Posts Tagged ‘Poetics


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 ( 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. //



Special thanks to Les Kay for helpful feedback.//



Works Cited

Brown, Jericho. “As a Human Being.” Poetry Society of America, 2017.

“Frequently Asked Questions.” Pecha Kucha 20×20, n.d.,

Glück, Robert. “Writing Must Explore Its Relation to Power.” Literary Hub, 27 June 2016.

Griffiths, Rachel Eliza. “On Jericho Brown.” Poetry Society of America, 2017.

Harris, Kaplan Page. “New Narrative and the Making of Language Poetry.” American Literature, vol. 81, no. 4, Dec. 2009.


Review of Alexandra Socarides Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics

Socarides – Dickinson UnboundIn Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, Alexandra Socarides reads Emily Dickinson’s poems to understand how the materiality on which Dickinson wrote her poems affected her poetics. Socarides examination is divided in to five loosely linked chapters, plus an “Afterword,” and each chapter examines a material aspect of Dickinson’s writing practice.

The first chapter examines how the folded sheets of paper that Dickinson wrote on and that would later be bound with pinholes and red thread (the fascicles) not only affected the composition of individual poems but the manner in which they were arranged. As for the composition, for instance, larger pieces of paper allowed Dickinson to expand poems, while smaller pieces forced her to condense. Socarides also contends that the poems were not ordered thematically, chronologically, to be printed, or ordered in any other method that is often attributed to Dickinson’s organizational method. They were ordered, Socarides suggests, not only so the poems could be rearranged, but so Dickinson could examine the limitations and possibilities present in written texts (private) and printed texts (public dissemination). This side of the argument is proven well by comparison with other writers of the time who had similar practices and by the process of how she made her fascicles, despite the easy options that were available to her in a 19th century industrial culture with ready-made notebooks. However, as for an individual poem, Socarides tries to read the poems as an experiment in lineation based on the width of the page. Here the argument is less convincing as Dickinson clearly had a line in mind, most likely informed by ear and rhythm, and the edge of the page did not affect the length she heard. Even if the page was too narrow to contain the whole length of the line before extending onto a second line in the written drafts, Dickinson was clearly hearing beyond the edge of the page. In the end, Socarides does show that fascicles should not be read as books, but they should be read as something that is made and that does work.

The second chapter looks at poems that were part of an epistolary practice and a copying practice – poems first written in a fascicle and copied into a letter or first written in a letter and then copied into a fascicle or letters written as poems – and how there was no distinction between the epistolary and poetry genres for Dickinson, despite what critics have claimed. Dickinson, like others in 19th century America, was not concerned with the differences of genre but was concerned with the act of composition and the tension that exists between private and public communication. Socarides convincingly shows how the letter and poem are often indistinguishable by closely examining the context and the spacing and indentation of “As if I asked a common alms –” and how it is laid out in the letter in which it first appeared. As a result, critics relying on the demarcation between modes of writing to inform their criticism now have to reassess how they approach Dickinson’s compositions. More important, perhaps, is how the concern of printing or laying out Dickinson’s poems and letters has overshadowed how Dickinson was challenging the media of private and public acts of composition and her use “I.”

The third section examines another genre – the elegy, which Socarides defines as a poem shaped by the conflict of individual bereavement and the traditions of memorialization. In this way, Socarides shows how Dickinson challenges the assumptions of a particular genre by realizing poetry’s inability to represent loss and provide consolation. Socarides contends that the use of “or” – either as indicator to variations of revision or how it is used in a poem – interrupts time and causes a looping effect, which is in contrast to the temporal flow of an elegiac poem. The argument extends further into the fascicles themselves, which consist of multiple folded pieces of paper each one with a beginning and ending and often containing variations on portraying or interacting with death. In other words, the “or,” the folded sheet, the whole fascicle, and the numerous poems centered on death highlight the interruption of life’s journey by death, which is a creative reading of the materiality of the fascicles.

The fourth chapter opens brilliantly but confusingly. Socarides reads “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind” in relation to Dickinson abandoning her fascicle writing practice and turning to loose-leaf-paper-poem writing and to show how “the poems are the paper” (106). The premise lies on the idea that the fascicles have a sequence, which earlier Socarides claims did not. If the reader can navigate around that, then the argument that the loose-leaf-paper-poem writing confounds sequence (both spatial and temporal) and enacts the limits of sequence as an ordering device becomes a fascinating argument, not to mention the comparisons between the fascicles and the metaphors and images in “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind.”

