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link Dale Smith: The Romantic-Modern Lyric: Poetry for the Non-poet

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Dale Smith

The Romantic-Modern Lyric:

Poetry for the Non-Poet

This piece was first published in the St Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission. It is about 2,000 words or 6 printed pages long.

The romantic-modern history of poetry has grown increasingly self-referential, rarely able to extend arguments beyond a small tribe of practitioners and students. In turn, poetry becomes a formal exercise when it addresses only an audience predisposed to shared goals and causes. Coleridge, publishing The Friend (1809 — 1810), may have been the first to perceive this inadequacy, offering limited subscriptions to those whom he considered capable of disseminating ideas beyond the sphere of a limited poetic coterie. And while poetry since Coleridge has achieved a kind of popular distinction for itself in the culture (thanks partially to his example of wide-ranging concerns and exceptional energy), it has failed to form a greater connection to other audiences. The social and creative visions of modernism, for instance, most notably found in the fragmented epics of Pound’s Cantos, Williams’ Paterson, and Olson’s Maximus Poems, in many ways address those who are already in sympathy with makers of, as Pound claimed, “words charged with meaning.”

The authority and perceived authenticity of the poet’s vision, not his or her arguments, reveals poetic insight, lyric sensitivity or even political subversion to those whose sympathies have already been claimed by the art. There is a formal obligation between the poet and audience, rather than an inquiry into the varied circumstances of communication. While rhetoric, through oratory and pedagogy, has retained its relevancy for its pragmatic utility in civic discourse, poetry today is often assigned to a kind of no-man’s zone for failing to adequately address a broader world it professes to engage. The great poets of the romantic-modern period aspired to such broad, civic roles for their work, but for many reasons, they have failed to extend relevant conversations to a larger public, their writing residing most prominently within a few pages of respected anthologies. Contemporary poets need to re-consider their roles in communication, exploring how language affects an audience, and how to make effective arguments that appeal more broadly to people whose situations in the world are different from our own.

The archaic origins of poetry and rhetoric are in part obscured by the narratives we construct to understand our relationships to the past, and by our modern usage of key terms. Even Aristotle’s discussions of the most basic elements of poetry and rhetoric elide definitions that would make more apparent to us what he means by such terms as enthymeme. And while traditional narratives of poetry and rhetoric have evolved over time, often to reveal a given era’s sense of identity more than to present an accurate description of its history, many of our conceptions of these now distinct arts are derived from a diverse body of sources that have been only digested in fragmented form from antiquity to the present.

Jeffrey Walker’s Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2000) boldly challenges assumptions about the history of poetry and rhetoric in Europe, seeking to reclaim a shared ground between these bodies of discourse. He claims that the “assumptions… of ‘rhetoric’ in which the art is seen to ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ with the fortunes of practical civic oratory in Greek and Roman polities” is, as he notes with the words of Stesichorus, “not true, that tale” (4). Instead, he begins by looking at the emergent forms of writing to first enter Greek culture, carefully placing his arguments within this period of transformation from orality to written texts. Many of the key terms we take for granted in rhetoric and poetics had yet to be made in the eighth century B.C. Archaic tribal rulers in Greece effectively developed a formal discourse based in poetry to give authority to a king’s legal decisions and acts. A good king understood the virtue of speaking well, and went to poetry for knowledge of language. The language of religion, law and commerce also came from poetry, which had developed from its oral roots an effective techne for the description of reality and the relation of it to the tribe.

For Hesiod (eighth century B.C.), we are reminded “the words ‘poetry’ and ‘rhetoric’ do not exist. Poiêsis, poiêtês, and rhêtôr will not appear until the fifth century, and rhêtorikê will not emerge as a disciplinary term until the fourth, where its first known use is in Plato’s Gorgias” (4). Instead, Hesiod’s terminology gives us song (“aoidê”) or hymns (“hymnoi”). And it is here where the basic terms for an archaic religious self-consciousness in language are realized as “psychagogic eloquence,” (4) in the skilled relation between aoidos and basileus (king). Walker defines his argument in this period of social transformation, presenting evidence for poetic language as the origin of a later oratical discourse. He distinguishes, for instance, epideictic and pragmatic language as the roots of Hesiod’s rhetoric, considering in detail the needs of a culture at the threshold of transformation from an oral, tribal and essentially religious society to a larger functioning body of state. The pragmatic oratory of statecraft, Walker says, is derived from the epideictic traditions of poetry. He is careful to distinguish, however, our current understanding of how poetry works from how it worked for an eighth century B.C. audience. For instance, he observes how

The power of epideictic discourse in oral societies is difficult to overestimate. In the first place, because it is designed to be memorable and repeatable at significant, recurring occasions in a culture’s pattern of experience, it is felt to be more “permanent” than the comparatively ephemeral language of everyday business talk. As Walter Ong has noted, such business talk has no means of being preserved in a nonliterate society and is thus “used up” as soon as its immediate, practical function has been performed. The felt “permanence” and memorability of epideictic, by contrast, give it a cultural presence, or prominence, that the more ephemeral pragmatic genres lack (40).

The practicality of Walker’s study, the sheer range of his preoccupations with language and his sympathy for the roots of discourse, enables him to present a cogent, though complex, argument for the transformation of formal language.

Perhaps most radically perceptive and challenging to our received narratives of poetry and rhetoric is Walker’s re-estimation of the lyric and of the enthymeme. While understandings of the lyric have been divisive and controversial for romantic-modern poetry, (for instance, should the lyric express a stable subjectivity or should it be used to subvert dominate ideologies and political paradigms?), Walker offers a provocative and necessary redefinition. Indeed, by reconsidering the function of lyric in relation to the enthymeme, he revives arguments for the contested lyric with energetic and pragmatic possibilities. He “adopt[s] the name of ‘lyric’ for an epideictic ‘speech’ composed in verse and meant typically to be performed in ritual, festal, symposiastic, or paideutic settings.”

