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The Lyric Self and Contemporaneity in Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath,
       Charles Wright, Jorie Graham, and Larry Levis

Charles Wright’s poem, “The New Poem,” marked a stance-taking moment in his rally against the prescriptive poetries of deep-imagists and American Surrealists like W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, James Wright, Charles Simic, and James Tate by stating what the new poem will not do: “It will not attend our sorrows. / It will not console our children. / It will not be able to help us.”  Wright, in his own prescriptive manner—through repetition and listing—underwhelms and shocks with a saddened tone and blatant simplicity.  However, it is exactly in his denouncement of poetries gone-by— in the poetry of Merwin, Bly, and James Wright that is personal because it “occurs as a result of the exploration of and response to the most inner reaches of the poet’s self below the rational and conscious levels” (Poulin, Jr. 579)—that Wright contradicts his own mid- and late-career poetics. Wright, however, is assuredly not alone in this movement post-1970s.  Jorie Graham, through her ekphrastic poetics, and Larry Levis, through his narrative complexities, also escape the prior confines of the lyric self to maintain a sense of the autonomy so prevalent in contemporary American poetry.  But before Lowell, Plath, Wright, Graham, and Levis can be said to be escaping the prior confines of the lyric self, a definition and historical positioning of the lyric self, both prior to and subsequent to the post-1970s anti-prescriptive poetries, must be put forth, as well as an understanding of the autonomy of the era’s poetry.

Poets of earlier generations, say the pre-Moderns like Thomas Hardy and most importantly Walt Whitman, had, even despite their propensity for self-musings and wayward dissolutions into the lyric self, a more active public and social reasoning behind much of their verse.  For instance, Whitman personally, and tragically, mourned the loss of President Lincoln while simultaneously championing Lincoln’s politics and vigor for the American people in his elegies on the subject.  His poetry was both personally and socially motivated, and he wished, in direct opposition to Charles Wright’s claim in “Bytes and Pieces,” from Quarter Notes, (“I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else”) to speak for everyone else, as One, from the cosmic consciousness.  The lyric self in Whitman is universal, is public, is social, and yet it is, in accordance with Wright in that it is “defined out of [his] own life” (80).

Prior to the personal poetics of the mid-generation of contemporary American poets, the lyric self was often tangled with social and public voices to create a modernist poetry that assured “a certain artistic distance between the poets and their subjects, the poets and their poems” (Poulin, Jr., 579).  The modernists (Eliot’s The Wasteland and Pound’s The Cantos, for example), spoke with/for/of a multitude of voices, often layered and textured always so that the self was defined as much by its relation to other selves as it was by its own demons and frailties.  Historical considerations of self had as much to do with the modernist’s poetics as their ethical considerations of self, but some of the mid-generation poets eschewed historical considerations in favor of exploring more deeply the lyric self through personal and intimate biographical details. 

A Poulin, Jr., in his essay, “Contemporary American Poetry: The Radical Tradition,” argues that  though the major difference between modernist and contemporary poetry “is that the latter—at least seemingly—is more intimate and personal” (579), it isn’t because modern poetry wasn’t being honest, as Richard Wilbur writes in Poets on Poetry (1961): “Poetry could not be honest, we thought, unless it began by acknowledging the full discordancy of modern life and consciousness. I still believe that to be a true view of poetry” (Poulin, Jr., 578).  Contemporary poetry, in its aim to diagnose and explore the consciousness of its practitioners, is much then the same as modernist poetry.  The difference is that Eliot’s dictum that poetry is an escape from personality no longer rang true for the mid-generation poets.  Poulin, Jr. writes that “Although possibilities for objectification remain, poetry is no longer considered an escape from personality by contemporary poets but rather a fuller cultivation and use of personality” (579).  Poulin, Jr. also writes how frequently the “he” and “she” of the poetic persona is frequently replaced by the “I,” and that the speaker of contemporary poems is often the poet himself; they are “an indivisible person” (579).  The lyric self of contemporary American poetry differs from the confines it adhered to in previous generations; largely, and  most directly, the lyric self in mid-generation “personal-confessional” poets, to borrow a phrase from Poulin, Jr., became a vehicle to rehash, contemplate, and expand upon the poets’ existential experiences.

Robert Pinsky, in the introduction to his The Situation of Poetry, defines the “effective practice” of contemporary American poets as a “particular kind of voice: enigmatic, slangy fey, tough, idiosyncratic, darting between the plain and the daffy with a mock-naive, teen-age sort of detachment.  That detachment, a knowing, ironic superiority to parts of one’s own mind and experience . . . defines the manner for me” (3-4).  Pinksy states that many of the arguments carried out in contemporary poetry find their beginnings in the “language and reality” (4) of the past, during the height of the modernists.  Perhaps, he thinks, that the poetry of the contemporary poets isn’t so far removed from their predecessors.  That may be true, at least for some of the defining characteristics of their poetry—their reliance on traditions past to create new ones, their acceptance of the ideas of the New Critics, and their reaffirmation of the idea that poetry’s goal is to hold a mirror up to human consciousness—but overall, the treatment of the lyric self is different.  So exactly how then does one define the lyric self in contemporary American poetry? 