Chapter five picks up on a mostly neglected area of study – Dickinson’s later writings on scraps of different types of paper. Here, Socarides trains us how to read these fragmented and less formal writings. Again, Socarides sees it as Dickinson confronting the issues of sequence and relationships, as well as closure, which arises with her many variant endings for poems. During these later years of writing, Dickinson had many unfinished poems, but, nonetheless, she saved these unfinished poems to preserve “the material site of this [writing] process” (132).

The “Afterword” teaches us how we can apply Socarides’ materials readings to other poets, such as William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley, and she highlights the significance material culture had on writing for 19th century American women poets.

While each chapter and “Afterword” focus on a specific aspect of materiality and each could be a stand-alone essay, Socarides, in the end, successfully shows a relationship between the material being written on and Dickinson’s poetics, which is Dickinson exploring the public and private media of communication and confounding various genres of poetry. This book is not just for Dickinson scholars but is also for those interested in materiality or the revision and writing process. It’s a book that will change how you read and approach literature, and, as a result, is highly recommended.




Socarides, Alexandra. Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.



Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics ) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 10, which was published circa April 2007.


Christian Wiman's – Ambition and SurvivalChristian Wiman’s voice is strong & powerful in Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press), and if I were younger, before I knew who I was, before I knew my writing ways & its limits & its strengths, this book would have influenced my writing, as much as Ezra Pound’s essays did. Instead, Wiman is just influencing my thinking.

An early challenge of this book, a challenge that is discussed throughout the book in various ways, is a response to form. Wiman notes the argument of the critics that since:

our experience of the world is chaotic and fragmented, and because we’ve lost our faith not only in those abstractions by means of which men and women of the past ordered their lives but also in language itself, it would be naive to think that we could have such order in our art. (p 94-5)

Wiman responds to this argument:

What I am interested in, and what I want to focus on here, is a kind of closure that compromises itself, a poetry whose order is contested, even undermined, by its consciousness of the disorder that it at once repels and recognizes. (p 95)

And what underlies Wiman’s response are two thoughts. One, Wiman wants us to confront our conventions & forms. From that I extrapolate, we are the new generation, and this is our obligation. Wiman is shouting for my generation.

The second thought and what underlies much the book is the conflict that many poets/artists have – the separation of art and life. Should there be a split? Wiman thinks not. He wants more life in poetry. More experience in poetry. But he doesn’t want a life that is lived for an experience to put into poetry. He realizes that we live in a universe of a large-order through which we flounder in our own chaos and there is an inability to express that perfectly. So, is the poem “more authentic if rough and unfinished,” as critics would suggest? It’s a theme that keeps me thinking throughout the book.

Another theme is silence – the silence between the finished poem & the beginning of writing the next poem, and how the poet handles that silence. Wiman is quick to realize that all of us poets don’t write a poem a day (& I wonder how many of us younger poets actually do write a poem a day). For those who don’t write every day, there is much silence to fill. Wiman tells us why some poets drink – drinking fills the horrible silence (or perhaps quiets the screaming anxieties of not writing, either way there is silence that needs to be dealt with). Wiman, however, suggests writing prose, which is not the same as writing poetry, but it does rid the silence and the prose will have lots of attachments to the poet’s poetry. This theme of silence is explored with more intimacy and details throughout the book, though not directly.

Now, I want to talk about that Poundian voice I mentioned earlier. It comes through loud and clear in “Fourteen Fragments in Lieu of a Review.” Here’s the opening fragment from what was supposed to be a review of an anthology of sonnets.

There isn’t much literature there couldn’t well be less of. A four-hundred-page anthology of sonnets? It takes a real aberration of will to read straight through such a thing. Another man might win an egg eating contest, with similar feelings, I would imagine, of mild shock, equivocal accomplishment  obliterated taste.

