06
Apr
18

Notes on The New Lyric Poem and the Lyric “You”

Notes on The New Lyric Poem and the Lyric “You”

for the “A Discussion of Current American Poetry” panel

at the 2018 Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers Conference

            When I was earning my Bachelor’s and Masters degrees in English in the 1990s and MFA in the early 2000s, I was taught there were five poetry genres – lyric, narrative, meditative, dramatic, and epic – with the most frequently used genres being lyric and narrative. In this new millennium, I continue to see lyric and narrative poems. However, for a while, it also seemed the narrative poem was the most prevalent genre and there were not many lyric poems. In fact, I thought the lyric poem had essentially disappeared, except in experimental poems. It seemed so rare to me that I devoted an issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics to it. In that issue, poets responded to whether they thought the lyric had died or not. Initially, today’s panel discussion was to be about that, but as I more closely examined and researched poems, especially in the recent The Best American Poetry 2017, I realized the lyric hadn’t disappeared. It evolved. In this new millennium, there’s been a change to the lyric poem. The new lyric is more temporally flexible than the lyric poem I learned about, and it now includes a lyric “you” that is replacing the traditional lyric “I.”

For most of the 20th century, from around the 1920s or so until the 1970s, poetry was the lyric. It was the place of the speaking self that used the lyric “I” in a repeatable now moment. It was not outwardly mimetic, but at times was inwardly mimetic, especially in meditative poems, which I consider a sub-genre of the lyric poem, as it is a lyrical but with a focus of religious self-examination. The 20th century lyric poem was lyrical from first line to last line. Its use of the lyric “I” asked the reader to embody the speaker and asked the reader to walk a mile in the speaker’s spiritual and mental shoes. Then in the The Language Book (Poetics of the New)1970s with the arrival of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, the lyric “I” was dismissed, as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets thought it had become too egoistical and that the intervention of the egoed “I” hindered experimentation and the undermining of capitalism through language. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets also shunned the narrative poem for its inability to be innovative and inability to provide a “materialist critique of language” (Harris 808), and because as Steve McCaffery says, narrative is “the paradigm art form of the capitalist system” (Harris 808). Then writers and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets in the LGBTQ+ community reacted that without the “I,” they had no voice. The lack of “I” privileged white cis-heterosexuals. These writers created the New Narrative in response. They claimed the narrative could be political and it was better for telling their stories of sexuality and their bodies. This new narrative was not the traditional narrative, though. It was experimental. It combined “narrative content and innovative form” (Harris 807). For instance, according to Robert Glück, with “‘text-metatext’: a story keeps a running commentary on itself from the present” – so it’s a story told in two times, past and present. Glück adds:

The commentary, taking a form of meditation or a second story, supplies a succession of frames. That is, the more you fragment a story, the more it becomes an example of narration itself – narration displaying its device – while at the same time […] the metatext “asks questions, asks for critical response, makes claims on the reader, elicits comments. In any case, text-metatext takes its form from the dialectical cleft between real life and life as it wants to be.”

From then on until this millennium, the narrative poem appeared to be the dominant genre of poetry. I’m not sure if it is because of the New Narrative movement, but what is happening in the new lyric has some parallels.

Jericho BrownThe new lyric is a hybrid of lyric and narrative, a story told in two times. We are probably all familiar with the poem that starts off in a narrative, turns to lyric as the speaker gains some insight about him/herself, and then returns and concludes in the narrative story. There are other blendings, too. The first one to really catch my attention was Jericho Brown’s “As a Human Being,” winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Lyric Poetry Award in 2017 (https://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/awards/annual/winners/2017/award_5/). Here’s the poem in full:

     As a Human Being

     There is the happiness you have
     And the happiness you deserve.
     They sit apart from one another
     The way you and your mother
     Sat on opposite ends of the sofa
     After an ambulance came to take
     Your father away. Some good
     Doctor will stitch him up, and
     Soon an aunt will arrive to drive
     Your mother to the hospital
     Where she will settle next to him
     Forever, as promised. She holds
     The arm of her seat as if she could
     Fall, as if it is the only sturdy thing,
     And it is since you've done what
     You always wanted. You fought
     Your father and won, marred him.
     He'll have a scar he can see all
     Because of you. And your mother,
     The only woman you ever cried for,
     Must tend to it as a bride tends
     To her vows, forsaking all others
     No matter how sore the injury.
     No matter how sore the injury
     Has left you, you sit understanding
     Yourself as a human being finally
     Free now that nobody's got to love you.
                                                                         [Bold text added for emphasis]

When I first read this, I thought it was a terrific poem, but I didn’t think it was lyric. I wondered why the judge chose such a heavily narrative poem as the winner. The poem begins in lyric, though with a lyric “you” (which I’ll expand on in a moment), but from line 3 to 23, which is the vast majority of the poem, it is narrative. The poem moves forward with the narrative expectation of what will happen next. It then concludes in the last four lines in a type of lyric epiphany. The poem seems aware of this, too. As the first two lines are one lyrical sentence, and the last four lines are one lyrical sentence. By yoking the two genres together, the speaker reveals his inner experiences in those lyrical lines, while the outer story-telling provides an emotional context for his inner experiences and epiphany. The poem grafts an inner and outer mimesis, as it blurs the lines of time and mimesis. It is a poem that exists in the narrative past and lyrical now, as well as the mimetic outer world and mimetic inner world.

