The Purposeful Lyric Life

The predicament of how language can continue to give us strong lyrical resources in poetry’s deconstructive wakefulness came up for me as I read through assertions about “the word as such” and its “heightened materiality” in Marjorie Perloff’s and Matvei Yankelevich’s recent essays. They make me want to pull in writing’s “materiality” even closer; right now, it seems we are still talking about it behind its back. The allure of the material gives certain poems their forms of play, suspicion, risk, and complexity. “I feel closer to what language can’t reach,” writes Rainer Maria Rilke, drawing us into the drama of habitation between language and world in the twentieth century. “The word in language is half someone else’s,” Mikhail Bahktin says, emphasizing context as more than simply surrounding discourse. Then there is the sensual recognition of these ideas that John Ashbery gives us: “All things seem mention of themselves / And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.” So serene and dryly sanguine, that Ashbery.

If you go to poetry partly out of hunger for a quality of mind, you might ask what kind of epistemic orientation is needed to feel the stakes involved in opening up complicated fields of form and feeling through verse. Words, even always “already bespoken” ones, can give the imagination places to inhabit, but they can also give it triggers for exploring its own itinerant investments in what makes its constructive power visible and accessible. This constructive power is not structuring power as it is for modernism, but a moment-by-moment feeling for—the expansiveness that language offers, the cares and traps it evokes, the deep troubling it causes. Language is always referring, if at times obliquely, to its own motives and what solicits them. This is how I can account for a strong poem taking on public force that is not mere ideology.

But is this a case where self-conscious writing modes (of conservative or conceptual or contextual stripes) merely texture the deconstructive aspects of poetry to expressive ends? At times, representative gestures of self-reflexivity—the worked surface, ardent detachment, fragmented authorship, (cheerful or doleful) circumvention of dramatic illusion—all appear to leave poems as symptoms of a kind of exhausted self-awareness. But I never got over lyric charisma in the first place. I’m still interested in a poetic area or practice where skeptical poetic processes can make for lyric affect. Even if these procedures begin from spaces of disbelief (about self and soul, expression, emotion, intellect, the search for the terms on which art and life can apprehend each other), these kinds of questions, doubts, and modes of making can mark contemporaneity and lead to a powerful, purposeful lyric life. Shot through with language and marked by its sense-quickening, I feel closer to what language can’t reach.