by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
Perhaps the biggest reason for not knowing if we’re there yet, as discussed in the previous post, is that nobody is quite sure where there actually is. The development of literary modes / –isms / genres / forms tends, on the whole, to be reactive rather than proactive. That is to say, the writer does often work from the starting point of wanting to bring a unique method of expression into the public discourse, but this particularity is generally based on a movement away from a form of expression thought to have lost its currency. There is always a destination in flux.
In terms of a there for the lyric poem, the impulse is two-fold. Firstly there is a movement away from (and I could quote from any number of theorists, from the post-structural to the post-theoretical, but I’m going to go with Claire Nashar’s distillation in the latest issue of Southerly) ‘the lyric’s assumption that humans wield language and that language politely acquiesces’ (157). As I suggested in the previous post, this is an impulse which has been around for a few decades now, often playing itself out in a perception of the lyric as mainstream, imitative, representational, and a consequent tendency for experimental poets to eschew the form. To quote Nashar again, ‘[t]he mimesis of the lyrebird’s song has lost some of its sweetness’ (154).
The second impulse is a move toward reclamation of the lyric as a mode with experimental potential. Logically, shouldn’t these conflicting impulses cancel each other out? In the Australian context, the drive away from, and the drive back toward the lyric are neither clearly defined nor chronologically continuous. Nashar also makes clear, via Duncan Hose’s categorisation of contemporary Australian new lyric poems as being mostly ‘mild triumphs of décor’ (153) that the border between the old and the new lyric is extremely permeable.
At this juncture, I should make it clear that this post is not aimed at persuading the reader of one type of lyric’s supremacy over the other. Selfishly, I’m using this blog to talk to myself, as well as anyone out there listening. From my earlier discussions of telling ‘the truth’ in poetry and T.S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ (also here and here) it is probably apparent that I do still hold out hope (even in the face of theory that declares it impossible) that poetic language can achieve some kind of transcendence. One of the main reasons (besides personal interest) that I’m engaging at some length with Nashar’s article is that her choice of two very different examples of lyric poem highlights the varied artistic practices that can serve to map these broader drives in the production of poetry. This will bring me in turn to my own praxis, which also, of late, involves grappling with the intractability of language and the fluidity of my relationship to it.
The experimental lyric generally insists on making its status as a constructed object very clear. Disjunctive and/or opaque language, pastiche, ambiguity or polyvalency of meaning all work against the more traditional view of the lyric as a poem in which language works as a ‘transparent’ medium, the most ‘natural’ way to capture both the physical and emotional impact of the scene or poetic moment. L.K. Holt’s ‘My Lover Meets the Bowerbird’ is, to me, an interesting mix of both old and new lyric technique.
Despite the fact that metaphor is a staple of the lyric in the scenic mode (see here for an example by U.S. poet Hank Lazer discussed by Marjorie Perloff) Holt’s poem (as read by Nashar) uses metaphor (the bowerbird as poet, collecting ‘plastic and foil’, ‘soft rings of black bones’, ‘Monopoly pieces’) to draw attention to the process of building the poem itself. More than just collecting, the importance of arrangement is also foregrounded – ‘He dismisses you with a sudden cry at a composition of seeds loosened by the breeze. / He nudges them back into a pattern divined’ (155).
Kate Fagan’s cento ‘Chrome Arrow’, on the other hand, draws attention to its construction through precisely the types of technique mentioned earlier. The juxtaposition of the borrowed lines creates language-scapes that almost, but don’t quite evoke something we have experienced ourselves. This, I think, is one of the main sources of the presence of the uncanny in Australian ‘new lyricism’ noted by David McCooey. Another (evident in both these poems) is a tendency to show the irruption of the anthropocene into the ‘natural’ elements of the physical and poetic Australian landscape, simultaneously echoing and disrupting our earlier (and still pervasive) notions of its constitution. Thus Holt’s bowerbird is stilled by ‘the beauty of human excess’ (155), while for Fagan ‘the Pleiades blink / like a sparkler in the HaHa room’ (161).
