The Lyric Tense

Sunday, 8/9/20 at 1:49 PM
Updated: 8/14/20 at 5:17 PM
Since these cases of shifting tenses and other varieties of linguistic play are often said to mark the spots where these narratives most resemble lyric, one vital difference ought immediately to come clear: lyric discourse, unlike narrative, has no programmatic deictic movement, no hierarchic association of event and utterance that we can map and predict. It has no ready formula for process that corresponds to the narrative's heaping-up of perfect verbs and anaphoric deictics, or its postponement of the speaking present. Instead of hurrying toward it but deferring it, lyric often sees that here and now burst into the discourse spontaneously, abruptly; the speaking present, when it claims enough textual ground, may come into identity with the temporal dimension that most narratives keep at two removes, namely the reader's own present.
Therefore, the job of lyric deixis is to establish a context that both exploits and controls the immediacy of the present—that maintains its emotional charge, and lends that to past and future tenses, while preserving an appropriate relation between the ritual and fictional modes to which the present and other tenses, respectively, often contribute.
The chief tense of lyric poetry is probably the simple present, which often proposes a narrow interval between event and utterance than that common in narratives.
(Roland Greene, Post-Petrarchism, Princeton UP, 1991, pp. 30-32)

The previous post, regarding the solitude and namelessness of the poetic speaker, involved a flattening of vocal hierarchy. Here is a flattening of temporal hierarchy. In place of the blind and anonymous speaker is a “simple present.” Both theories of the lyric refer to poetry’s flatness, self-sameness, reflexivity, and equivocality. These qualities strike me as crucial starting points, but poor endings. I would like to see and create more poems which challenge these commonplaces. Poems which explicitly lay out their hierarchical nature, their confluence with narrativity and dialogue. The Georgic seems to be a pretty good ideal for such a poem—a poem of giving information on a specific thing. But it still speaks across generations, and so the “present” is invoked once again. I suppose that what I really want is to delineate the different ways in which poems form a sense of the present or how they manage to dissolve the boundaries between self and other.

Tags: lyric theory