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Daniel Morris, Lyric Encounters: Essays on American Poetry from Lazarus and Frost to Ortiz Cofer and Alexie

Stamatina Dimakopoulou

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1In nine studies of individual poems that are implicitly or explicitly dialogical, Daniel Morris sets out to read lyricism as an interpersonal, communicative trope beyond what critics have established as the fundamentally “monological nature” of lyric poetry (1). Citing Helen Vendler as a case in point, Morris argues that critics who read lyricism as a trope of expression of private feelings posit a condition of empathy and/or implied identity between the writer and the reader that, Daniel Morris contends, “disallows the element of resistance to a redundant interpretation of the relationship between self and other” (1). Yet this resistance is, the author claims, “crucial to the interpersonal and pedagogic conception of twentieth-century American lyric poetry” (1). Morris promises to inflect lyricism not only as a trope of privacy and/or injunction for identification with the writer, but also as a doubly private and public form of address that can engage public discourses, cultural representations, collective causes and identities, shared experiences and affects. In order to offer an example of his own method of reading, Morris takes issue with Vendler’s reading of Sherman Alexie’s “On the Amtrak from Boston to NYC” which is also the focus of the penultimate essay: Vendler, Morris contends, “removes the poem form the interpersonal, multicultural, and gendered tensions” that, as he states, “animate the lyric” (3). In order to address such omissions, Morris focuses on encounters between the “lyric speaker,” the various addressees and ultimately “other texts” (4), and promises to reflect on issues that cannot easily be accommodated in established critical views of lyricism, namely, “dialogue, responsibility, resistance, pedagogy” as well as the question of “the interpersonal and hybridity” (6).

2In the chapter that follows the introduction, “‘Go Home and Write a Page Tonight’: Subversive Irony and Resistant Reading in “Theme for English B,” Morris examines how Langston Hughes disassociates the lyric “I” from a universal speaker. Morris focuses on how “the structural techniques that enable the reversal of two figures and roles in “themes,” unsettle “a hierarchy of pedagogical power” (15). By examining how the uses of irony get entwined with the question of pedagogy in Hughes’s poem, Morris examines how racial representation is mediated through the lyrical attitude in the imaginary dialogue with the teacher. In the third chapter on The Erotics of Close Reading: Williams, Demuth, and ‘The Crimson Cyclamen,’”the lyric dialogue is posited as the trope for the expression of William Carlos Williams’s coded intimacy with the painter, entwining erotic desire and poetic creativity. The lyrical undercurrent is related to Williams’s affinity for “lived lives” that, as Morris notes, were “dissident, heteronormative, or queer” (28). Morris suggests that Williams queers the poetic act as a process of “co-creation,” suggesting thereby “a homosexual model of creative productivity, of generation through mirroring, of generation through like with like” (33). In the fourth chapter“Queering Time: Allen Ginsberg, ‘America’ and the Cold War,” the author argues that it is “Ginsberg’s conservatism” that “authorizes…a ‘queer’ form of lyric dialogue” (10-11). Ginsberg’s “lyric encounter” with mainstream America and with the history of radicalism is, Morris suggests, put in the service of a cultural criticism that is at the same time undercut by an ironic attitude. The strength of the chapter lies in the way Morris documents how by “turning the monologic lyric genre into a zany dialogue, Ginsberg occupies multiple positions including conformist citizen, nation, and inexplicable other within the state” (43). In Morris’s reading, the lyrical impulse ‘desublimates’ and ‘resists’ dominant ideologies.

3The themes of identity and cultural representations are taken up in the fifth chapter as well, “Active and Passive Citizenship in Emma Lazarus’s ‘The New Colossus’ and Judith Ortiz Cofer’s ‘The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica.’” Here, Morris sets the two poems in dialogue and discusses how Lazarus and Cofer reimagine the space of the encounter between the exiled and the host culture. Morris in this chapter, examines how national belonging and ethnic identity can be lyrically inflected. Unlike Lazarus’s late nineteenth-century precedent,Cofer, as Morris notes, “points towards the “inassimilable remnants of a contemporary immigrant experience that Lazarus understood as only available to the state of becoming American by excising visible signs of difference” (72). WhileLazarus lyrically envisions alienation and an idealised course of integration, the author argues, Cofer offers a vision of solidarity within a cultural space of alienation.

