NOTE TO READER This series of essays draws on a long tradition of reading and rereading lyric under different circumstances. I draw on Milosz’s anthology A Book of Luminous Things because it has been my companion for decades. Milosz’s “taste” becomes an issue from time to time because circumstances alter responses, but in general I find his selections good examples of lyric as companionable writing. Milosz is one of the voices in the conversation; another’s is that of William Desmond, whose work has been a steady and steadying influence/voice in me for years. His archaeology of the human condition as “between” mortals and immortals improves on our default modern assumptions that presuppose the irrelevance of problems of awareness that go beyond the reductive, pre-phenomenological sense of finitude. Finitude makes no “sense” without the presupposition of the problem of infinity.
Levertov’s lyric “A Woman Meets an Old Lover” has a strange grammar, and this influences the narrative. Why is the whole poem in quotes? Why is it in archaic, non conversational English? The whole set up seems strange, counter-intuitive. And yet the energy that throbs in the poem has the strength of a love poem by Thomas Hardy. The anguish seems real.
The opening is a description of a memory that has the particularity we expect of lyric. Even the grammar suggests something of Sappho’s intense universality, directly linking Eros and personal experience. It is a vignette that overcomes the awkwardness of the voice, as if the images take over the reflective distance of thought.
As the next stanza moves from memory into the personal present, passion becomes profound perplexity (we call this the narrative move from the assumptions of objectivity into the equivocity of sensuous encounter, complicated by the vigilance of the self for itself). “Appear” conditions how we understand this string of adjectives: anxious, pale, almost unrecognized, hesitant, lame. From psychological to physical, the image of the conventional lyric beloved is undermined by the shock of the chance meeting.
From these complexities to the contradictions and even paradoxes of dialectic the narrative moves the poem, still in the emotional straightjacket of the diction, toward a crisis. The distinctions matter. I cannot remember X but only Y and now Z! The sudden breaking of type, overturning expectations, returns us to the direct grammar of the lyric saturated moment, the sudden porosity of self and other, a breakthrough of passion, at least on one side!
How embarrassing! Embarrassing? It is a sudden upsurge of recognition of truths long repressed. The “speaker,” suddenly breaking down, confesses. It’s not just that the past comes alive again but that the speaker becomes possessed of a sense of herself in the vast universal impermanence of time. As we’ve come to expect, at this last phase of the narrative, things become unhinged. Self and other make up a new entity. Note the strangeness of subject and object. He remembers everything I had forgotten!
Lyrics companion us; they provide a perspective that challenges and eventually complements ours as readers, the text becomes a between that brings us to think what is other to thought. Lyric takes us beyond our “idealism,” which only sublates our sense of self into a false unity that cannot withstand the test of time. Lyrics measure our maturity as mindful human beings. The shelf life of a lyric may be as brief as the moment it serves to recall, OR the lyric can keep opening us to more mindful awareness. Some lyrics threaten to overwhelm us in our finite sense of self, and we put them by in frustration, only to renew the relationship for any number of reasons. Good friends are like that—essential to our sense of “the good,” the “intimate” not the self-serving “clear and simple” sense of truth.
Final question: do the quotation marks disappear? Has the sheer force of lyric narrative so reframed the poem that by the end the conventions of point of view seem, er, awkward? Is the final truth of our companion beyond even her eloquence?