Before I get further into the Pound voice, I need to side track for a moment. Anyone who wants to learn about sonnets, what sonnets should do, how they should behave, and how they work in larger view than iambic pentameter, voltas, etc., needs to read this essay. It’s a damn fine discussion that won’t be heard in the classroom, and he presents arguments/ideas, again, that make me think. New arguments and ideas. Now, returning to the Pound voice. Yes, Wiman is like my generation’s Pound. Both worked for Poetry magazine. Pound as Poetry’s foreign correspondent and Wiman as Poetry’s editor. Both are smart & influential. However, Wiman doesn’t come across as authoritative as Pound, in tone that is. Wiman is authoritative, but his authority comes across different. His tone is like what Pascal says and that Wiman quotes, though not in reference to himself. “One must have deeper motives and judge everything accordingly, but go on talking like an ordinary person.” This is what I like about Wiman. He talks smart, but he also talks ordinary. Yeah, I could have drink in a bar with this guy and have a good time chatting, whether it be about poetry or something else.

There’s much more to be said about this book, but not the room to do it. So now I must end this celebratory review, and I have three ways to end it, but I don’t know which way to choose, so here are my three endings.

One. I’ll leave you with these three out-of-context quotes that underscore the themes of Ambition and Survival.

[A] poem that is not in some inexplicable way beyond the will of the poet, is not a poem. (p 123)

There are varying depths of this internalization, though varying degrees to which a poet will inhabit, bridge, endure, ignore, enact (the verb will vary depending on the poet) the separation between experience and form, process and product, life and art, and one can see a sort of rift in literary history between what I’ll call, for simplicity’s sake, poets of observation and poets of culmination. (p 134).

I’m increasingly convinced that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the poem and the the poet’s capacity for suffering. (p 136)

Two. Ambition and Survival is really a search for this: how “[m]ore and more I want an art that is tied to life more directly” (p 23).

Three. I recommend Ambition and Survival to two types of people. One, those who write poetry. Two, those who write poetry & who are two to three years out of college & who now have to create their own writing energies in the absence of the energies a college created and radiated out, & who, in the absence of energy, are starting to question the significance of poetry in their life or the need to write it.//




Wiman, Christian. Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.//


Juliet Patterson’s The Truant Lover (2006)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 8/9, which was published circa April 2007.


Juliet Patterson's – The Truant LoverJuliet Patterson’s poems in the The Truant Lover (Nightboat Books) have the feel of elliptical poetry; however, while elliptical poetry makes the reader feel like they are missing a necessary part of a story or chunk of information that fills in the blanks of the narrative, The Truant Lover has a back story that is given to us by the book’s title and by the prefatory poem, “Note.” As a result, the reader can be engaged in the book’s happenings & not feel like they have just walked into a movie midway through. Because of this strategy, there is an elliptical feel (which I enjoy, as I enjoy how elliptical poetry thinks despite the missing information) without too much head scratching. And so the book works because we are in a collection of poems that revolve around “a meaning inseparable from its absence.” A book revolving around absence & wholeness & the imaginary & the real, or “of all that withdraws / & remains.” What do I mean? I mean that “some of the worst things in your life / never happen.” That is how the book works: through vague narratives & tight lyrics.//




Patterson, Juliet. The Truant Lover. Beacon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2006.//


Melissa Kwasny’s Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry, 1800-1850 (2004)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 4/5, which was published circa early 2005.


Melissa Kwasny's – Toward the Open FieldMelissa Kwasny has compiled a collection of worthy essays by poets on free verse, or the movement toward free verse, beginning with William Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” & up to & including Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” As with all anthologies, there should be some surprises, or unique opportunities that are seized, & both are had here. Included in this collection are two often overlooked essays: “Modern Poetry” by Mina Loy & “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes. But that is not what makes this anthology a unique & exciting collection of poetics. What puts this anthology over the top & is it contains essays from poets of non-English languages, including Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, André Breton, Federico García Lorca, Paul Valéry, & Aimé Césaire. Kwasny’s Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry, 1800-1950  (Wesleyan University Press, 2004) also comes with a decent “Selected Bibliography” for other sources of essays on poetics, but it does lack an index.

I recommend this anthology for every poet’s library as a great reference & to remind us of where we came from & what we are trying to do. I also strongly urge that every MFA program across the land incorporate this anthology into their creative writing poetry classes, as a historical primer for free verse. This anthology is too beneficial for our younger poets to overlook. I do hope another volume comes out that features more essays from 1950-2000 by more contemporary poets. There is always growth in poetry, & there has been significant growth since 1950.//




Kwasny, Melissa. Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry, 1800-1950. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Material Matters

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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