Poetry has always been something I never had a passion for, but I always believed that I had a good understanding of many types of poetry and how they operate. I knew about haikus and how they are Japanese and utilize the syllables of the words to create their structure. I was aware that sonnets generally dealt with a lover and an absent beloved along with being fourteen lines. I knew most songs derive from poetry. And I saw how poems expressed themselves through imagery and emotion. This culmination of information gave me the belief that I clearly understood lyric poetry- the time we most often associate with “poetry” when referenced by itself.
Well, this is how much I actually knew about lyric poetry: nothing.
I really should not be surprised by this because I do not read poetry nor write it in my free time, and I have no desire to. I definitely respect it and appreciate how it has given joy and passion to people. I have this friend who writes at least five poems a day. Some are short, but many are surprisingly long. He told me he just writes them because it is a way for him to be open almost like a journal, but poetry is viewed as more artistic. He told me he enjoys how free it is; how it does not have a set structure, and yet it can still be classified as something that people can be in awe of. Most importantly, he emphasized how cool it was to be personal and put focus on himself.
These opinions he has had come across my head as thought at some point and are the reasons why I respected poetry. These beliefs that poetry had no really strict rules and that it focuses on one thing, typically the “author,” gave me reason to believe that poetry was the way to go if one must write literature, and that poetry is the literature for personal. That is, it provides the writer with the ability to put themselves in the forefront and not worry about providing details about other things nor have to make several interconnections between people and things in the way that novels must. These things were concrete to me… until I read On Lyric Poetry and Society by Theodor Adorno. Adorno challenges each of these characteristics I assigned to poetry. Adorno does agree that lyric poetry is concerned with the dream of free self-expression: having the ability to communicate in deeply personal, individualized, non-conformist ways. But, Adorno holds that the history of lyric poetry is the history of individuality in crisis, and that, that history has become the history of a frustrated desire for realized humanity. He calls to question how one can rejoin the world they are fleeing.
This question derives from the question of how a poem establishes its lyric “I”- the poetic “me?” How can one distinguish a general “I” to a specified “I?” When the poet uses “I” in their poetry, how do we determine to what that “I” refers? Is it that you simply identify the “I” by itself? But, how can you focus on that one subject without the calling to attention the secondary-things around the first. Adorno’s argument is that you cannot. There is a special relationship that needs to exist between the lyric I and the other things involved. Even though poetry is categorized differently than a novel, it still relies upon the connection between other things. In order for the poetic me to be, there needs to be something for it to oppose, something that the me is fleeing. Thus, lyric poetry which is seemingly individualized, is very much collective and more social than believed to be.
The “I” then is not as self-oriented as originally perceived. This ties into Adorno’s central argument: all language is social and deindividualized. What made me realize I knew even less about poetry than I thought, was that nobody is really creative. This theory popped into my head several times in my life, but it was always very general in the sense that there is no proof that what someone says or does is actually original and was never thought of or done before. Adorno states that since the “I” is often underelaborated (it’s not specified nor contextualized much), it leaves poetry very open, accessible, and makes it social. This, in turn, makes poetry a language with more rules. For example, when you write a haiku, you are writing in a manner that thousands have attempted before. In this way, too, your language is social and shared. Even when writing peculiar or in a way that does not attempt to make sense in the usual fashion, poets are not achieving their individuality, because they are handing themselves over to language.
Poetry has something to do with our capacity to ignore norms themselves; It is a vehicle of nonconformity. In “Re-Reading ‘Impossibility’ and ‘Barbarism’: Adorno and Post-Holocaust Poetics,” Anthony Rowland asserts that although Adorno calls post-Holocaust poetry “barbaric,” Adorno is not arguing that “poems are unrestrained, uncultured or rough in subject matter,” but instead that Adorno is trying to describe a different type of poetry that writes in a way that does not attempt to make sense in a usual fashion. Rowland, then, calls to question how can Adorno argue that poetry is barbaric, but it is “impossible to write poetry.” The answer is that while poetry is very free and autonomous, poetry has many rules. As poetry strives to find fresh language, convention evolves with it, and rules are then created for such “freeness.” Poetry and convention are then essentially in an evolutionary arms race. As stated, poetry is in a constant search for fresh language. That is, poets have no tolerance for cliché. Poets will often try to find a novel way to do something or phrase something, especially if it is something that could have potentially been stated before. There is just so much history, that poems almost cannot avoid convention, but humans (because they can get very good at things) continue to find new ways to be innovative and go outside the bounds of convention. This causes convention to then evolve in response to the “freshness” of poetry, and thus a cycle is created. As poetry develops new ways to become “creative,” convention also evolves to create rules to limit poetry. This is one of the things I was the most shocked by based on my held belief that poetry was so free and boundless.
