Arnold Klein – TERRANCE HAYES, DAN CHIASSON AND THE SYNTAX OF LYRIC POETRY


If you judge a poem by how big a chunk of reality it smuggles into language
before returning it, transformed, you will have a hard time beating this
catalogue from “Wigphrastic”:
Nonslip polyurethane patches, superfine lace,
Isis wigs, Cleopatra wigs, Big Booty Judy wigs
under the soft radar-streaked music of Klymaxx
singing, “The men all pause when I walked into the room.”
An ekphrastic poem is one that describes a work of art; “Wigphrastic”
describes Ellen Gallagher’s “DeLuxe,” a portfolio of sixty works on paper that
depict, among other things, vintage ads for hair straighteners and skin
whiteners. You can see the piece, and explore all of Hayes’ references, on his
Web site.
The New Yorker, May 11, 2015

The philosophical basis of the poetic and critical practice here appears to be this: that poetry refers to an already existing reality, with whose particulars we are, or may easily become, aproblemmatically acquainted. It is assumed, for example (for otherwise the lines cited and the praise given them are unintelligible), that we already know, or may easily come to know, what “Big Booty Judy” and “Klymaxx” refer to, and that the qualities of these “chunks of reality” are such that all who recognize them will have the same response to hearing them named. Language, then, seems to be conceived of purely as a mode of reference—in, that is, its semantic and not its syntactic capacity; for although poems are said to “smuggle” reality into language and to “return” it “transformed” (which language could not do, were not reality conceived of as a set of commonly understood referents), by “smuggling” the critic appears to mean mentioning, and by “transforming,” denoting or describing. So conceived, poetic language cannot be differentiated from other semantically burdened uses of language, such as journalism,1 nor poetry, as an art, differentiated from the other arts, each of which—like the song quoted by the poet, or the drawings the critic says the poem “describes” and which “depict, among other things, vintage ads”—would refer to the same reality after the fashion of its medium.2 The best poems, according to the criterion implicit in this aesthetic, would be those that present the most digestible references, and here the World Wide Web is a powerful poetic auxiliary. It is no surprise, then, that the lines singled out for nearly unlimited praise comprise a “catalogue,” that is, a list—for a list is semantically maximal and syntactically minimal, if not, indeed, syntactically null.

These presuppositions are not peculiar to this poet and his dupe. It is pretty universally accepted right now that there is an aproblemmatically knowable reality that works of art are “about,” and about which they communicate something, presumably something important (what such semantically oriented works actually communicate, we will come to shortly). But communication about something must, on its own principles, occur through something, and in two senses: through the work, which stands between the artist and the audience, and through its referents, which stand between the audience and its apprehension of the work. Poems3 are accordingly produced and praised as effective that, like program music, require for their intelligibility a schedule of external referents, that is, a context—usually, by the conventions of the moment, a situation (including its stereotyped emotional concomitants) or a scene. Such contextualizing is perhaps a reflex, in poetry, of a general tendency to regard all the arts as forms of narrative; but however effective contextualized poems may be in their line—and it must be allowed that there is something in popular sensibility that relishes references, apparently for their own sake—it is clear that such poems lack, and on their own principles must lack, the quality that has always distinguished poetry as lyric, and whose interdependent and mutually reinforcing aspects are immediacy and intimacy.

For whether they take the form of truncated anecdotes or expository soliloquies, according to whether the situational or the scenic motive predominates, contextualized poems always assume a division of roles between poet and audience, for the anecdotes are implicitly told, and the soliloquies, implicitly voiced. The assumption, in short, is that poems are addressed by someone to someone; and one often hears of poems being “performed”—aloud, as it is often said poetry “is meant” to be—just as one sometimes sees the song lyrics of actual performers (“Klymaxx”) treated as poetry. But the division of roles between speaker and spoken-to, though normal in storytelling and standard in performance, is actually alien to poetry, at least to lyric poetry, properly so-called. The configuration is essentially rhetorical; and as in openly avowed rhetoric, where commonplaces—technically, enthymemes—already known to her audience (and so current there they can serve as unspoken premises for her conclusions) comprise the orator’s material, the common reality to which semantically oriented poems refer furnishes stereotyped categories and attitudes on whose surefire efficiency in eliciting an appropriate response from her audience and critics the poet depends.