The lyric self is the voice that transcends and straddles the private and the communal, the voice that, pluralistically, divides the sincere from the reticence of artifice.  Simply put, the lyric self is the voice that delivers the emotional-center of the poem; it is, in other words, a reflection of the poet’s consciousness.  In C.K. Williams’s “Poetry and Consciousness,” he sets about to define consciousness and its relation to poetry.  Along the way, he talks about emotion and how “without feeling, there is no resonance, nothing of what we call real meaning” (Williams, 1).  Since one difference between the modernist’s lyric tradition and that of the contemporary’s, according to Poulin, Jr., is that the contemporaries tend to be “more intimate and personal,” perhaps Williams’s remark that “the problem with the way we communicate our emotions and try to delve more deeply into them, is that we tend to leave the emotion itself out” (Williams, 2) further defines, for this discussion, the most important aspect of the lyric self: how the poet, through the “constant flow of image and narrative, generated by consciousness in a nondetermined way,” begins to “adequately characterize emotion” (Williams, 4).  In other words, how the poet deals with personal, immediate, and intimate emotional experiences shows itself in the mannerisms, formal choices, and tropes the poets use to construct their verse.

With a definition in hand—though it should be stated that even with a definition, each of the poet’s hereafter discussed utilizes the lyric self differently and with different effects; the lyric self, then, is as much defined by how a particular poet uses it as by the definition proctored above, which is, after all, the way poetry means anyway—let’s look briefly at how the contemporaneous view of lyric self shapes itself into its by-product, introspective lyric poetry.  Introspective lyric poetry arises through the lyric self’s assumption that the poet and the speaker are one and the same.  The breaking of taboos, the suffering, the madness, and the claiming of experience of which the self of the poem writes, is entangled in one personality rather than only multiple social or cultural concerns, and it is within these limits of the physical and psychic landscapes of the poets that introspective lyric poetry rests.  In his Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, Alan Williamson writes that

the Great Work of the personal poet is to give an objective shape to his “I am that I am”—the atmosphere and phenomenology  of his consciousness, the matrix out of which his world is continuously, involuntarily created for him, from which his slightest—and even his more considered—actions proceed with a more compelling logic than he can ever entirely grasp. (12)

The introspective lyric poetry of Lowell, Plath, Charles Wright, Graham, and Levis explores each poet’s consciousness through their unique “I am that I am,” or lyric self, and through this process the poets escape the prior confines of the lyric self and yet retain the fierce autonomy prevalent in so much contemporary American poetry.

Before I look at the poems, perhaps a brief characterization of what I mean by the “fierce autonomy” of contemporary American poetry is in order.  The speaker of the majority of these introspective lyric poems is an “I,” and each poet’s life is now his subject matter, and so the sense of individualism, despite similar emotional tenor in some of the poems—I think of Plath’s and Sexton’s speakers here, how they’re each preoccupied with darkness, with death—remains intact.  The mid-generation lyric self frames the later autonomy of contemporary American poetry and keeps it alive through its dependence on the personal and intimate autobiographical details as subject matter.  As important as it is to note that each of these poet’s lyric selves is directly a reflection of their mannerisms, use of tropes, subject matter, and formal choices, it is also important to note that through all of the differing contemporaneous views of lyric self this autonomy remains intact.  The most important and widely influential of the poet’s I’ll be examining is Robert Lowell, for the impact of his reach travels far and beyond his own generation.

Prior to Lowell’s ground-breaking personal verse collected, mostly, in Life Studies and For the Union Dead in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the poet’s intimate autobiographical life had never before been fodder for poetry, at least not in the way Lowell uses it as direct subject matter.  Even for Lowell, the subject matter was unheard of.  In his earlier volumes, particularly Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle, Lowell blended his oppositions to war and Puritan ethics with his objections to materialism and greed—which, to some degree, are tenets of American modernism—to create a poetry that hid behind its subject matter through symbolism and strict metrical formal choices.  Robert Hass, in his essay “Lowell’s Graveyard,” speaks at length to Lowell’s Puritanical, religious, and imaginative “places” within “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” a poem from Lowell’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, Lord Weary’s Castle, that is representative of some of Lowell’s early-career obsessions.  Hass writes, “I went back to the poem looking for the vision of an alternative world.  There is none.  There’s grief and moral rage but the poem imagines the whole human life as sterile violence . . . and it identifies finally with the inhuman justice of God” (5).  Lowell’s early work argues with and refutes the “fundamental view of humans as the heirs of the specific history of the fallen Adam” (Poulin, Jr. 586), a major characteristic of Puritan poetry whether it be from Lowell or Edward Taylor. 

The Puritan tradition believes that people are born corrupted by original sin and are predestined.  There is no recourse to save one’s soul from damnation, and only a select few will be chosen to represent God in His holy kingdom.  The poetry of that time, and of Lowell’s early career, seeks “the speaker’s place in history” and “focuses primarily on the individual’s spiritual and physical limitations and deterioration” (Poulin, Jr. 586).  That all said, contemporary poets “rejected the possibility of the traditional concept of salvation” because of the acceptance of the death of God, so “sin is therefore symbolically replaced by mental and emotional imbalance” (Poulin, Jr. 586).  Lowell, though, still believed in the evil of self-destruction, and one can see that in poems like “Eye and Tooth” and “Skunk Hour,” where the poet’s coming madness is a threat to his personal stability:

I lay all day in my bed.
I chain-smoked through the night,
learning to flinch
at the flash of the matchlight. . . .

