Asian American poetry flourished in the first two decades of the 21st century. In 2004, the Asian American literary organization Kundiman hosted their inaugural workshop-based retreat at the University of Virginia, connecting poets from the United States and North America across generations. (The retreat continues to be held annually at Fordham University and has included fiction writers, as fellows and faculty, since 2017.) The first year of Kundiman’s retreat coincided with the publication of Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, edited by Victoria Chang, which introduced emerging poets Kazim Ali, Cathy Park Hong, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Srikanth Reddy, and Paisley Rekdal, among others, to a broader audience of readers and critics and, at the same time, urged a reassessment of the contemporary poetry field. Both events signaled an emergent generation’s desire to find community and acknowledgment for their work. Not only were these goals accomplished, but the collectivization of young Asian American poets and critical attention from universities and other cultural institutions also evinced how powerfully the impact of a previous generation of Asian American poets had been felt. That generation arguably began with the publication of Cathy Song’s Yale Younger Poets Prize–winning book Picture Bride in 1982 and grew to include Marilyn Chin, Li-Young Lee, Garrett Hongo, and Agha Shahid Ali, whose work can be found in Norton anthologies of poetry and various other canon-defining projects. The critical and cultural acceptance these poets enjoyed at the end of the 20th century blazed a trail for Asian American poets of the 21st century, who increasingly balance the lyric conventions of emotional expressiveness and imagistic language with audacious political subjectivity. In doing so, Asian American poets of the 21st century have opened up conceptions of lyric, particularly regarding voice, to incorporate questions of identity, immigration and migration, and American cultural experience. Contemporary Asian American poets frequently reimagine the lyric tradition through a distinctly Asian American political imagination.
David Nowell Smith
The concept of “voice” has long been highly ambiguous, with the physiological-phonetic process of sound production entangled in a far more extensive cultural and metaphysical imaginary of voice. Neither purely sound nor purely signification, voice can name either a sonorous excess over signification or the point at which sounds start to signify. Neither purely of the body nor ever extricated from its body, it can figure multiple kinds of meaningful embodiment, the breakdown of meaning in brute materiality, or even a strangely disembodied emanation. Voice can be both intentional and involuntary, both singular and plural, both presence and absence, both the possession of a subject and something that possesses subjects or is uncontainable by the subject. Voices may signify immediacy and be experienced as immediate, and yet they are continually mediated—by text, by technology, by art. In literature, the status of voice is particularly fraught. Not only do literary works deploy this imaginary of voice, but voice is crucial to literature’s medium. If this is most evident in the case of works composed or transmitted orally, it also holds for written works that, while destined for silent reading, nevertheless construct a virtual soundworld destined for its reader’s inner ear, to be subvocalized rather than read aloud. Literary works have been crucial in the development and deployment of the cultural-metaphysical imaginary of voice, precisely because “voice” poses such a diverse set of questions and problems for literature. These problems change focus and force with the development of technologies of inscription and prosthesis, from printing to sound recording to automated speech.
Apostrophe is a rhetorical figure that is most commonly found (and thought of) in lyric poetry. It also occurs in other literary and cultural forms—memoir, prose fiction, song, theater, and cinema. Derived from the Greek prefix “apo” (away from) and “strophe” (turn or twist), the word “apostrophe” is often confused with a punctuation mark, a single inverted comma used in English to denote a possessive (as in “ the Queen’s English” or “the cat’s whiskers”). In this context, an apostrophe stands in for something absent. Anglo-Saxon, a heavily inflected language and the basis for modern English, had a genitive case where nouns used in a possessive way tended to end in “es” (“cyninges” was the Anglo-Saxon for “King’s”). This more common sense of the word “apostrophe” denotes, therefore, a punctuation mark that stands in for an elided letter “e” or vowel sound. In the context of rhetoric and poetry “apostrophe” has come to denote what occurs when a writer or speaker addresses a person or entity who is dead, absent, or inanimate to start with. The figure is described by Cicero and Quintillian. The former described it as a “figure that expresses grief or indignation.” Quintillian emphasized its capacity to be “wonderfully stirring” for an audience. For both rhetoricians, apostrophe was something that occurred in a public context, usually a debate or trial, and was part of the arsenal of political rhetoric. Apostrophe has therefore a double valence beyond the common understanding as a punctuation mark that stands in for a missing possessive “e.” It denotes what occurs when a speaker turns from addressing her audience to addressing another figure or entity, one who may or may not be present, alive, or even animate. And it has also come to denote that very process of addressing the absent, the dead, and the inanimate. The figure occurs in medieval rhetoric and poetry, in Shakespeare’s poetry and plays, and has come to be identified with lyric poetry itself, especially through the work and legacy of the literary theorist Paul de Man. For him, a poem describing a set of circumstances has less claim to the status of lyric poetry than a poem apostrophizing aspects of those circumstances. In part as a result of de Man’s influence, apostrophe has come to be connected with different forms of complicated affect—most notably grief, embarrassment, and any number of ways in which human life can be seen or experienced as vulnerable, open to question, or imbued with potential. It has also been used to explore complicated legal and ethical terrains where the boundary between the living and the dead, the present and the absent, the animate and the inanimate can be difficult to draw or ascertain. Two areas of contemporary criticism and thought for which the employment of the figure is most resonant are therefore eco-criticism and “thing theory” (most notably the work of Jane Bennett). The possibilities of apostrophe continue to be regularly employed in political rhetoric, song, poetry, theater, fiction, and cinema.
