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


from “Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh” (2020), p.84.

AGAPEICS: There is an incognito generosity or surplus of affirmative “to be” as good that is always at work in the between, the “metaxu.” We do not become our own self-determination. While some thinkers would not associate erotics with the universal, it has been very important in the longer philosophical tradition since Plato.

[The intimate universal] 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, pp. 421-22; 86.

Talking about companionship and lyric foregrounds a number of themes, including self and voice and other. But it also assumes that the lyric dwells in a “between” or niche that self and other share. Sharing is both active and passive, simultaneously. Another presupposition of companionship is narrative: the relationship is a passage in time and space. These themes raise a lot of questions about the lyric at hand but the conversation, to go anywhere, always refers to the lyric as elemental. The elements are the words and the relationships between them.

Geraldine Clarkson’s “You taught me a new way of singing—-“ has a title that does not look like a title (it does not follow the conventions of capitalization), it looks more like a quote, and an interrupted one at that. The first line interjects a description of the happening of the speaking of the words as physical objects.

That’s a high degree of intimacy that as companion this lyric presupposes from the get go. As part of the set up I provide some contexts from the phenomenologist William Desmond that clarify the assumptions of lyric companionship. Even nihilistic lyrics presuppose intimacy and the surprise of presence. Even if the poet wants to focus on absence she must invoke presence to do so.

This poem starts with a kind of silence, strangulation of breath in the act of speech. It is frustrating the desire to communicate. What can’t get out is not so much words as animal sounds. They are kept back, “squirreled away / for the future”; they are “lessons” meant for others. As such, they don’t come to be “until in my turn I had taught them to others.”

Do you recognize that voice? It reminds me of the opening of Augustine’s “Confessions” where he describes his life before he could talk. (I’ve only recently been thinking about this text because it is behind the opening of Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations,” which is always already in play for this blog, which is titled

Anyway, this is a surprising opening for a lyric. We expect a lyric to open with an objective situation, a bit of landscape or a recognizable interior, a space that begins to sketch in the between of the poem. This lyric describes a situation of unfulfilled desire, of frustration, physically stressful in its inability to complete itself. The strangled sounds are not even human words. Caroling, cat calls, tunes—- but that doesn’t matter. As in Augustine and Wittgenstein what matters is the intention to share, to connect.

To teach. A lyric always has to teach its readers how to read it. That’s become a commonplace of criticism recently. Clarkson doesn’t linger over it, she uses a pause to create a sense of sudden breakthrough. The second stanza invokes the happiness, the happening, of communication. The stanza fulfills this stage of the lyric narrative by plunging into the equivocal noise of worldly communication. The joyous music overflows the measure of the verse. This noise may fatigue the anorexic reader more used to the nihilistic minimalism of modern poetry, but they’d will also experience the undertow of incarnate sound, the prima materia of poetry as an art. That call is hard to resist as readers of Clarkson can attest.

And the stanza once again invokes the profound selving we find in “The Confessions.” We should note however that if one of the voices of this plurivocal poem is Augustine’s the total sound overwhelms some of the intentionality of “The Confessions,” which is to tell the story of Biblical sin. Wittgenstein’s rewriting also seeks to reconfigure that aspect of Augustine’s narrative with his own critique of the ideal self. I for one feel that energy in Clarkson’s rendering of the sound of the breakthrough to the other.

The evocation of riotous sound is very much what the poem is about. As a lyric it follows the lyric narrative which reconfigures the “turn” from the self and the effort to connect with the world of others. Lyrics perform, often silently, a sort of reversal, a reflexive move that opens up a new dimension, conventionally called the “turn.” Since “verses” are full of turns THIS turn is “meta,” a hyperbolic or super-turn.

It’s easy to miss because it IS reflexive but not merely reflexive but of the nature of the ”overfullness” Desmond talks about in his agapeics. Clarkson’s third stanza doesn’t miss a beat but subtly “turns” the focus away from the utterings of selfhood to a being beyond self-determination (see the Desmond texts above). If the setting of the poem is the breakthrough of desire into erotic communication, the completion of the poem is in agapeics, an enigmatic sudden awareness of a dimensional space beyond the dia-logic of direct communication, however fulfilling that is. It is a brimming over of awareness.

We are now in the space of agapeics, of awareness of the transcendent other. Poems are not only imagined constructs they are constructs—- happenings—-of the trans-personal imagination. Clarkson depends on grammar to suggest the being of this enigma, this wonder of being: she draws on the move from “us” to “you.” The life of pronouns is essential to lyric. The lyric narrative very often goes there at the end, from first and third to the middle, muddled second person. Thus it places the between of the givens of the poem within the open whole of the Metaxy (again see the Desmond texts above). This You is beyond erotics, it is agapeics.

People tire easily in the conversation about lyric, but their energies are renewed as they return to the poems that become trustworthy companions on life’s often confusing and painful path. Yes there are a lot of phenomenological doubles to be aware of. Lyric poems have always been companions to man’s philosophic nature—-that’s the background story to the original agon of poetry and philosophy. But the lyric narrative locks in the transcending of emerging, once-only form from all the formal moves required by the narrative. As opposed to univocal, “formal” forms, the form of a given lyric poem emerges only at the end. All the voices of the poem—-displayed in astonishing range by Clarkson—- becomes the voice of the poem beyond the poem, Clarkson’s “you.” That “bat’s-cradled [cat’s cradled?] tree-house skirling WITH HYMNS” leaves no doubt about just WHO this YOU might be.

Clarkson’s agapeic vision is rarely part of the conversation devoted to her poems. There are many reasons for this. We live in a nihilistic culture that refuses to acknowledge the dimensions of being beyond the performative objective and subjective Romantic/Idealistic others. Lyrics reach beyond those limits. Obviously Clarkson’s saturated language gathers meaning from Christian and mystical religion, which are part of her being. Most of us have not been taught, however resistfully, how to access those voices within our common language. In this poem she evokes the raw sounds of communication as an aspect of being. Her poem is a kind of hymn to the intimate universal expressed by communication in all its wonderful and baffling variety.

Finally, this poem may be thought of as the Ars Poetica of one of the most exciting new poets of the 21st century.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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