I am tired.  Everyone’s tired of my turmoil. (18-19)

In contrast to this personal-confessional moment in “Eye and Tooth” from For the Union Dead, one could look at Lowell’s earlier “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” from Lord Weary’s Castle.  The poet is far removed from the emotional-center of the poem, but the action is more Puritanical and less concerned with the lyric self as a subject matter.  For instance, it’s the fear of an inhumane God and not the fear of personal madness that drives the lyric self to question:

What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
In battle array against the fire
And treason crackling in your blood;
For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure? (Lowell 2654)

Lowell’s movement from his earliest books to his two most famous autobiographical books could be said to mirror the Puritanical tradition’s fading into Whitman’s transcendence and cosmic consciousness, which is where the personal-confessional model of Lowell’s mid-career derives some of its tenets. 

Lowell’s mid-career personal-confessional poetry derives, in part, from Whitman’s sense of the lyric self as all-inclusive, but this is in direct opposition to Dickinson’s sense of self.  In looking at which prior confines of the lyric self Lowell finds himself reacting against, a brief look at Dickinson might be a good idea, especially in light of what C.K. Williams has to say about consciousness and poetry.  Lowell’s sense of interiority is different than Dickinson’s.  Dickinson’s personality, her lyric self, her voice, are all symptoms of her writing from the topography of her pysche, the tumult of her inner-struggles with God and self, the distinctions, or lack thereof, the Puritanical mode provided her between those two ways of viewing oneself.  Dickinson mined and probed her inner-world, her lyric self, symbolically rather than directly.  Lowell, however, represents his interior life through a more broadly direct and narrative lyric self, one that includes subject matter taken from his domestic and day-to-day life.  How this works in Lowell’s poetry can be traced back to C.K. Williams’s discussion on consciousness: Lowell’s imagery, his narrative, is “generated by consciousness” and it “adaquately characterizes emotion” in such a way that, in poems like “Man and Wife,” which I’ll look at momentarily, become interior representations of the lyric self through the use of domestic and intimate details of the poet’s life, something that is an escape from the prior confines of the lyric self in the poetry of Dickinson and Lowell’s other forebearers (Williams 11).  For, as Robert Hass says in “Lowell’s Graveyard,” “the power of [Lowell’s] images has always been subliminal; it exists as the nervous underside of the thing said” (11).  The thing being said, at least in Lowell’s mid-career work in Life Studies and For the Union Dead, is what makes his lyric self different.

The measures, then, that Lowell’s introspective lyric poetry takes to escape the prior confines of lyric self have their basis in the fact that his mid-career poems take for fodder his emotional and domestic life, though it must be said that Lowell’s personal-confession poems were not egotistical ramblings of a self-obsessed man.  In fact, in some of the poems from Life Studies, like “Skunk Hour” and “During Fever,” the poet is reflecting as much on his own life as he is on what was occurring in society at the time.  Whitman, who also concerned himself with societal issues through an intensely personal verse, didn’t, however, reach the level of truth-telling prevalent in Lowell.  The truth-telling in Lowell, is his truth, and not necessarily the views of a persona or a cosmic consciousness as it was in Whitman.  Lowell was one man telling of one man’s life.  He asserted that Life Studies was about “direct experience, and not symbols” and that it told his “personal story and memories” (Axelrod 96).  His lyric self, while still representational of the culture surrounding it, built its own narratives and images from the direct life experience of the poet, something that was an escape from the prior confines of the lyric self. 

Lowell’s personal-confessional poems, like “Man and Wife,” could be said to be, in a way, more sophomoric than his early-career work, because they’re dealing with subject matter that’s so intimate, that requires so little linking to history or literary tradition.  The personal-confessional poems are more sophomoric because of the their subject matter, yes, but they are also so in the loosening of their metrics.  In an early poem, like the aforementioned “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Lowell, writes in strict iambic pentameter, which is mimetic of his Biblical themes and Puritanical imagery.  Later, however, Lowell loosened his metrics, which became more mimetic of his new subject matter: intimate life, which, is never metrical, never as rhythmic as one might hope.  Writing about how Lowell “traded in those formal risks for the sculpted anecdote and the Puritan autobiography,” Robert Hass writes, “Lowell found a way to accommodate realistic detail and narrative structures . . . to his own resonant free verse of William Carlos Williams” (23).  Lowell, in an interview with Frederick Seidel, talks about how he started to break meter in the poems of Life Studies as much for his beginning to hear his poems differently after a long West Coast reading tour than for his recent writing of prose autobiography (242-243). A great example of Lowell’s move toward a loosened metrics and how it represents his escaping the prior confines of the lyric self is “Man and Wife” from Life Studies

