Lyric In Its Times by John Wilkinson


Review by Jack Belloli

In the last stanza of the last poem of his most recent collection, John Wilkinson offers what is still the saddest enjambment I’ve ever read (taking that mantle, if you’re interested, from the penultimate line of John Ashbery’s ‘A Wave’):

[…] but still the air she had
round her shapes in a song’s decorum,
bringing such things to mind, as who
ever will leap through ground hiss,
rattling glossy leaves?

Like a number of the poems in My Reef, My Manifest Array, ‘Air’ is implicitly an elegy for Wilkinson’s sister Sara. The lingering ‘air she had’ reverse engineers an owner, a figure whom Wilkinson recognises both as some ‘whoever’, some particular colloquially-addressable person who you could call on to jump among leaves now and again, and a spectral genius loci, doomed to be nothing more than that force which sets the leaves rattling for-‘ever’. Neither quite matches, or compensates for, the lost living Sara but – to borrow a term from the object-relations psychoanalysis that’s long been key to Wilkinson’s thinking – together they might be good-enough representations of her with which to mourn. If the enjambment of ‘who / ever’ is striking, it’s aided by Wilkinson’s command of rhythm: this is the first line in the stanza to end clearly on a stressed monosyllable, and without a falling rhythm (‘air she had’ and ‘song’s decorum’ versus ‘as who’). It leads into final lines in which monosyllables dominate, and the falling rhythm only fitfully comes out again within individual words (‘ever’, ‘rattling’). In doing so, it cuts out a cadence that had been predominant throughout the poem’s previous three stanzas, especially in their metrically shorter last lines, to the point that I might fancifully identify that cadence with Sara or her ‘air’ themselves: ‘voice on the telephone’, ‘shape / of her rising walk’, ‘air that has fallen’ and, er, ‘rising and falling’.

In calling that identification a fancy, I’m doing more than just guarding myself against breaking a kind of literary-critical propriety: as if I were naïve enough to think that sounds in poems are just representations, clues about a “real world” or “real feelings” that a poem merely encodes. Instead I’m admitting that I’m always risking something like that naïveté when I write about a poem: the stakes of elegy just expose it especially clearly. When I try to describe my experience of reading it, I seek to make up a version of that experience which can be as “real” to you as it was to me: for you to hear the same rhythmic patterns that I do, even for me to hear them now as I did the last time. We let Sara go, confident that ‘the air of her’ can remain; every account of a lyric poem is a trace of an ‘object-event’, each poem an opportunity for ‘repeatable evanescence’.

This is the argument that Lyric in its Times (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), Wilkinson’s second book of criticism, attempts to make, in the only way that one can make an argument like this: through a series of close readings of beloved poems. In its opening pages, he admits that this can easily get ‘embarrassing’. My reading risks ridiculousness if you aren’t primed to see the poem in the way that I do, as the codes by which we read verse are now more varied and diffuse than ever: I held back, for example, from arguing that some of those curtailed last lines in ‘Airs’ can be described as adonean colons, in imitation of Latin quantitative metre, or that they can be sung to ‘Seven Nation Army’, because neither would probably have been on your (or Wilkinson’s) radar. It risks ridiculousness if I can’t trust the stability of my own reception of the poem – but Wilkinson makes a virtue of a pratfall here, and opens his second chapter by analysing his own mishearing of a line from Patti LaBelle’s ‘Lady Marmalade’. Metaphors of rock-climbing, echoes of the Cornish landscape in which Wilkinson grew up, recur throughout: tracing a rhythm might be a step-by-step process of ‘attending to line-breaks as though searching for handholds in a rock-face’; ‘the glossator feels the scree shift, and walking on the rocky level fears to stumble and fall flat’. There is no lyric reading without resistance: poems come alive where ‘mutually influencing and interfering rhythms and temporalities’ meet, whether that’s the pressure of reading for metre against reading for syntactic sense, or of either of these being thrown into relief by a breathing body, by a reference to clock-time or historical circumstance (as, in both cases, in Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’).

Embarrassing and exhausting, yes – but also, because of that, frequently loveable. I love Wilkinson’s poetry, for the reasons I love Denise Riley’s and Geoffrey G O’Brien’s, Luke Roberts’s and Will Harris’s: as spaces in which a facility with old tunes, an invitation for me to check again whether I should really be counting the syllables like that, can emerge within, and perhaps as an expression of, our endurance of capitalist crisis. So it’s great to walk with Wilkinson, again, over some of the precursors to this impulse in contemporary poetry: most especially through his ‘companionate reading’ of W.S. Graham’s great elegies for the painters Bryan Winter and Peter Lanyon. Wilkinson highlights the sadness of some of these poems’ enjambments in ways that I’d never noticed before: ‘…how sorry I am / you died’; ‘give me your painting / hand to steady me’. He simultaneously manages to reveal how details from these poems are private allusions to Graham’s friendship and to argue that the privacy of those allusions doesn’t spoil your experience of reading if you don’t know them: they simply hold separate ‘texture[s] of intimacy’ for lost addressee and living reader. Lyric in its Times rides a recent, inspiring crest in publication and scholarship on Graham, timed for his centenary and hopefully removing any sense that he was “forgotten” or “underrated”. Like the best of this work, Wilkinson is determined that Graham will not collapse into the petrifaction of canonicity, or into a known and searchable archive: in the hope that a consistent, playful invitation to find new ways of reading him will survive.

