Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lyric Epiphany

Ever since hearing and agreeing with Dickinson's description of what the experience of poetry feels like, I've often wondered what it is about poetry, good poetry, that produces that feeling in the reader. I've wondered how best to talk about it. The feeling isn't merely that of being moved, though it's very similar. And it isn't just the feeling of assent, of judging a poem well-crafted, or of being impressed by it.

She says:
"If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?"

It's a compelling description -- particularly, to me, the second half, the lifting off of the top of her head. I can feel it, a faint coolness on the brain, and immediately recall the feeling I've had in my own experience with "poetry" -- though mine is located more in the back of my head and shoulders. I put "poetry" in quotes because I experience the feeling, the opening and cooling, when reading stories (as she apparently did as well), and occasionally when hearing a good speech. Poetry in this sense then isn't restricted to verse, or to the lyric poem; it's a quality of composition in general.

So, my question is this: what do we call this head-lifting, and what causes it? (And I mean to ask the question on a primarily literary level, though I'm sure approaching it as a psychological phenomenon would be interesting.) Paul Friedrich, professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Chicago, calls this response to poetry, what I take to be the same as Dickinson's, lyric epiphany.

In his paper by the same name ("Lyric Epiphany", Language in Society 30, 2001) Friedrich outlines a loose definition of lyric, and lyric epiphany, while conducting what he calls "intense analyses of four cases of linguistic epiphany in The Odyssey." That intensity most often manifests as a lack of control in his diction, and tone. Still, these sometimes hyperactive analyses of the different cases and kinds of epiphanic literature interest me, because of the fact that throughout all of them, he keeps coming back to the poetic turn, the moment of unification and compression, in the poetic text.

"Lyric epiphany," he states in the abstract, "is a subtype of generic epiphany: an intuition or revelation of truth values beyond language and empirical experience." Fortunately, I accept without too many reservations this rather loaded definition of epiphany, as he leaves his discussion of generic epiphany at that, and doesn't pause to define what "truth values" might mean. "...[T]he experience of epiphany," he says, "is terribly important." He seems naturally interested in the importance of lyric epiphany for the anthropologist and sociolinguist, but as a writer and reader, I feel justified in taking stealing what I can.

As I said, it's his concentration on the "turn" that interests me, for two reasons. 1.) I've been interested in the enthymeme, as a turn or cap or summing-up after a web of charged, value-laden oppositions, (as Jeffrey Walker puts it), and 2.) I’ve recently (in the last few years) come to see that it is usually at these junctures, these turns that I have my “poetry” experience, my lyric epiphany. I believe it was a book of loose ghazals by Robert Bly, wherein each poem takes an emotional turn in the last couplet, as the speaker shifts from a general address to a self address (at least in Bly’s case), and it feels as though the emotion of the poem is suddenly realized, brought into focus. I knew they weren’t particularly well-written, in that he allowed himself too many moments of lazy writing, of slipping into cliché, but even so, the turn managed to hook me nearly every time, and elevate me into “revelation of truth values beyond language.”

“From the formal linguistic angle,” Friedrich offers, “the shift into epiphany is like a shift from a durative, progressive, or habitual and customary sequence into a more momentary or instantaneous one.” In the opening pages, he refers to lyric epiphanies as “instants of … absolute aesthetic truth” and “ontologically profound breakout[s]” allowed by certain linguistic/literary techniques, and coming through “a heightening of emotion in the reader or hearer, be it empathy, sympathy, compassion or other kinds of involvement; vague features, in other words, of intensity and density that may resonate at any linguistic, emotional, or cultural level.”

A "heightening of emotion"; an "ontologically profound breakout" -- it sounds to me like Dickinson. I'm interested in what causes this, and specifically how and when the enthymeme causes it, as well as how this might intersect with ontology, the study of being, as Friedrich suggests. As I said, Friedrich doesn't directly address what absolute truth values are -- but the change in perspective that lyrical epiphany provides does seem to give one the feeling of momentary insight into some kind of universality. A unadulterated vision, perhaps, of the cosmos -- a moment of liberated objectivity, as I'll call it in my next post.

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