Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry
David Baker and Ann Townsend, editors
Graywolf Press, $15 (paper)
Radiant Lyre, which the editors dub “a comprehensive seminar on the lyric,” aims to gather several poets’ own responses to lyric forms and methods, as well as to pose questions poets and readers might ask about how to define the lyric for a contemporary world. The book’s handy table of contents, laid out as a map, treats both the broad designs of lyric poetry—elegy, love poem, ode—and its internal features: the pastoral, the sublime, people, and time. Each section clusters essays describing the history of each mean or mode, usually moving from Greco-Roman inheritance through the Renaissance and the Romantics, exploring something from America’s 19th-century tradition, and then looking at how the subject is treated today. It’s a large task, and at their best, the sections navigate tributaries of reinvention. The examination of the ode, for instance, begins with Carl Phillips’s reading of rhetoric in Horace and Pindar and moves to Linda Gregerson’s rather unexpected readings of how Robert Hass uses the ode to engage our present imperium. It can be especially interesting to hear the ways these authors are critical of the very modes they have spent such energy describing: Phillips writes passionately about public encomium even as he questions it, and Gregerson notes that “pastoral was always the genre of city folk, the simple life a fantasy of power elites.” At other times, the book’s strategy of moving taxonomies through time can feel like a catalog of ships. Still, as they move, these essays accumulate a toolbox of methods for approaching and understanding constellations within the vast terrain of the lyric, and they frame questions practitioners might well ask as they assemble poems out of our shared lyric inheritance: How do we deal with questions of beauty or time now? How does a modern ode recreate public duties in a world where genres are routinely bent, the public fractured? What might a specifically American elegy look like? All in all, Radiant Lyre demonstrates the good of comprehensiveness. Once the questions are posed, the breadth of reading cited in these essays may very well send readers back to libraries or bookstores to go deeper on their own.