Wednesday, April 02, 2008

“Motivated by a force that is vocalized but not wholly comprehensible, the lyric insists on being heard in spite of the fact that it cannot make itself fit conventional codes of meaning. To whatever extent it employs everyday discourse—and even the more esoteric discourses of politics or religion—its aim is to point outside any accountable meaning, to provoke the reception of an excess of meaning. ‘Lyric’ does not suggest an inattention to the material aspects of language or to the possibility of double voicing by which works of art can critique their own formulations.” From Elizabeth Willis's essay "The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on the Late Lyric” in Telling it Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. Ed. Mark Wallace and Steven Marks. University of Alabama Press, 2002.

I've always liked this quote. Some of the more interesting contemporary lyric poetry "cannot make itself fit conventional codes of meaning" but also plays off the readers expectations of what these codes might mean. Diaristic, or personal narrative poetry, that isn't critical of first person, or self-referential in some occasional ironic way, has always been problematic for me, or else just boring.

Louise Glück comes to mind as a poet that falls into this "hugely boring" category. Helen Vendler notes that Glück’s poems invite the reader’s participation by asking us to “fill out the story, substitute ourselves for the fictive personages, invent a scenario from which the speaker can solve the allegory. . .” But it's this kind of pseudo-psychological agreement with the audience that convinces me that those who gravitate to this kind of poetry should really be reading a novel. "Inventing a scenario" is not similar to the "willing suspension of disbelief" required of reading poetry that presents a challenge to the imagination. It's just a sign of banal writing.

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