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Hank Lazer
Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996–2008
reviewed by Sue Walker
345pp. Omnidawn. $US19.95. 9781890650322 pbk

This review is about 9 printed pages long. It is copyright © Sue Walker and Jacket magazine 2008.See our [»»] Copyright notice.

Disruptive Force


Hank Lazer, poet, essayist, professor of English at the University of Alabama and Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, gathers into a clearing essays that allow access to a thinking through the philosophical, cultural, and poetic manifestations of the lyric and of its spiritual engagement in post-modern poetry. In making manifest his own “re-investment” in writing and in the word as text, breath, and soundings, Lazer effects a thorough and theoretical examination of contemporary lyrical and spiritual poetry.

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Seven essays comprise each of the two sections of “Lyric” and “Spirit.” Often accompanied by “Works Cited” bibliographies, the text serves as a reading list in contemporary poetics. In the first essay, “The Lyric Valuables: Soundings, Questions, & Examples,” Lazer asks what constitutes the changing contexts of the lyrical in contemporary poetry? How does the reader, listener, writer respond to change? What are the “lyric valuables”? Lazer says that new modes of lyricism constitute important sites of resistance and he wants the lyric to give “greater emphasis to the possible disruptiveness and fundamental importance of melopoeia itself” (30).


Lazer initially asks important questions regarding pedagogy. “What is the problem with school?” What constitutes teaching? Learning? Fast forward in the essay to a quote from Louis Zukofsky’s “Songs of Degrees”:


Hear, her
His error,
In her
Is clear (Lazer 64)


What chords are sounded? Resound? What strains? What compositional cacophony is here? Who hears? Who says what who hears? Lazer asks that today’s reader / student of poetry “read and hear differently” than accustomed. “It amounts,” he says, “to a paradigm shift, a fundamental reconsideration on the part of the reader as to what constitutes the meaningful and the beautiful” (29—30).


Lazer’s essays are the “pause,” and “shift,” the “something on paper” that effect a reconsideration of the post-modern. The rendition he plays is informed not only by his readings in philosophy and critical theory but by poetic sensibilities that make his essays as “beautiful” as his poems.


Each essay in Lyric and Spirit deserves comment, even if brief.” ‘Vatic Scat’: Jazz and the Poetry of Robert Creeley and Nathaniel Mackey” makes a bold pitch. Lazer claims that jazz as content may be the least interesting way jazz enters poetry. Lazer’s essay then, is not an homage “to a fetishized signature (written or played) but instead, an investigation of what is possible” in jazz-based poetry” (84). Hear here: reader pull a chair up to the class-room table in which Professor Lazer is reading, discussing, and playing Thelonious Monk’s “(I Love You, I Love You I Love You) Sweetheart of All My Dreams,” and John Coltrane’s “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” and reading from his book, Days. And in responsive stammerings, hie away in seclusion where the word resonates in the ear and attend to a calling; read the poetry of Robert Creeley and Nathaniel Mackey, join Lazer, who joins Mackey, who joins Baraka, who joins me, you, in insisting that we “understand the implications of music as an autonomous judge of civilizations”.


Language poet, Rae Armantrout says “clarity need not be equivalent to readability” and asks: “How readable is the world?” (Lazer 95). Hank Lazer, in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout,” comments on how Armantrout’s poetry turns, changes direction, and differs from modes of swerving found in the work of Robert Creeley, bpNichol, and Emily Dickinson.


Is there a way to “articulate a precise appreciation” of the “lyricism of swerving?” One that is “describable and individualistic”? Lazer’s essay brilliantly turns, slues, and veers toward tracking “new possibilities within lyricism” (95).


