JZ: Poetry is a big genus! Epic, formal verse, free verse, nursery rhymes, song lyrics – to be distinguished, at least sometimes, from lyric poetry – it’s a long list! Most poetry involves rhythmically structured or patterned language, but even that (or what I’m trying to point to with that) is not true of prose poetry, which attempts to evoke the mood or emotional tone of lyric poetry while avoiding what we might call a ‘singing’ line. Wittgenstein would tell you that poetry is a ‘family resemblance’ concept: everyone in the family is related, somehow, but there’s no single trait that every family member shares. (Cousin George looks like Grandad Atwater, and Maisie looks like Bill, but none of ’em looks like anybody else.)
Within that family, one of the members, lyric poetry, interests me a lot. And if it’s OK to shift the focus a little, I can try to say something about lyric thought and expression (whatever the medium).
The word ‘lyric’ in English comes from the Greek word for lyre and so its lineage involves music. Music clearly means, but it doesn’t mean the same way that language does. Music’s meaning is a function of resonance and resonance involves a kind of integrity. Think of a chord. The chord is what it is because of the multiple resonant relations that its individual tones have to one another. If you remove one of the tones, or alter it just slightly – like turning an E natural into an E flat – you fundamentally change the nature of the whole. A perfectly tuned chord, we might say, is coherent. And that, I think, is the basis of what we mean by lyric thought: it’s thinking in love with coherence. It seeks understanding by finding coherence, and it strives for coherence – resonant integrity – in expression.
So is lyric poetry a kind of poetry that’s literally musical – sort of sing-song? Not exactly, or not always: for there are many things we describe as lyric that don’t have any aural component at all. Think about Vermeer. When you hear people saying ‘Vermeer’s paintings are lyric…’ (which they often do) what could they mean?
I’m compressing the argument here, but this is my guess: we say Vermeer’s paintings (or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) are lyric because every detail counts. Every thing in them is resonant, every aspect is attuned to at least some other aspects. In compositions where the degree of attunement among aspects is very high, there is no real distinction between details and centres; such compositions are, we might say, radically coherent. Lyric poetry is an attempt to express lyric thought or awareness in language, and it tries to use language in a way in which every detail is resonant.
This way of thinking about lyric poetry obviates another conception of ‘lyric’, familiar to lots of English students: the Romantic conception of lyric poetry – poetry as quasi-confessional, poetry that exalts the individual ego. In the kind of radically coherent composition I’m interested in, you often don’t get a confessional stance or a preoccupation with the self: you get a preoccupation with the world. The self as inevitable player in the whole can be present; but it’s not the focus. It’s there often as a gesture of humility, an acknowledgement of a perspective on the whole, but reaching toward that whole nonetheless. Is the poem about the moon, or about the finger pointing to it? In the conception of lyric I’m interested in, it turns out almost always to be about the moon.
JR: So poetry opens possibility as opposed to the way language, in a ‘scientific’ or objective way does not?
JZ: Could we make another distinction here? Science itself, and the way many scientists think, is not always that different from lyric thought. So we really do need to use the word ‘scientific’ in scare quotes, as you do, when we’re setting up this contrast. When we use it this way, we’re referring to a picture of science – one common in the media and in academic humanities departments. That picture sees science as a kind of thinking bound by rigid and simplistic canons of logic, aimed at exploiting and controlling the world. This is really, still, Francis Bacon’s mid-seventeenth century conception of science.
What is the relation between lyric thought and this Baconian picture of science? I don’t think lyric poetry is ‘subjective’ in a sense that contrasts with Baconian ‘objectivity’; it’s not (principally) aimed at voicing an unchallengeable, irreducibly personal view. But I do think that if you read a good lyric poem, you have to give yourself to ways of thinking that aren’t conditioned by the Baconian ideal. And that allows you to acknowledge that you do know things in a way that Baconian science doesn’t. Culturally, we try to control such knowing by marginalising things like lyric poetry and saying, ‘Oh, the arts are about imagination, and the imagination is for making things up. What they say isn’t “true“; they’re not “objective”.’ It’s all politics, that talk. It’s a way to control ways of knowing that are inimical to a cultural alliance between capitalism and technology, which is part of the West’s inheritance from the Enlightenment. The imagination can but doesn’t always ‘make things up’; in fact, imagination – which allows us to perceive likenesses and similarities – is fundamental to knowing the way things are.
