Ahead of his upcoming online course, Joey Connolly writes on the politics of ‘the lyric’.
In an unnamed poem in her 2017 book Fourth Person Singular, Nuar Alsadir writes:
‘On the local platform at 86th Street waiting for a 6 Train, I noticed, written on a column in thick Sharpie, “Fuck Lyric:”
I felt stunned, stood staring so long at those two words I almost missed the train that briefly opened its light to me. Of course, I thought later, it’s possible there’s some asshole named Lyric somewhere in New York City who needs to fuck off. But the message, as I took it, resonates with a struggle I’ve had for years with poetics, the figure of address, and larger questions of selfhood.’
She later expands, ‘…why is it that writing a lyric poem that has an I that matches up with the person I consider myself to be in my everyday life induces shame?’
Yes. Why has the lyric ‘I’ – and, by association, the form of the lyric poem – begun to attract a sense of shame in so many of our most interesting and sensitive poets? And why is that shame associated with a fuck off–type and –level of anger?
Well, like everything, because politics. Complicatedly. Lyric has been English language poetry’s dominant form at least since Browning offed his last duchess, 170 years ago. So lyric’s the status quo; it’s become associated with the academy, the establishment. Sure. But it’s more than that: we also know about the ways post-modern attempts to disrupt the lyric so often end up speaking exclusively to a highly-educated academic elite, overwhelmingly upper-middle class and white, mostly male. So it isn’t merely lyric’s perennial insiderdom that’s the problem – there seems to be something previously undiagnosed about the form itself.
Writing about Claudia Rankine, Ben Lerner suggests that ‘…lyric strategies are less willfully rejected than made to feel unavailable.’ That is to say, the lyric form implies a heightening of language which seems to correlate with an aestheticisation of experience, inlaying life with a gold filigree which feels at odds with the struggle that invests the existence of so many of us, and particularly those of us maginalised by an increasingly divided and hostile world.
And if that’s the case… then fuck lyric. Fuck the strategies by which poetry wallpapers over the ugly and difficult truth of daily life for millions of people. What right does poetry have to turn away its face from the brutal linguistic operations by which the politicians dehumanise those bodies inconvenient to their accrual of power. Fuck a poetry which presents the world as a series of redemptive epiphanies arising from looking at a bird; fuck a poetry which makes its way obsessively towards transcendental moments in which we surpass the reality of our bodies and our social conditions, leaving those poor unlettered millions to wallow in, well, the way stuff actually is. Sandeep Parmar calls the mainstream lyric style the ‘low-risk game of truth and meaning [which] left little room for nuanced poetic subjectivities that challenged the singular British voice.‘
So, where to look instead? Poetry finds its responses in works like Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, which derives its linguistic energy from a resistance to the American government’s refusal to face its violent historical relation to the Native American community. Or in Look by Solmaz Sharif, built up and around the barrage of military euphemism employed to avoid the horrifying realities of the war against and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue is, amongst other things, a dizzying deconstruction of the attempt to narrate the migrant experience. Claudia Rankine attacks the walls which separate poetry, essay and theory.
On the course, we’ll look at those poets and others, examining the way various techniques for subverting the lyric form are also ways for subverting the predominant neoliberal and conservative strains of thinking to which poetry’s attention – and fury – seem newly awakened.
Push, examine and dismantle the formal boundaries of lyric poetry with Joey Connolly. Click here for more information,
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