On lyric poetry:

Thinking in love with coherence

I have been spending my day reading Jan Zwicky. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Zwicky made by Jay Ruzesky in 2008.

from “The Details: An Interview with Jan Zwicky”:

… lyric poetry, interests me a lot. And if it’s OK to shift the focus a little, I can try to say something about lyric thought and expression (whatever the medium).

  • Since I am myself working cross genres, i.e. writing literary essays on visual art, I find Zwicky’s crossing of genres very attractive & attractive, and also very much in line with my own experience.

The word ‘lyric’ in English comes from the Greek word for lyre and so its lineage involves music. Music clearly means, but it doesn’t mean the same way as language does. Music’s meaning is a function of resonance and resonance involves a kind of integrity. Think of a chord, say. The chord is what it is because of the multiply resonant relations that the individual tones have to one another. If you remove one of the tones, or alter it just slightly — like turning an E natural into an E flat — you fundamentally change the nature of the whole. A perfectly tuned chord, we might say, is coherent. And that, I think, is the basis of what we mean by lyric thought: it’s thinking in love with coherence. It seeks understanding by finding coherence, and it strives for coherence — resonant integrity — in expression.

  • To get a better sense of the world, to grasp a larger meaning – to understand more, we need metaphors, symbols and parallels, we need a poetic kind of philosophy, we need writers like Zwicky, who can say things like:  lyric thought is thinking in love with coherence. 

So is lyric poetry a kind of poetry that’s literally musical — sort of sing-song? Not exactly. Because there are many things we describe as lyric that don’t have any aural component at all. Think about Vermeer. When you hear people saying “Vermeer’s paintings are lyric …” (which they often do) what could they mean?

Vermeer_-Art of painting

Johannes Vermeer:  De Schilderkonst (The Art of Painting) c. 1664. Oil on canvas

I’m compressing the argument here, but this is my guess: we say Vermeer’s paintings (or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) are lyric because every detail counts. Every thing in them is resonant, like tones in a chord. There is no real distinction between details and centres in such compositions; they are, we might say, radically coherent. So lyric poetry is an attempt to express lyric thought or awareness in language, and it tries to use language in a way in which every detail is resonant.

– Jan Zwicky interviewed by Jay Ruzesky, Winter 2008

  • It is a tremendous quest – probably impossible; to use language in a way in which every detail is resonant… , but definitively something worth striving for.

Vermeer’s: The Art of Painting is also known as The Allegory of Painting, and Painter in his Studio. Many art historians believe that it is an allegory of painting, hence the alternative title of the painting. It is the largest and most complex of all of Vermeer’s works. The painting is famous for being one of Vermeer’s favourites, and is a fine example of the optical style of painting, offering a realistic visual depiction of the scene and especially the effects of light streaming through the windows on various elements of the painting. The painting has only two figures, the painter and his subject. The painter is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist, though the face is not visible. 


2 thoughts on “On lyric poetry:

  1. Add in Terrence Malick’s cinematic works, visual poetry… esp. The Tree of Life. Thanks for intro. me to Jan Zwicky, ironically, who was born in my city, sharing the same alma mater.

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