Lazer reads Armantrout in conjunction with Larry Eigner, bpNichol, Theodore Enslin, John Taggart Harryette Mullen, John Ashbery, Nathaniel Mackey, Lyn Hejinian, and Susan Howe. His essay, a constructive differential itself, forms a sort-of chiasmic intertwining that singles out Armantrout’s poetic particularities while conjoining her swervings with those of like mind. The “thing” to be noted is the turn, what Lazer refers to as a taxonomic touchstone for determining what swerving is. By way of example, he turns to a “passage of perpetual modulation and transformation” in bpNichol’s Martyrology:


An infinite statement, a finite statement, a statement of infancy, a fine line
state line. a finger of stalemate, a feeling a saint meant ointment. (97)


Everything lines up — and doesn’t. Lazer aligns bpNichols and Armantrout and Louis Zukofsky. And what swerving is and does interconnects lines from John Taggart and Theodore Enslin — but not without hiccups, the sound a spasm of the diaphragm as the body of text turns the reader’s eye to footnotes that are a “valuable,” a significant part of reading. No endnotes here. “Jug jug jug jug jug jug / So [un]rudely forced,” the reader cannot but note what is added as a boon to all Lazer would have the reader know. Disjunctive, yes. Informative, yes. Important, yes. A noninvasive jug ear that is less intrusive and more inclusive than a jig-a-jug to the end of a chapter or the end of a book in order to be mindful of notations.


The focus of the essay is Armantrout, and Lazer says “her particular and distinctive skill lies in the peculiarly teasing, humorous, thoughtful (and thought-provoking) engagement at those junctures, and sites of adjacency”(101). He quotes from “Travels” to illustrate the “torsion” that characterizes her work:


Among the zinnias I once thought
I had recovered silence
The power to be
Irretrievably lost
Is death
What’s wrong? (107)


Lazer singles out the word “obliquity” and questions: “that kind of swerving?” (110). The axis of an Armantrout turn, he says, exemplifies art in a “play of resonance and dissonance” (111).


Of particular interest at this juncture of reviewing Lazer viewing Armantrout is her “carefully drawn attention to the natural world”(118). The world of nature and the human world, in conjoined warbling, artfully “trace” the poet’s figurations of distant, autonomous nature.


Twigs stiffen
the fingers.
Love of nature
is a translation
Secret nodding
in the figurative:
A corroboration
which is taken for
A saw warbles.
and the yards too
are terraced. (Lazer 118—119)


Lazer calls attention to Armantrout’s bent to pleasure “a world of perspective where nothing is required or expected to ring ‘true.’” It is this delight in pleasuring that moves the reader toward the veritable, “veerable” linguistic turns and twists of swerving.


For readers and writers interested in resources related to the short line in poetry, Lazer’s “The Early 1950s and the Laboratory of the Short Line” is a “sound” investigation, a primer of poetic possibility whose musicological perspective is jazz. Lazer cites Creeley saying “. . . it is music, specifically jazz, that informs the poem’s manner in large part. Not that it’s jazzy or about jazz — rather, it’s trying to use a rhythmic base much as jazz . . . would” (133). As Charles Olson noted in “Projective Verse,” the syllable is born “from the union of the mind and the ear” (Lazer 135).


Louis Zukofsky’s influence in Lazer’s investigation into the truth-making of music is considerable. Zukofsky’s lines boogie woogie, intertwine sight and sound, and dance innovations that are active in the work of early 1950 practitioners.


The next chapter in Lazer’s text features poet John Taggart. Lazer says he “has long been master of accumulating, complexly layered patterns of sound and sense” (159). “Nice Work If You Can Get it: John Taggart’s Pastorelles,” pitches the reader into George Gershwin, into the film, “A Damsel in Distress,” into 1937, and into Taggart’s “thoughtful, labored integrity of consideration,” his Pastorelles. The book, Lazer notes, is one of “severe beauty [that] yields to moments of rest and pleasure” and points toward a recognition of mortality.


Taggart tunes into other “isolated, neglected, and troubled” poets whose work typifies “commitment, necessity, and integrity,” i.e. Mark Rothko, Edward Hopper, Brad Graves, Marvin Gaye and Greg Johnson whose blues obit for James Carr is singled out for comment. Designated the “World’s Greatest Soul Singer,” Carr was born in rural Mississippi, and his song, “The Dark End of the Street,” finds reference in Taggart’s work. Taggart’s Carr, takes music’s listener to a place that is “before writing” (as well as other than writing), to an “acoustic / river / a river of sound / river / a river of action / charm and more than charm/ conferred by sound / action / for survival / what to do / how to / do / what to do” (Lazer (165—166).


