Lyric Intimacy: Speaking to Invisible Listeners.
April 14, 15, 16, 2004. J. Edward Farnum Lectures
April 14 (8:00pm), 15 (8:00pm), 16 (4:30pm), 2004: McCosh 50
I. George Herbert and God: Intimacy with the Better Self
II. Walt Whitman and the Reader in Futurity: Intimacy with the Longed-for Camerado
III. John Ashbery and the Artist of the Past: Intimacy with a Vanished Twin Abstract.
Helen Vendler will argue that lyric has recently been undervalued because it does not, for the most part, offer concrete data about social practice and social groups; but lyric-even though it is spoken in privacy with no other living person present-does, in its exemplification of intimacy, offer models of what the ideal relation between speaker and listener might be. The poet envisages different sorts of intimacy, depending on whether that intimacy is pictured as one available in the present, one not yet current but much longed-for, or one that comes as a revelation from the past. I have taken one example of present intimacy, one of an envisaged future, and one constructed from the past. George Herbert’s poem often engage in a colloquy with God, and Herbert goes so far as to write a script for God’s answers to complaints or queries. The God he imagines, though congruent with Biblical exposition, is addressed wit the freedom with which one would address a friend, and is often reproached as one might reproach an intimate. God-whether represented as God the Father or God the Son (rarely as the Holy Spirit)-always of course has Herbert’s best interests at heart, but Herbert, dejected in loss, frustration, and chastisement, often cannot see God’s purposes. Gradually, as those purposes become clear in the poem, Herbert’s own better self is revealed to him through God’s actions and intimate words. The tonal range of intimacy in Herbert-ranging from wonder to anger, gratitude to exhaustion-offers a model of intimacy which, while neither sexual nor amical, borrows from the tones of both, but for an end proper to neither of the secular models of intimacy: the reform of the self until it is a better image of God. Walt Whitman’s original hopes for a democratic fellowship of “cameradoes” – who would exemplify in their mutual relations a common purpose, common delight, common exploration, and common trust-were blasted in part by the mercantilism of American development, in part by the Civil War, with its revelation that the New World could be as fratricidal as the old. From joyous celebration of actual male union, sexual or military, Whitman passed to a yearning representation of the ideal reader and camerado of the future. The model of intimacy with the reader in futurity-voiced most plangently in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”-is based on a firm belief in the biological similarity of all human beings, and on Whitman’s psychological insight relating the acknowledgement of desire to the achieving of an authentic life. His notion of intimacy is one of twoness in synchrony with collectivity, and his demotic language (as well as his tones of instruction) create an intimacy that is in part that of teacher with pupil, in part that of friend with journeying friend, in part that of lover with lover. John Ashbery-struck powerfully in his youth by Francesco Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, seen in the company of his lover Pierre-comes back to the portrait as the model for his own long poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, in parts of which he addresses the long-dead painter as if he were alive. In the distortions caused by the convex mirror, Ashbery sees Parmigianino exemplifying an aesthetic which is also his own-and he reaches across the centuries to treat the painter as an intimate, addressing him as “Francesco.” Although the poem consists in part of Ashbery’s meditations on time, art, and love, it comes vividly alive in acting out the immediate intimacy one can feel with a work or an author of the past. This intimacy-though fostered by the state of being in love-represents an intimacy of fellow-workers, one based on a shared aesthetic. It is the intimacy that confirms-through an accomplished artist of the past-the aesthetic of the present writer, and gives confidence to the manifesto issuing from it, in this case a manifesto defending the artist’s need to distort the image in the service of aesthetic intent. Each of these models of intimacy shows how twoness can help oneness-ethically, collectively, and aesthetically. Each puts aside the usual notion of the encapsulated single self in arguing implicitly that one finds oneself most truly in a relation with others, and puts aside as well the preeminent social model of intimacy, marriage. Each of these poems evinces disappointment in the outcome of actual intimacy in life by forming its perfect intimacy either with the unerring divinity, or with an unseen person who will evolve in the future, or with a fellow-artist of the past. We can infer from which is perfect in these colloquies the blights that attach relationship in real life; but we can also infer from these poems what everyone desires in twoness.