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Sunday, 31 October 2010





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Lyricism and lyrically crafted fiction

Part 2:

Lyrical fiction writings no doubt share commonalties with poetry, in terms of textural features, that may make the reader at times feel that a richly lyrical novel tends to blur the borders between novel and poem. A very significant perspective on this line of discussion is found in “The Lyric Present: Simple Present Verbs in English Poems” by George T. Wright published in PMLA (Vol.89 No.3 May 1974) which is an academic article which proved invaluable to me in the course of my BA dissertation which was a study of lyricism in Michael Ondaatje’s novels.

George Wright’s theorem –‘lyric tense’

Michael Ondaatje

Wright (1974) identifies as part of the ‘poetic practice’ of certain poets, amongst the Romantics such as Yeats, Blake, Keats (and others), whose lines of verse are in the ‘present tense’ with verbs in simple present and present progressive. In the article Wright sates – “Modern poets especially have found many effective uses for progressive verbs. But the simple present has remained central in poems, apparently because it carries meanings and overtones that have become important to poets.” Thereby it is evident by Wright’s perspective that the use of progressive verbs is a poetic technique employed by poets for composing verse. Wright further states that there is a temporal factor underlying in the use of simple present and progressive verbs. A certain sense of ‘timelessness’ is imbued into the lines that form verse when written in simple present and present progressive verbs as theorized by George T. Wright. Wright sates thus –“By using the simple present without specifying the time of the action, the poet locates it in a realm outside our normal conscious time world, where every event must be assigned a more precise temporality.” Dealing with the temporality aspect of how the reader would feel the ‘time’ in which the action described/narrated is situated when reading, Wright presents a term which he calls the ‘lyric tense’, which is stated as “To put in linguistic terms, it has often been noted that the simple present is an unmarked tense, as opposed to past tenses (marked with –ed most often). In the poetic phrases I speak of here, not only is the present verb itself unmarked by morphological markers as in speech; it is unmarked by syntactical or contextual signals as well, which can hardly ever happen with action verbs in speech. In effect, therefore, what we find in such verbs is a new aspect or tense, neither past nor present but timeless –in its feeling a lyric tense.”

Michael Ondaatje’s use of the ‘lyric tense’

This ‘lyric tense’ is a feature that is a signature characteristic in Michael Ondaatje’s craft of fiction writing. Ondaatje has employed this technique of the lyric tense starting from his maiden novel Coming Through Slaughter and is a constant feature stylistic of the texts/novels In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient, Divisadero (his latest novel). Another things to keep in mind would be that some of the ‘lyrical imagery’ discussed afore are also found written in the ‘lyrical tense’. Therefore one may suggest that in works such as The English Patient (which won great critical acclaim for its intensely rich lyricism) Ondaatje evokes the sense of the lyric through both imagery and tense bound with lyrical potency interweaving them as one. And thereby such an element –a ‘lyrical image’ (if one may venture to term it as such) narrated in lyric tense may be called a notable ‘lyrical property’. The novels of Michael Ondaatje when studied with attention to textual detail will reveal patterns of such lyrical properties that can be viewed as characterizing much of the lyrical form, and being constituents that makes his prose based writings evoke a strong sense of lyricism to the reader.

The notion of an ‘eternal present’ through ‘timelessness’ Wright’s essay discusses of how the technique of lyric writing is meant to create in the reader a sense of an ‘eternal present’. This idea is takes a very scholarly interdisciplinary turn towards psychology, philosophy and literature when Wright cites from the work of Susanne K. Langer, an American philosopher whose studies focused on the mind and art and how symbolic representations and meanings are rendered. Wright in his essay cites from Langer’s work Feeling and Form (1953) touching on the aspect of ‘virtual memory’ as being one way of looking at literature according to Langer’s theorizing. This paves the pathway to understand what probably lies at the base of the ‘lyric tense’ to understand what tenet it may be linked to, and that being the facet of ‘subjectivity’. Lyricism being thought of as significantly built on a poetic form of expression, can be viewed as containing the idea of deep-seated emotional expressionism. And for a creation, be it in literature, art or the other manifold art forms (such as cinema and digital art) to be integrally linked to the creator’s emotional being, must strongly infer that the work is very ‘subjective’ of its sentiments, emotions etc. One of the tenets of lyricism which at times maybe more harder to pin down, unlike the textural elements of musicality and even sensuality, is ‘subjectivity’. A certain perspective to academically grasp this notion of how the lyrical quality of ‘subjectivity’ in a poem is captured or reflected through the ‘lyric tense’ that Wright propounds, is found in what is cited from Langer’s work in Wright’s essay. “The whole creation in a lyric is an awareness of a subjective experience, and the tense of subjectivity is the “timeless” present. This kind of poetry has the “closed” character of the mnemonic mode, without the historical fixity that outward events bestow on real memories…Lyric writing is a specialized technique that constructs an impression or an idea as something experienced, in a sort of eternal present…the lyric poet creates a sense of concrete reality from which the time element has been cancelled out, leaving a Platonic sense of “eternity.” (p. Langer’s italics)”

Looking at the perspective proponed by Langer there seems a certain amount of validation towards Wright’s assertion on the simple present and present progressive verb tenses being lyrical on account of the temporal factor. The quality of subjectivity would be achieved therefore since the immediacy of an action being described or an emotion being conveyed would seem more personal than when it is being said/described to the reader in past tense. When an act/action is being narrated in the tense that denotes the present and not the past the reader is apt to feel the realness of it with more connectivity as it renders its presence in the reader’s mind as happening here and now at the point of reading. Therefore the effect would be more intense than one that is narrated in the ‘past tense’ which is the norm when it comes to prose fiction. This technique of the ‘lyric tense’ when used to narrate a prose piece of fiction appears to be remarkably effective in generating a lyrical quality, which could be adopted by writer’s who wish imbue their prose fiction with a sense of lyricism.


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