LYRIC ENDS and BEGINNINGS 12.12.20 (Penelope Shuttle)

I’ve taken a break to recharge and what hit me is the resilience of the concept of witness in the life of modern poetry. For example: Three of the authors that hold their own while reflecting the chaos of the modern — Denise Levertov, Milosz, and Geoffrey Hill — invite conversations about contemporary witnessing. Less well-known poets like Geraldine Clarkson and Penelope Shuttle bear witness too. Witness has little to do with Twitter likes, though it does seem to suggest something about the irreducibly human, the excess of what it is poets bear witness to.

This is from Shuttle’s Poetry Salzburg pamphlet FATHER LEAR (2020).

Beautifully done

said the dying Stanley Spencer to a nurse giving him an injection / in the small hours and I think the hours themselves / prefer the night when the dead clip us in passing with their stiff eyes // they are escaping this woe-filled earth without a second thought for any of us / not even the bee-in-their-bonnet florists who wove their wreaths / This is why I think less good of the dead than you might suppose // (except for Stanley)

The poem witnesses by fulfilling what we’ve come to expect of a lyric— a grounded opening, literal and competent, an exploration of the verbal equivocities of the occasion, a development of the conversation from multiple cultural points of view, then the confrontation of the poet and reader in the space carved out by the poem. It is a lively space despite the occasion. Stanley Spencer is very much a part of it.

As for ends and beginnings, the linear, temporal nature of lyric, often ignored by contemporary poets, yields to the paradox of form as something that survives the lyric’s performance in time. The surplus is there. “Survives” serves the relief of ending and the sur of both survive and surplus point to the wisdom of that parenthesis in closing.

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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