- Lyric, the Virtual Poem, and Stevens
I. Melodies Heard and Unheard
WRITING ABOUT THE HISTORY of the category of “the lyric,” Virginia Jackson remarks, “lyric was from its inception a term used to describe a music that could no longer be heard” (826). Jackson is referring to the Alexandrian songbook where “lyric” appears for the first time as a generic term to classify poetic texts that had been performed as songs accompanied by the lyre centuries before. She is pointing out the historicity of the idea of “the lyric,” and arguing that its absence in poetics prior to the Alexandrian era suggests “that our notion of subjectivity, emotion, and compression in poetry—in sum, the personal lyric—did not match ideas about poetry (or persons) in antiquity” (826).
Jackson’s argument and the body of criticism known as historical poetics with which it is allied tend to reject general statements about the lyric as symptomatic of “lyricization,” which is Jackson’s term for the cultural processes by which manifold poetic kinds have been absorbed and collapsed under the general category of “lyric” in discourse about poetry, and to some extent in poetic practice, since the nineteenth century (831–32). I’m sympathetic to this project. The questions about mediation and circulation it opens up are ignored by poetics when the object of attention is taken as given rather than constructed: often what modern criticism has to say about lyric poetry, historical poetics shows, is a back formation, a critical fiction produced by modern reading practices. But it should be possible to recognize that the lyric has been idealized, simplified, and reified, and still identify common poetic structures as they are elaborated across periods and in diverse cultural situations, as principles by which poems are made and re-made, and we need schematic models to help us do that sort of description and analysis. In the short space of this essay, I will try out one such model, based on Allen Grossman’s idea of “the virtual poem,” before going on to consider what that model might have to say about the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and vice versa. Keeping in mind Jackson’s remark about the always-already lost music that underlies the category of “lyric,” I propose that lyric, the literary genre most associated with music, is defined by its distance and difference from music. Lyric is [End Page 179] metaphorical music. It is a type of song that quotes, interprets, remembers, describes, imagines, dreams about, simulates, or echoes a song that can no longer be heard, and perhaps never could be heard except as translated or otherwise made available by the poem.
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter”: Keats’s famous lines remind us that the idea of an unheard music somehow inside the poem is central in romantic poetry (282). Their familiarity shouldn’t keep us from noting the basic strangeness of the image: an unheard melody is a contradiction in terms. The phrase refers to a remembered or imagined and therefore silent music: “ditties of no tone” can’t be perceived by “the sensual ear,” only by the mind or spirit. That Keats is contemplating painted figures on an ancient Greek urn fits nicely with Jackson’s point about the Alexandrian songbook. Lyric poetry positions itself in the ode as commentary on an ideal music that belongs to the remote past. But we might say something similar about poetry’s relation to the exquisite birdsong in “Ode to a Nightingale,” which is just as tantalizingly elusive (“Fled is that music . . .” ). The distance between lyric poetry and music is not simply a fact of historical belatedness with respect to the supposed pre-textual unity of sign and sound in sacred ritual and ceremony. Nor is it a product of the evolutionary differentiation of the sister arts. It is a seemingly perennial figure by means of which lyric texts imagine what they are and do.
Already when the trope appears alongside the category of lyric in late antiquity, the “music of poetry” presumes “a loss of actual music for poetry” and “the identification of poem with text,” as...