lyric equivalence

This talk was given at Small Press Traffic in San Francisco on October 5, 2002 as part of SPT’s “New Experiments” series.

My first intention in using the term “equivalence” is to evoke Russian Formalist Yuri Tynianov’s notion of “equivalents of the text,” or “equivalents of meaning,” as advanced in his 1924 text The Problem of Verse Language, on which more shortly. In a broader sense, equivalence evokes the classical model of literary mimesis, of the poetic act as an act of imitation or re-presentation, and thus as a way of generating an equivalent of the real. As one might expect from the traditional association of poetry with lying and dissimulation, this easily gives way to equivocation. Accordingly, the equivalence in question might be thought of as a key condition affecting the way we look at much contemporary lyric. The problem of lyric definition, always a prickly one, has become increasingly vexed in the context of “experimental” or “innovative” practice. Standard accounts of lyric, including notions of “voice,” “musicality,” “subjectivity,” and so on, seem increasingly inadequate and irrelevant. In this climate of definitional uncertainty, there is an increasing sense that lyric is whatever somehow identifies itself as such, regardless of whether it is contemplative or meditative, or is written in the first person, or relates subjective experience in a confesional or other private mode, or attains to some degree of euphony or “musicality.”

Patrick Durgin has commented that a typical mode of “workshop critique” of work in progress involves a very traditional, even naive, use of close reading, which assumes semantic content and symbolic value in formal details such as rhyme, enjambment, etc., as opposed to what he calls a “poetics” model of analysis in which it is acknowledged that the actual mechanism producing (the illusion of) such an effect is often merely shorthand for a contingent gestural exchange/acknowledgement between author, text, and reader: Durgin makes the distinction between a model of close reading that is limited to the analysis of the “text itself” as isolated object, and one that includes the processes of writing and the contexts of appreciation, a term he adapts from Louis Zukofsky. “I call ‘lyric intention,’” he writes in his conference paper of the same title, “the covert pact composer and appreciator enter into with respect to the work” (1).

Durgin comments on the difficulty of forcing “lyric” into a coherent denotative category, observing that disparate definitions often seem to contradict each other: “Under the generic rubric of ‘lyric,’ one tends to unite two otherwise opposing terms—egoic speech (or ‘voice’) and musicality—with relative impunity” (1). Leaving aside the question just how opposed these terms really are, it is clear that such a dichotomy has emerged and is frequently invoked in contemporary discussion; “lyric” for some implies a retrograde investment in the discursive structures that undergird bourgeois individuality, and for others a pseudo-musical condition of fragmentariness, grammatical license, asyntacticality, “abstraction,” and other departures from the linguistic structures that conventionally signify unified subjectivity. Chris Stroffolino has recently commented in an electronic discussion group conversation:

1 definition claims that a work is LYRIC to the extent it is “I” based (regardless of whether that writer’s work looks or reads more like “prose” or whether it is more condensed or fragmented in style), whether it’s an “I” the poem claims to “express” (or “confess”) or an “I” the poem is interested in creating, or claiming is a construct…. [Another] definition of lyric claims that a work is LYRIC to the extent that it isn’t discursive, that it doesn’t look or read like prose (regardless of whether its condensations of fragmentations are primarily perceptual, cultural, or “I” based in terms of content)…. These definitions seem to exist for both proponents and detractors of what’s called the lyric.

There is one sense in which these two definitions can be seen as presenting no paradox at all: one might think of Bakhtin’s characterization of lyric as a monologic form, in opposition to the dialogic form of discursive prose, which could go some way toward explaining why the first-person mode of address on the one hand and disjunctive verbal arrangement on the other might be seen as natural bedfellows. (Of course, if one were to follow this line of thought, one would be compelled to question seriously the idea that disjunctive composition presents a viable strategy for social expression, rather than merely a device for private, formalist indulgence.) It is plain to see, nonetheless, that the sense at least of a contradiction informs our consideration of these difficulties on a regular basis, and that this perceived contradiction, whether imagined or real, has affected not only the critical discussion of poetry, but the writing of poetry itself. Thus we see a preponderance of recent work, both poetic and theoretical, that in some way addresses the issue of lyric subjectivity as a contested and volatile ground of activity.