Walker gives us a transpersonal view of the lyric, opposing this to the self-regarding and self-situated author of lyric sensitivity and consciousness. Lyric poetry “makes arguments” according to this view, and runs counter to romantic-modern notions that perceive the lyric as a “state of feeling” or “subjectivity” (168). While modern critics have been skeptical of this romantic view of the lyric, few have examined it as a means of interrogating specific ideologies because they perceive in the lyric a problem, itself a malignant ideological structure used to “embody a state of subjectivity” (168). Charles Bernstein, for instance, “retain[s] a more or less traditional romantico-modernist suspicion of what [he] calls ‘argument,’ ‘rhetoric,’ and ‘rationalistic expository unity’ as forms of socially constructed false consciousness.” Moreover, this “tends to presuppose an extraordinarily narrow conception of ‘argument’ as something like formal syllogistic or ‘scientific’ reasoning” (169). And “this is a rhetoric,” Walker continues, “that can only tell the knowing what they know already, or remind them, or reinforce their commitment to the already known by re-presenting it in new and varied forms: a rhetoric that, in short, cannot in fact provoke any real ‘insight’ whatsoever” (169).

Language Poetry, for Walker, reformulates in innovative ways what is already known rather than presenting new arguments to broad audiences. To be fair, this is not a problem only with Bernstein and Language poetry, nor is Bernstein’s poetics so narrowly and rigidly constituted. Instead, this is more broadly a limitation of romantic-modern poetry, most notably in the epic works of Pound, Williams, and others. Against this, Walker proposes an argumentative relationship to the lyric for poetry, so that it can indeed focus its questions and claims to retrieve knowledge and present it to others who may not already be among its persuaded disciples.

Walker proposes the enthymeme as an answer to this dilemma. He is careful to reconsider the rhetorical understanding and reception of the term from Aristotle, noting, in particular, how the Toulminesque syllogistic model for it is inaccurate. Instead, Walker prefers an etymological evaluation: “from en and thymos, ‘in heart’” (171). The enthymeme is

an elliptical form of argumentation depending on shared assumptions, involv[ing] a dialogic, cocreative relationship between the audience and rhetor, in which the audience engages in a kind of ‘self-persuasion’ by completing or constructing for itself the tacit, elided aspects of the enthymeme. (170)

Moreover, it “is not a ‘device’ that has been ‘invented’ by rhetoricians, or by Aristotle, any more than ‘metaphor’ is; it is an everyday discursive practice, an existing feature of human behavior, that rhetoricians can attempt to name and describe” (172). The enthymeme’s “power lies in its use of emotively significant oppositions” (178) and it “also relies on a basic, intuitive capacity in human beings for deriving inferences and forming judgments… or, more precisely, from relationships between the various kinds of mental representations and physiological states that can act as ‘premises’ within the psyches, in particular those that act with greatest force, energy, or ‘presence’ at the moment of decision” (183). It “will generally not be perceivable, memorable, or energetically operative in an audience’s consciousness, unless given specific form… ” (183).

In other words, the lyric does not need to be interrogated as a pejorative element of poetry, nor does it need to be subverted to show readers how they are being manipulated by it. For the ancients, it was a tool, to be used to persuade an audience. It could take many forms, but it was never a simple, reductive representation of stable subjectivity. What’s at stake, it seems to me, is a consideration of the lyric as a dynamic force, not a static self-projection nor a formal “device” removed from its rhetorical use.

Of course, many poets today use the lyric as a tool for argumentation. Kent Johnson’s socially critical projects use ancient models of the lyric to advance provocative cultural critiques within a broader popular context. Edward Sanders’ America: A History in Verse uses a down-home lyric force (with considerable ancient scramblings) committed to the re-vision of American social history. Lorenzo Thomas’s Dancing On Main Street (Coffee House 2004) combined barbed lyric insight with socially poignant critical positions to make arguments for diverse audiences. His sensitivity to the transpersonal use of the lyric allowed him to create instruments of measurement and presentation in his claims for public justice and private vision. Fanny Howe projects her lyric craft with “psychagogic eloquence” to bring readers into reception of her psycho-religious claims. Tom Clark registers the pathos of individual action in a world that is largely indifferent to its human occupants. And there are others of course who approach the question of audience with instrumental uses of the lyric as a tool rather than a self-indulgent extension of personality to make their work essential to our moment. And behind this, the history of post-war writing from Jack Kerouac and the Beats to Frank O’Hara and the New York School (as well as so many others) provides models of a native lyric intelligence that is transpersonal and motivated by a complex range of situations — political, social, and personal. We need, however, to reflect more thoroughly upon the communicative force of poetry, and to understand its value in the world. If the nature of experience is to be tested, the lyric is our means of relating that measure.

Dale Smith 1997

Dale Smith, Bolinas, California, 1997. Photo copyright © Hoa Nguyen 1997, 2006

Dale Smith publishes Skanky Possum Books with Hoa Nguyen. American Rambler (Thorp Springs 2000) and The Flood & The Garden (First Intensity 2002) are available through SPD. Notes No Answer was published last year by Habenicht Press in San Francisco. His essays, reviews, and poems have appeared in the Chicago Review, Damn The Caesars, Sentence, and Best American Poetry 2002. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he studies poetics in the division of rhetoric at the University of Texas.

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