JR: When we think of ‘environmental literature’ there are at least two aesthetic modes we might have in mind. One is the kind of writing (poetry and ‘imaginative’ writing) that is called Literature, and the other is any writing at all about the environment. In the ‘literary’ mode, poetry seems the most common form of expression about environmental ideas.
JZ: Hm. So you’re saying we don’t find as much fiction that has nature as its primary focus as we do lyric poetry? You may be right. And there’s one reason that lyric poetry might be a common way of voicing our experience of the natural world. If every detail in a lyric poem manages to be in resonant relation to the whole, then the poem is a kind of ecology. This allows its structure to be enactive, to express awareness of some other ecology without distorting it. (Of course not every lyric poem is perfect! What matters is that it is a serious attempt at enactive expression; this is what it’s aiming at. So the gesture is not, at root, structurally hostile to what it is trying to say.)
You go down to the marsh, say… there are the bull rushes, and there are the water striders, and there are the frogs’ eggs. And there are little downy seeds in the air and they land on the surface of the water as it is cooling. All these ‘details’ matter to how the marsh holds together, and when we are connected to the world, breathing with the world, how we know requires a medium of expression that doesn’t, in its own structural gestures, undercut our insight. The kind of knitting, the kind of coherence we experience in the marsh, and our experience of our relatedness to it, requires a non-Baconian form of expression to do it justice. On the other hand, if you think the world is a machine, then the best way to say that is with language that functions like a machine.
JR: In her review of Lyric Philosophy Phyllis Webb says, ‘The lyric may have had its day. Why? Because of our difficulty in maintaining a coherent world view when our personal, private psyches are fractured and the world we view [is] appalling.’
JZ: This is a counsel of despair. This is to say, it’s over so don’t try. No, it’s to say more – it’s over so you can’t try.
I revere Phyllis as a thinker and artist, and agree with her that it’s over; but I think there is much beauty in the world. Even in Western European human beings, even in the midst of barbaric suffering, in the camps, on the streets. And it’s overwhelmingly present in the rainforest, under the prairie sky, on the coast of Ellesmere Island, even as these ecosystems die. I understand why Phyllis says what she says, but I actually think it’s wrong not to respond to beauty with love, to refuse to see because of pain. The world, even under threat of cataclysmic human-induced change, is a lyric whole; and opening ourselves to perception of this can heal our culturally fractured psyches.
JR: You say, ‘It’s over.’ What is?
JZ: I think massive economic breakdown is coming soon. It’s happening independently but it will ride on the heels of environmental degradation. Sea levels are going to rise. That’s all it will take. But we also know that marine ecologies are unravelling at a staggering rate. We also know that global warming is already having serious effects on many biotas. Everywhere. We can’t save them with science. We can’t save them with this culture. This culture will pay the price with its death, and with the deaths of a lot of other cultures and beings, both human and non. My guess is that the cockroaches and the anaerobic bacteria are going to survive, along with the jellyfish. How much else? I don’t know.
JR: That seems like thinking that could scare people into inaction. What other choice is there?
JZ: But don’t we do people a disservice if we think they are – what? too ill-equipped? too immature? – to handle the truth? Death is coming to this culture and it’s the kind of death that’s going to be like a slow motion car accident after centuries of cultural drunk driving.
