Lyric and Society: Western Theory and Polish Practice

Poetry has fallen on hard times in the American academy recently. In the ideological criticism that dominates anglophone literary studies today, the lyric has become the whipping boy for ambitious scholars anxious to prove their credentials as expert unmaskers of political agendas disguised as pure art. The sins for which the lyric has been taken to task are many. To critics reared on post-structuralist theory, lyric poetry manifests a suspicious commitment to a slew of discredited values. It stubbornly buttresses the bourgeois myth of individual autonomy, or so the argument runs. It privileges personal voice over postmodern textuality; it seeks to circumvent history through attention to aesthetic form; it turns its back on the public realm in its quest for private truths; and it places transcendental timelessness over active engagement in the here-and-now. The Romantic clichés from which these charges stem have been challenged by disgruntled New Historicists and die-hard formalists alike. Still they persist: they have become staples of recent criticism.

Indeed, in much current theory the lyric now serves as a stand-in for “aesthetic isolationism” generally, that is, for art’s apparent “refusal of life actually conducted in actual society,” which in fact amounts to a “complicity with class-interested strategies of smoothing over historical conflict and contradictions with claims of natural and innate organization.” With the advent of Romanticism, Terry Eagleton explains, all art was ostensibly rescued “from the material practices, social relations and ideological meanings in which it is always caught up, and raised to the status of a solitary fetish.” And Romanticism’s favored form, the lyric, is invariably the worst offender in such socially irresponsible sleight-of-hand.

The ideological critics have taken their lead from the Russian theorist Mixail Baxtin in creating a lyric antipode to the particular vision of art and society that they themselves wish to advance. The lyric, as Baxtin sees it, is a deplorably anti-social genre. The poet’s “utopian” goal is to “speak timelessly” from an “Edenic world” “far removed from the petty rounds of everyday life.” “Authoritarian, dogmatic and conservative,” Baxtin’s poet struggles to assume “a complete single-personed hegemony over his own language,” destroying in the process “all traces” “of other people,” “of social heteroglossia and diversity of language.”

It is not surprising that this reactionary foe of otherness and diversity should find itself under fire in the American academy. But Baxtin and his hegemonic poet notwithstanding, Eastern Europe is virtually absent from recent discussions of the lyric. This omission is troubling on two counts. The underpinnings of current ideological criticism are explicitly Marxist. Yet, in a peculiarly unmarxist move, contemporary Marxist literary theory has virtually divorced itself from Marxist practice as we’ve seen it in this century. The ideological critics close their eyes to the morally bankrupt regimes that have tumbled recently in Eastern Europe. They refuse to account for the disparity between the methodology they follow in their writings and its real-life consequences in the totalitarian states of the former Soviet Bloc. If totalitarianism comes up at all in their discussions, it is only as a kind of shorthand for the evils of modern industrial society generally.

Not surprisingly, these critics also overlook the distinctive role that poetry has played in modern Eastern European history. And this is unfortunate, since that role runs directly counter to the assumptions informing current discussions of the lyric. Plato of course expelled all trouble-making poets from his ideal kingdom of the mind: Plato’s poet, a natural democrat, was “of no use to heads of state,” as Mark Edmundson remarks. The Polish poet Aleksander Wat was quick to see the analogy between Plato’s republic and the repressive regimes of post-war Eastern Europe. “Plato ordered us cast out/of the City where Wisdom reigns./In a new Ivory Tower made of (human) bones,” he writes in his poem “Dark Light.” But why should the lyric poets who, according to current doctrine, complacently uphold the bourgeois status quo prove to be so troublesome to left-wing dictators? How do the self-absorbed reactionaries of recent theory become Eastern Europe’s subversives?

“If you live in the world’s center/ You must account for everything/The living and the dead are watching you.” This phrase, taken from Adam Zagajewski’s early poem “New World” (“Nowy świat”) suggests the peculiar dimensions of lyric poetry as practiced in the country that Norman Davies has called “the heart of Europe.” The voice we hear in these lines is hardly that of the self-absorbed aesthete who passes for the lyric poet as such in recent theory. For the Polish poet the weight of the past is not simply the overwhelming literary tradition that burdens the modern artist in the essays of Eliot, Borges or Bloom. It is also the heavy load of social and civic responsibility that Poland’s writers have been expected to shoulder since the time of the partitions that erased their nation from the map of Europe in the late eighteenth century and the emergence in the early nineteenth century of the great Romantic poets—Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Zygmunt Krasiński—who felt compelled to replace their vanished state through their own poetry and prose. Polish Romanticism is the antipode then, to the otherworldly, effete form of writing condemned by Eagleton and others. And the discrepancy between these two versions of Romanticism not only points to the tacit ethnocentricism that shapes current critical debates on the nature of Romantic writing. It also hints at the radical oversimplification that marrs recent ideological “demystifications” of Romantic aesthetics (“Where are the starving peasants in ‘Tintern Abbey’?” one Wordsworth scholar has famously complained: her charge sounds strangely familiar to the student of Socialist Realism.) And it suggests the limits of the singularly blinkered definition of lyric poetry that has taken root in recent scholarship.