BMCR 2009.06.57

Dialogism and Lyric Self-fashioning: Bakhtin and the Voices of a Genre

, Dialogism and Lyric Self-fashioning: Bakhtin and the Voices of a Genre. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2008. 265. ISBN 9781575911205. $60.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Adequately defining lyric subjectivity and lyric consciousness has always been a thorny task, particularly because of the diversity of themes, forms, and eras that help constitute lyric poetry. The volume under review, Dialogism and Lyric Self-Fashioning: Bakhtin and the Voices of a Genre, edited by Jacob Blevins, makes a valuable and rather stimulating contribution to the ever-larger body of scholarship on lyric as a genre, attempting to describe more clearly certain characteristics of lyric subjectivity and make progress in correcting certain scholarly misunderstandings about lyric’s dynamic and complex nature. Blevins and the contributors take as their starting point the agreeable position that lyric poetry generally manifests its subjectivity through the use of multiple voices and discourses, in opposition to the sometimes-held belief that lyric is exclusively personal or meditative poetry—that is, an expression that inherently lacks any kind of social or ideological engagement, a kind of confessional performance. In making this claim, Blevins and the contributors turn to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of dialogism as a way to reveal the “multi-voiced” discourse found in lyric poetry, particularly those voices that compete for primacy and/or ideological control within their respective poem(s). In using Bakhtin’s dialogism as a theoretical platform, Blevins and the volume’s contributors are able to demonstrate the complex relational aspect found in lyric discourse because of its status as born from, positioned between, or in response to the voices (both heard and unheard) of others. The papers in this volume consequently suggest ways of reading the strategies that lyric poets use to adapt and attune both their voice(s) and their poetry to specific social and ideological contexts. In the end, this volume is decidedly successful in its goal of constructing a “transhistorical survey of dialogism and the lyric genre”(17). Before offering short assessments of the individual papers, I would first like to offer a few comments delineating this volume’s particular strengths.

Some readers might find the use of Bakhtin’s dialogic model, originally formulated for use with the novel, a bit surprising since Bakhtin famously regarded poetry (lyric and epic) to be essentially monologic. Yet, as Blevins and the contributors continually display throughout the volume, Bakhtin’s assessment of lyric poetry is far too narrow and theoretically limiting to sufficiently describe its examples (variously referring to Bakhtin’s theory as “disregarding,” “miscalculating,” “misunderstanding,” or “vastly underestimating” lyric poetry). Recent scholarship on lyric subjectivity has indeed begun to move away from the constrictive conception of lyric as monologic and, thus, the use of dialogism here is quite natural. In the process of demonstrating the multi-discursive nature of lyric, Blevins and the contributors are also able to develop further and extend some of Bakhtin’s ideas for use outside the novel, a benefit that will continue to yield results.

Perhaps thus volume’s greatest strength is its careful organization to present as many of the diverse instantiations of lyric as possible. Blevins suggests that this volume is intended to be a “transhistorical” survey of lyric and, indeed, it profitably incorporates essays on ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern lyric poetry. But, in many ways this designation undersells the volume’s scope and value as we find essays exhibiting a broad variety of lyric themes (e.g. encomiastic, agonistic, sacral, erotic, amorous, bucolic, intellectual, and activist) as well as the oppositions that animate lyric as a genre (e.g. male vs. female, active vs. passive, public vs. private, introspective vs. demonstrative, the individual poem vs. the collection, intertextual vs. intratextual). Part of the volume’s success in proving the multi-voiced nature of lyric is its ability to offer the reader such a broad and sophisticated coverage of lyric forms.

Another strength is the use of lesser known or at least less thoroughly examined poets as its body of data. As Blevins notes in the introduction, some readers might wish that certain canonical poets such as Catullus, Petrarch, Shakespeare, or Wordsworth had been included. But, the deliberate inclusion of poets such as a Statius or a Thomas Edwards allows the contributors’ comments on lyric to escape the poetic canon’s cult of personality and make coherent conclusions about the lyric as a genre of poetry.

As a physical product, this book has been ably edited and suffers from less than a handful of minor typographical errors. Its aggregated bibliography is particularly welcome as it offers a good cross-section of scholarship on lyric poetry from classical, medieval, early modern, and modern philologists. The volume also includes a surprisingly full index containing major literary theorists as well as the basic terms of their approaches to analyzing lyric.

