Posts Tagged ‘lyric I

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 Master’s 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 egotistical 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 composition students, “Don’t use ‘you’ in your essay, as it is presumptuous, as you, the student, are assuming what I, the reader, am 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 is we. It is 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.



																
09
Mar
16

Outer Humor and Inner Seriousness: On Tom C. Hunley’s The State That Springfield Is In

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Tom C Hunley – The State That Sprinfield Is InIn Close Calls with Nonsense, Stephen Burt, at times, concerns himself with the lyric I. According to Burt, in the past, the lyric I represented a whole person, but in today’s contemporary American poetry, the lyric I (and maybe even the I in any contemporary poem) is not whole, it’s fragmented, it’s unwholly. In The State That Springfield Is In (Split Lip Press, 2016), Tom C. Hunley takes this splintered poetic I into a new arena. Hunley uses characters from one of the all-time great tv shows (especially animated tv shows), The Simpsons, as the constituent parts of his poetic I, his “inner life” (“Notes” 65). Additionally, he often illustrates the inner fragmented lives of The Simpsons characters he portrays, which is probably where the fragmented lyric I is most noticeable. Not only does Hunley become the manifestation of Springfield, but he makes allusions to literary texts and uses poetic forms that have also shaped the constituent parts of a contemporary poetic I who grew up watching The Simpsons like a religion, as many of us did and as Hunley surely did.

The State That Springfield Is In opens with “Edna Krabappel,” a poem that teaches the reader how to read the poems and what to expect: the poems move dialectically (between characters, within a character, or between a character and Hunley), and the poems will sometimes use direct quotes from The Simpsons. In “Edna Krabappel,” the poem acts as a call and response between Hunley speaking for the grade-school teacher Edna Krabappel and uses direct quotes from what Bart Simpson wrote on the chalkboard at the beginning of every episode. Hunley, however, is not appropriating the quotes just to use them for content, but instead, he is showing how they are part of his internal makeup or to highlight internal conflicts within a character, or himself. The final two lines of the poem, “Can we trash the ribbons and teach self-confidence instead of self-esteem? / They are laughing at me not with me” (with Krabappel’s line in plain face and Bart’s in italics), make it clear that this collection, on one level, will be dealing with the issues of identity and perceived identity.

Another example is in the two-sectioned cento poem “Barney Gumble” (33), where Hunley uses lines Barney spoke in The Simpsons and juxtaposes them with “excerpts from AA’s Big Book and Rational Recovery’s Small Book” (67) to contrast the sobering “Barnard Gumble” in Alcoholics Anonymous with the Barney Gumble who is consistently drunk and a more-than-regular patron at Moe’s Tavern. The quotes are so seamlessly worked in, one can’t distinguish Barney’s quotes from the quotes from the alcoholic-recovery books, and one gets a better understanding of the conflicts Barney, and many alcoholics, deal with on a daily basis. Barney is a person who was once a good and sober student until he drank a beer that turned him into an alcoholic with issues of self-worth, and he deals with these issues daily, as the poem suggests.