A characteristic feature of much twentieth- and twenty-first-century experimental lyric is that it tends to isolate and take to an extreme what Tynianov terms the “constructive principle” in verse. This principle is directly connected to his notion of equivalence as a signal aspect of poetic construction. Tynianov writes that “static unity … is completely dependent upon the principle of construction and may fluctuate in the course of the work, so that each separate case is determined by the general dynamics of the work. It is sufficient that there is a sign of unity—its category—which legitimizes the most abrupt cases of its actual violation, compelling us to look upon them as equivalents of unity” (32).
There would seem to be a fundamental paradox at the outset of Tynianov’s formulation: violations of unity constitute in themselves a kind of substitute for or equivalent of unity, suggesting that in envisioning the horizons of formal protocol, we cannot help but render the text incapable of defining its own boundaries. What should be a minimal prerequisite for the achievement of unity—the possibility of articulating limits—disappears under the rubric of equivalence. This is a permissiveness which threatens to balloon into anarchy, but an anarchy which Tynianov sublates in the name of dynamism:

This dynamism reveals itself firstly in the concept of the constructive principle. Not all factors of a word are equivalent. Dynamic form is not generated by means of combination or merger (the often-used concept of “correspondence”), but by means of interaction, and, consequently, the pushing forward of one group of factors at the expense of another. In so doing, the advanced factor deforms the subordinate ones. The sensation of form is always the sensation of the flow (and, consequently, of the alteration) of correlation between the subordinating, constructive factor and the subordinated factors. (33)

Involved in the distinction between subordinating and subordinated factors is the further distinction between motivated and unmotivated form: the mistake made by many critics, says Tynianov, is in treating instances of motivated form (in which formal choices are naturistically integrated with the referential content of the work) as typifying the principle of poetic construction, rather than instances of unmotivated form (in which formal choices displace, deform, or otherwise de-emphasize referential content).

Tynianov cites as one of the central “facts of poetry” the presence of what he calls “equivalents of a text”: “I call the equivalent of a poetic text anything which substitutes extra-verbal features for the text, above all its partial omissions, such as a partial substitution with graphic features, etc.” (42) He uses as a primary example a passage from Pushkin’s revision of his poem “To the Sea,” in which “Four lines, out of which three and one-half are dots, serve as an equivalent of the stanza….” (43):

Mir opustel………………

Tynianov comments:

Before us is an uncertain text (the uncertainty of which, however, is quite limited and semi-revealed), but the role of an uncertain text (of any text in the semantic aspect), instilled into the continuous construction of verse, is immeasurably greater than the role of a definite text. The feature of this partial uncertainty is filled with the maximum tension of the missing elements, of that which is potentially given. Above all, it makes the developing form dynamic. (44)

Tynianov specifies that the substituted features are non-verbal, as in the case of Pushkin, but I think we can easily modify and expand the notion of the equivalent of the text to include other possibilities. The important idea is that once some amount of original text is subtracted, it can be replaced with anything. Taking this principle one step further, we encounter cases in which no actual subtraction takes place, in which substitution is virtual rather than genuine. For example, poems which mimic the lacunae of Greek lyric fragments simulate the substitution of text with blank space; or more generally, poems may consist, to greater or lesser extents, of material that signifies its own status as banal or bankrupt or otherwise “artless” filler. An archetypal modern instance would be Gertrude Stein’s use of grammatical, syntactic, and thematic incongruities in poems like the ones in Tender Buttons, in which part of what the poems “say” is that they are not “saying” anything expected or usual. We can consider Stein’s conspicuous modernist repetition, for example, a specific application of the principle of equivalence, in that the repeated term or phrase fills out a space conceived as ideally occupied by a text that progresses rather than iterates. To take a more recent example, here is Ron Padgett’s well-known “Nothing in That Drawer”:

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer. (5)

The repetition in Padgett’s poem functions as a stand-in for the presence of an expected text. What is expected is largely undetermined, beyond the loose set of associations that will inevitably come to mind upon reading the title; nevertheless, it is expected that one will read a text, and that the text will exhibit a certain degree of complex variation along a somewhat discursive course. This utterly reasonable expectation is defeated by the reductive loop that one actually encounters, at the same time that is further encouraged by the minimal gesture toward traditional form that is performed by the division of the poem into fourteen lines: not only are we asked to consider this four-word motif a poem, we are asked to consider it a sonnet. We could say that what we get here is an equivalent of complexity, or of content.