Blevins sets the table well in the introduction to the volume by first outlining the basic problems in defining the concept of lyric subjectivity, particularly because of its status as personal, yet interpersonal, public, yet private. After touching on some of the previous attempts to make this definition (e.g. T.S. Eliot, N. Frye, M.H. Abrams, W.R. Johnson, and P.A. Miller), Blevins turns to the concept that lyric poetry is inherently dialogic poetry and, thus, introduces the relevance of using Bakhtin’s theories of Dialogism. In presenting the introduction this way, Blevins gives the readers a necessary and appropriate foundation for the theoretical assumptions that the contributors make, as well as the vision to understand how and why the volume’s varied essays cohere so well.

The first of three essays on Greek and Roman lyric, Ellen Greene’s contribution, “Masculine and Feminine, Public and Private, in the Poetry of Sappho,” looks to revise her previously held position that Sappho is engaged in a distinctly feminine and private discourse, instead demonstrating that “desire [is] a profoundly complex experience that cannot be strictly categorized as either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine'” (p.25). Through the close readings of several Sapphic poems and fragments, Greene is able to show that both masculine and feminine voices share in the Sapphic definition of desire and love with Homeric and military imagery paralleling an idyllic landscape of female affiliation. This new reading is thus able to move beyond the limiting view of Sappho’s poetry as distinctly and solely feminine or a deviant form (because it is written by a woman) of masculine discourse.

David H.J. Larmour’s contribution, “An Agon on the Slopes of Helicon: Corinna’s Dialogues with Pindar and Hesiod,” begins with the observation that lyric poetry is founded on a sense of competitive dialogue as the real-life poetic agones found at religious festivals and legendary competitions between canonical poets (e.g. Homer vs. Hesiod) show us. He then examines the tradition of references to an agon between Pindar and his female contemporary (possibly) Corinna as well as their own poems, focusing on the inherent dialogism at work here. Corinna, Larmour argues, constructs her agonistic dialogue with Pindar “by engaging and adapting Hesiodic myth” to confront the tensions between male and female, Panhellenic and local voices. In the end, we are able to see that Corinna celebrates her poetic prowess by acknowledging her Boeotian countrymen and uncovering themes that she can use to distinguish herself as a poet.

Shifting to Roman lyric in “Singing in the Garden: Statius’s plein air Lyric (after Horace),” Diana Spencer makes the observation that Horace may have purposely embedded a kind of lyric failure in his Odes, particularly as lyric poetry negotiated its relationship with space (e.g. gardens). This failure thus made future emulation of his approach nearly impossible until Statius’s deliberate and self-conscious re-imagination of Horace’s lyric landscape in Silvae 4.5. She suggests that Statius, through a careful and at times comic dialogue with Horace’s lyric mode, is able to reinvest the rural (or perhaps even pastoral) landscape with poetic and philosophical distance from the urban landscape of Rome. While constructing his parva rura as a zone of ataraxia and otium, Statius is thus able to negotiate the social, political, and poetic identities of both himself and his addressee, Septimius Severus.

Daniel E. O’Sullivan’s contribution, “Putting women in their place: Women’s Devotional Songs in the Rosarius (BnF fr. 12483),” posits an intratextual dialogue between the various lyric poems in the Rosarius, an Old French collection of devotional songs. Specifically, he suggests that the lyric songs in this collection become “juxtaposed to other texts, opening opportunities for potential dialogue among the voices contained in its chapters,” ultimately leading to a “discourse in behavioral prescriptivism for medieval women” (p.84). What is particularly intriguing about this collection is that the female voices step away from their male author to construct a wholly feminine approach to a devotion to Mary.

In “Subjective Identity and Collective Conscience in the Songs of Colin Muset,” Christopher Callahan examines the multi-layered discourse of the medieval French poet, Colin Muset, recognized to have a voice “forged of, and thriv[ing] on, a tension between the conventional and the innovative, the lyric and the narrative, the personal and the collective” (p.97). Indeed, Colin, in a “quintessentially dialogic” form, depicts himself in his poems as poet, performer, and character simultaneously. Ultimately, Callahan shows that Colin’s manner of having the “personal” speak for the “collective” allows us to see how the poet can be part of a collective awareness of poetic identity.

Using Bakhtin’s theory of the stratification of poetic discourse, John Everett Bird’s essay, “Producing (and Reproducing) Poetic Identity in Thomas Edwards’s Narcissus,” examines Edwards’s epyllion Narcissus for indications of its self-conscious formation of an identity that is “professional” and communal. Bird posits that Edwards’s careful stratification of discourse in his epyllion creates an ambivalence with its relation to contemporary texts, such as Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, with its “status in the contemporary present” (p.116). Bird finally suggests that the “status of poet is ambiguous,” in that there is an emerging professionalism in their endeavors, yet poets also wish to “obscure the motives of their profession” and distance themselves from the vulnerability of what they do.