Another example of the conflicted I appears in “Moe Szyslak” (17-18). In this poem, Moe the bartender is on the phone with the “Listen Lady,” who is Marge Simpson “in one of her many temporary jobs” (66). Moe, after being sidetracked about prank callers, claims he is looking for advice on how to give “advice / like a bartender ought to be doing.” Moe is trying to improve himself, and if you know Moe, there’s a lot of improvement that can be had, which we learn a little about in this poem. During this phone call, however, he keeps talking and we never hear from the Listen Lady. We hear Moe identify himself as “Moe, of Moe’s Tavern” (so he won’t be confused with a prank caller), state his reason for calling, but then he starts analyzing himself, “I’m always fightin’ / with myself, that’s my problem.” He even briefly finds a remedy, “Somehow you just gotta / surrender to your own complexities, like that poet / who said ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.” And so he keeps talking and analyzing, almost like a poet writing on the page jumping from association to association as he/she tries to better understand him-/herself while writing for an audience. This appears to be a cue for Hunley’s readers, too. Perhaps, Hunley is using the mask of Moe, some quotes from Moe, and a perfectly rendered voice of Moe to tell us about his own internal conflicts, such as “when you fight with yourself / you’re gonna lose, bet on it” or “some days you just don’t believe in nothin’,” which is also a conflict that arises with Reverend Lovejoy in the poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy.” But with Moe, his dialectical movement is within himself, despite talking on the phone with the Listen Lady (who is also a split persona, as he is really Marge). The reader’s expectations are subverted here because we expect a response from the Listen Lady, but it doesn’t come. Instead Moe battles with internal feelings and his outward appearance and actions by way of a monologue. He talks and listens to himself only to realize he will lose. As a result, one wonders what would happen if he let the Listen Lady enter the conversation, one wonders what would happen if he let someone into his life, one wonders if we (the reader) need another person in our life to have a conversation (a dialectic banter) in order to better understand ourselves. We also realize how fragmented Moe is, as he is more than just a bartender, he is also a person seeking love, a person who judges other people, a hero, a person of ridicule, a former boxer, as well as his Dutch, Italian, Arab, and Polish ancestries which are all “at war / inside my [Moe’s] bloodstream).” Indeed, he is large and contains multitudes, like Burt’s contemporary lyric I.

Not only does this poem have dialectic movement between Moe and the listener and between one’s inner and outer selves, but there’s also the movement between serious and humorous, as with many of the poems in this collection. I’ve just pointed out how serious this poem is, but it’s also hilarious. I laughed so many times through it, and I probably laughed even harder because Hunley rendered Moe so perfectly. This type of movement recalls Robert Frost who said about the poem, “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.” I think most of these poems achieve the latter, even in the meta poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-46), which takes on the most serious and philosophic questions about whether or not there is a god or divine creator.

In “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-6), the Reverend is giving a sermon about god and Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons. Much like Moe’s phone call, Reverend Lovejoy is thinking out loud to a captured audience, his congregation, who, like the Listen Lady, do not respond. The poem opens with Reverend Lovejoy confronting the conflict of Matt Groening who created the “comic strip” Life in Hell but who also created The Simpsons. This divine creator created two universes, and Reverend Lovejoy is in one of them, a Reverend who is aware of his fictional existence but who also believes in a Christian god. That’s now two conflicts. There’s also the conflict that Groening “himself [is] an agnostic,” which is a paradox. This spirals into the Reverend saying he is “not sure I believe in myself either.” We have an existential poem on many levels with many gods. Not only is Reverend Lovejoy a fragmented lyric I, but the creator (god and Groening) is too. Not to mention “that Matt / Groening only penned four episodes of The Simpsons,” and “so it appears that Apu and his 700 million fellow Hindus / may be correct, friends, that there are many creators,” meaning there are many writers for The Simpsons as well as many gods. The existential confusion, the multiple lyric gods, becomes more confusing when we see that the character “Mr. Burns / proclaimed himself ‘The New God’,” and when we see that Lisa Simpson “created a tiny world whose inhabitants built / a graven image of her.” The fictional characters (who were created by Groening and multiple writers who were created by a god or gods) probably believe they were created by god, then become gods themselves, and Reverend Lovejoy is trying to sort through all of this using his knowledge of the self-contained world of Springfield that he lives in, while also being aware that he is fictional. In the end it conjures up what many of us have thought about gods and creation, including Plato and his allegory of the cave, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, as well as the movie The Matrix. And all of this seriousness is mixed in with laugh-out-loud humor.

By the end of The State That Springfield Is In, we can understand why Hunley used this cultural phenomenon of a tv show to write about his “own scarred, departed youth” (65) as we must wonder whether we watch The Simpsons or if The Simpsons watch us. Plus, does any Simpsons fan really know what state Springfield is in?

Springfield State Flag

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Hunley, Tom C. The State That Springfield Is In. Richmond, VA: Split Lip Press, 2016. Print.//




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