Elsewhere, George Oppen is read as a kind of exception who proves Wilkinson’s rule. Having striven so hard for poems that ‘seek to attain their own status as objects’ with self-enclosed clarity, in which an excess of rhythm and musicality would risk multiplying interpretations and breaking the integrity of that object,  ‘rhythm’s push-back develop[ed] a strong presence’: his late prose shows an embrace of the cadences that his practice over time made visible. Dylan Thomas’s refusal of punctuation and caesura – which might normally be a way to emphasise regular lines over contested syntax, and thus make a poem resemble an ‘object’ more than an ‘event’ – turns his poems into ‘skeins’ of tangled rhythms. Wilkinson links this constant ‘crossing and re-crossing’ of the caesura to a striking psychoanalytic fantasy of breaking the division between the womb and post-natal life. Barbara Guest, a poet who has for too long been classified either as exclusively ekphrastic or as the New York School’s token woman, is here close-read for her complex lyrical textures. Her fragmentary late work Rocks on a Platter is read as a lyric which almost collapses into objecthood, a ‘field of verbal rubble’, but keeps pulling the reader back: ‘we neither crash on the rocks nor become stupefied and blissed-out, for there is too much to be missed’. This commitment to keeping the focus on how eventfulness transforms apparent objects speaks also to the joyous treatment of visual works which punctuate Wilkinson’s analysis. These are characterized by his need to keep moving about: a painting by Veronese leaves him ‘walking from side to side’ to get a better look; Lanyon’s St Just in Tate St Ives requires him to keep stepping back to take it in, in a kind of testament to how Lanyon too immersed himself bodily in the landscapes that inspired him (to the point of dying in the glider accident that shapes Graham’s poem of lost airs).

On his own terms, then, Wilkinson more than convinces – but limitations start to appear when you attend to what his perspective is leaving out. His opposition ‘to Objectivism in poetic practice’ has clear, laudable political impulses. He sees in Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘On a Raised Beach’ and aspects of J.H. Prynne’s late work a ‘monumental[ism] tending towards inertia’, which risks authoritarianism: ‘danger lies in submission to any single rhythm, primal, appreciative or totalitarian’, while ‘rhythmic discrepancy is needed to actuate both bondage and freedom’. The Objectivist lineage continues, too, into present-day manifestations of conceptualism – most notoriously, those of Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place – which reduce poetry to the nomination of an object as such, rather than to the negotiations involved in its repeated performance. But Wilkinson combines it with an opposition to the revival of ‘Historicism in theory’. He is oddly sheepish in citing his sources – but his belief that these historicists are intent on exposing ‘anachronistic genre assumptions’, and our ‘distorted’ tendency to describe every poem as a ‘lyric’, is clearly a reference to the revival of “historical poetics” emerging among scholars such as Virginia Jackson, Meredith Martin and Yopie Prins. The argument of these scholars is that what we now call Anglo-American lyric, and have developed strategies like Wilkinson’s for reading as such, is the amalgamation of a variety of poetic genres that began to lose their distinction over the course of the long nineteenth century. Going back to the archive – rediscovering what kind of objects these poems were, and what they lay or circulated among – is a way to discover how this occlusion happened, what former strategies for reading have been lost, and how they might be recovered with a difference. In her most recent work, Jackson in particular has highlighted the ways in which this occlusion is a racialized one. For late nineteenth-century theorists, lyric collapsed into the capacity to identify verse rhythm, a capacity which was read as joining individuals together in some communal, choral throng. This was a primal scene that anthropologists were increasingly recognising as cultural rather than natural, and which the free-verse revolution heralded by Whitman was beginning to distort. ‘The virtual community [that] lyric rhythm offers the modern reader’ thus becomes, for Jackson, ‘full of pathos and disappointment’; the struggle to hear sustained metres echoes the feeling of alienation or rootlessness within the late or post-imperial nation state, a feeling that could be wielded to reactionary ends

Lyric in its Times certainly takes pains to swerve away from this risk. As well as giving detailed attention to Layli Long Soldier, and (briefer) notes of approval to other poets of colour, Wilkinson is more willing than he has perhaps been in the past to admit the whiteness of the avant-garde tradition from which he comes. Against the claim ‘conventional in advanced poetics’ that (to paraphrase Graham) poetry should involve submission to what the language is using us for, he admits that this is an easy thing to say if ‘your (possible) identity has not been disparaged or even stolen’. More generally, all his readings of lyrics as sites of interfering or overlapping rhythms are designed to resist the tendency towards communal ‘primitivism’ – and to highlight that such resistance goes all the way down, and back, even through the formal verse of Shakespeare, Blake and Shelley. The story that is being told is one of persistent alienation, on terms akin to those from Adorno’s ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’: of the moment-by-moment failure to submerge one’s self into collective identity. It involves a sad recognition, to lift a moving phrase from Wilkinson’s earlier The Lyric Touch, that I can only see intimations of what is ‘most deeply shared’ in ‘the most idiosyncratic and inadmissible’ features of my private self.

