Jos Charles

I, admittedly, do not know exactly what the lyric is. As one entrance, perhaps just for myself alone, I’m thinking what things, other than poetry, get described as ‘lyric’. How, for instance, one might describe music without a vocalist as ‘lyric’ when it follows some general tendencies of sung melody: the melody rests periodically as if taking a breath, a melody is linear compared to angular. This seems, in another case, like how memoirs and novels are at times described as lyric when there is some ‘extra’ kind of quality to the diction, whether poetical, prosaic, winding, in tableaux, baroque. Which is to say, regardless of the trajectory of the lyric—as metonymic of poetry as such, as a 19th C. German-romantic invention, as song-like forms no longer sung—lyric is used across a variety of contexts to describe a language doing something perceived in excess of itself, of its very diction, particularly with respect to a self-awareness of aesthetic or musicality. 

Put another way, regardless of what makes certain diction lyrical or not, this way of reading it, attending to it, reveals something else to me that it does, what it enables of speaker and listener or reader, a kind of address or attention or relation. I turn to the critical work of Éduoard Glissant as he established, across genres, decades, a lexicon which consistently moves away from terminologies of relation being a priori historical or political towards an aesthetic and lyric ground, neither outside nor exemplary of the political, but rather a structuring condition of it. In the seminal Poetics of Intention, he writes, “to be born into the world, is at last to conceive (to live) the world as a relation: as a composed necessity, a consenting reaction, a poetics (and not a morality)” (15). One might restate this to oppose, for instance, a commonplace, bad-faith liberalism which foregrounds understanding and a demonstration of one’s ‘truth’. Tell me a little about yourself or what’s your story remain among the most terrifying of questions. Not only must one assent to the language, the diction, the terms of discussion, but one must too perform that diction ‘authentically’. In such a rough framing, encounter is neither aware of its composition, nor consenting to reaction, nor a poetics, but a kind of semantic-extraction, masking its own composure, with little care for consent of the addressed. Of Victor Segalen’s work, later, in Poetics of Relation he writes, “recognition of the other” is not “a moral obligation,” but “an aesthetic constituent” of that relation (29). To shift from the language of communication or understanding, i.e. “my truth,” to relation orients one to the way language already aspires to certain relations—masking, burying, forgetting, possible and actual ones. 

  Rather than mutual communication and understanding, Glissant affirms relation as enabling not only a consent to the opacity of oneself, but, too, to “the opacity of the other” (Relation, 162). One is not merely what one tells oneself, nor what one doesn’t tell oneself as per Freud, nor yet a Levinasian other which confounds in what she knows but may or may not tell, but, one is too, as Glissant writes, “the fallow aspect, the unconscious, the unknown and excessively known part of the other” (Intention, 23). Attending to this “fallowness,” or attempting to, even as it remains, as it must, imaginative and fantastical, is, for me, the closest to a definition of ‘lyrical’—no, not diction, but attentiveness—I can offer.  Importantly though, I do not think this is unique to poetry for Glissant, but that poetry merely has only come to be made to exemplify this more general and ‘lyric’ fact of relation. Continuing in Poetic Intention he writes relation “is not in effect a language of communication [...] but on the other hand a possible community (and, if possible, regular) between mutually liberated opacities, differences, languages” (44). The strategy, capacity of lyric attention, becomes possible precisely because in such moments of encounter this attention opens up an imagining, attends to in an act of imagination, what is unsaid. Encounter is structured less like a narrative, I find in Glissant, and more like a poem: with co-occurances, multiple logics of line and sentence, speech and writing, record and memory, reader and speaker. This is not apolitical—poems, encounters, are often horrid. The examples of these are many and reflected throughout Glissant’s work. That this kind of lyrical attendance can disempower and empower, foreclose relations while enabling one(s), is far from utopian, pre-ethical, pre-political. Merely and only, the lyric or poetic relation is there, already composing, remaining, not between but distinctly and wholly in, a speaker and reader, a self and world. As Glissant concludes in the section “High Woodlands” in Boises, in a poem titled “Country,” it is already out there:

In mud unloosing bamboos from cement, and in a naked old man watching for lightning through the night. In a dead body uprooted by dredges. In crawling. In a mad driver leaving behind his sallow tractor. In preciosity. In the mouth of a political and mendacious fish. In the dread at the heart of stones within your whole heart. Where all land reaches you.

Glissant, Édouard. The Collected Poems of Éduoard Glissant. Trans. Jeff Humphries, trans.  Melissa Manolas. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

—Poetic Intention. Trans. Nathanaël, trans. Anne Molena. New York: Nightboat Books, 2010. 

  Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. University of Michigan, 1997.