Citizen Lyric

Reviewed by Michael Roberson

In the introduction to her instructional guide, How to Read (and Write About) Poetry, Susan Holbrook draws two conclusions about the ethics of reading poetry. She posits:

If language contours the way we think, then, all the language coming at you every day . . . is shaping who you are and how you see the world. If poetry can ignite awareness of letters and words in you, . . . then perhaps you can be more conscious of that shaping, become a more critical thinker about your world as you participate in it as a citizen.

Not surprisingly, Astrid Lohöfer’s argument about the ethics of lyric poetry rests on a similar supposition about the demands and effects of poetry’s formal qualities—qualities that by virtue of engendering ambiguity and complexity equip poetry with the “ability . . . to unmask and challenge existing values and beliefs” and, through the process of attending to those qualities, “to effect changes in [the] moral and political mindset” of readers. In other words, for both Holbrook and Lohöfer, an effective poetry (hopefully) results in an affective ethics.

While these beliefs about the ethics of poetry might represent the only point of convergence between Holbrook’s instructional guide and Lohöfer’s academic study, these beliefs raise the ultimate question about how form constitutes meaning in poetry. Holbrook does state and demonstrate how formal aspects must substantiate claims about meaning, but I think she does not emphasize it enough. On the one hand, I applaud her intention to demystify poetry, where poetry’s constitutive features do not hide meaning, but make meaning, and where part of poetry’s longevity, charm, and, reward arise out of poetry’s resistance to acquiescing. On the other hand, I criticize her missing the opportunity to explore and demonstrate how poetry does not preclude any ways of approaching, and how interpretation can be both logical and experimental, but ultimately as satisfying as solving a mathematical equation. The challenge in writing a book about how to read, and eventually write about, poetry arises from attempting to describe a matter-of-fact engagement with something that defies such an engagement, and from remembering to assume the mentality of a non-literature person reading something foreign.

How to Read (and Write About) Poetry offers a loose “How to”—more summary than instructional guide—at the beginning, followed by an introduction, a series of ten chapters on different formal or thematic concerns, a brief guide about meter, and a section about writing, with a sample essay. Overall, Holbrook’s formal and thematic selections, which range from canonical to experimental, and include a balance of gender, time frame, and race, represent a fairly concise and thorough picture of poetry. While I appreciate her discussions of exemplary poems, and the “Research tips” she offers to enhance reading, the probing questions she offers to initiate conversation about further examples often seem like missed opportunities to practically apply “new skills.” Her chapter on sonnets, by example, ends by asking students to “Consider the ways the following poems engage with the traditional form.” Why not ask students to apply certain concepts—quatrain vs. octet, rhyme scheme, romantic conceit—to the variations so as to help reassure students that they understand how they make meaning?

With Ethics and Lyric Poetry, Astrid Lohöfer makes a valuable contribution to sluggish conversation about the ethics of poetic form. To be expected from a published dissertation, her thorough review of discussions about ethics and aesthetics, the ethics of reading, and the ethics of lyric poetry in particular, offers a valuable resource. In those discussions, she identifies the downfalls of both what she refers to as the “neo-Aristotelian” and the “postmodern” approaches to an ethics of literature and reading. The former envisions literature as demonstrative of, if not prescriptive about, how to live morally, and considers the reading of literature instructive in that regard. The latter envisions literature as any other discourse, hindered by the inevitably ambiguous, unreliable, and ideologically determined nature of all language, and considers the reading of literature illustrative in representing that fact, and thereby consciousness-raising about being suspicious of any normalizing discourse. Few proponents of either approach have done justice accounting for the ethics of lyric poetry, specifically how formal devices like lineation, rhyme, irony, and metaphor augment how lyrics can function ethically. In what amounts to a third and synthetic approach, Lohöfer turns to Martin Heidegger and Paul Ricœur to argue how the particularities of lyric poetry, primarily metaphor, enable poetry “to provide alternative views of reality that move beyond established ways of thinking and understanding.” Lohöfer uses this approach in the second half of her book to offer nuanced readings of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, on the one hand, and F.R. Scott and Dorothy Livesay, on the other—readings that demonstrate lyrical language problematizing and broadening how the world might be seen.

Like much of the criticism that engages a history of poetry and ethics, Lohöfer’s discussion provides a cursory account of how that relationship changes over time. She leaps, for example, from the Greeks, to Kant, and then to Nietzsche. Understandably, that lineage shows the gradual division between ethics and aesthetics in philosophy—a division that accounts for readings of Symbolism and Modernism that her readings hope to correct—but I would have liked a more thorough history outlining the changing definition of both poetry and ethics. And while her Continental bias, and the demands of a dissertation committee, force her reliance on Heidegger and Ricœur, why does she not even mention P. B. Shelley? In his Defence, he characterizes the language of poets as “vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things.” Is this not essentially her definition of both ethics and lyric poetry?—the difference between which Lohöfer often muddies. In fact, she does not explicitly define ethics except as a function or result of a metaphorical heuristic, i.e. an expanded vision of the world via lyrical language. She works so diligently to apply Heidegger and Ricœur without, it would seem, recognizing or exploring how she amalgamates the ethical approaches she criticizes.

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