Lyric Powers

January 1, 2009

Robert von Hallberg believes that lyric poetry offers a compelling alternative to modern discourses which, be they academic, journalistic, commercial or political, rely on rational processes predicated on doubt. "Compelling" can mean both exhilarating or enjoyable and demanding of attention or respect. In Lyric Powers von Hallberg gives his account of how poetry lays claim to both sets of qualities.

To the doubting secular discourses of the culture, von Hallberg opposes two modes of lyric poetry: the orphic and the rhetorical, which he also calls the civil. He explains this division through three pairs of key terms: authority and praise (features of orphic poetry), civility and thought (civil poetry) and music and universality (available to both modes, and fully realised only in the greatest poems). Chapters elaborating each of these poetic resources combine to explain the power of the lyric as both a felt private experience and an essential public activity.

Von Hallberg constructs his argument around a series of perceptive close readings combined with critical and philosophical apophthegms, drawn from a broad range of thinkers. He recourses frequently to the modernist poetics of Yeats, Pound, Valery and Eliot (though clearly it is Pound who is the guiding light in these essays), as well as to the aesthetics and social theories of Heidegger and Adorno. Among the many good close readings in this book, there are long and valuable pauses on Paul Celan and Czeslaw Milosz.

Readers in this country will notice the absence of many a prominent contributor to The Times Literary Supplement's review pages, and in several other ways this book will present a British audience with an unfamiliar - though, perhaps at times, welcome - frame of reference.

One might discover Ronald Johnson or Thylias Moss, for instance - poets to whom von Hallberg pays the compliment of lengthy critical treatment. There is also much to be learned about the influence of our writers on American poetics - Hopkins, Larkin and Basil Bunting get some study, although Geoffrey Hill is quoted only for his analysis of Pound.

In other ways, however, the American perspective can seem not liberating, but limiting: there are a few telling glides between "English-language" and "American" poetry, and to assert that "modernist poets felt unconstrained by any sort of historical continuity, and later poets obviously retain that example", is incautiously one-sided.

The success of Lyric Powers lies in von Hallberg's ability to marry an eclectic assortment of theoretical and philosophical statements about poetry to a set of idiosyncratic, attentive close readings, in exploration of this vast and fugitive topic.

His brisk prose style is clear and relaxed. It is, on the whole, a great advantage to both reader and author. As the dust jacket advertises, this book is a pleasure to read. That blurb is also correct - as well as just - in its praise for von Hallberg's independence from partisan theoretical schools. In fact, this may be the most pleasant surprise to the British reader who harbours preconceptions about American literary academia.

However, there is a cost to such free-thinking alacrity. Sometimes one wishes for rigour over vigour. It is hard to reconcile the summative: "My argument is that lyric poetry is by definition musical" with the tentative "Poetry and music collaborate deeply and darkly". The second way of getting at it seems much more promising - and anyway much truer - than the first, but the point is really that one cuts against the grain of the other. Some firmer philosophical structure, or else a more nuanced exposition, might have avoided such pitfalls, rare as they are in this compelling work on modern and contemporary poetry and poetics.

Lyric Powers

By Robert von Hallberg. University of Chicago Press. 280pp, £17.00. ISBN 9780226865003. Published 17 October 2008

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