“One Hell of a Lot of Muck”: On Joyce, Pound, and Better Defining the Lyric Essay

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

During the winter of 1913, Ezra Pound was serving as secretary to William Butler Yeats, while at the same time assembling an anthology of Imagist poets. Pound reportedly asked Yeats if there was anyone he had forgotten to include. Yeats recalled the work of a young Irish writer named James Joyce and encouraged Pound to write to him.

Pound wrote at once, but in the meantime Yeats tracked down a copy of a Joyce poem he had admired—“I Hear an Army Charging upon the Land”—so Pound quickly wrote a second letter even before the first was answered, asking if he could include the poem in his anthology.

Joyce said yes, and then did what every beginning writer is told never to do—he sent Pound a typescript of his book of short stories Dubliners and a chapter of a new novel called A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

A little while later Joyce sent Pound the manuscript of Ulysses.

Apparently Pound was much more open than most of the editors I’ve met to having an author’s entire output of unpublished work dumped on him in manuscript. Joyce and Pound became lifelong friends, and Pound kindly helped place many of Joyce’s stories and chapters in magazines. He also talked up the Irish author’s genius to his numerous contacts in the literary world. It was Pound, for instance, who brought Joyce’s work to the attention of Harriet Weaver, who was later to become Joyce’s chief financial backer, and Sylvia Beach, the Paris bookseller who would eventually publish Ulysses.

Presumably, it helped that Joyce’s prose was so accomplished and musical. But all in all, the friendship and Pound’s generosity are legend.

Pound wrote nearly eighty letters to Joyce between 1914 and 1920, and readers might be surprised to hear just how much the literary scene one hundred years ago resembles the anxious jockeying for publication that occurs today. Imagine the following excerpted letter, the first between the two, as a conversation held in the lobby bar at the 1913 AWP Conference, had there been one, held perhaps in Vienna (with Trotsky and Freud as keynote speakers):

15 December 1913
10, Church Walle, Kensington. W.
James Joyce Esq. 

Dear Sir:

Mr Yeats has been speaking to me of your writing. I am informally connected with a couple of new and impecunious papers (“The Egoist” which has coursed under the unsuitable name of “The New Freewoman” ‘guere que d’ hommes y collaborent’ as the Mercure remarked of it—and the “Cerebrilist” which means God knows what—anyhow they are about the only organs in England that stand and stand for free speech and want [longhand: (I don’t say get)] literature. The latter can pay a little, the former practically can not pay at all, we do it for larks and to have a place for markedly modern stuff.

I also collect for two American magazines which pay top rates, I cannot however promise publication in them as I have no absolute powers for accepting mss.

[. . .]

“The Smart Set” wants top notch stories. “Poetry” wants top notch poetry, I do not answer for the editorial conception of “top notch” but they pay 2 bob a line and get most of the best people (and one hell of a lot of muck). As I don’t in the least know what your present stuff is like, I can only offer to read what you send, Essays etc. could only go into the “C” or “E.”

Appearance in the Egoist may have a slight advertising value if you want to keep your name familiar. 

[. . . ]

I am bonae voluntatis,—don’t in the least know that I can be of any use to. You—or you to me. From what W. B. Y. says I imagine we have a hate or two in common—but that’s a very problematical bond on introduction.

Yours sincerely

Ezra Pound

(The Letters of Ezra Pound to James Joyce, with Pound’s essays on Joyce, ed. Forrest Read [New York, New Directions, 1967])

My attention was drawn to Freud and Pound, and their fascinating relationship and correspondence, because of the essay Joey Franklin wrote for the Writer’s Chronicle in September 2012. In his essay, “Essaying ‘The Thing’: An Imagiste Approach to the Lyric Essay,” Franklin reminds us of Pound’s two-line poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” perhaps the most famous and finest example we have of concision and imagery:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Franklin points out the three major tenets of the imagist philosophy championed by Pound and exhibited in his “Metro” poem:

1. To treat the subject (“The Thing”) directly.

2. To “use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.”

3. To compose according to musicality, rather than formal meter. 

Franklin goes on to write: 

The Imagiste philosophy, however vague, furnished artists with a new aesthetic that championed the descriptive primacy of the fragmented image over the hackneyed symbol, the emotional authority of brevity and directness over sentimental verbosity and roundabout storytelling, and the rhythmic significance of the creative impulse over the dogmatic adherence to form. Reading of Pound’s experience at the Metro, the way the moment moved him, the way he worked and fought to get to the heart of the matter, coming at the experience again and again, trying to make not just emotional, but psychological sense of what the experience meant to him, I cannot help but think of the lyric essay and its practitioners, working in fragments of memory and experience, often in brief, barely narrative prose, privileging artful style, not at the expense of, but as the primary vehicle for conveying emotionally charged experience.

