Lyric vs. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E

american women poets

Book Review
American women poets in the 21st century:
Where Lyric Meets Language
Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, Eds.
Wesleyan U Press, 2002. 439 pp.

This book presents the work of 10 contemporary women poets: Rae Armantrout, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Susan Howe, Ann Lauterbach, and Harryette Mullen.

Each is represented by a sample of work, a brief poetics statement, and a critic’s essay which provides context to readers new to the work.

In her introductory essay co-editor Juliana Spahr says this collection aims to begin a dialogue between the two often falsely separated poetries of Language poetry and lyric. “The unevenness of these two terms, one a social grouping and the other a genre, remains a sign of some dissonance even as critics often pit Language and lyricism against each other with straw-man models,” she writes.

“Although these writers define themselves as innovative,” she continues, “they are innovative in different ways and for different reasons. Some turn to modernist techniques for political reasons and others do so for aesthetic reasons. The collections presents a variety of ways that modernist techniques are being used within lyric contexts.”

Rae Armantrout writes that her own poetry involves an equal counterweight of assertion and doubt. “It’s a Cheshire poetics, one that points two ways then vanishes in the blur of what is seen and what is seeing, what can be known and what it is to know.” Hank Lazer writes that Armantrout “gives us a typically lyrical moment, but that moment inevitably is tied to some counterbalancing skepticism, so that the moment becomes ironized or self-conflicted. “

Lucie Brock-Broido writes, “The career of a thing of nature is to be Bulb, burst, bloom, & die. Ours is the equivalent. Only we get to Write it All Down.” Stephen Burt writes “The psyche Brock-Broido’s poems display exhibits more than one historical self, but seems comfortable in none.”

Lyn Hejinian says her writing espouses “a poetics of affirmation. I also espouse a poetics of uncertainty, of doubt, of difficulty, and strangeness. Such a poetics is inevitably contradictory, dispersive, and incoherent while sustaining an ethos of linkage. It exhibits disconnection while hoping to accomplish reconnection.”

Susan Howe says, “I think a lot of my work is about breaking free. Starting free and being captured and breaking free again and being captured again.” Ming Qian Ma writes that Howe’s poetry demonstrates a bent to contrive a method, or countermethod, to break free from the language trap through a ‘productive violence’ highly informed rather than random. “

Spahr says, “Reading these essays all together has shown me that, while there is a clear difference in intent between a poem written for investigating the self and one written for investigating language or community, it is more and more the case that the techniques used might be similar. In other words, form is no longer the clear marker of intention or meaning that it was 30 years ago.”

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11 thoughts on “Lyric vs. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E

  1. “Some turn to modernist techniques for political reasons”. Those reasons being? I can’t figure out a political reason for writing poetry which nobody but an educated elite can understand. And there’s not much point asking Ronnie or his mates. Some people turned away from language poetry, unrestrained experimentation and unnecessary obscurity and towards an engaged lyricism for political reasons too.

    • Hi Carol. Thanks for taking the time to comment. You’re obviously busy with your website and two blogs and reading. Do you have any audio of yourself reading your work? I’d enjoy sharing it with Wordsalad listeners .

  2. This book is a favorite of mine, though the essays are themselves uneven and often not as useful as they could be. At first I was excited to see the diversity, but years into reading there seems less diversity…I had this reaction to American Hybrid as well.

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