In “That Noble Flame: Literary History and Regenerative Time in Katherine Philips’s Elegies and Society of Friendship,” W. Scott Howard examines the inherently dialogic discourse of friendship in the bucolic elegies of Katherine Philips. He states that Philips “consistently posits friendship as a living, worldly principle that paradoxically celebrates both the union of two individuals and their distinctive singularities” (p.137). In constructing such a conception of friendship, Philips is thus able to use it as a “foundational trope for literary history.” More specifically, Howard argues that Philips’s elegies articulate the bonds of friendship, particularly female, and present a regenerative and constitutive relationship between her poetry and the social world outside of that poetry.

Dafydd Wood’s essay, “Apollinaire’s Late Lyrics,” directly questions the limitation of Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia towards poetry, suggesting that poetry, more so than prose, allows for a great wealth of interpretations because of its “saturation” with meaning and symbol. In Apollinaire’s later lyrics, specifically his Poèmes à Lou and Poèmes à Madeleine, we find three separate dialogues: between masculine and feminine voices in a single poem, at the level of tradition in which “the tropes of the religious lyric and love lyric are blended inseparably” (p.163), and between Apollinaire and literary tradition. Ultimately, in examining these three dialogues, we find that Apollinaire’s poetry presents us with a true heteroglossia in which none of the voices are privileged over the other; indeed, they rather work symphonically.

In ” The Waste Land as a Human Drama Revealed by Eliot’s Dialogic Imagination,” Ian Probstein attempts to use Bakhtin against himself, focusing particularly on the concepts of chronotopos, polyphony, and parody as they apply to lyric poetry. In his close reading of The Waste Land, Probstein finds that Eliot plays extensively with his poem’s subjectivity through the careful allusion to a variety of tropes, authors, characters, and voices thereby “defamiliarizing reality.” In performing this example of unfettered dialogism, Eliot is thus able to build a “dialogue with humanity” and exposes his reader to an open, free (in Bakhtinian terms) human drama.

Amittai Aviram’s and Richard Hartnett’s contribution, “‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’: Dialogism in Lyric Poetry,” examine the way that the lyric subject exists in a kind of game, engaging the reader “in his or her simultaneous recognition of the subject imitated and (author’s emphasis) of the fact that it really is merely an imitation” (p.205). Specifically, they examine Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar” and its way of challenging basic notions of representation as it references an essence (so to speak) of Picasso’s cubist paintings. In this way, Stevens’ poem portrays the comparable struggles that various artistic media (such as poetry, painting, or the novel) share in representing reality. In all media, representing reality is a game about subjectivity and this game thus implies a dialogue between possibilities.

The final essay, Tom Lavazzi’s contribution “Echoes of Dubois: The Crisis Writings and Jayne Cortez’s Earlier Poetry, discusses the creation of racial identity by examining the conscious construction of a new African-American voice in Jayne Cortez’s poetry as different from an earlier, insufficiently genuine one. Further, Lavazzi considers how W.E.B Dubois’s formulations of Black identity influenced or even pushed Cortez’s work. In the end, he demonstrates how Cortez “restag[es] earlier ideological concerns” by focusing on a different kind of discourse, based on the images of jazz and its syntax and a different kind of audio performance.

Jacob Blevins

Masculine and Feminine, Public and Private, in the Poetry of Sappho
Ellen Greene

An Agon on the Slopes of Helicon: Corinna’s Dialogues with Pindar and Hesiod
David H.J. Larmour

Singing in the Garden: Statius’s plein air Lyric (after Horace)
Diana Spencer

Putting Women in Their Place: Women’s Devotional Songs in the Rosarius (BnF fr. 12483)
Daniel E. O’Sullivan

Subjective Identity and Collective Conscience in the Songs of Colin Muset
Christopher Callahan

Producing (and Reproducing) Poetic Identity in Thomas Edwards’s Narcissus
John Everett Bird

That Noble Flame: Literary History and Regenerative Time in Katherine Philips’s Elegies and Society of Friendship
W. Scott Howard

Apollinaire’s Late Lyrics
Dafydd Wood

The Waste Land as a Human Drama Revealed by Eliot’s Dialogic Imagination
Ian Probstein

“The Man with the Blue Guitar”: Dialogism in Lyric Poetry
Amittai F. Aviram and Richard Hartnett

Echoes of Dubois: The Crisis Writings and Jayne Cortez’s Earlier Poetry
Tom Lavazzi