- Editor’s Introduction: The Worldly Powers of Lyric
The powers of lyric poetry are strikingly emphasized in all of the essays and reviews in this issue of jml. The shared emphasis argues that poetry does make something happen, despite W. H. Auden’s notorious line in his elegy for Yeats. Even in Auden’s elegy, of course, the “survival” of lyric has an effective impact: it teaches “the free man how to praise,” despite “the prison of his days.” Lyric’s use as a mode of teaching is only one aspect of the forceful character its producers in the last century appear to have sought for it. Ever since the moment of modernism, as our essayists will be seen to demonstrate, lyric utterance has taken on epic ambitions. It has turned a subject-centered mode of expression, at home in the self, towards public history, in an effort to become a world-making and world-liberating agent.
The agency of lyric, to be sure, is an old story, to judge by the legends of Amphion and Orpheus. Amphion’s magical music animated stones, dancing them into architectural structures. It so happens (perhaps by a deep orphic logic affecting critics as well as lyrists) that poets who define their vitalizing abilities “amid a place of stone” are the focus of the first and last of the critical studies here. The phrase about a stony place is from Yeats’s Responsibilities (1914), where the poet confronts the harsh ground—the national architecture or “housing”—that his lyric art must enliven. At the other end of the century a place of stone re-appears as the object of Josef Komunyaaka’s “Facing It” (1988). “It” is the granite national memorial to the Vietnam war, against which the poet must measure the power of his words to prevail. Unlike Amphion, neither Yeats nor Komunyaaka has magic to rely on as he re-assigns lyric subjectivity to public duty. They must bring orphic dimensions down to earth, where they, their fellow citizens and politics constitute the rocky ground.
Accordingly, a Yeats who replaces his evocations of spirits with a shrewd worldly materialism is disclosed by Rob Doggett in the first essay in our lineup. It might look as though Yeats is appealing to an ethereal realm; nevertheless, he is manipulating his verse into the service of advertising and economic consumption. His poetry does so because it will make public support of the arts happen; and the stones respond fruitfully, Doggett says, because Yeats sees to it that “the logic of the modern marketplace has remained in place [in his poems], strategically [End Page v] exploited, not transcended.” Similarly non-transcendent, Komunyaaka’s verse surrenders itself to enclosure in the stone of the war memorial. But it thereby recalls to life what a Medusa-like history has petrified. This reading of “Facing It” by Andrew Palmer and Sally Minogue shows that what Komunyaaka’s verse makes happen descends from a century of predecessor poems. The predecessors respond to public monuments by competing with them for precedence.
The hazards that lyric undergoes in its desire for public recognition and worldliness are not to be gainsaid, however. Pound’s disastrous enactment of the hazard is the leading case. David Barnes’s archive-scouring essay about Pound in our collection reveals chilling new details of Pound’s cultural work on behalf of fascist Italy. Barnes unearths Pound’s collaboration with Marinetti—the Futurist who was once an object of Pound’s hearty disapproval—on a fascist project to renew architecture; and, equally surprising, Pound’s sudden gain of respect for D’Annunzio, supporter of Mussolini. Does Pound’s self-betrayal in regard to his earlier aesthetic judgments signify inevitable treachery when lyric is surrendered to ambitions that have not been traditionally within its reach?
Reaction to the possibility of such inevitability might be exemplified in Gwendolyn Brooks’s wartime sonnet sequence, “Gay Chaps at the Bar.” Brooks’s sonnets are important, according to Bryan Duncan’s analysis, for their withdrawal from worldliness. They voice a world-weariness—a disillusion resulting from the corruption of social order by multiple aggressions and by the shamefulness of segregation in...