‘Do what you can!’ The idea of political activism is itself woven into the fabric of Enlightenment thought. Our culture is not a culture of acceptance, nor of adapting the self to the larger circumstances. It aims to adapt the circumstances to the desires of the self. This attitude is actually part of the problem. But are there alternatives in this culture? Yes, I think so. Our situation is in some ways similar to the Warring States period in China. Think of the way intellectuals and poets reacted then – they withdrew, and embraced poverty, in order to meditate on the natural world. And there are those striking observations of Thomas Merton. He talks (is it in Seven Storey Mountain?) about the sense that he has that somewhere a couple of dozen guys are praying and they’re holding the whole damn thing together. It’s an echo of the Hebrew notion of the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim, the thirty-six just people. What we see in all these cases is a reaction that is essentially the reaction of prayer. And by that, I don’t mean ‘Let’s pray to God so God will make it alright.’ I mean deep, reflective, meditative immersion in and compassion for what is happening. A widening of the self. There is both an acceptance of responsibility and an acknowledgement of truth in that gesture.
It’s how lyric poetry can matter, if it’s authentic. Praising and mourning. The praise song and the elegy are two sides of the same coin and they are annealed. We speak elegies when the thing that naturally draws praise from us is gone. It is in this praising and mourning – really experiencing what is, and what is happening – that we begin the reconstructive work of changing the culture.
And, as part of this meditative work, we recycle, and we walk or take public transit, we don’t waste water, we don’t waste heat – we try to act responsibly, that is, responsively toward the other beings with whom we cohabit. But we don’t try to ‘fix’ the world. We adapt our desires to what respectful and thoughtful living allows, and in this find joy. Real joy, not some puritanical satisfaction at having ‘done the right thing’. The self widens.
JR: I’d like to ask you about your assertion that the world is ‘real’ and is ‘out there’ independent of us. I wonder if the contention that the world is real and ‘other’ than us creates a bigger separation between people and the world. Isn’t part of the problem that we see ourselves as unnatural?
JZ: Well, you know, I think many of us are unnatural. (I include myself!) Elsewhere, I’ve connected this issue to the notion of wilderness. Wilderness, I think, exists in greater or lesser degrees wherever we allow communities of non-humans to shape us at least as much as or more than we shape them. This is what it is for a human to be ‘natural’. If you don’t pay attention to the clouds and the forest, let the things you do and want be conditioned by what they do and want, you have become, to a degree, ‘unnatural’. When you become more responsive, you become more ‘natural’. It is also possible for a person in the midst of an intensely urban landscape to become attuned to the chrome and the glass and so become ‘natural’ there. But then there’s the question of the relation of the chrome and the glass to the non-human world…
JR: We seem a little hopeless as a species these days. And yet we do go on. I was listening to Jean Vanier’s Massey Lectures and I picked up on a line I liked very much. He says, ‘The purpose of civilisation is to help us pretend that things are better than they are.’
Somehow we seem bent on seeing order in this chaos.
JZ: We have to define ‘civilisation’. If we mean ‘culture’, it’s quite clear that not only human beings possess civilisation in that sense. It’s another word for ecology. When we think of human cultures, we sometimes think of stuff – artistic and intellectual efflorescences, or more recently, in this culture, technological ones. But really culture is a way of being in the world, a set of dynamic relationships.
Clearly non-humans live in cultures too. Just spend half an hour paying attention to the world ‘out there’! It’s not chaos: it’s a succession.* Plants, animals (as well as human animals) interact, depend on, communicate and have relationships that are extended in time. The idea that only humans have culture is at the heart of an anthropocentric way of seeing. Maybe that is the quintessence of this culture: that it imagines non-humans live in a kind of chaos. This is deeply sad.
JR: That sheds new light on my question: does Nature speak or does Nature listen? Well, nature speaks, we just don’t get it.
JZ: But we get enough of it to know that communication is happening, which is why there can be real, deep, interspecific relationships. And we can get better at getting it. There are human cultures that are much more predisposed to ‘get’ more of it. Sustainable cultures. If you have the good fortune to be born into a sustainable human culture, chances are the natural world is speaking loudly and with complexity to you most of the time.
JR: Such a culture would hear the resonances!
JZ: Exactly, because the humans in it would be listening.