To further confuse me, I came to understand that in order for “I” to be “I” it has to set itself apart from another-term. If we look at the poem, I, too, sing America by Langston Hughes we can see how a poem- that’s central focus is the “I’- relies on another to distinguish itself.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.
This can be blatantly observed by looking at how the first verse, “I am the darker brother,” essentially means nothing because it provides the reader with nothing to compare that “I” to, nor does it provide context to further identify the speaker. It is only through the second verse, “They send me to eat in the kitchen,” that the “I” becomes an “I.” Before setting itself apart from the “they” (which granted still is not very specific), the author despite his attempt to place himself into his poem gave us nothing and in fact left more questions than answers. Even though his use of “they,” “nobody,” and even the quotation marks themselves do not seem as prevalent or valuable as the “I” and one “me” in the poem, without them, the lyric “I” and the poetic “me” could not exist. Additionally, calling to mind the title itself, “I, too, sing America,” the simple word too adds that extra layer. By the addition of that word, the “I” immediately gets set apart because the “too” implies that there is another person or group that has sung America. Whether or not he wants to join with them to be apart of a chorus or be independent and sing his own refrain is a different story. But, nonetheless, the inclusion of the “too” adds a lot more to the formation of the poetic “me” Langston Hughes is attempting to create.
This poem, indeed, follows the conventions of the poetry we typically think of, but I ask you to think of a poem- any type of poem- where the main subject is actually alone; isolated from everything else with no connections or rejections to set it apart. In fact, try to think of anything like a novel or a fruit or even a person. How can you distinguish one from another without calling attention to the other subject and giving information about what it is or is not. Novels (which are all about connections and are the literature of relationships) do a great job of this. Novels tend to define what they are not and will often bring in other forms of literature to set themselves apart. Poems and the “I” are no different. They are dependent upon the existence of something else in order to gain more specificity and identity. In Mutlu Konuk Blasing’s “The Lyric Subject” within Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words, she states that “IMPLICITLY OR explicitly, the speaker in a lyric poem is an “I…” The “I” in discourse is a universal, an indexical function,” meaning that this “I” is very general and encompasses all, however she also holds that “the poetic “I” is also heard as an individuated voice.” She further states, “The generic “I” and the individuated “I” cannot to be understood as oppositional: The “I” in poetry is both the generic “I” of language and an individuated “I.”” This subject which is the discourse shows how poetry foregrounds convention. Thus, “formal devices and conventions,” regulate the material “body.” According to her, “conventions that stylize the rules of a language represent the body, and in the lyric there is an excess of “body.”” Additionally, Blasing supports that the Lyric “I” cannot be alone. She writes, “the lyric “I” must also always be a “you…” the “I” is utterly dependent on an audience.” This further expands on the point that the poetic “me” must have something in addition to itself. Therefore, the “I” that is centralized within poetry of all categories, needs the presence of another subject in order for it to become a non-general “I” that attaches itself to the author, and not everyone.
Here is what I have learned about poetry: poetry is both one of the most free types of literature, but still bounded by conventions that continue to develop in order to keep up with the “newness” that poets bring with time. And, poetry is not very individualized; It is very social and decentralized. The “I (or the subject upon which is being focused)” that is referenced and at the heart of the poem has to have something to oppose; something to use to distinguish itself. Looking back, I think had made these realizations before, but set them aside because I never had much backing. I realize this is can be very harmful to state in a work I just gave credit to others for the things I learned. But, then again, I did not know much about the subject before and there is no proof that I know anymore now. I am simply on human living in a period encompassed by technology, and the next generation will likely be so engulfed by advancements that these statements about poetry may very well become inconsequential. I mean, how significant are “cavedrawings” and hieroglyphics to the youth now. Think about it, its only a matter of time before poetry becomes outdated.
An earlier draft of this essay was read by Anna Kim
I have written this essay in the style of Chuck Klosterman.
Adorno, Theodor W. “On Lyric Poetry and Society.” Notes To Literature 1 (1991): 37-54. Columbia University Press. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.
Blasing, Mutlu Konuk. “THE LYRIC SUBJECT.” Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words, Princeton University Press, 2007, pp. 27–44, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7t8n8.5.
ROWLAND, ANTONY. “Re-Reading ‘Impossibility’ and ‘Barbarism’: Adorno and Post- Holocaust Poetics.” Critical Survey, vol. 9, no. 1, 1997, pp. 57–69. www.jstor.org/stable/ 41556053.