4In the sixth chapter “Queer Desire as Mediated through the Horn and the Pen: Elegy as Love Letter or Love Letter as Elegy in Michael S. Harper’s ‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane,’” Morris revisits how Harper’s “conjoin[ing] the personal and the social” (82) is mediated through “queer desire” (8). In this chapter, Morris examines how “an elegiac love letter to a man who is still alive at the time of the composition” (84) combines personal attachment and cultural critique; mourning and anxiety over the dismembered body, as well as a sustained reflection on the trajectory of the artist who “through drug injection and alcohol- and racially inflected violence…becomes transformed, via a process of desexualisation and reengendering, into a mythic figure” (84). The seventh chapter “Frank Bidart’s Voice and the Erasure of Jewish Difference in ‘Ellen West’” approaches a similar theme: Morris approaches Bidart’s poem as the ‘lyric monologue’ that is missing from the case study on which the poem is based. Morris convincingly argues that the lyrical reconstruction of West’s voice leads Bidart to an ‘irresponsible’ treatment of the source text: “instead of focusing on the anti-Semitic discourse that animates West’s body hatred, Bidart reads West’s devaluation of the body and her wish for its erasure as in line with German idealism and an aesthetic sublime” (101). Morris in this chapter offers interesting observations about the employment of the lyric trope, through a focus on a poem that “interrogates the lyric as a monologic vocalization of the embodied self” (106). In a poem that “foregrounds the generic crisis of the status of the lyric voice” (131), the lyrical impulse, Morris seems to suggest, is at the origin of Bidart’s misrepresentation of rather mishearing, as it were, of West’s own lyric voice. A different variety of intimacy, actual rather than constructed by the poet, is examined in the eighth chapter “Narrative and Survival in The Delicacy and Strength of Lacewhere Morris discusses “a brilliant, loving exchange of letters between the poet James Wright and Leslie Marmon Silko”(133). Here Morris focuses on how the poet lyrically responds to an imminent end, rather than on loss and mourning which are themes traditionally associated with lyricism. In this chapter, Morris shows how Silko mediates affection and communal bonds through stories in which, as Morris notes, Silko “emphatically  does not identify…with the culture of the white West”; the stories are “offer[ed]…to Wright as an alternative, a non-tragic model of ‘presence’ that will provide him comfort  as he faces death by cancer in 1980” (134). This chapter relates the lyrical impulse and its dialogical dynamics to a “narrative space” that as Morris notes in the conclusion of the chapter, “is understood as the residence of persons” (154). In the ninth chapter “Before and After the Fall: Tribalism, Individualism, and Multicultural Poetics in Sherman Alexie,” Morris suggests that the post 9/11 climate compels a revisionism beyond “the binary thinking about issues of ethnicity, history, and citizenship that animated ‘On the Amtrack’” where “Alexie participates in a terrorist’s imagination of the United States as an Evil Empire responsible for the suppression of the native experience” (156). In this chapter too, Morris, approaches poetry as a communicative space, in which he probes Alexie’s resistance of the “white woman’s call to respond to her interpretation of American history” (159), and his subsequent movement towards a poetics that would contain tribal traditions and the white American tradition of individualism. The book concludes with a “Coda” where the author returns to the personal investment involved in these “lyric encounters” and argues for a “pedagogy” that has room for a redemptive lyricism, as it were. The strength of this monograph lies in this juncture of lyricism, pedagogy, and responsible reading.

5Overall, Morris’s book offers contextualised, attentive readings of individual poems where formal analysis combines with critical analysis of how context and cultural content are lyrically mediated. The author offers compelling readings that inflect varieties of lyricism, without however spelling out more substantially distinct tonalities: in the Williams chapter for instance, lyricism is less a trope of composition than, as the author implies, a form of relatedness. The chapters that deal with “queer” dialogues do not engage with theorisations of “queerness” which might have led to a more sustained discussion of a “queer” lyricism. At times, the reader would have wished to come across connections between the findings of the individual chapters, or connections to established readings of other poems that perform similar critical work: for instance, Bidart’s treatment of “the repudiation of [West’s] ethnically-coded body” (111) could have been related to Harper’s treatment of the fantasy of “dismemberment” (89); the analysis of Cofer’s “Ars Poetica,” brings to mind Michael North’s extensive discussion of Claude McKay’s “The Tropics in New York,” while Lola Ridge’s poems for the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side could have been mentioned in the discussion of Lazarus’s poem. These observations aside, throughout this study, attentiveness to the poetic text is admirably combined with contextualisation in wider cultural discourses.

6Ultimately, Morris’s studies are geared towards probing a distinction that, as he argues, is both sustained and transcended in works that employ the trope of lyricism: each individual chapter methodically examines the tension between lyricism as the form of expression of emotions and inner thoughts, and narrative as the vehicle of collective histories, memories and shared experiences. Morris’s study approaches individual emotions that can be shared alongside cultural representations and shared histories that are entwined with private experiences and lives.

7This tension is also extensively addressed by Mutlu Konuk Blasing in Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words:

The lyric confirms the necessity for an ‘I’ to intentionalize the linguistic code. It is the site of a choice, an ethical ‘meta-phoring’ of the material language into meaning. The historical crossing that creates the conceptual gap is recrossed by the individuated/socialized ‘I’ created in that process (Blasing 10).

8Blasing’s insights about the cultural work of lyricism are resonant with critical questions that are also central in Morris’s work. In the opening chapter of her study, Blasing argues that, after all, the problem with lyricism may be more to do with the fact that lyricism is inextricably bound with varying emotions of various degrees and kinds than with the problem of representation. Readers of Morris’s readings might have wished for a dialogue with Blasing’s study, alongside Helen Vendler as this could have constituted a point of departure for a more sustained conceptualisation of the thrust of this monograph. The methodological affinity between the two works, but also a fundamental divergence at the level of the conceptualisation of the lyric “I” –for Blasing “there is no individual in the lyric in any ordinary sense of the term” (4) – would have provided the terms for a theoretical discussion of complementary yet different revisionisms of the share of lyricism in American poetry.

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Blasing, Mutlu Konuk. Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2007.

North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. Oxford University Press, 1994.

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Bibliographical reference

New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Pp. ix, 225. ISBN: 9781441151568

Electronic reference

Stamatina Dimakopoulou, « Daniel Morris, Lyric Encounters: Essays on American Poetry from Lazarus and Frost to Ortiz Cofer and Alexie », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2016-1, document 4, Online since 17 February 2016, connection on 22 October 2020. URL :

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Stamatina Dimakopoulou

National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

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