The poem begins in a traditional iambic pentameter with end-rhyme, characteristic of Lowell’s early work: “Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed; / the rising sun in war paint dies us red;” (87).  The poem beings to give intimate details in the third and fourth lines, and though the fourth line appears a shorter line, it doesn’t yet give up pentameter: “in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine, / abandoned, almost Dionysian” (87).  But when the poem reaches its seventh and eighth lines, the metrics loosen—the pentameter picks up again in lines nine and ten—as the most intimate detail yet of the poem arises:

All night I’ve held your hand,
as if you had
a fourth time faced the kingdom of the mad—
its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye—
and dragged me home alive. (87)

The poem here characterizes the romantic early phase of marriage, before the “old-fashioned tirade” of the cold relationship depicted later in the poem, but it’s the way in which Lowell breaks his metrics to detail the intimacy of the relationship that marks a shift in his lyric self from previous generations.  The poem, from line fourteen until the end, stays more with its broken, free-verse metrics than with any determined pattern. 

Though the poem enacts a break from the prior confines of lyric self through its subject matter and loosening of metrics, the question of whether or not some of the previous generations artistry was lost in this break did occur to Lowell.  Lowell, to a certain degree, falsified his experiences even in his most “confessional” poems.  He called this “tinkering with the fact” (Axelrod 122), and it was done to create a dramatic effect.  What Lowell considered most important was that his reader “believe[d] he was getting the real Robert Lowell” (Axelrod 112).  As one might expect to find in a first-person narrated short-story based on the author’s life experiences, Lowell blends narrative truth with fiction to create portraits of his domestic life.  For example, “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” builds from details like the descriptions of his grandfather’s farm and garden to  his Great Aunt Sarah’s “thundering” on the “keyboard of her dummy piano,” as she learns Samson and Delilah, and Lowell is very specific about which details he’d like the reader to know (61).  He embellishes the truth so as to make the poem more convincing, all the while loosening his metrical control over the poem.  In much the same way, Lowell talks about “Commander Lowell,” when, in his interview with Frederick Seidel, he says, in regards to the poem being originally being constructed of mostly metrical couplets, “that regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of the sentiment, and become rhetorical; it said, ‘I’m a poem’” (243).  Later in that same interview, Lowell, in talking about how indeed breaking the metrical form and changing his subject matter to the more intimate, more domestic, didn’t, in fact, make the writing of the poems any easier, which one might think since the poems arise so fluidly out of one’s own life experiences, says,

Your actual experience is a complete flux.  I’ve invented facts and changed things, and the whole balance of the poem was something invented.  So there’s a lot of artistry, I hope, in the poems.  Yet there’s this thing: if a poem is autobiographical—and this is true of any kind of autobiographical writing and of historical writing—you want the reader to say, this is true. (246)

Out of Lowell’s truth-telling and lying comes his autonomy, but also from them comes his escape from the lyric self of previous generations.

In these ways—through reinventing his subject matter to include his intimate, personal life; through the breaking with the Dickinsonian method of dealing with “the topography of the psyche”; and through his breaking of metrics—Lowell escaped the confines of the lyric self and laid the groundwork for the personal poets that followed, though none, at least of his generation, had as much impact on the future generations, as Lowell.

Sylvia Plath—a contemporary of Lowell’s, yes, but also a furtherer of the contemporaneity of his lyric self—is perhaps the poet most mentioned when talking about the “confessionalism” movement, though her advancement of the poetics was more a side-step than a continuation of Lowell’s personal-confessional verse.  While her popular spot atop the “confessionals” may be deserved, simply labeling her work merely confessional doesn’t even begin to talk about the how and why her lyric self escapes its prior confines yet maintains the autonomy of contemporary American poetry. 

That Plath was constructing her lyric self from what she learned from the personal-confessional poems of Lowell is a good possibility, but it stands to reason that she was working under his shadow—of course, Plath was Lowell’s student at Boston University, but it’s more than that—in more than one way.  Whereas Lowell worked against the traditions of Dickinson and Whitman—and surely, in his mid-career work, the modernists—Plath was similarly working against the very young tradition of Lowell as well. 

Plath’s Ariel, which was first published in 1965, is intensely personal in a different way than Lowell’s Life Studies.  Plath tends more toward the dark: her lyric self is ensconced in depression, and through its lens she deals with everything from sexuality to marriage to motherhood.  Lowell, while certainly full of madness of his own making, doesn’t create a mythic persona the way Plath does to deal with the intimate details of his life.  Plath, in poems like “Daddy,” though the poem certainly contains a sense of history and cultural phenomenon in its references to the Holocaust, treats embarrassing family secrets in rhythmical lines that mimic a nursery rhyme, and it differentiates itself from most of Lowell’s personal-confessional poetry in that rather than dealing directly with the self—the “I” of Lowell’s poems—Plath’s lyric self is partially constructed through the dramatic action of the poem where the interiority of the poet/speaker takes on mythic characteristics.  Lowell maintained a sense of societal concerns and cultural markers that kept even his most “confessional” poems from being so simply defined—not to say that Plath’s poems are simple.  Just the opposite.  Even Lowell, in his Foreword to Ariel, writes, “Everything in these poems is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination, the autobiography of a fever.  She burns to be on the move, a walk, a ride, a journey, the flight of the queen bee. She is driven forward by the pounding pistons of her heart” (xiii).  The complexity of Plath’s “confessions” keeps them from being the flat-out tattlings of familial secrets that they could have been; plus, the pure artistry of their composition and Plath’s escape from the prior confines of Lowell’s lyric self keep her work autonomous.

