On Dialogic Lyrics (or “poly-lyrics”)

            Sharon Olds asked me once what was behind my two-voiced lyric form in which the dual columns are each a lyric alone but a greater whole when combined. The short answer was that it was a way of recording moments of spontaneous communion between people and other moments of great shared emotion. The parallel voices in these dialogic lyrics are like the left and right hands on the piano—their harmony can only be completely appreciated if you hear each voice independently before you play them against each other. But once you do hear their harmony fully, it is a much more profound experience.

            When I began writing in this form, I was studying music composition. I was very moved by the polyphony of J. S. Bach and studied his scores to better understand his forms of musical thinking. Bach’s counterpoint was remarkable to me because the musical ideas were so distinct as separate voices, and their overall counterpoint seemed to testify to a vision of reality which was sacramental. He layered elements in succession that re-enacted an intimate sense of the creation as an interplay between humans and the divine. He experienced the joy of creation as if it were always in counterpoint with the Creator. And Bach’s multi-voiced texture as well as his use of passing tones (temporary dissonances that added interest and surprise to the harmony) was sophisticated enough to make metaphysical statements about reality. There were great ambiguities and even moments that could seem random. In the face of eternity, his music possessed a pervasive fortitude.* I wanted to emulate Bach’s kind of polyphonic texture because I also felt connected to a vision and feeling of an immanent power, and I believed that one’s attitude toward the everyday was just as important as one’s way of facing eternity. I also felt a strong sense of “something far more deeply interfused” within everyday life.

            Another composer whose musical ideas influenced my thinking about form was John Cage; his indeterminate forms placed random events within a structure, and, being interested in Zen Buddhism, I was attracted to allowing the random within the work of art. I had heard a percussion ensemble discuss and perform a contrapuntal “Construction” by Cage and was indelibly mesmerized and tremendously excited by its spontaneous yet structured interweaving leitmotifs. There was an ideal simultaneity between distinct voices and musical sound worlds; the musicians played found objects like brake drums, real drums, gongs, chimes etc. They actually said that they had the freedom to include their feelings about the audience in their performance, and their score did not prescribe too closely when each had to play. There was the same excitement that one feels in improvisational jazz, where there are certain shared chords, scales, melodic and rhythmic structures available, but how they occur depends on how the performers and audience interact in a unique time and place. Though some complain that Cage’s scores are too amorphous, I have always felt a strong sense of direction and specificity, a style that was uniquely Cage.

            Importantly, if the accidental could be integral to profound aesthetic experience and even to a unique style, then one had to admit that the artist’s way of surrendering some control into the hands of the performers, interpreters and audience members of a work could be as important as the artist’s way of asserting control over the material. (For Bach, I believe it is possible that the most important audience member was God.) Further, if one could leave a certain indeterminate space within the work of art, then an open form could express a unique style without having all the baggage of a continually controlling personality. And the greater consequence was this: the work of art allowed the performer and audience into its very structure as an intrinsic and essential part of the whole experience.


            From a philosophical perspective, the cost of this indeterminacy or openness of form was that there could never be an ultimate meaning. No one, not even an author, could claim absolute “authority” anymore; no one could monopolize the meaning of a text—the seeming certainties of our logocentric civilization would have to let the fleshly worlds in. More seriously, perhaps, formerly “eternal laws of art” would have to submit to contingency, history and the garbage of existence. And one would have to admit of a greater totality than any one self could ever contain.