There are many words and phrases in ‘Chrome Arrow’ that would look at home in a more traditional lyric: ‘hills & dunes’, ‘song of one breath’, ‘sky’ – and others that, in this context, take on an ironic and self-aware tone: ‘dangerous’, ‘phantoms’, ‘surrounded by beauty’, ‘rococo’. Claire Nashar rightly points out the way ‘the pronoun I is deployed…with an unwavering hand (162), and the way that this ‘I’, the lyric speaker, simultaneously undermines the idea of its own spoken truth by being so obviously a construct.
As you may have guessed from previous posts, I’m interested in debates about the role of the lyric ‘I’ as a teller of poetic ‘truth’. Reading work by Freud and Lacan on the human subject’s relationship to language made me reconsider the potential functions of the lyric subject. Whereas we might see the lyric ‘I’ as a false construct, pretending to present experience through language as though it had no ideological agenda, or was immune from cultural influence, Lacan and Freud might see that same lyric ‘I’ as one who whilst doing this, somehow speaks accidental truths, accessing the material of the Unconscious through the slip of the tongue; the forgotten name; the mispronunciation; the Freudian slip.
Click here to read ‘Honeymoon Sweet’ a lyric poem based on the diagram. Explicit language. Don’t let Barry O’Farrell hear you read it out loud.
In this diagram, Freud sets out schematically the specific paths by which his conscious mind is barred from recalling the name of the Italian painter Signorelli. His unconscious mind, sparked by the subject matter of a conversation with an unknown travelling companion, remains pre-occupied with the recent death by suicide of a patient in Trafoi, allowing his conscious mind to offer up only the painters Boltraffio and Botticelli as substitutes. Even across multiple languages (such as the leap from the Signor of Signorelli to Herr via the first syllable of Herzegovina) phonemes exist as building blocks in the unconscious, to be conflated, compounded, moved and re-moved without our conscious knowledge.
This idea of the parapraxis in or as poetry came to appeal to me very strongly, and I started to investigate its potential in my own work. The ideas in my collection plaintext (currently in production) show an essentially lyric poet’s attempts to come to grips with the use of the Freudian slip as a procedural element and observe how these two very different types of poetry might inform each other. As part of this collection, I began an ongoing collaboration (since 2007) with musician and software designer Mark Havryliv. The aim was to create poetry, either for the printed page, or for performance, that could mirror the action of the parapraxis in speech.
The P[a]ra[pra]xis software has evolved a lot since 2007. It was originally developed as a two-piece suite. The first was a dictionary-like database, where I could import, collect, store and alter words. The second was an interface where rules could be created to govern the otherwise random selection of substitute words. The earliest experiments were based around a very strict set of linguistic substitutions, such as anagrams, rhymes, or additions to / subtractions from the word. This software allowed us to create the substitutions in realtime, and use the rule-set (amongst other things) to generate realtime audio.
Mark later developed a scripting language with which I could make substitutions at the level of several words, or even a sentence. My associations became more free over time. This is the code that is included with the poems that are part of the P[a]ra[pra]xis iPad App, downloadable here. Unfortunately it hasn’t been developed for iPhone yet. There are also examples of electronic poetry and a demonstration of the app on my YouTube channel.
As a title, P[a]ra[pra]xis conflates the nuance of ‘para’ meaning ‘beyond’, or ‘outside of’ with the academic notion of ‘praxis’ as theory put into action: thus it comes to describe an entire way of creatively exploring language through the building of user-initiated dictionaries based on free association and metonymic slippage. Hopefully the name will be self-fulfilling, and we will be able to keep taking P[a]ra[pra]xis in new directions as new technology and new ideas proliferate. Voice-to-text substitutions are my dream.
As far as new ideas are concerned, there should be some coming up here soon; this is my final post. If you want to say hello again, please drop past my blog.
To take us out, here’s a pantoum describing a circular journey.