My earlier definition of the lyric self still stands, and Plath’s work in Ariel does indeed “straddle the private and the communal,” but her lyric self is most easily defined and compared to earlier traditions by looking at how she delivers the “emotional-center” of her poems.  The reflection of Plath’s consciousness is not without feeling, and C.K. Williams’s notion that “without feeling, there is no resonance” certainly holds true here (2).  Plath’s poems resonate.  Plath, in this way, contrasts with Dickinson somewhat similarly to how Lowell does in that each of them are mapping their damaged psyches onto the outside world rather than projecting those topographies further into themselves.  Plath takes it one step further, however, in that she creates personas for her “confessional” poems.  For instance, in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” the poem’s speaker compares her mental anguish to the suffering of the Jews tortured at the hands of the Nazis during World War II:

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen. (6)

Though there’s been the argument that this comparison between an anguished woman and the Jews’ suffering during the Holocaust is a misappropriation (Beach 159), it certainly has a significant emotional impact while simultaneously rendering vividly the interiority of Plath’s persona. 

Plath goes on:

There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart—
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes. (8-9)

The persona here, like in Plath’s other poems, seems, according to Williamson in his Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, “much less concerned . . . with fact, or with the flotsam and jetsam of actual thought; rather, with the intangible inner atmospheres—the cotton-cloud enclosures and ‘acetylene’ levitations—of the self, and the private religion of larger-than-life restatements of its crucial predicaments which the self projects outward” (26).  Simply put, the emotional-center of “Lady Lazarus” comes from the “biographical strip-tease” of the persona’s, and therefore Plath’s lyric self’s, invitation to view the downward spiral of the its emotional topography (Beach 161).  Williamson adds to this when he writes that “the ritualistic quality of [Plath’s] unconscious and the manipulative quality of her persona” effect “the surface of her life” (40)—which though not directly in line with C.K. Williams notion that “without [conscious] feeling, there is no resonance,” certainly bears some semblance and further shows the escape from the prior confines of the lyric self in Plath’s “confessional” poems.  Plath’s persona, while not the same “I” as in Lowell’s poems, certainly bears as much, if not more, emotional heft.  From this place of emotional-center and lyric self, Plath’s Ariel maintains the autonomy of contemporary American poetry in that the consciousness of Plath’s personas reflects the movement and growth of the lyric self in the introspective lyric poem.

Following a couple of generations later, though not directly, in the lineage of Lowell and Plath is Charles Wright.  Wright’s early career followed more closely the trajectory of poets like W.S. Merwin and James Wright, the very surrealistic and deep-image poets Wright rallies against in “The New Poem.”  Wright’s early poems weren’t personal-confessional—though neither, specifically, are the later poems—and they weren’t always spoken with a first-person pronoun, but they did—and I’m thinking of poems like “Grace” and “Yellow”—impress with bolts of ironic, shadowy, energetic lapses into sensory perceptions and strings of images.  Robert Pinsky,in his The Situation of Poetry, discusses Wright’s style in Hard Freight by saying that the style is “so clotted with figures of speech . . . that everything else is in danger of vanishing into the brocade” (112).  Despite those dangers, Pinsky also writes that the poems are

rich in impressive figures of speech and resourceful rhythms, and they are unified by a peculiar, consistent tone: bitter, controlled yet bardic.  It is as though the constant, unrelaxing stream of dense poetic language is the only way to relieve the painful memories and bad forebodings which are Wright’s characteristic materials. (112)

That Wright is probing “painful memories” and “bad forebodings” puts him in the lineage of Lowell and Plath, but his methods and his style are quite different, are more Dickinsonian.  Wright interiorizes everything in his early work.  Not until his mid-career move to a more expansive line that allows him the inclusion of everyday details into the poem as, often, spoken by an “I” does Wright’s poetry become more personal-confessional and thus redefine and escape the prior confines of the lyric self.

Wright contradicts his mid-career move to a more expansive line and poem in his “The New Poem” when he writes, “It will not resemble the sea.”  Indeed, Wright’s “new” poems would resemble the sea, both in the mimesis of their low-rider lines as waves and tides in the sea and in their expansive subject-matter horizons. And in these new poems, gone is Wright’s epigrammatic, proverbial poetics of Hard Freight and China Trace as he moves into the mid-1980s.  The expansive, narratively spurred-on, landscape-driven poems of later books like The Southern Cross and The Other Side of the River transform the lyric self into something more grand than merely an observer of sensory images or cataloger of surreal happenings; Wright’s lyric self transforms until it’s more closely related to Lowell and Plath and their personal, confessional, and definitional uses of the lyric self while also “containing multitudes” like Whitman and his cosmic consciousness.  Wright’s mid-career lyric self is an escape from the prior confines of lyric self because it combines the Whitmanian sense of cosmic consciousness with the Dickinsonian, well, more Lowellian, sense of psychic topography and truth-telling.