That an enthymemic turn has been taken in contemporary contextualized poetry is shown by the prevalence there of metonomy, the rhetorical figure in which a part stands for the whole—a smaller “chunk of reality” in the poem for a larger “chunk” outside it. This is what our critic means by “smuggling.” It is in the expectation that the specific references of her poems be taken as metonyms that the contemporary poet4 lists items, tells anecdotes and sets monologues, and it is in the assumption that she has written them to be so taken that critics praise her. But no whole, and certainly no very comprehensive whole, can be summed up in a single attribute. Metonomy—and this is what makes it so paradigmatically rhetorical a figure—thus depends on the audience not only to complete the reference but also to characterize and evaluate the whole referred to, and this latter act, even more than the former, the audience may be very various in performing.5 The metonymic part, then, depending as it must for both its intelligibility and its value on factors external to it, is twice indeterminate; nor can it be made determinate within the poem itself, for the simple reason that those factors are not there.

But contextualized poetry tends to metonomy in another way: often the whole poem (subject, alas, to the same indeterminacy as befalls the part) is a metonym for the poet. For among the stereotyped categories and attitudes she draws on are not a few that pertain to the poet’s ethos. Indeed, the architectonic referent of many a poet’s oeuvre is the first category or attitude by which the poet stereotypes herself.6 Yet at the same time it is stereotypically incumbent on the poet as such to depart from stereotype in some poetically demonstrative, personally idiosyncratic way; and since the selection of the situations she rehearses or the scenes she describes itself appertains to the stereotype, she can only establish her vocational legitimacy, and win praise for her virtuosity, by the qualifications she introduces into them: by the adjectives, not the nouns. Nothing, accordingly, is more typical of contemporary contextualized poetry—and nothing more diagnostic of its essentially rhetorical character—than its painfully picked adjectives (“soft radar-streaked”), and if a reader is struck by how malapropos these tend to be, he should remember to refer them, not to their grammatical complements, but to the adjective-picking poet. Their function is autographic.

A lyric poem, on the other hand—and all poems are lyric that possess lyric quality, regardless of length or form—is immediate in two conjoined senses: in having within itself all that is needed to apprehend it—in being, that is, self-intelligible—and in being directly apprehensible as constituting one self-complete whole, however complex. Now, only of elements reciprocally determining and determined can a self-complete, self-intelligible poem be made; and these are precisely the syntactic, and not the semantic, potentials of language; for only by being transformed into syntactic elements by their place and function in the overall pattern of their interrelations—by being made to refer only to each other—can semantically referential words be made self-intelligible. This explains the primacy, if not the necessity, in lyric poems of two syntactic resources, specific to language and to poetry, that, as intrinsically non-semantic, are of little use in contextualizing and therefore largely absent from contemporary verse: meter and rhyme. Meter is syntactic in that metrical units are metrical—are meter—only by virtue of their relation to each other; and rhyme, in that words rhyme only by virtue of the correspondence of their terminal sounds, which are independent of their meaning or reference. That stresses fall where they do, and that terminal sounds correspond, are purely accidental linguistic facts—facts, that is, of words as words, and not functions of their relations to things. Both meter and rhyme, of course, can be subordinated to semantic ends—as when meter is used to imitate rhythmic phenomena, or rhyme, to mock a conventional attitude—and neither, it need hardly be said, is a necessary or sufficient condition of poetic value, about which no generalizations are possible. But both remain, as they have always been, powerful factors in lyric immediacy; and as such, represent a means of freeing poetry from its present burden of contextualization—indeed, of overthrowing this convention altogether—by assisting poems in becoming syntactically maximal and semantically minimal, or even semantically null.