            For me this was a great revolution in thinking about literary language because I felt that there was greater wisdom in the philosophical vision of Martin Buber, his dream of the double-cry, his myth of the I-Thou bond between human beings and with a greater whole. I felt there must be some antidote to the post-Kierkegaardian individual, the ego as an einzig unable to truly be known or to know anyone else completely enough. Further, I believed a revolution was necessary to break the spell of the post-Symbolist and heavily Wagnerian T. S. Eliot whose Waste Land had dominated my thinking about form in poetry since I first read and studied him. I did not want to read Eliot as the last extension of Symbolism, which was itself an extension of late Romanticism, because he overshadowed many of the elements in Wordsworth and Shelley (not to mention Hart Crane) that I still felt were valid; the vision of The Waste Land poet was profoundly isolated in a universe that had no secular escape even though the auditory space was populated by many voices. The voices did not represent other real people as much as they were projections that possessed him in a demonic way in endless leitmotivic variations. Further, Eliot himself was still under the spell of the philosopher F. H. Bradley,* so he had great difficulty believing how people could “know” anything, especially each other. Nonetheless, the polyphonic quality of Eliot, drawn largely from his early readings of James Joyce’s Ulysses,* represented too powerful a collision of musical and poetic worlds to ignore. But unlike the flesh-affirming world of Joyce which inspired Eliot, The Waste Land represented a journey away from common humanity.

            The voices that possessed Eliot were what I found most seductive about him. On the one hand, his own poetic ego was restrained in that he was allowing the other voices to outweigh his own personality (thus his own royalist politics and classist prejudices were kept out); further, in this guise, he seemed to point to a transcendental, albeit world-negating, path. Eliot’s voices, especially his androgynous and female personae, were able to utter and imply so many things that he would not. This multi-voiced style gave his work far greater power than any single-voiced, single-gendered style could. Paradoxically, the surrendering to higher and lower authorities (from The Upanishads to Pound’s editing pencil) made his utterances seem far more representative and, thus, authoritative and harder to refute.

            I needed to find an open form that would respond to Eliot’s seductive polyphony. I wanted to be able to perpetuate the idea of the spontaneous communions between people, especially the kinds of communion that people share in love and other extreme feelings, including secular as well as sacred emotions. I also wanted to create a lyric form that valued the pleasure in and of the body, especially the body in its social pleasures, moments of shared joy as one feels in the middle of great music or dance. Unfortunately, the Romantics’ views of nature, the transcendent, and humanity seemed outdated and naive. Nonetheless, I felt that there had to be a way to allow for otherness within a lyric voice—including even kinds of possession by and of otherness.

            Fortunately, at that critical juncture I found help when I was studying with the philosopher Hwa Yol Jung who introduced me to Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination, which laid the groundwork for a truly Copernican revolution in literary language. Bakhtin wrote that “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction”* If truth emerged between voices in counterpoint, then perhaps it was possible to create something profoundly humanistic, world and flesh affirming in a new way.

            So it was very exciting when one night in the spring of 1984 I wrote two long lyrics independently, one in a female voice and one a male voice, and then I put them side by side and read them against each other and found that they did, in fact, say something in combination that neither alone could communicate. This poem, published many years later as “The Sylf” in Crossconnect, the literary journal of the University of Pennsylvania, http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/xconnect/v2/i3/word/jl1.shtml) presented on the left side a young woman, a visual artist, doing laundry in a coin-op laundromat. On the right was the voice of her love, a male dancer. Though neither voice talked about sex, in combination they made an erotic love poem. The truth between them was only heard after hearing each of them individually and then putting their distinct voices together.

            This was significant because neither side had to sacrifice its integrity for its partner. For some distance and conflict are always with us in any real dialogue that seeks the truth. Only in this way was harmony possible: two distinct voices at a distance sound at the same time, each with its own peculiar inflections, fortuitous correspondences, and moments of spontaneous communion.

            In musical terms, I was thinking of the concertante principle, the root concept of the modern concerto in which an instrument plays in its own idiom with and against other instruments. And when I reflected on what to call this form, I thought then that they were polyphonic, or “polylyric.”









*I was interested especially in Bach's Sixth Brandenburg Concerto in B Flat (BWV 1051) and The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080).



* See lines 412-415 of The Waste Land and Eliot’s footnotes on them regarding Bradley’s Appearance and Reality.



* Robert Adams Day, a Joyce scholar, wrote a little-known monograph on this topic; furthermore, Joyce himself believed Eliot “stole” The Waste Land from Ulysses and wrote a hilarious parody of the poem in one of his letters.



* See Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984) 110.