Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, October 15, 2006

The expression "lyric" poetry refers to the lyre, a stringed instrument that in the ancient world accompanied recitation. The term implies intimacy on a personal scale: an instrument held in the hand rather than a musical ensemble; one person's voice instead of a choir. Solitude or even loneliness may be suggested. That feeling has rarely been expressed with more conviction, in less space, than in one of the best-known poems of John Clare (1793-1864):


I AM -- yet what I am, none cares or knows;

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:

I am the self-consumer of my woes --

They rise and vanish in oblivion's host,

Like shadows in love frenzied stifled throes

And yet I am, and live -- like vapors tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my lifes esteems;

Even the dearest that I love the best

Are strange -- nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod

A place where woman never smiled or wept

There to abide with my Creator God,

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie

The grass below, above, the vaulted sky.

Clare makes a sublime song from what some might call self-pity. The intensity of his "vast shipwreck" where those he loves are "stranger than the rest" comes from his lonely heart, candidly and entirely personal. That viewpoint underlines the poignancy of his craving for an "untroubling and untroubled" sleep.

The contemporary poet C.D. Wright establishes a jaunty, comic air in a lyric poem that, like Clare's, implies the isolation of a single soul, known yet not known, with its unique peculiarities and history. Wright takes her title from a section of the newspaper:


Some nights I sleep with my dress on. My teeth

are small and even. I don't get headaches.

Since 1971 or before, I have hunted a bench

where I could eat my pimento cheese in peace.

If this were Tennessee and across that river, Arkansas,

I'd meet you in West Memphis tonight. We could

have a big time. Danger, shoulder soft.

Do not lie or lean on me. I am still trying to find a job

for which a simple machine isn't better suited.

I've seen people die of money. Look at Admiral Benbow. I wish

like certain fishes, we came equipped with light organs.

Which reminds me of a little known fact:

if we were going the speed of light, this dome

would be shrinking while we were gaining weight.

Isn't the road crooked and steep.

In this humidity, I make repairs by night. I'm not one

among millions who saw Monroe's face

in the moon. I go blank looking at that face.

If I could afford it I'd live in hotels. I won awards

in spelling and the Australian crawl. Long long ago.

Grandmother married a man named Ivan. The men called him

Eve. Stranger, to tell the truth, in dog years I am up there.

Each of the miscellaneous, even random, details has some relation to the "I" who begins the poem. The babble of information comes from a lyric, intimate perspective.

In a way, Wright's poem, illustrates Clare's "vapors" and "oblivion's host." Both poems sing the plaint of being one soul, with the host of traits and quirks that make each individual different -- enduring, however solitary, in the "nothingness of scorn and noise."

(John Clare's poem "I am" is available in collections of his work. C.D. Wright's poem "Personals" is from "String light: poems." University of Georgia Press. Copyright 1991 by C.D. Wright)

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