Now, just as in the apprehensibility of a lyric poem there is no separation between reference and thing referred to, so, in the properly lyrical reading of it, there is no separation between reader and thing read. It is certainly consistent for those poets and critics who accept the reading-aloud convention and who endorse the institution of public poetry readings to assume that the medium of poetry is the declaimed word; perhaps this assumption accounts for how aproblemmatically convertible with his own verses our poet finds the line he quotes, tense shift and all, from the recording of a popular song. But this is not lyric intimacy, any more than a schedule of external referents is lyric immediacy. The medium of lyric is not the spoken word but the channel of thought, in respect of which the term “medium” means something quite unlike a material vehicle mediating between performer and audience; for when the individual mind apprehends thoughts, it is, while it apprehends them, reflexively coincident with the thoughts it apprehends, and this reflexive coincidence is precisely what lyric intimacy means. In the real lyric reading of a lyric poem, the division of roles between speaker and spoken-to, between reader-aloud and read-at, upon which so much contemporary poetry is based, simply disappears: the reader is the reader—or, as Coleridge would put it, is the poet. Nay, further: she in some sense becomes the poem read. As self- complete, a lyric poem not only omits the personal poet (unless by “poet” we mean the informing intelligibility of the poem), but the personal reader as well, who instead of “interpreting” the poem as something apart (as yet another contemporary convention based on the “ambiguity” of words taken semantically has it), so adequates her mind to its object that, at the properly lyric moment, the two become one. It further follows that the sound of lyric poetry cannot be audible, no less declaimed; for the music of each lyric poem, unique to it, does not consist in this one vocal intonation or that, but in all voicings compliant to that poem, sounding internally at once, as in the mind they can. Nor can this sound be made audible, for any one material performance reduces that polyphony and destroys the music. And indeed there is something, beyond what has already been said, about poetry readings that makes them antipathetic to reading poetry: perhaps the conventions of response; perhaps the exaggerated ethos and proliferated references designed to facilitate them. And here the syntactic resources of rhyme and meter appear to further advantage: as accidental facts of language, they escape personality; as interrelations apprehended by the mental act of apperception only, they achieve intimacy. We can thus say of lyric poetry what Cavell so beautifully says of philosophy: that it is a way of being intimate without being personal. And we may add that poems that depend on material spoken, or intoned factors such as rhythm, volume and pitch—poems that really are meant to be read aloud—are personal without being intimate, for these factors are subject to countless variations according to whatever rhetorical designs the speaker has on the hearer. But rhyme and meter—especially meter, as syntactically determined and independent of both parties—are intrinsically invariant: they are factors of this lyric poem, and of nothing else. They are there, as Gilson says, to keep the poet from speaking—to keep the poet from (merely) speaking, and to keep the poet from speaking (personally)—and, we may now say, to keep the auditor from being merely that.

About a world already given, known, named and evaluated, communication must largely be a matter of rehearsing and describing, although not always as nakedly as in the case of “ekphrastic” poems. Perhaps all that is communicated in the end by such semantically maximal poems is the poet’s willingness to adopt the conventionally accepted categories and attitudes she, as they say, “references”—perhaps semantically maximal poems are, in the sense of telling us what we pretty much already know, semantically null: they may as well not have been written at all; their mediacy is in fact a transparency—emphatic as they are of the poet’s differences from ourselves, we look through even their idiosyncrasies without difficulty. Might then syntactically maximal poems be, in a different sense, a sense we might best call expressive, semantically replete—their intimacy overcoming the separation between minds, thereby making real meaning possible, and their immediacy focusing attention on words themselves, thereby making them problematically nontransparent? It was noted by Burke that words in relation to each other have the capacity to raise ideas of things that do not exist outside of the relation, and that cannot be pictured—a syntactic capacity that words, taken semantically, obviously cannot possess. We may call this capacity syntactic metaphor and contrast it to metonomy, for its ground is not relations between things but felicity between words. By this capacity is poetry actually creative, and not just duplicative or documentary; by this capacity is the poet’s activity actually a poiesis, and not just a collocating or cataloguing; by this capacity is the reader concreative, and not just “interested” or impressed. “Adagios of islands,” to cite a justly famous example, is intelligible without being situational, and beautiful without being pictureable, and is so on the basis of two words being conjoined in a way that their semantic referents could never be, or be pictured to be. The phrase is, moreover, significant without being rhetorical. It is after all a condition of self-intelligible expressive unity that the poem, once made, should function independently of its maker and of its putative audience, and of any information about them, however interesting this may be from other than purely lyric points of view. Lyrically considered, the poet and reader are always anonymous: it is only the language that speaks.


[1] Or critical review: hence the frequent poetic flights by which poetry reviewers who share these assumptions hope to render their responses to the poems they praise.
[2] Or not: our critic thinks “you can see” works on paper on your computer screen. And our poet seems to assume that a song can be read.
[3] I am only concerned with poetry here. Still, what is said constitutes a general mutatis mutandis for the other arts.
[4] And—mutatis mutandis—novelist, artist, filmmaker, etc.
[5] In a sense, this is true of all reference.
[6] Or her critics do. Our reviewer, for example, despite announcing that his poet “doesn’t exist until his [the poet’s] words invent him”—and before dealing with those words—is at pains to inform us of the poet’s race.