It would be easy to dismiss “Nothing in That Drawer” as a “novelty poem,” a one-shot joke that relies on a gesture of blanket reductiveness and aesthetic deflation. From a more indulgent perspective, however, one can read it as a test of Tynianov’s claim that equivalents of the text “do not signify a weakening, a lowering or a rest in the process of the developing form, but, on the contrary, signify pressure and amplification” (47). Thus, what seems at first to be a minimalist rejection of structural complexity reveals itself as a demonstration of the power of our familiarity with conventional form to reassert itself in the most inhospitable and threadbare conditions. It is not the poem itself that surprises and delights, as much as our imaginative ability to invest it with the character of a proper sonnet. A common response to the poem, for instance, has been the observation that the fourteen repetitions of the title phrase seem mimetically to represent the opening and closing of consecutive drawers in a chest. Clearly such an interpretation is less a response to any specific formal or semantic information provided by the poem than it is an expression of the reader’s eagerness to supply the “missing” elements of some poetic structure of meaning.

Obviously, the example of Padgett is a limit case, as is Tynianov’s citation from Pushkin. And this, in fact, was a critique leveled against the Russian Formalists generally by their earliest opponents: that their “evidence” tended to privilege examples of extreme application of literary gestures that bare the devices of artifice. Whatever the validity of this claim, it is true that the Formalists, including Tynianov, were fascinated by the possibilities of such limit cases:

The dynamic of form is a continuous violation of automatism, a continuous pushing forward of the constructive factor and the deformation of the subordinated factors…. From this point of view, form is the continuous arrangement of diverse equivalents, heightening the dynamism. Thus, the material may be altered to the minimum amount necessary to still be a sign of the constructive principle. Similar to the way in which a tag with the inscription “forest” was sufficient in depicting the forest in the medieval theater, in poetry a tag of any element is sufficient in place of the element itself. (47)

“Nothing in That Drawer” is a perfect example—even a reductio ad absurdum—of such “tagging.” Further, its self-awareness is as extreme as its technique: it signifies its own formal precociousness as much as or more than any concern with the concepts of “nothing,” or “drawer,” or “in that,” etc.

I would suggest that an exemplary feature of avant-garde and modernist poetics generally is a tendency toward projecting such a predilection for the limit case from the sphere of criticism into the sphere of composition, creating, in effect, an aesthetics of the limit. From the visual interventions of the Futurists to the semantic distortions of the Surrealists and Dadaists to Stein’s disjunctive repetitions to Pound’s ideograms and so on, vanguard poetry of the past century has privileged exactly such a deployment of formal extremes.
To turn again to the early New York School, John Ashbery’s work, especially the radical collage of his 1962 collection The Tennis Court Oath, illustrates an especially vivid demonstration of this principle, as in the following typical passage from “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…”:

But no doubt you have understood
It all now and I am a fool. It remains
For me to get better, and to understand you so
Like a chair-sized man. Boots
Were heard on the floor above. In the garden the sunlight was still purple
But what buzzed in it had changed slightly
But not forever … but casting its shadow
On sticks, and looking around for an opening in the air, was quite as if it had never refused to exist differently. Guys
In the yard handled the belt he had made (26)

Equivalence here is achieved through the distortion of narrative unity enacted by the selection of found materials and random phrases that mix elevated and pedestrian diction; or rather, the distortion of a virtual narrative unity implied by the modulated presence of lucid grammatical structures here and there throughout the poem, and in the regularity of the quatrain structure, a stanzaic unity that is itself stretched to the limit by the ridiculously long penultimate line of the above excerpt, with its arbitrary enjambment after the first word (“Guys”) of a fresh sentence. As with Padgett’s poem, we are left with a limit-text that appears finally to be all equivalent and no source, a simulacral poetic surface. Ashbery’s more widely-read later work works on the same principle, but with a more strenuously exerted naturalizing texture, so that the illusion of motivation is foregrounded over against the unmotivated structure that supports that illusion.