Terrance HayesThe new lyric’s poem blend of narrative and lyric and the blend of moving through time with moments of timelessness, manifests in other ways, too, such as in the new poetic form pecha kucha. Over the last few years, the pecha kucha quickly became a popular new poetic form. The pecha kucha is a form poem developed by Terrance Hayes, and it is based on a PowerPoint “presentation format [that] was devised by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham” (“Frequently Asked Questions”). The poem has a title, is followed by 20 four- to five-line poems and each has its own title. Each little poem parallels a PowerPoint slide, and each little poem is also expected to take about 20 seconds to read. The little poems tend to be lyrical, but the overall thrust of the poem as a whole is narrative, as underlying each lyrical moment is a subtext story (a type of text-metatext) pushing the poem forward. The fragments make a whole and the appearance of moving through time.

Another way the new lyric poem manifests is similar to Glück’s fragmented story. In Joyce Carol Oates’ poem “To Marlon Brando in Hell,” which appears in The Best American Poetry 2017, there are a series of anaphoric lines that begin with “Because,” and each line is end stopped with a period. Each line is a lyric moment, but the accumulation of lyric lines sketches a narrative story of Brando and his sexual harassments. It too blurs the lines of temporality, as it exists in lyrical now moments but also moves through time. While it often uses the second-person “you,” it’s an accusative “you” pointed at Brando. Oates’ “you,” which addresses another person, is not the same as the new lyrical “you” that I mentioned earlier and that appears in Brown’s poem.

The new lyrical “you” references the speaker of the poem, as if bending second-person into first person. Brown’s poem, as noted, uses “you” instead of “I.” I’ve been noticing this use of “you” replacing the traditional lyrical “I” in poetry over the last few years. At first, I was confused, because as I tell my compositions students, “Don’t use ‘you’ in your essay, as it is presumptuous, as you, the student, are assuming what I, the reader, is feeling or knowing.” Still I wondered why so many poets were using “you,” when the poet is clearly referring to him/herself, which requires an “I.” I’ve also seen this type of “you” in Facebook memes, such as “the feeling when you” or “TFWY.” This “you” is a way to reachThe Feeling When You out and connect with other people. Now I speculate that when the lyric “you” appears in the new lyric poem, the poem’s speaker assumes the reader has had similar experiences or has been close enough to those experience to understand the feeling attached to whatever follows “the feeling when you.” As a result, the lyric “you” is intersubjective. It yokes speaker and reader together as one by direct address. The speaker assumes a commonality. In the least, a bridge is made. While the traditional lyric “I” asked the reader to walk a mile in the speaker’s shoes, the new lyric “you” assumes the reader and speaker wear different shoes, but they probably wear the same brand and model. It subverts the otherizing of “you,” which is usually the silent reader. The “you” gives voice to the other. It’s communal. I think there is even more to it than that.

I think the “you” is also a way to project or displace feelings. If an emotion is too much to bear on its own, it’s better to disperse it, so it’s less intense, so it can be manageable. We can sense this in Brown’s poem as the speaker confronts the issues of life and death, being alone, and as it, according to judge Rachel Eliza Griffiths, “unfurls in its articulation of blame, grief, awareness, (in)fidelity, and violence.” It’s as if the speaker can’t even admit to the feelings or embrace them. As if the speaker even wonders if he experienced those feelings. As if the speaker is watching from beyond and calling himself out. To use “I” would be too overwhelming and would admit too much. So the lyrical “you” is a protective shielding, while drawing the reader into the experience in second-person but really expressing a first-hand experience.

These are my beginning notes to what I observe in the new lyric poems and the use of the lyric “you.” The new lyric is flexible in its modes of mimesis and experiences of time, and it often uses “you” to bridge a connection to the reader, as if inviting the reader into the experience and/or as way to deal with overwhelming emotions by projecting them onto the reader. Evidence of this, especially the play in time, exists in most of the poems in The Best American Poetry 2017, perhaps that is why they were chosen. The traditional lyric poem from beginning to end, or a narrative poem from beginning to end, are still the most prevalent genres, but maybe we are at a turning point and we will soon more and more of the new lyric poem. //

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Special thanks to Les Kay for helpful feedback.//

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Works Cited

Brown, Jericho. “As a Human Being.” Poetry Society of America, 2017. poetrysociety.org/psa/awards/annual/winners/2017/award_5/.

“Frequently Asked Questions.” Pecha Kucha 20×20, n.d., pechakucha.org/faq.

Glück, Robert. “Writing Must Explore Its Relation to Power.” Literary Hub, 27 June 2016. lithub.com/writing-must-explore-its-relation-to-power/.

Griffiths, Rachel Eliza. “On Jericho Brown.” Poetry Society of America, 2017. poetrysociety.org/psa/awards/annual/winners/2017/award_5/.

Harris, Kaplan Page. “New Narrative and the Making of Language Poetry.” American Literature, vol. 81, no. 4, Dec. 2009. read.dukeupress.edu/american-literature/article-pdf/81/4/805/392349/AL081-04-06HarrisFpp.pdf.



																

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