scene of the lyric self.

Not so fast. As we’ve seen in these little essays on lyric, the lyric self is not a thing. It is double. Emerging from the transformative syntax of the poem, the lyric self finally opens to what is greater than can be thought, the finite other. The self draws on its nothing to reach out to the other. Now, this poem engages in its opening with a biblical scene presuming original nothingness, so the seed of this turning is always already there.

What we have instead of the finite other is an image of immanent continuity. In lines quite unexpectedly rich in equivocity, the final image unfolds in a blur: “telegraphed errands buzz along / July’s contour of green.”

July! Zenith of summer! July Fourth! Independence! Don’t want to overdo it, but there’s just a wee bit of that given the contrast of the two parts of the poem and their assumptions about selfhood. The Biblical I-Thou moment yields to the pantheist green of buzz. That immanence collapses the tension in the lyric self between self and other.

As the FRAME of REFERENCE suggests, this immanence occludes the sense of plurivocity within the original scheme. In the language of the poem, plurivocity is reduced to buzz.

Yet, yet… There’s a whisper—a still small voice— to the buzz. Perhaps the poem’s closure leaves a crack through which the light of otherness can pass, perhaps we can see in the potentiality of “As” an acknowledgement of the limits of immanence. Our human vulnerability would then be defined by the otherness of that July moment of unity. I don’t know. Give it a thought.

LYRIC COMPANION Verses from Old Irish “A busy yellow bee”

A busy yellow bee / who makes / a not insignificant journey / flying joyfully out / over the great plain / in the sun / pausing at blossom after blossom / cup after cup // and then happily back again / to rejoin / the orderly community of the hive

Anonymous, translated and edited by Geoffrey Squires, MY NEWS FOR YOU: IRISH POETRY 600-1200 (Shearsman Books, 2015)

FRAME of REFERENCE Perhaps we are like the Ridiculous Man of Dostoevsky ‘s tale whose evil eye has introduced corruption into the world. The corruption blossoms as the counterfeit world whose mingling of life and death mimics life—but it really serves death. Unlike the Ridiculous Man we now refuse the dream he had of the inexpressible goodness of the true life beyond the counterfeit one. [p. 229]…The agapeics transforms the social space of our between- being, consecrates it into a neighborhood of love wherein neighboring, as a “being beside,” is neither simply passive nor simply active. It is not passive, though it is in receiving, and hence there is a loving patience to it. It is not active, since it is not simply a construction, though we have to constructively engage with others in the neighborhood. We receive and do ourselves in the neighborhood. [p. 411] WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Univeral (2016)

The presence of Lyric in modern culture IS subversive. It undermines the hegemony of the idealist image with the narrative of passage. Whereas the rule of autonomy — that the fullness of being is the self-defined individual — has created an Ultimate in an image of Eros, the lyric narrative sustains an understanding of life as plurivocal community devoted to finite others. Call that the order of Agape.

Squire’s translations from the Old Irish lyric supply brilliant examples of the lyric narrative. They sometimes feel like fragments — ARE fragments grammatically speaking — but stand on their own. They stand on their own because the unit of meaning in lyric is not the “image“ of the autonomous self but the porosity of that self in passage, in community.

The expansion of the image of passage by participles — flying, pausing— is especially felicitous. The whole sense of the step-by-step unfolding rounds off in the image of return.

As we struggle to conceive of the post-capitalist world, lyric is an invaluable resource. (In the FRAME of REFERENCE I submit two points of view relevant to the case.) Squires’ carefully wrought syntax creates a double image of action and intention— of animal being in passage. Phrases like “not insignificant” and “joyfully” may trigger the Ridiculous Man in us, as may the whole of the final section.

“Orderly community” is not ideological but a complex image of lives in passage, in communication. The “Between” of the busy yellow bee we recognize, if only unconsciously, as our own ON A GOOD DAY. The event of unconscious recognition is inseparable from poetry, however. That’s the “Medieval” part?