Sarah Ehlers and Niki Herd
The terms documentary poetry and documentary poetics have been used to describe a diverse range of poetic projects that either make use of historical materials or narrate historical events. In the Anglophone context, the documentary poetry tradition emerged in the late 1920s and coalesced in the 1930s in conjunction with advancements in documentary film and the heightened cultural relevance of documentary photography. The term documentary was first used in an arts context by the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in his 1926 review of Robert Flaherty’s Moana, and Grierson’s subsequent theorizations of documentary filmmaking depended on ideas about poetry and the poetic. While, as several critics have pointed out, documentary poetry constitutes a long tradition that goes as far back as the poems of Lucretius, Ovid, and Virgil, documentary poetry is largely a 20th-century construction, one that has shifted in relation to major technological changes that transformed the landscape of poetic composition and circulation, ongoing debates over the status of the poetic lyric, and developing ideas about the relationship of poetry writing to capitalist crisis and left political activism. The long-standing critical concern with defining documentary poetry and poetics indexes changing ideas about the relationship between poetry and other historical and political registers. Such critical concerns, however, have often treated documentary poems as if they lack generic distinction or unique formal qualities outside of the incorporation of historical documents or materials. Across the 20th and 21st centuries, documentary poets have innovated in specific modes (e.g., as Jill Magi points out using Bill Nichols’s film theory, the expository, observational, interactive, and reflexive) and forms (especially the paratactical, collage, curatorial, and restricted). Engaging with the terrains of labor precarity, ecological collapse, and widening racial inequities and violence, such forms work in tandem with socially engaged content to address historical and political realities. In the contemporary moment, major contributions to documentary poetic traditions have been from Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) writers who innovate with documentary practices and forms to imagine new spheres of social engagement and world-building in lieu of a singular focus on institutional critique. Contemporary poets addressing the exigencies of the 21st century have also emphasized the long-standing relationship between documentary poetry and social engagement, pointing to social activism and radical pedagogy as defining features of documentary poetry and poetics.
Lyric poetry is an ancient genre, enduring to the present day, but it is not continuous in its longevity. What happens to lyric poetry and how it changes during its numerous and sometimes lengthy periods of historical eclipse (such as the 18th century) may be as important to our understanding of lyric as an assessment of its periods of high achievement. For it is during these periods of relative obscurity that lyric enters into complex relations with other genres of poetry and prose, affirming the general thesis that all genres are relational and porous. The question of whether any particular properties of lyric poetry endure throughout its 2,700-year checkered history can be addressed by examining its basic powers: its forms; its figurative and narrative functions; and its styles and diction. The hierarchy of these functions is mutable, as one finds in today’s rift between a scholarly revival of formalist analysis and the increasing emphasis on diction in contemporary poetry. As a way of assessing lyric poetry’s basic operations, the present article surveys the ongoing tension between form and diction by sketching a critique of the tenets of New Formalism in literary studies, especially its presumptions about the relation of poetic form to the external world and its tendency to subject form to close analysis, as if it could yield, like style or diction, detailed knowledge of the world. Long overshadowed by the doctrinal tenets of modernist formalism, the expressive powers of diction occupy a central place in contemporary concerns about identity and social conflict, at the same time that diction (unlike form) is especially susceptible to the vocabularistic methods of “distant reading”—to the computational methods of the digital humanities. The indexical convergence of concreteness and abstraction, expression and rationalism, proximity and distance, in these poetic and scholarly experiments with diction points to precedents in the 18th century, when the emergence of Anglophone poetries in the context of colonialism and the incorporation of vernacular languages into poetic diction (via the ballad revival) intersected with the development of modern lexicography and the establishment of Standard English. The nascent transactions of poetics and positivism through the ontology of diction in the 21st century remind us that poetic diction is always changing but also that the hierarchy of form, figuration, and diction in lyric poetry inevitably shifts over time—a reconfiguration of lyric priorities that helps to shape the premises and methods of literary studies.
Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe
Literary culture in Anglo-Saxon England flourished in two languages—Anglo-Latin and Old English—although the written record of that flourishing is uneven. The literature in these languages of culture did not develop in isolation from each other: vernacular literary works often show a keen awareness of Latin texts and textual practices. Vernacular literature in Old English was precocious in its early expansion from secular and religious poetry to homiletic and documentary prose, as well as translations of the Bible, saints’ lives (in prose and in verse), histories, and philosophical works. The best known of all Old English works is Beowulf, and close behind are the short lyric poems generally, though misleadingly, known as elegies. Not always clear from even the best Modern English translations is the way that these intense poems share techniques of composition and echoes of shared formulas with other long and short poems. The saint-heroes of Elene, Juliana, and Judith share heroic values and poetic language with Beowulf and The Wanderer. This kind of appropriation—where the language of secular poetry was repurposed for religious subjects—was the miracle Bede saw in Cædmon’s Hymn. Old English literary prose developed in the late 9th century in conjunction with a program of translation from Latin associated with King Alfred. Within a relatively short time, Anglo-Saxon scholars translated into Old English Gregory’s Dialogues, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, the first fifty psalms, and, further, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and Orosius’s World History. The late 10th and early 11th centuries saw an efflorescence of Old English prose, particularly in the works of Ælfric of Eynsham and Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Spanning the 9th century to the 12th, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports and reflects on the events of its time, in verse and in prose.
Stephanie Burt and Jenn Lewin
Ideas about song, and actual songs, inform literary works in ways that go back to classical and to biblical antiquity. Set apart from non-musical language, song can indicate proximity to the divine, intense emotion, or distance from the everyday. At least from the early modern period, actual songs compete with idealized songs in a body of lyric poetry where song is sometimes scheme and sometimes trope. Songs and singers in novels can do the work of plot and of character, sometimes isolating songwriter or singer, and sometimes linking them to a milieu beyond what readers are shown. Accounts of song as poetry’s inferior, as its other, or as its unreachable ideal—while historically prominent—do not consider the variety of literary uses in English that songs—historically attested and fictional; popular, vernacular, and “classical”— continue to find.