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Lyric Spaces: Past Tense Speakers in Late Twentieth-Century Poetry


In extended readings of Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, and Ted Hughes, Lyric Spaces troubles the formal resemblance between the lyric ‘I’ and the autobiographical ‘I’ in autobiographical poetry written after the Second World War. I argue that while a work like Robert Lowell’s Life Studies announces itself as being drawn from the poet’s own life, the poems themselves frequently critique and ironize that connection. My project’s first goal is to conceptualize these critiques and ironies as what I call self-forgetful autobiography—a reticent, distanced mode of writing a self that is as attentive to writing’s limitations as it is to its possibilities. For Lowell, this mode is visible in his simultaneous, yet divergent, concern for poetic authenticity and factual accuracy in Life Studies; for Heaney, it appears as the desire in Death of a Naturalist to be both autobiographical and anonymous; for Bishop, it emerges through efforts of recollection that critique the very possibility of writing about memory; for Hughes, it is legible in Moortown Diary in the struggle to assert poetry’s personal, mnemonic valences over its more impersonal, aesthetic qualities. For all of these poets, resisting the direct equation of speaker and poet turns on the multiple spaces of poetic experience that stems from the use of a subgenre whose use they have in common: the past tense lyric.

Indeed, my project’s second goal is to theorize this little-discussed past tense, first person lyric in an attempt to overturn critical assumptions about lyric as a fundamentally present tense genre. To be sure, the vast majority of lyric poems are anchored in the present, but if twenty-five percent of the poems in Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist are wholly in the past tense, that emphasis on the present needs to be refocused to note the poems’ emphasis on the events they present rather than their relevance to the speaker’s present. These past tense poems carve out separate spaces of experience by dividing the figure of the speaker into two positions: one who participates in the events that the poem describes, and another who readers might infer is responsible for generating the poem’s language. By separating these two figures, Heaney and these other poets reshape what seem to be poems of personal experience into recitations of events that are unconnected to the life of either the narrating speaker or the poet. My treatment of this separation as a rhetorical choice rather than a mere happenstance of storytelling reveals a deliberate distancing between these two figures, reigniting the longstanding debate about whether a lyric ‘I’ is also an autobiographical ‘I.’ In light of these formal interventions, poetic autobiography becomes a poetics of caveats and loopholes, of both greater intimacy and greater irony than it initially seems. A recognition of this sophisticated dialectic of self-exposure and self-concealment reformulates this poetry’s naïve retention of Romantic subjecthood as, instead, a form of postmodern play with subjectivity of the type that comes to define the work of Ashbery, Muldoon, and others in this period. By illustrating the ways in which these poets push the boundaries of genre to their breaking point, my formalist approach to these highly canonical works offers another way to take up New Lyric Studies’ historicist challenge to redefine our notions of the lyric genre.

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