That’s not to say that some of his earlier poems didn’t “contain multitudes,” didn’t adhere to the Lowellian attitudes of personal-confessional.  Take the poem “Snow,” for instance, from China Trace, as an example of a transitional poem, quoted here in its entirety:

If we, as we are, are dust, and dust, as it will, rises,
Then we will rise, and recongregate
In the wind, in the cloud, and be their issue,

Things in a fall in a world of fall, and slip
Through the spiked branches and snapped joints of the evergreens,
White ants, white ants and the little ribs. (112)

The poem is indeed epigrammatic, but it’s showing signs—“If we, as we are, are dust, and dust, as it will, rises”—of a Whitmanian cosmic consciousness in its scope of the natural world.  It doesn’t, however, transcend beyond the “we” into a more personal, singular lyric self; the lyric self here is still more outward, still more cosmically concerned.  Only later does Wright become more personal-confessional in his representation of the lyric self.

Wright’s mid-career lyric self changes, but his themes certainly do not; Wright is always and forever obsessed with landscape, memory, mortality, and salvation.  The lyric self in Wright, unlike that in Lowell, never varies its thematic concerns, though it does change its perception of consciousness and thus how it escapes the prior confines of its forebearers.  Wright’s lyric self undergoes a significant change in his 1981 volume, The Southern Cross.  Helen Vendler, in her essay on Wright’s poetry, “The Transcendent ‘I’,” says the following about Wright’s lyric self and the effects of its consciousness, “Wright’s verse is the poetry of the transcendent ‘I’ in revolt against the too easily articulate ‘I’ of social engagement and social roles.  Whether one ‘I’ can address his word to other, hidden ‘I’s’ across the abyss of daily life without using the personal, transient, and social language of that life is the question Wright poses” (124). 

In the title of poem of The Southern Cross, Wright, as he explains in Quarter Notes, sought to write an autobiographical narrative that, rather than contain a continuous narrative, would be piecemealed together in snippets of narrative: “Anyone’s autobiography . . . is made up of a string of luminous moments, numinous moments.  It’s a necklace we spend our lives assembling.  That’s what ‘The Southern Cross’ is about, saying some of those beads” (107).  And so “The Southern Cross,” as only one example of this type of movement in Wright’s mid-career poetry—others would include “The Other Side of the River,” “Night Journal,” and “Lonesome Pine Special”—is the “I” speaking across the abyss of daily life fragmentarily, slowly building its collaged narrative moments until the “incidents feel drawn from a larger, anonymous whole.  His autobiography becomes half his own, half everybody else’s” (Giannelli xvii).  Wright’s mid-career lyric self is an amalgamation of the Lowellian sense of truth-telling—in “The Southern Cross,” Wright details his time in Venice, in Rome at Keats’s and Shelley’s graves, and in Kingport—and the Whitmanian cosmic consciousness that appears in Wright’s “anonymous whole” created through the filaments of narrative he builds in his longer poems.  The fact that Wright straddles the line between the so-called “confessionalists” and Whitman’s ideals shows just how incredibly fierce the autonomy of contemporary American poetry can be.

While Charles Wright’s introspective lyric poetry escapes the prior confines of lyric self by fracturing the personal into the private and communal selves based on the Whitmanian cosmic consciousness as much as the Lowellian sense of truth-telling, Jorie Graham’s lyric self takes all of that one-step further by introducing an extra-dimensional voice to her lyric poetry.  Graham’s first-person, her “I,” overlays the ekphrastic self and echoes the self as a microcosm for all humanity, all Art.  There’s a fluidity to Graham’s lyric self that isn’t present in Lowell, Plath, or Wright; her “I” is simultaneously personal, communal, and historical so that even three-dimensionality isn’t enough to encapsulate her work. Another dimension, one in which the personal lyric self and the communal lyric self helix together to create a third strain of self, the historical, is present to aid in the poetic consciousness of Graham’s complex introspective lyrics.  Graham is conscious of how history and Art inform the lyric self in much the same way as the high modernists and early Lowell are, but it’s her ability, in ekphrastic poems like “San Sepolcro” from Erosion (1983) and “Fission” from Region of Unlikeness (1991), to name only two of many, to, as Helen Vendler suggests, “leap to a practice of connecting together moments widely separated in time and space and occurring on disparate mental levels (usually the autobiographical, the historical, and the mythical)” that makes her work unique (227).

These three planes, or registers, if you will, wherein mythical represents the communal, are the key to Graham’s lyric self.  Vendler continues to suggest that it’s through juxtaposition that Graham makes this style work, and indeed, it’s through the fluidity of the antithetic selves coming together that Graham’s lyric self escapes the prior confines of introspective lyric poetry.  Graham’s lyric self is sometimes immediately inaccessible, but her poems are built differently than any other previous personal poet’s.  Vendler describes Graham’s mode of building a poem and her “mode of comprehension” as deriving “from the connection of separate stories in the writer’s mind—a connection that is at first unintelligible.  As she comes to understand why she has intuitively connected them, she can compose a poem juxtaposing and interlacing them,” and in much the same way, the reader can parse Graham’s lyric self as it balances the ekphrastic with the personal and communal selves (227).

