Many lyric poets register absence and loss in their work, to the extent that the sense of the ineffable conveyed by lyric poems may frequently result from an attempt to conjure an image of what is irrevocably gone. Bruce Fink contends, ‘Absence cannot even be understood as some thing until it is named’ (2004: 139) and, for lyric poets, that act of naming is usually the poem itself—which, in trying and failing to close the gap between reality and language, suggests the inherent poignancy of so much lyric utterance. Many poems that appear to be about presence are really reconstituting a sense of absence, formulating the lost in an unparaphrasable linguistic construction. The meanings of such poems are never fully available or explicable, caught as they are between a new image of what is gone and the unlocatable nature of what that image stands in for.
1. Poetry and absence
Many poets live with a sense of absence at the heart of their poetic practice. Such a sense of absence is not simply a matter for psychoanalysis—for suggesting that poets have been riven by loss when they are young and are trying to write themselves out of the crisis. Rather, numerous poets—and many other creative artists—understand, or intuit, the silence and absence hovering close to the voluble noise and various preoccupations of humanity. Such artists tend to possess an acute awareness of the way in which loss of one kind or another inflects all experience from the very beginnings of self-consciousness and awareness—and, as Richard Stamelman remarks, they often attempt to reinstate what is lost:
Through various strategies of mediation, such as painting, music, writing, and memory, which attempt to restore the lost object in the present moment of a representation, we work to change an irreversible absence and shape it into a tangible present. We substitute the here-and-now reality of an image, a figure of speech, or a work of art for the absent object of desire. (1990: 5)
Further, the urge to express poetry not only recognises the absence that inhabits our daily lives, trying to give it shape, but it also often involves an urge to access what is beyond language. In other words, a poet’s sense of absence is often connected to their sense of the ineffable, the enigmatic and the puzzling; to what is unsayable and never fully knowable.
The poet’s sense of the unknowable may partly consist in the recognition that spiritual insight or experience often occurs, at least to some extent, outside of the structures of language. It also recognises that a great deal of experience, more generally, resists and will not be encompassed by utterance. The German Romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke goes so far as to claim that ‘Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded’ (2000: 9–10), and a great deal of poetry implicitly acknowledges this paradox—that art may be most expressive when representing something that language is unable to fully articulate.
This insight partly explains the unparaphrasability of so much poetry. John Ciardi states, ‘no matter how serious the overt message of a poem, the unparaphrasable and undiminishable life of the poem lies in the way it performs itself through the difficulties it imposes upon itself. The way it means is what it means’ (1975: 6; emphasis in original). In other words, poems often tend to be about their own struggles with meaning (and with language itself), and they produce a particular set of meanings not by saying what is generally known and understood, but through grappling with issues and emotions so elusive that only a single, complex combination of words will express them. A poem’s meanings irreducibly reside in its particular linguistic and metaphorical structures and ambiguities.
As a result, the meanings of many poems are not fully available, or explicable (every act of explication is, after all, a kind of paraphrase) and poems may, indeed, not be about any one identifiable thing. Instead, many poems excavate absence in a recuperative process as they attempt to reinstate aspects of what is otherwise unavailable. This occurs through a process that constitutes a form of displacement or substitution because, through this procedure, poems express a sense of the missing by replacing it with an image or images. Or, to put this differently, poets constitute absence in language by replacing its nothing-is-thereness with a poetic reality. Bruce Fink succinctly summarises this act of recuperation:
Absence cannot even be understood as some thing until it is named … language has the power to alleviate the oppressive weight of absence by the very process of naming and signifying it. In naming absence, language both brings it into being as something that can be talked about, something that exists in our universe of discourse, and drains away its onerous charge. (2004: 139; emphases in original)
While a sense of absence may be onerous in the way Fink suggests because it is ultimately unresolvable and irredeemable, a poetic act of recuperation or reconstitution has the capacity to turn what is negative into something constructive, even if only temporarily. Although we cannot actually reconstitute what is irretrievable, we are able to invoke it through reconfiguring it—literally rewriting it—and, in doing so, mitigate and transform our discomfort, even creating a yield of (perhaps compensatory) pleasure from doing so. The Romantic German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke states:
Losing too is still ours; and even forgetting
still has a shape in the kingdom of transformation.
