The Call of Lyric Poems

Lyric poems call us to attend to the world differently, to see differently. Their condensed, compelling use of language can offer something essential about being in the world that can shift our vision. While that shift may be complex and even painful in the best of times, it’s a more-than-sufficient reason to teach poetry in our classrooms.

Poems are scattered throughout the scholarship on vocation—or at least excerpts from poems—so much so that I’m not worried about the death of poetry any time soon. But why teach poetry as we discuss vocation with students? A host of recent articles have suggested what poetry can offer the general reader, especially in a global pandemic: solace (“The Importance of Poetry in Challenging Times and How to Teach Students About It”), rejuvenation for a dwindling attention span (“Books Briefing: If Your Attention Span is Shrinking, Read Poetry”), a boost to creativity (“How Poetry Shakes Up the National Desk’s Morning Meetings”). But even if we don’t disagree with these suggestions, most of them are not sufficient reasons for teaching poetry to undergraduates even if they suggest pragmatic ends for reading it.

We might start to answer the “why” by listening to what students tell us about their experience with poetry prior to college. Many students have been taught a Romantic expressivist theory—that poetry is the passionate expression of the poet’s personal emotions—and thus think of the lyric as the poetic norm, whether they recognize it or not. The simplest marker of a lyric would be the “I” who expresses feelings or perceptions about human existence—William Wordsworth’s speaker, reclining and lamenting “what man has made of man” while feeling pleasantly sad in a birdsong-filled grove, for example (“Lines written in Early Spring”). Students don’t often consider that the “I” is a construct, that the emotions expressed are not unfiltered outpourings onto the page, or that poets revise and revise and revise to achieve, among other things, rhythm and sound patterning. So how might teaching students to consider the lyric differently contribute to our discussions with them about vocation?

My first answer is that recognition of poetic form, especially its constructed speaker, can model how meaning is made in all forms of discourse, including our discourse around vocation. Form is essential to our human understanding and to our creative lives; form is generative as well as constraining. In all of our cultural discourses, we recognize, apply, and adapt genres as schemas for making meaning—as the means to mean, so to speak. We can help students gain agency by showing them how a structure or schema for expression opens potential. Not only does it invite expression by offering a kind of pattern or template, but it also invites variation and experimentation. We expect creative forms like that of the lyric poem to offer a new perspective, a striking use of language that surprises and calls us to see the world and ourselves differently. Expression does not exist without form, even in our everyday speech to one another, so considering the lyric as one category of discourse can help students see form as not limitation but as freedom—a freedom to find one’s way, to bring beauty and pleasure to the world, to see anew.

That new way of seeing suggests my second answer: that the lyric “I” is not the hermetic, self-sufficient voice that so much scholarship has made it out to be, but is rather a self-in-relationship, which can suggest methods for navigating the I/We tension within our multiple callings. Lyric self-expression always has an implied audience, always an interlocutor, even if its audience seems to be only the past or future self. In Theory of the Lyric, Jonathan Culler calls this “triangulated address,” in which the speaker addresses the reader by addressing something or someone else, and he claims that it is the “root-form of presentation for lyric.” In conversations about vocation with students, then, the lyric can model a way of being in the world that is never autonomous, never denying community.  

Culler uses Louise Glück’s “The Gold Lily” as an example of a lyric that animates otherness, thus fulfilling “a long-standing lyric task of making a planet into a world.” Gluck’s poem is from the perspective of a flower addressing a gardener:

As I perceive

I am dying now and know

I will not speak again, will not

Survive the earth, be summoned

Out of it again, not

A flower yet, a spine only, raw dirt

Catching my ribs, I call you,

Father and master: all around,

My companions are failing, thinking

You do not see. How

Can they know you see

Unless you save us?

In the summer twilight, are you

Close enough to hear

Your child’s terror? Or

Are you not my father,

You who raised me?

What a profound poem to use to discuss death, creation, responsibility, care, and—yes—calling (line 7). If we begin by reading this poem out loud with students so that they can hear its rhythm and feel the emphatic pull of its questioning, then they might be more prepared to discuss how it figures the value of human existence through prosopopoeia and how it shapes a concept of calling for the reader. “The Gold Lily” may provide the solace that some readers seek in poetry, but it may also prompt doubt or uncertainty or anxiety. All such responses speak to students’ vocational discernment—the sometimes messy convergence of multiple responsibilities of work, family, and community.   

It seems especially important now, too, to underscore for students the politics of the triangulated address in lyric, which Culler does not explore fully. Danez Smith (they/them), for example, creates an extraordinary rhythm and sound patterning in lyric forms that look and sound quite different from the white, Western lyric tradition of Wordsworth and Glück and that expose and challenge white supremacy. Smith’s “dear white America” on YouTube has hundreds of thousands of views, which brings it to an audience that may not be aware of their multiple awards for poetry or their growing reputation as one of the best contemporary American poets. But is that audience singular, or is the “you” of this poem triangulated so that it reaches beyond “white America”?

As we teach vocation in the classroom, the multiple voices speaking through the lyric form will mean differently to different students. Listening to students’ responses to Smith’s poem and guiding them to see how our communities—the “others” to whom we are responsible—have been drawn along political lines of race, gender, and class is vital for teaching vocation. If Smith’s lyric “i” is a self-in-relationship, then what is my relationship to this voice, and what does it help me see about my work in the world? What is my relationship to others who also hear this voice?

Lyric poems call us to attend to the world differently, to see differently. Their condensed, compelling use of language can offer something essential about being in the world that can shift our vision. While that shift may be complex and even painful in the best of times, it’s a more-than-sufficient reason to teach poetry in our classrooms. 

To read Stephanie’s previous reflection on the themes of “form and formation,” see “Narrative Expectations,” “The Limits of Self-Help,” and “The Art of Adaptation,”

Stephanie L. Johnson is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at The College of St. Scholastica. She teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature, literature by women, and poetry, and has published articles on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. Her essay “Poetry’s Possibility” will appear in Discovering Vocation through Literary Studies which she co-edited with Erin VanLaningham (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2021).

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