In a given series [i.e., verbal or phrasal unit] (in verse), the word may be quite “empty,” that is, 1. the principal sign of its meaning may introduce an extremely small new element, or 2. it may even be not quite connected with the general “sense” of the rhythmico-syntactic unity. Meanwhile, the action of the compactness of the series reaches even to it: “although nothing is said, it seems as if something is said.” The fact of the matter is that oscillating signs of meaning may advance, defined by the compactness of the series (by the compact proximity). These may be intensified at the expense of the principal sign and in place of it, creating a “semblance of meaning” or an “apparent meaning.” (93)

This leads me to the question of contemporary practice within the context of the aforementioned limit-aesthetics. In the shadow of predecessors such as the New York School and the Language Poets, whose work foregrounds the defamiliarizing constructive principle so prominently and insistently, it is only to be expected that the techniques of disjunction and fragmentation and so forth associated with such foregrounding should come in themselves to raise the specter of a new automatism. When one has pushed limits to the limit, where does one go from there? One answer, familiar from the visual arts, for example, is a kind of postmodern neorealism, a historicizing approach involving subtly ironic uses of pastiche. Tynianov anticipates such a practice in his awareness of the availability for counter-traditional practice of the very traditions that the deformations of radical modernism have rendered “obsolete”:

A poetic vocabulary is not only created by way of continuation of a particular lexical tradition, but also by the method of opposing itself to it…. “Literary language” develops, and this development cannot be understood as a systematic development of tradition, but rather as colossal displacements of tradition (in which the partial restoration of older layers plays a large role). (71)

A book that has received a great deal of attention since its release earlier this year is Jennifer Moxley’s The Sense Record, in which predominantly first-person lyric is colored by nineteenth-century registers and references and other strongly coordinated markers of canonical “traditionalism.” Here is “Against Aubade”:

Should morning’s snubbed forsaken purpose come
in love’s complacent orbit to relent
and to our bid for endless time succumb
could we believe ourselves the more content?
Invention may give credence to a thought
ridiculous, or better yet banal
should in a wishful person it be caught
dissembling fear beneath the bacchanal;
Alone the mind can store old years anew
with furnishings our Eros will forsake
without concern, the watchman’s cry rings true
my love, we should no longer lie awake
but stellar-like in darkness drift compelled
our matter’s myth in time shall be dispelled. (53)

The sonnet’s formal makeup (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme, iambic pentameter, “elevated” diction) is so conspicuously Romantic, so superficially conservative, that Moxley’s target audience is bound to respond in an ironically attuned mode. The fact that the book seems in part intended to be capable of extending its appeal beyond that target audience suggests that the irony is multi-layered, even infinitely regressive: if The Sense Record is yet another limit case, it is one that generates the illusion of inexhaustibly regenerated limits. I say “illusion,” because there is naturally no possibility of any discursive limit actually replenishing itself perpetually in this way; once the “trick” is identified, a new limit is established and closed off.

Nathaniel Mackey’s notion of “discrepant engagement” borrows from Jacques Attali’s concept of “noise”:

["Discrepant engagement"] is an expression coined in reference to practices that, in the interest of opening presumably closed orders of identity and signification, accent fissure, fracture, incongruity, the rickety, imperfect fit between word and world. Such practices highlight—indeed inhabit—discrepancy, engage rather than seek to ignore it…. Discrepant engagement, rather than suppressing or seeking to silence that noise, acknowledges it….

Mackey cites Attali’s definition:

A noise is a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission…. Noise, then, does not exist in itself but only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed…. Information theory uses the concept of noise … in a more general way: noise is the term for a signal that interferes with the reception of a message by a receiver, even if the interfering signal itself has a meaning for that receiver.