I was excited by Franklin’s linking Pound’s movement to the lyric essay because it has perturbed me to see how the definition of the lyric has been all over the place in the last decade or so. “Lyric” has been applied to everything from wholly impenetrable essays that offer dense, swaggering language with no discernible reason for being—no “there” there—(this is just my own cranky opinion, of course) –to beautifully focused essays, such as Lia Purpura’s work or the essays of Eula Biss, that ruminate, explore, interrogate, and do basically what Montaigne did, but with a poet’s precise ear for language and imagery.

My second concern has been how often “lyric” is used to mean anything experimental. Ander Monson, whose work I admire greatly, is often called a lyric essayist. I think he is experimental, boundary-pushing, smart as a whippet, and that he occasionally writes a lyric essay, but it is a mistake to lump all his work into one basket, especially a basket with such a loose weave.

Finally, I see “lyric” often applied to any essay that presents itself as fragments. I think the fragmented essay and the lyric essay are two different categories entirely.

The lyric essay is lyric.

The fragmented essay is fragmented.

Sometimes the fragmented essay is also a lyric essay, but not all the time.

The best definition of the lyric up until now has been Deborah Tall and John D’Agata’s co-written introduction in the fall 1997 issue of Seneca Review:

The recent burgeoning of creative nonfiction and the personal essay has yielded a fascinating sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem. These “poetic essays” or “essayistic poems” give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation. The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form . . . The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.

This is only about one-quarter of a much longer definition. It is beautifully written—a lyric essay on the lyric essay—but also confusingly broad. Like the lyric essay itself, Tall and D’Agata’s definition seems to “stalks its subject like quarry,” to elucidate “through the dance of its own delving.”

I think this sort of definition has led to the world we find ourselves in now, where anything unclassifiable under the main three sub-genres—memoir, literary journalism, the personal or Montaignean essay—gets shoehorned into lyric, whether the shoe fits or not.

Consider again the definition proposed by Franklin, paraphrasing Pound:

1. To treat the subject (“The Thing”) directly.

2. To “use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.”

3. To compose according to musicality, rather than formal meter.

And now read the opening to a flash lyric essay, “Candy,” by Diane Seuss:

My first box of candy came when I was twelve years old, from Nick, the class stud. Ah, it was garish, the box shaped like we pretend hearts are shaped; a huge red plane floating in space like Pangaea before the great rift. Did I open the box and bring those soft mounds to my lips or did I preserve it in the Museum of Love in my bedroom closet? On that question my memory is a mute swan, though I remember what I was wearing when he first kissed me—a strange, spongy pressing together of our cupid’s cusps behind the high school during a football game—olive green levis with a gold pinstripe, yellow sweatshirt, and a white faux fur coat, not luxurious fakery, like ermine, but pilly and rough, like the skin of a white bear. He was one of those boys of whom it was said he could have anything or anyone he wanted, one of five golden sons of a registered nurse and an alcoholic owner of a construction company. 

The definition, I think, fits nicely. Like the skin of a white bear.

To be fully honest, I’m not sure what Pound saw in Joyce’s poems that seemed imagistic, or why he thought the poems were good. To my ear, Joyce’s poems seem antiquated, impersonal, and falsely dramatic. But Pound and Joyce are literary geniuses. They don’t need my approval.

Joyce’s prose is better, as we all know.

Consider this paragraph from the first chapter of Portrait of the Artist:

There was a cold night smell in the chapel. But it was a holy smell. It was not like the smell of the old peasants who knelt at the back of the chapel at Sunday mass. That was a smell of air and rain and turf and corduroy. But they were very holy peasants. They breathed behind him on his neck and sighed as they prayed. They lived in Clane, a fellow said: there were little cottages there and he had seen a woman standing at the half-door of a cottage with a child in her arms as the cars had come past from Sallins. It would be lovely to sleep for one night in that cottage before the fire of smoking turf, in the dark lit by the fire, in the warm dark, breathing the smell of the peasants, air and rain and turf and corduroy.

So lovely.

I propose, with a nod to Pound, Joyce, and Franklin, and paying due honor to Tall and D’Agata for launching the category with passion and verve, a new definition of the lyric essay, one that does not elucidate “through the dance of its own delving,” but rather attempts to elucidate though precision, clarity, and straightforwardness:

The lyric essay is sharply focused on imagery, poetic compression, and the musicality of language, often but not always forgoing conventional narrative technique.

Too simple? Maybe.

But I am bonae voluntatis, as Pound would say. And ready now to, once again, lose myself in “the warm dark, breathing the smell of . . . air and rain and turf and corduroy.”