- Speaking to You: Contemporary Poetry and Public Address by Natalie Pollard
Lyric poetry, we were once told, is private, intimate—the poet overheard speaking to himself or nobody, or at most sending out a message in a bottle in the hope that some kindred stranger will discover it. But as Eliot reminds us in “The Three Voices of Poetry,” a great deal of poetry, even love poetry, is written with the sense of an audience and from an impulse to persuade or to teach. Criticism of the lyric, at least since Culler’s “Apostrophe,” has shifted in its emphasis from lyric subjectivity to lyric address. Important studies by Barbara Johnson, Will Waters, Helen Vendler, Ann Keniston, John Emil Vincent, and others have looked at the paradoxes, intimacies, and ambiguities of speaking to “you.” Only a few critics have approached the rhetoric of poetry as “public speech.” In The Idea of Lyric, W. Ralph Johnson argued that the tradition of “choral poetry” ended with romanticism. Robert von Hallberg sees orphic power as the key to lyric, but acknowledges “civility” as a different motive that often drives lyric’s relation to speech. Natalie Pollard takes up this subject in connection with the second person plural and public address, treating four contemporary British poets—W. S. Graham, C. H. Sisson, Geoffrey Hill, and Don Paterson—with frequent reference to and comparison with other poets in the British tradition. What she reveals in this study is that “you,” for these poets, is not a quiet, receptive projection of the poet’s desire, but often a complex and resistant imagined other, conscious of real others, [End Page 149] talking back and checking the poet’s solipsism. The “you” is “publically intimate,” performing a live and often interpersonal exchange on a broader stage.
Pollard sets her thesis against a body of criticism that she says has neglected the “civic role” of poetry and overemphasized the isolation of the lyric speaker and the fictional nature of the addressed other. “A good deal of contemporary poetry,” she reminds us, attempts to “reclaim poetic language, not as primarily set-apart speech, but as a predominantly public act” (6). These poets often specify their addressees, and they do not shy away from topical address or even from politics taken in local, historical, or broader ideological terms. Clearly Pollard is part of a general shift in critical theory, moving away from the Saussure-Derrida model of language as coded system and textual play and moving towards the Austin-Searle-Cavell model of speech as communication, action, and performance. One might wish for a deeper engagement with this shift. More attention to speech act theory and pragmatics would give greater analytical rigor to the claim that “address emerges as a continually negotiated feature of language that establishes changeable identities, that gives rise to Is and yous, speakers and listeners, authors and readers” (18). Pollard takes up Austin only where Hill does in his poetry. While Searle, Cavell, and others appear in the bibliography, the book makes little effort to engage their ideas in relation to these poets. Recent discussions of the tension and overlap between “rhetoric and poetry” (cf. Peter Nicholls, Robert Scholes, Charles Altieri) are absent, as are debates about the term “lyric” as a catchall for poetry. Theory is sprinkled into the introduction and afterword, but the book’s focus is on the particular “yous” in the four poets under study and the particular ways they have addressed their work to the public sphere. By establishing the existence of varied, faceted, and dynamic forms of public address, Pollard provides an important installment in the study of poetry’s civic engagement, and she goes well beyond past analyses, which so far have been limited to oppositions between private and public, poetry and rhetoric, gravity and play, orphic power and civility, timeless and occasional, and imagined and real.
Pollard does not offer broad introductions to these poets but sticks to the problem at hand, granting little attention to matters of prosody, genre, or style except where...