Contemporary Literature 45.2 (2004) 378-392
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Updating the Lyric
What is the office of the lyric, a form with ancient roots, in the last half of the twentieth century? Arguably, the lyric is manifest as early as Sappho's "Second Ode," which places us inside the head of one who wishes to speak but holds herself silent even as we are privy to her thoughts; intimacy is central to this form that offers an impression, John Stuart Mill famously said, of "feeling confessing itself to itself."1 What adjustments have recent practitioners made to retain the lyric's association with intimacy while registering the changes brought by new technologies, disciplines, social arrangements, and frameworks for valuing the world?
Stephen Burt and Deborah Nelson offer sharply differing answers, breaking along distinct ideological lines. Burt's study takes a traditional form—a book-length, single-author presentation of Randall Jarrell (1914-1965). Randall Jarrell and His Age emphasizes [End Page 378] the psychoanalytic theories current in Jarrell's time to mount a reconsideration of his poetry as a dual triumph, both ethical and artistic, a record of his autobiography that, in its own way, provides a model for responding not only to poetry but to other people. Deborah Nelson's Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America offers a genealogy of an overused term and a taken-for-granted concept, "privacy," by constructing a double vision, one angle of which develops out of that extreme version of the autobiographical lyric, the confessional poem, as exemplified by Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and their cohorts writing from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s and beyond, and the other angle of which develops out of tracking the evolving positions taken by the Supreme Court in a series of landmark cases that strive to define a "right to privacy" turned problematic by postwar technological breakthroughs and shifting social assumptions. Burt's portrait is assembled around a biographical context designed to promote a generous, privileged reading of Jarrell's poetry at a level that engages with minute details, while Nelson constructs a social history of privacy in the last half-century that foregrounds the confessional lyric as a crossroads of intense activity, an arena in which the sovereignty of the individual is at once on display, placed in question, and distinctly contested. It is clear that both scholars regard the lyric not as an art limited to an exclusive subculture but as a practice that has a meaningful existence within a larger world, even a presence in everyday living, yet each begins with examples that are radically different and lead in opposing directions. For Burt, intimacy actually can be conveyed, at least poetically, and the glory of the lyric is that it provides that rare sense of being with another; for Nelson, intimacy is so personal that it can only be defined by each of us acting as individuals, and the worth of the lyric is that it passes along that charge.
"As an investigator of personal identity," concludes Burt, "Jarrell has no parallel among modern poets" (123). For Burt, Jarrell's poetry stands as a distinct autobiographical record of a deeply private individual, one who is sensitive to the pressures of a conformist age and who defends his privacy in a number of ways: defying the fashionable professionalism of the postwar years with writings that are idiosyncratically personal; drawing upon the psychoanalytic theory of his time for a framework in which the recording of [End Page 379] dreams, the desire to retrieve lost memories, and the wish to recover a child's sensibility variously combine to portray a sympathetic struggle to evolve a self, a struggle intended for others to consider as a template for social behavior; and staging confrontations in his poetry that privilege not individualized, epiphanic moments but subtle social interactions—not all-inclusive, polyvalent...