Graham’s poems, especially “San Sepolcro” and “Fission,” enact, physically and lyrically, the act of painting.  “Blank spaces are placed within the poems to signify the gap between pen and paper and the openness of what might occur there.  Part of the poem remains uncreated or left up to the reader’s imaginative interaction with the poem” (Shifrer 142).  The “uncreated” in Graham’s poems is the “paradoxical and multivoiced layerings” that further push the lyric self past its prior confines, but it’s in the poem’s imaginings that the lyric self finds its consciousness.  Take, for example, the middle of “San Sepolcro”:

It is this girl
            by Piero
della Francesca, unbuttoning
            her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
            to go into

labor. Come, we can go in.
            It is before
the birth of god. No-one
            has risen yet. . . . (2).

The invitation to join in the personal, the communal, the historic, the ekphrastic, opens Graham’s lyric self into dimensions heretofore unseen in introspective lyric poetry.  The imaginative leap from della Francesca’s canvas to the personal invitation to “go in” to the labor room enact the act of painting—the making of layers, the shading, the coloring, the framing—as much as it becomes a microcosm for the three-dimensionality of Graham’s lyric self: the poem, the self, history, Art, are all blank and simultaneously overflowing, because, after all, “No-one / has risen yet.”

Graham’s move to film as an ekphrastic springing-off point for “Fission” (1991) is mimetic of how her poetics had changed since the earlier “San Sepolcro” (1983).  Her poetics had become less pictorial and more cinematic, even less “I”-focused and more “present tense,” more imbued with “personal and public history,” yet her lyric self maintained an intensely personal relation to her subject matter (Shifrer 149).  The multi-dimenstionality of Graham’s lyric self is in full swing in “Fission” as she applies juxtaposing narratives and image-pools to both her ekphrastic springing-off point and herself, especially in this scene in which she’s simultaneously applying personal and communal applications—by reacting to a man screaming “The President’s been shot!” as she’s watching Kubrick’s Lolita in the theater—of her lyric self:

            I don’t recall what I did,
I don’t recall what the right thing to do would be,
            I wanted someone to love. . . .

            There is a way she lay down on that lawn
to begin with,
            in the heart of the sprinklers,
before the mother’s call,
            before the man’s shadow laid itself down,

there is a way to not yet be wanted. . . .” (101).

In “San Sepolcro” and “Fission” Graham’s lyric self is taking on many registers while simultaneously reacting back against the prior confines of introspective lyric poetry.  While not nearly a personal-confessional poet, Graham’s poetry, especially the ekphrastic poems, contain multitudes and inherent personal details, but it’s in how she weaves them all together that we find how she maintains an autonomous relationship with contemporary American poetry and the continued shift in perception of lyric self.

The lyric self of Jorie Graham is multi-dimensional, complex, and often times noisily conflicted with itself, and while Larry Levis, in his 1985 volume, The Dollmaker’s Ghost, writes ekphrastically of Kees, Lorca, and Hopper, among others, his lyric self is not constructed as conflictedly, nor with so much wielding of a multi-dimensional purpose, as Graham’s.  Whereas Graham can be seen as a poetess obsessed with categorizing and lyrically expanding consciousness through Art, history, and both the personal and communal sense of self, Levis seems at home slowing things down, taking his time exploring a story, creating background and exposition to motivate his speakers. Levis’s lyric self is multi-layered, yes, but it’s also more akin to thinly veiled autobiography than Graham’s ever is while simultaneously exercising the consciousness of voice that makes his work “resonate,” to borrow C.K. Williams’s ideas of emotionality and consciousness once again.

David Young, in his essay “Reading Larry Levis,” found in the brilliant anthology on Levis, A Condition of the Spirit, writes about Levis’s move from his first book, Wrecking Crew, in which he echoed and conversed with the minimalist surrealists Mark Strand and Charles Simic as well as the Eastern Europeans Miroslav Holub and Zbigniew Herbert, to his subsequent books, The Afterlife and The Dollmaker’s Ghost, in which that

reflexive play now involves not only the poem but also the self behind it, questioning, fragmenting, doubling and dissolving.  The poet both doubts the self’s efficacy and continuity and seems to be questing for its potential stability, its sources in memory and its bleak but steady future. (600)

The poem “Rhododendrons,” from The Afterlife, stands as a great example of how this movement in Levis’s poetry marks his escape, in his introspective lyric poetry, from the prior confines of the lyric self into his own level of consciousness, his own perception of lyric self.  The poem begins,

Winter has moved off
somewhere, writing its journals
in ice.

But I am still afraid to move,
afraid to speak,
as if I lived in a house
wallpapered with the cries of birds
I cannot identity. (23)

No longer is Levis satisfied with simply talking back to his influences; rather, he’s charging ahead to create his own lyric self, one reminiscent, even, of Lowell’s mid-career personal-confessional verse.  In “Rhododendrons,” the speaker shows great fear of the coming spring, for what it brings: newness, growth, change.  These worries, if they shadow the poet’s own concerns, show a deep autobiographical movement in Levis’s work and put his lyric self more in line with mid-career Charles Wright than with the confessional lyrics of someone like Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton.  He continues the trend in poems like “Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard” and “The Cry.”