According to Lazer, the finest poem in Pastorelles as well as in Taggart’s body of work as a whole, is “Henry David Thoreau / Sonny Rollins.” It stands “as summary and conflation of Taggart’s inquiry into the pained, idiosyncratic isolated (and isolating) labor” that leads to new developments in the art of writing (166). Yet, Lazer says, “the ‘new’ music will, [. . .] involve a listening to something that was already there” and promote hearing it differently (167).


“Q & A Poetics” is a questioning commentary on American poetry in the 1990s and the first years of the 21st century that additionally provides an assessment of Lazer’s own work. It would serve the reader well to preface the reading of this essay with a reading of “The People’s Poetry” published in Vol 29, No. 2 (April/May 2004) issue of the Boston Review, and obtainable online at


Lazer sees the poem as a site of discovery and a commitment to “serial heuristics.” This means implementing “a particular procedure or form or set of rules for a series of poems which become, either for a pre-determined number of poems or a pre-determined span of time, where and how” to live in poetry (172). The number 10 informs his INTER(IR)RUPTIONS; 3 of 10: H’s Journal, Negations, and Displayspace, and Days. He says he was “drawn to the number 10” as a part of his poetic methodology, by means of which he learns what he thinks, feels, and experiences from a particular perspective (173).


In showing what can be derived in and through a play of numbers, Portions abandons 10 and shifts to a three words per line, three lines per stanza, six stanzas, 54 words (3 X 18) format. This figuration allowed Lazer to draw on the number 18, which according to Jewish mystical lore, means life.


Especially memorable are the poems about Lazer’s father that appear in Days and in Elegies & Vacations. The New Spirit reiterates the poet’s relationship with his father even after his death.


Lazer affirms poetry as “a disruptive force.” Particularly noteworthy are poems that appear in Doublespace: Poems 1971—1989. Eight law poems, inspired by Michie’s Alabama Code: The Complete and Annotated Text of the Code of Alabama 1976, are serious, thoughtful, playful, teasing, American, experimental, and a delightful fusion of the legal and personal. The poems were printed as a collection with commentary in Volume XXIX, No. 1 of The Legal Studies Forum in 2005.


The final essay of “Lyric,” “Thinking / Singing and the Metaphysics of Sound,” serves as an “investigation of meaning through the musicality of language” and reiterates how innovative poetry “defies well-established habits” (191). It calls for new ways of listening and reading that results in a revitalization of how the”lyric” is written and perceived today (191).


Part II: “Spirit” incorporates Breath, Being, Poet, and a Heideggerian way of thinking that leads to Seeing, Singing, and to making manifest, the Word. Choosing one poet among the many practitioners who see anew only touches upon the place of questioning, of getting at what Lazer means by “spirit” in his exploration of an innovative poetics.


A careful reading and experiencing the chapter “Returns: Innovative Poetry and Questions of ‘Spirit’” can convey Lazer’s questing. The work of Jake Berry serves as an intriguing example of the spiritual, lyrical swerving associated with how it is to compose contemporary poetry. Say the word: “Brambu Drezi.” Turn back to Armantrout’s words: “clarity need not be equivalent to readability.” The reader is tuned to a place of hearing and is called into re-visioning, seeing and being open to experiencing what [s]he has not been in the presence of before. Lazer sees Berry’s text as


a site of colliding sources and perspectives as well as an intersection for heightened and conflicted emotions, with the poem itself being about key moments of glossolalia, including the annunciation of UMGATHAMA. (247)


And Lazer says that it is “[b]y virtue of man’s peculiarly intimate relationship to language — and particularly in language’s ineluctable otherness [that] man is drawn into a relationship [. . .] with the divine” (257).


It feels inadequate to review Lazer’s reviewing of the most innovative writing happening “now.” The numinous cannot be held hostage to 3000 words, and what opens to view in reading Lyric and Spirit is “beyond words” and must be felt and sensed, considered and reconsidered. If Lazer says that it is difficult for him to write about Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets, then the task of reviewing his review creates the specter of a joker attempting to play at divinity as with a deck of cards. Lazer quotes Arthur Sabatini who says that The Tables “is a paradigm of the way, during the past three decades, poets and poetry have become enmeshed in the many forms of discourse and performance that characterize contemporary art” (Lazer 206).


