The "I" of Lyric
I’d like to find a way not to occupy some middle ground between the pejoratively “conservative” and the obtusely “conceptual,” but to point out a terrain of instability—a lyric instability—in which such seeming oppositions overlap. I’d like to think backward, atavistically, anciently—a light still cast in conversations such as these that seem so modernly or post-modernly lit. Part of lyric’s potency—a power that cannot be removed from its instability—can be felt in the chorus of Greek tragedy. The chorus, this we that speaks as an I, reminds us that subjective intimacy in a lyric poem is compromised by the numerous, anonymous undergrounds the word I holds within it. That lyric-I, never singular, but uttered by a singer’s mouth (even now, the form feels to me a song, and a poem is a singer’s work) also stood in relation to events that affected the chorus and of which the chorus had imperfect knowledge. The lyric stood aside from the narrated event, from those speakers of action, seeking some fact it knew must exist, but of which it could feel only the vestige, only its troubled absence.
“Chorus” works back, etymologically, to a dancing ground, and from there, back to an enclosed space. Part of lyric effort—part of its deep agony in the oldest sense—is that lyric form draws a circle around itself, a world in which the song sings its excessive, contrary work. Emily Dickinson: “My Business is Circumference.” A lyric poem removes itself from the whole system, not as a form of denial—language’s totality, subjectivity’s all—but as that deeply formal gesture which must be accomplished if the boundary is to be troubled with rupture. Those ruptures include an “I” that means exactly myself, exactly my experience, when it is uttered; that same syllable unfolds into anonymity, and makes the intimate point of oneself the very ground of encounter with another, when what is said begins to sing. Emily Dickinson: “My Business is to Sing.” Here the self is another, and cannot help but be so.
The work of lyric happens within the conceptual system of language as a whole, riddled by it even as it resists it. The self who sings in language knows what cannot be helped, what cannot be otherwise, that “creativity” is a fiction that removes us from the crisis of singing. And yet to deny that subjective self, that “I” that emerges from the life one lives, that is also a pattern, a sieve, through which the indefinite whole of words falls, is to—as did the giant monsters of fairy tales—remove one’s heart and hide it for safe-keeping. I’m not interested in a poetry that removes itself from our most human risks: world, word, and the agonistic encounter with another that the lyric poem generously opens within itself—difficult gifts where opposition reconciles even as it occurs.