Monday, February 7, 2011

Modes of the Lyric Poem/Matthew Zapruder


Hanging 'round the internet poetry world as I do (usually without saying much) I love to find little trails of commentary that give me new ways to think, in this case, about the lyric poem. A little gift Sean Patrick Hill at Bookslut gives us before he reviews Matthew Zapruder's Come On  All You Ghosts, this brief discussion frames Zapruder's work as a tension between two modes of the lyric poem. Since I'm not a critic nor interested much in poetics yet, I read this with great interest, since I see this essay more as the by now ages-old discussion between what gets discussed first in poetry (call it the main poetic mode) as opposed to discussion of what passes for experimentation. And curiously, it's an essay that doesn't seem to take sides (bravo!).
In the 21st century, the lyric poem has found itself in quite the quandary. But much of this depends on who you ask: if one considers the general poetry readership to be represented as a typical subscriber to The New Yorker, Poetry, or The Atlantic, the lyric poem maintains a kind of allegiance to the type of poem we’ve come to rely on for at least the past three decades, an utterance at once confessional, imagistic, narrative, or a combination of any of these modes. Of course, minus a few exceptions, most of these poets are usually numbered in the older generations, if by “older” we mean anyone prior to Generation X, though The New Yorker’s readers are typically treated to poets as far-ranging in generations as W.S. Merwin and Jack Gilbert down to Matthea Harvey and the Dickman twins.
But the young are working at their own translation of the lyric poem -- not all of them, surely, as the new return to “surrealism” testifies, imperfectly -- though it can be argued this poem has largely followed lockstep, at the very least, with the general historical trend of the lyric poem: the brief, songlike expression of the self, its world, and its feelings: the old Romantic notions of importance. We see, too, its reliance on the mid-to-late 20th century mode of incorporating images of the common life, or cultural icons, which certainly dominate the poetry of, say, the '60s on up, a poem which can incorporate Coke bottles as easily as strains of agony.
Nevertheless, the lyric poem has found itself split, a kind of dual personality that incorporates both everything that came before as well as the new (old) fascination with surrealism, as well as newer trends such as the interest in the Russian Absurdists, and postmodern language theory, to name a few. Interestingly, the elders among this generation, Matthew Zapruder for one, often leans close to a kind of poem that acknowledges the tradition in a more obvious fashion (sometimes a poet like Joshua Beckman also reaches after this tradition in a way both self-conscious and ironic, but at the same time equally serious), whereas a younger poet like Julie Doxsee or Joshua Marie Wilkinson relies less on concrete “sense” in favor of music and suggestion of emotion as the presiding vehicle.
And on another note, here is the poet himself discussing his concerns at the Poetry Foundation.
Once, in high school, I met a girl who liked very strange music. She was in art school and lived in the city. She gave me a record, and when I went back to my room in the suburbs and put it on, it sounded like a garbage truck backing up over a giant bag full of aluminum bagpipes and dead robots. I played it over and over, until the music finally made glorious sense to me. Listening now to “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground, I can’t remember what it was like to be the person who couldn’t hear that music. 
What is the purpose of literary criticism? Among other things, to guide the reader past his or her resistance. Most art, subtly or aggressively, resists the familiar. Poetry in particular suffers from this resistance, because poets take the material that we depend on to operate in and make sense of the world (language), and bend it to other, often seemingly obscure, purposes.
Readers, sophisticated and beginner, need critics to explain why and how poets are using language for these different purposes, and what those purposes might be. Our attachment to familiar language is powerful, and understandable. Without critics, we will hold on to the familiar and be unable to accept that there are other uses for language, that there is new and exciting poetry all around us. 
Critics can do one of at least two things. The first is simply to insist that something is good, or bad, and rely on the force of personality or reputation to convince people. The second is to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader. Only then can the reader grow to meet work that is unfamiliar, that he or she does not yet have the capacity to love. 
Today, in American poetry, very few critics take it upon themselves to examine the choices poets make in poems, and what effect those choices might have upon a reader. As a consequence, very few people love contemporary American poetry. Many more might, if critics attempted to truly engage with the materials of poetry—words and how they work—and to connect poetry with an audience based on an engagement with these materials.
This is fun stuff to read and edifying. And it made me buy the book. It's the perfect poet-consumer nugget, all laid out for you to just click, purchase and enjoy.

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