This accounting of Schwerner’s figure of the Scholar/ Translator attempts to say what has been said in response to an original, innovative saying. It must suffice here to re-say what Lazer said: “The Tablets represents one of the most important documents — called “poetry” — in the latter half of this century” (270).


“The Art and Architecture of Holding Open: The Radical yes of Architectural Body” asks “[w]hat might be the next primordially formative change in the nature of human being?” (281). The question is central to Heidegger’s way of thinking and to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. In the latter, the poet is asked to “will transformation” through an awareness of not-being that means confronting death. Lazer points the reader toward a process of re-thinking that validates uncertainty, and he offers Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Architectural Body as a guide book, a reformulation of John Keats’ “negative capability.” Arkawa and Gins espouse “tentativeness” and say that “[o]ne ought not to try and hold onto what one cannot hold on to” (Lazer 289). What is constructed in their bodying forth is the “radical Yes” that holds open the possibilities of human life. This is a prescription for living and for a renewal in regard to writing.


The importance of Lazer’s Lyric and Spirit lies in the creation of an environment that fosters thinking as concomitant with being. He asks that readers and writers meet in the book and read Edmond Jabès through Rosmarie Waldrop’s Lavish Absence. “Holy Smoke!” Book. Word. Does the ground upon which the reader / writer stands shift, shake, and right itself anew? How does one think about what is not in view, about not-knowing even what one is? With Lazer as guide, however, we willingly enter the landscape of language where “Waldrop, in Lavish Absence, conveys how it is to know that “[i]t is language, the book, that enables us to perceive — and to live. It is our universe to the point where we ourselves metamorphose into the word” (Lazer 299).


Marjorie Perloff says “[l]anguage is the new Spiritus Mundi!” (Lazer 303). Lazer says that Jabès’s writing — and Derrida’s too — [represent] the most important religious writing of our time,” and he asks how Jabès, a non-believing Jew and atheist writes a poetry that has such power to instruct and teach and show the way to write, to read, to live. “How inadequate,” Lazer says, are the terms “belief” and “non-belief” and concludes by saying that “while poetry is often thought of as having a revelatory intimacy of autobiography, Jabès points [. . .] to a self in erasure through writing, a self that is absorbed in writing, in the word, and in the book” and that can tolerate being in fog, in holy smoke, without irritably reading after fact and reason.


And what of conjoining poetry and myth, writing and thinking? This chapter of Lazer’s text raises a number of questions: “If we take ‘myth’ to its root word, muthos, won’t all modes of mouthing have something of the mythic to them?” (308). Does myth as mouthing obviate thinking about poetry as written text? Lazer invokes poet Robert Duncan and says that one may get a sense of mythopoeic writing by examining his “The Truth and Life of Myth” and “Toward an Open Universe” in Fictive Certainties: Essays by Robert Duncan.”


The penultimate chapter of Lyric and Spirit features an interview with Chris Mansel that addresses the “elusive and inconstant nature of the spiritual” (322). Buddhism is considered a place of knowing arrived at by means of psychology, philosophy, meditation, and poetry. According to Mansel, the best writing is not subject to will but rather to receptivity regarding “knowing when and what to listen to” and “learning when and how to follow the suggestions of a few words that are given to one . . .” (393). And this is key to what Lazer advocates: a willingness to be open to change and alert as to how poetry may become revitalized.


In conclusion, Lazer returns to ideas presented in and through the tenets espoused in Andrew Schelling’s book, The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry. This book serves as entry into a “sustained thinking about what might constitute ‘wisdom’ today” (329). Lazer champions an “ongoing hermeneutics” that holds open “a passionate engagement with thinking” (336). With poetry serving as “a location for the manifestation of the mind’s movement in time,” as a way to self-realization, to inventiveness, and to a multiplicity of soundings. Lazer says he wishes “that the climate for critical prose writing in our time encouraged greater consideration of how and why” books matter (345). Can we say? Dare we? Lazer’s Lyric and Spirit is a resounding “yes.”

Sue Walker

Sue Walker

Sue Walker is Poet Laureate of Alabama and the Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and Director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing. A specialist in Southern literature, she has published articles on James Dickey, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Interested in the environment, she is the author of ‘The Realm of Rivers’ and is currently working on a critical book on the chiastic deep ecology of James Dickey. She is the publisher of Negative Capability Press.

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