When something’s let go of, it circles; and though we are rarely the center
of the circle, it draws around us its unbroken, marvelous curve. ( )
These lines are powerful because they formulate how poetry’s presence is often a conjuring of language and imagery out of absence and, crucially, depends on an awareness of absence’s encircling potency.
In Rilke’s case, Robert Hass observes, ‘The project of his poetry … was to find, in art, a way to transform the emptiness, the radical deficiency, of human longing into something else’ (1987: xvi). Further, Steven H Cooper comments that Rilke is:
fascinated by the enormous intimacy of shared or mutual loss. In fact, for Rilke, love itself is partly defined by the capacity to understand the solitude of an other and in an other. (2000: 49)
It is not that poets cannot write about what is present, but they are rarely, if ever, able do so without a slippage occurring.
William Wordsworth spoke of poetry as expressing ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (2013: 111) and—to give an example—his famous poem about daffodils casts them in recollection’s light:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude (1994: 187)
In these lines the daffodils have vanished and the reconstituting ‘inward eye’ becomes the poet’s focus. Rilke’s and Wordsworth’s poetic lines remind the reader that the poetic may partly reside in registering the gap that exists between the thing or experience itself and its subsequent expression.
This gap is inhabited by absence—an issue addressed by Simon Critchley when, in considering the work of Wallace Stevens, he states that poetry is ‘the experience of failure’ because reality ‘retreats before the imagination that shapes and orders it’ (2005: 6). Critchley suggests that ‘Stevens can neither reduce reality to the imagination nor extend the imagination into reality’ (2005: 87). The gap between poetry and reality means that all lyric poems signal an awareness of loss, to the extent that a profound poignancy may be understood to inhere in such works. While Critchley posits an alternative to poetic ‘failure’ as letting ‘things be in their separateness from us … letting the orange orange, the oyster oyster, the palm palm, and so on’ (2005: 86), such a strategy would largely silence many poets.
Much of the poignancy of lyric utterance stems from the way in which lyric poems may tantalise the most elusive and important truths while also being accompanied by a qualifying or compromising sense of insufficiency. Poets, if they are alert to their situation, understand this sense of insufficiency or failure but will not usually, as a result, simply let the world be—not because they wish to be aggravating (or to fail), but because they wish to evoke a true sense of what it is to have grappled with ‘reality’. They may never grasp an objective reality, but they may express their particular and personal sense of what it is like to be, to know themselves and to write.
This issue contributes to lyric poetry’s sense of catching-at-the-elusive because many poems implicitly acknowledge that they are, after all, made out of words rather than the plainer stuff of (a retreating) quotidian existence. (This sense also belongs to a great deal of song and prayer; an acknowledgement that reality is never fully and presently available and that words are dancing defiantly amid a pervasive obliquity and forgetfulness.) Lyric utterance fails to catch the reality of the time-governed experiences that produce the raw material for poems but is, instead, transformed into what Jonathan Culler calls ‘the continuing present of apostrophic address’ (2015: 226):
If one puts into a poem ‘thou shepherd boy,’ ‘ye birds,’ ye blessed creatures,’ etc. they are immediately associated with what might be called the timeless present but is better seen as a temporality of lyric articulation or enunciation. Even if the birds were only glimpsed once in the past, to apostrophize them as ‘ye birds’ is to locate them in the time of the apostrophe, a special temporality which is the set of all moments at which writing can say ‘now.’ (2015: 225–26)
In this way lyric utterance is able to conjure what is past or passing and hold it within a poem’s immediacy of expression. The timeless presence of the lyric is a conjuring of what has been imperfectly taken—perhaps one can say ‘dragged back’—from experience’s flow and, though it is now an absence, placed within the poem’s magic circle, its ‘unbroken, marvelous curve’.