But pitching one’s history of failed collectivity at such a grand and self-confessedly ‘ahistorical’ scale overlooks scales on which alternative kinds of collective can emerge, within history. Wilkinson may assent to Jackson’s claim that there is no single ‘shared Anglo-American rhythm’, but falls short of helping her to build ‘an alternative history of […] poetics’ from the ground up, in which certain forms of rhythmic expression can be shared reliably between particular groups of readers. In his opening reading of Frank O’Hara, Wilkinson announces that a reading which explores ‘tensions between the international and the parochial and especially between black and white’ would be important, but he is going to focus here on ‘temporal and prosodic cross-rhythm’. We might read this, generously, as an invitation for others to take up – and, fortunately, they have. Dorothy Wang was the only panellist to give a paper that mentioned race at a 2012 international conference on lyric at the University of Cambridge, at which Wilkinson gave a keynote that would become this book’s second chapter, and her experience would ultimately shape the establishment of the vital Race & Poetry & Poetics In The UK collective. But the sense remains, reading Wilkinson’s book by itself, that the master’s prosodic tools are content only to offer refurbishment or possible expansion to the master’s house.

In his attempt to prevent the reduction of poems to objects by hybridizing them with events, it feels like Wilkinson finds himself working to a limited conception of what an event in poetry might look like. He’s right, I think, to explicitly reject the more austere associations between poetry’s pure, noise-free ‘act[s] of language’ and acts of political transformation, as claimed by Alain Badiou and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. But his emphasis on the lyric reading as a repeatable event, a ‘standing wave’ that does not necessarily break but keeps bringing hermeneutic possibility back to life, denies those circumstances in which events cannot be repeated, or in which we might not wish them to be. Occasionally, Wilkinson’s faith in the revitalising power of lyric feels oddly excessive, undercutting the pathos of his approach to elegy elsewhere: ‘[w]e will all stop breathing, but in the present which the poem can restore, Billie Holiday continues to be breathtaking.’ Remarkably, given their common recent investment in time, elegy and ‘the lapidary’, Denise Riley is cited by Wilkinson only once, and glancingly, to support a point along these lines: ‘language’, she says in Time Lived, Without Its Flow, will always ‘lean forward into life’, ‘propel[ling] the dead onward among the living’. But the citation cuts out all the irony with which Riley loads it, in a text confronting the actual loss of her son – as well as her broader commitment to bringing Marxism, and the sacrifices attendant upon history and reproduction which it identifies, into the texture of lyric itself.

I wrote this review as the Black Lives Matter movement gained new energy across the USA and the UK, following the murder of George Floyd. Social media was rife with snapshots in word and image, juxtaposed alongside each other in ways that exposed each other’s limited capacity to tell us what was going on. The effect might have been something like the documentary poetics of Muriel Rukeyser, which Wilkinson praises as a contemporary alternative to Oppen’s, in its willingness to overcome ‘scepticism’ about poetic truthfulness by keeping on reframing and exposing the complexities of ongoing motion. One line stuck out: a friend who simply captioned a shot of a march with the words ‘Heaven shall ring with anthems of the deeds they mean to do.’ In the days that followed, this line ‘m[ade] me feel more alive’ but not, quite, in the ways that Wilkinson’s examples would have led me to. I didn’t note the rhythm, initially, and found myself punching the text into the Google-archive before I realised it was verse. Before I could start humming the tune to myself again, I had to see the line as an object among other objects: as one component of the weird, sedimented history of revisions and replacements which constitute the various, competing words to that particular tune. As I kept on humming it to myself over the next few days, I was struck how the revolutionary, apocalyptic images that kept coming up cut against the thrust of Wilkinson’s lyric reading: its bodies that are emphatically ‘mouldering’ whatever else goes marching on, its ‘trumpets that will never sound retreat’, its desire for certain histories to be abolished. If these are the ‘trying times’ with which Wilkinson closes his book, maybe they require new approaches to object-events. As someone put it on Twitter, how do you commemorate tearing a statue down without making a statue of it? Or, alternatively: how do you sing about not wanting to sing certain tunes any more?


Jack Belloli‘s writing on contemporary poetry has appeared in Poetry LondonPrac CritReview 31, and Religion and Literature. His pamphlet, Spandrel Routine, was published by Broken Sleep in 2019.

Continue to Rachel Rankine’s ‘Glasgow Uni Accent’ & ‘Speak Properly’

Return to Issue 8