“Noise,” Mackey elaborates, “is whatever the signifying system, in a particular situation, is not intended to transmit, be the system a poem, a piece of music, a novel, or an entire society….” The immediate difficulty that presents itself here is the question of intention: if noise is a transmission that is unintended by its system, once that system starts acknowledging and even purposely deploying that noise, it is no longer unintentional, and therefore no longer noise, by definition. If one thinks of amplifier feedback in the music of Sonic Youth, for example, it is very difficult to classify it as “noise” in a proper sense, as it is often integral to the structure of the song, however reliant the composition of the given song may be on chance procedures, randomness, etc. If we stick to the definition of noise as something that interferes with a transmission, two things become clear: 1) any exploitation of the resources of noise results in a transformation of that noise into at least the equivalent of a significant transmission; 2) it is continually necessary to redefine noise, as what was once noise quickly becomes automatized into convention. In the case of Moxley’s poem, the “noise” in question is not, as her initiated readers within a specific experimental community might expect, expressed via by-now familiar gestures such as fragmentation, repetition, deformation, and so forth, but by a “return” to eloquence. It is true that “Against Aubade” is semantically indeterminate in a manner similar to Ashbery and other postmodern abstract lyricists, but this is almost incidental. One expects a poet in Moxley’s communal category not to make sense; what one does not expect (until now, anyway) is for her to write like a Victorian. The poem’s indeterminacy thus becomes the signifying system that is interfered with by the noise of its periodized “eloquence.” Moxley’s engagement is discrepant by virtue of the dissonance between this eloquence and the expectations of her community as much as, or even more than, by virtue of the disjunctive poetics out of which she operates as a starting point.


Inevitably we circle back to the problem of defining lyric in the presence of such dissipated conditions for the articulation of categories, and to the axes of intention and appreciation that Durgin imagines. A crucial factor to consider here must be, again, what Tynianov refers to as dynamism. The status of the “I,” of musicality, of eloquence in general clearly depends on complex sets of expectations on the part of poets and their communities, and these expectations are constantly conditioned and re-conditioned anew by each new act of poesis. I suspect that the perceived problem of “subjectivity” being a troublesome legacy of the lyric is ultimately a preposterous one, that subjectivity, like any other orientation towards language and community is one effect among others, and to isolate the generic form in which it is perceived to inhere is simply to push it into a different quadrant, where it will pop up unscathed in some other vehicle. Lyric is a process, I suggest, rather than a form: as such, it does not easily admit of static denotations such as “subjective,” “social,” “asocial,” and so on. In different historical eras, one constructive principle or another has directed both the composition and reception of lyric in ways that locate the quality of “lyricism” variously inside and outside the fabric of the text and its verbal material; work by innovative writers of the past century, I submit, has more or less consistently been directed by principles of equivalence. Whether the equivalence in question is constituted by the actual substituion of one block of text for another, or by the substitution of non-text for text, or by the “substitution” of one set of compositional methods for another, anticipated one, a significant effect has been the projection of the lyric “effect”—the perceived quality of musicality or expressiveness or eloquence, however imagined—outside of the local formal method employed in the poem and onto the broader social frame of reference that shifts and transforms with each new application.

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. The Tennis Court Oath. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1962.
Durgin, Patrick F. “‘Thanks’—A Limit-Case of Attribution in the Poetry of Jackson Mac Low.” Twentieth-Century Literature Conference. University of Louisville, Kentucky. 22 Feb. 2002.
Mackey, Nathaniel. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993.
Moxley, Jennifer. The Sense Record and Other Poems. Washington, DC: Edge Books, 2002.
Padgett, Ron. Great Balls of Fire. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1990.
Stroffolino, Chris. e-mail conversation.
Tynianov, Yuri. The Problem of Verse Language. Ed. and Trans. Michael Sosa and Brent Harvey. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981
Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions +: The Collected Critical Essays. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2000.

Editor’s Note: Look for an SPT anthology stemming from our New Experiments series sometime in 2004.

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