“And so poetry is not a shopping list, a casual disquisition on the colors of the sky, a soporific daydream, or bumpersticker sloganeering. Poetry is a political action undertaken for the sake of information, the faith, the exorcism and the lyrical invention, that telling the truth makes possible. Poetry means taking control of the language of your life. Good poems can interdict a suicide, rescue a love affair and build a revolution in which speaking and listening to somebody becomes the first and last purpose to every social encounter.”
Lyric Thinking is a curated collection and a thought experiment.
How does lyric poetry move through the world? What place does it have in our cultural, social, political worlds? And why do lyrics—whether understood as literary masterpieces or the words to our favorite songs—continue to touch us in both “body and soul”?
More precisely: how might we begin to think about and study these questions, which cut across so many disciplines and languages, require a vast archive, and demand a variety of intellectual approaches? Asked to choose 1000 books from the immense reaches of the Yale University Library to create a “model research collection” that would respond to these large-scale ruminations, I found myself at a loss. There were the poems I loved and ways in which I have thought, written and taught them; the poems I study and linger over in my current book project; the poems I have argued about with fellow scholars and readers. And then, there are poems I read furtively in bed at night; poems I have shared with friends and lovers; the songs I grimly sing along to in anger while cleaning. There were also the poems in the world’s many languages which I did not know and would never be able to read because they are untranslated, known only to those who share their linguistic and cultural sphere.
The scholarly study of lyric poetry often does not concatenate the popular and the canonical, the sentimental and the sublime. Scholars trace magic circles of knowledge: inside the charmed ring of light is what we feel we can know and master and the murky darkness beyond hides all we cannot know. But a “model research collection,” I was persuaded, must also model this challenge of all research—that is, contending with what we can know, what we think is worth knowing, while also evoking in broad strokes, the canvas of all that lurks in the darkness. At the same time, I also had to come up with a curated list of 1000 books that would be both a springboard and a wide-ranging foundation from to think about lyric poetry in the world.
The mind map above illustrates the thought experiment that underlies this particular collection of books. It tries to imagine all the ways in which lyric poetry might be studied in an expansive, generative framework, by thinking in terms of conceptual connections across the humanities. On the left of the map are lyric’s traditional literary connections—to the histories of poetry in the world’s languages; to politics and social change; to expressions of identity and the body. While on the right of the map are lyric’s perhaps unexpected connections, through its performance and material dissemination (not only in writing, but in art, music, drama, film, the internet) to other domains: religion, ritual and philosophy; nature and the environment; medicine and therapy.
using the model research collection
This map is the skeleton of Lyric Thinking. It is also an invitation to think explore and think with the examples on display online and in Bass Library. You can zoom in and out, download the map and add your own ideas. You can use it as an example of how you might think through or break down a large research question into smaller parts, until you zoom in on one single, small idea. In this way, I think of the mind map itself as mimicking the way we think with lyric poems: so much is condensed into a small space; words, sounds, images resonate in sometimes unexpected ways. We cannot hold all of it at once in other thoughts. But we are encouraged to reflect on the relations between the particular and the universal, the very specific detail and an abstract thought.
This online exhibit offers some ways into the large questions opened by Lyric Thinking. The sections offer a glimpse of some ways in which lyric poetry engages with different facets of our lives by highlighting the featured books in the Model Research Collection. At the same time, it connects these topics to materials in Yale’s Special Collections – materials that could not be displayed in Bass Library, but which showcase the archival and rare book dimensions of this project. The final section contains a fully downloadable list of all the books in the Model Research Collection, linked to their records in the Yale Library catalogue.