The poem in much the same way it starts.  The poet/speaker worries over himself, wishes things were different than they are:

I want to be circular;
a pond or a column of smoke
revolving, slowly, its ashes.

I want to turn back and go up
to myself at age 20,
and press five dollars into his hand
so he can sleep. (24)

Though this is only one example of Levis’s autobiographical turn, in it the reader can sense a narrative complexity, a timelessness, a fear of youth and both its transgressions and pitfalls, all of which are thematic concerns Levis carries through the rest of his career.  In a way, Levis’ lyric self is the lyric self of the poetic “everyman.”  He internalizes and escapes the lyric self of Plath’s and Lowell’s personal-confessionalism and takes on the longer line, at least in his much later work, of Charles Wright, while simultaneously maintaining his own brand of Frostian “aww shucks” diction, tone, and style.  In these ways, Levis’s lyric self transcends his forebearers’ and solidifies the autonomy of his work.


The introspective lyric poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Charles Wright, Jorie Graham, and Larry Levis escapes the prior confines of the lyric self, whether those confines were set by their direct predecessors/contemporaries or the founders of American poetry, Whitman and Dickinson.  In doing so, they maintained the fierce autonomy of contemporary American poetry.  Certainly all of the poets discussed here advanced the perception of lyric self beyond what had come before them, but it was in the how and why they changed those perceptions that matters most.  Whether it was Lowell taking on subject matter that had never been included in verse before—even when it included, as Robert Pinksy calls it, the “unpoetic”—or Plath turning to a darker mode of personal-confessional writing or Wright encompassing both the Whitmanian cosmic consciousness and the Dickinsonian psychic topography in his introspective lyrics or Graham melding the ekphrastic with juxtaposed bits of narrative and image or, finally, Levis investing his lyric self in the narrative complexities of the “everyman,” each of these poets reacted against and redefined the lyric self from generations prior.

Lowell reacted against the Modernists and their self-inflated sense that they must maintain “a certain artistic distance between the poets and their subjects, the poets and their poems” (Poulin, Jr. 579), and  it was his ethical and lyrical considerations of the intimate details of everyday life that more accurately informed his lyric self.  The tradition he founded carried on through the mid-twentieth century and informed all of the poets talked about here in one way or another.  Contemporary poetry, much like it’s predecessors, still aims to diagnose and explore the consciousness of its practitioners and their cultures, but no longer were they, in the words of T.S. Eliot, trying to escape from personality, rather they were trying to infiltrate it, cultivate it, and write from the new, personal “I,” the newly formed lyric self.

Whether we look at the lyric self as a “particular kind of voice” (Pinsky 3) or the “constant flow of image and narrative . . . generated by consciousness in a nondetermined way,” (Williams 4), it changed in the contemporary poetries of Lowell, Plath, Wright, Graham, and Levis in such a way that the new poetry dealt with personal, immediate, and intimate emotional and physical experiences that the poets filtered through mannerisms, formal choices, and tropes to create their lyric selves.  The lyric self exists in each of these poets not just in the what they’re writing about but also in the how and why of the writing itself.  The lyric self exists under the assumption, at least in contemporary American poetry, that the poet and the speaker are, to some degree, one and the same, and from this stance, no longer restrained by multiple social and cultural concerns—which continue to exist anyway due to the fact that poets are always writing from the experience of their own culture—the poets escape from the prior confines of lyric self and celebrate in the fierce autonomy of contemporary American poetry.


Works Cited

Beach, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Buckley, Christopher, and Alexander Long, eds. A Condition of the Spirit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington UP, 2004. Print.

Giannelli, Adam, ed. High Lonesome: On the Poetry of Charles Wright. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 2006. Print.

Giroux, Robert, ed. Robert Lowell: Collected Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987. Print.

Graham, Jorie. The Dream of the Unified Field. New York: Ecco, 2002. Print.

---. Erosion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983. Print.

Hass, Robert. Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. New York: Ecco, 1984. Print.

Levis, Larry. The Selected Levis. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003. Print.

Lowell, Robert. Life Studies and For the Union Dead. New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964. Print.

Pinsky, Robert. The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and its Traditions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1976. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. Print.

Poulin, Jr., A., ed. Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Print.

Shifrer, Anne. “Iconoclasm in the Poetry of Jorie Graham.” Colby Quarterly 31.2 (1995): 142-153. Print.

Vendler, Helen. Soul Says: On Recent Poetry. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1995, Print.

Williams, C.K. Poetry and Consciousness. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1998. Print.

Williamson, Alan. Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. Print.

Wright, Charles. Country Music: Selected Early Poems. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1991. Print.
---. Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

---. The World of the Ten Thousand Things. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.  


Gary L. McDowell is the author of American Amen (Dream Horse Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Orphic Prize for Poetry, and co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His poems and essays have appeared in various literary journals, including Colorado Review, The Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, and Quarterly West. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with where he is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Belmont University.