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This article is taken from PN Review 115, Volume 23 Number 5, May - June 1997.

On Imagination and Lyric Voice Christopher Middleton

The position I will be trying to outline here is one that honours (unfashionably perhaps) imagination and lyric voice: lyric as an aural phenomenon, and imagery living in the mind. 'Not a single word is there, but the poem sounds already. The internal image sounds, touched by the poet's hearing.' Thus Osip Mandelstam in 1913. And Hugo Ball in 1917: 'The will to image. Morality detaches itself from convention and works toward one end: to hone the sense of measure and weight.' My theme, so it might be supposed, is anxiety about the activity of 'spirit' in a poem; but that theme is so volatile that it must be adumbrated rather than spelled out. These ruminations alternate between the secrecy to which Mandelstam alludes and the openness to which Ball attends, despite his (Nietzschean) disclaiming of morality in the diary entry quoted.

Through all its formally modulated vocal varieties across twenty-six centuries, lyric in the Western world has persisted as a shining access to spiritual insight, on lower as well as higher levels. Now, often enough, and not for the first time, the element is being obstructed by slaggy accretions, residual stuff. The power of lyric to voice, from generation to generation, a bold, inquiring, and sensitive lucidity against surrounding darkness, our fathomless habitat, seems to be at a low ebb. This has come about, I conjecture, because a principle is eluding us: poiesis does not mean a negative moulding of experience turned opaque, but positive creation. ...


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