2. The elegiac
The elegiac mode in lyric poetry provides one of the clearest examples of poetry’s attempt to grapple with loss and absence. In this case, the poet’s experience of the ineffable is connected to someone’s death, and the conjuring of absence is usually explicit. Here are two parts of a prose poetry sequence, ‘Elegy’, which I wrote in response to the present and pressing onerousness of my father’s death:
Facing my father in the hospital, it wasn’t that there were no right words—words arrived, however hard they were to say. And neither was it unbearable, or even unexpected. But time stretched into truncation; sentences dropped as if into a subterranean sea; the window’s light glinted like paucity. When I touched my father’s body the gesture shrank. The man who’d made me was wrapped in tentacled absence. Part of my own being wouldn’t return, as I failed to find his creaturely grasp. Frail now, almost a claw, I let it go.
A small wind carries my father’s ash. Abstractions of skin and breath; a trestle of air for meditation. After two hours I’m nearly dissolved; standing in light while my father is nowhere. Yet a shadow of wind might be an intimation; parcels of words are blown back. A sense of stubborn eloquence; an insistence on speaking. Digging into wind, claiming an articulate place among unwieldy indignities. It nudges my utterance. (Hetherington 2018: 123–24)
These works attempt to conjure presence and loss simultaneously, combining a recollection of my father in hospital not long before he died with the retrospective experience of his absence. They attempt to recuperate his presence while simultaneously acknowledging that such recuperation is impossible.
Therefore, these prose poems are trapped in a double bind—aware of their own insufficiency and failure, confronting the ineffable, yet stubbornly trying to summon and, as it were, reconstitute the lost. The works’ meanings circle around the way they grapple with their language and question their own capacity. There may, at least notionally, be ‘right words’ but they are inadequate, becoming ‘sentences dropped as if into a subterranean sea’. And the hopelessly compromised nature of the shared bond between father and son is expressed in the failure to find a ‘creaturely grasp’.
With their ‘insistence on speaking’, these works’ lyric utterance becomes a form of present lament for the impossibility—despite the attempt—of ‘chang[ing] an irreversible absence and shap[ing] it into a tangible present’ (Stamelman 1990: 5). The prose poems’ language may constitute a recuperative gesture but it simultaneously speaks of the unlocatable nature of what it conjures. In this case, language’s ‘here-and-now reality of an image’ (Stamelman 1990: 5) is poetically sufficient only because its insufficiency is simultaneously invoked and understood.
As language conjures an idea of recuperation it acknowledges that it may, at best, only claim ‘an articulate place among unwieldy indignities’. These prose poems demonstrate that poetry is, after all, often a way of being in deficit and clearly announcing this—speaking of what is unsayable, conjuring what retreats, and asserting the value of its own inadequacy.
Ciardi, John and Miller Williams 1975 How Does a Poem Mean? (2nd ed), Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Cooper, Steven H 2000 Objects of Hope: Exploring Possibility and Limit in Psychoanalysis, Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press
Critchley, Simon 2005 things merely are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens, London: Routledge
Culler, Jonathan 2015 Theory of the Lyric, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press
Fink, Bruce 2004 Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press
Hass, Robert 1987 ‘Looking for Rilke’, in Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (trans Stephen Mitchell), London: Picador, xi-xliv
Hetherington, Paul 2018 Moonlight on Oleander: Prose Poems, Crawley, WA: UWAP
Rilke, Rainer Maria 1995 ‘For Hans Carossa’, in Stephen Mitchell (ed. and trans), Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, New York: Modern Library, 164–65
Rilke, Rainer Maria 2000 Letters to a Young Poet (trans Joan M Burnham), Novato, CA: New World Library
Stamelman, Richard 1990 Lost Beyond Telling: Representations of Death and Absence in Modern French Poetry, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press
Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge 2013 Lyrical Ballads: 1798 and 1802, ed Fiona Stafford, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wordsworth, William 1994 The Collected Poems of William Wordsworth, Ware, Herts: Wordsworth Editions