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Lyric Shame

Lyric Shame

The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry

Gillian White

ISBN 9780674734395

Publication date: 10/13/2014

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Bringing a provocative perspective to the poetry wars that have divided practitioners and critics for decades, Gillian White argues that the sharp disagreements surrounding contemporary poetics have been shaped by “lyric shame”—an unspoken but pervasive embarrassment over what poetry is, should be, and fails to be.

Favored particularly by modern American poets, lyric poetry has long been considered an expression of the writer’s innermost thoughts and feelings. But by the 1970s the “lyric I” had become persona non grata in literary circles. Poets and critics accused one another of “identifying” with lyric, which increasingly bore the stigma of egotism and political backwardness. In close readings of Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Bernadette Mayer, James Tate, and others, White examines the social and critical dynamics by which certain poems become identified as “lyric,” arguing that the term refers less to a specific literary genre than to an abstract way of projecting subjectivity onto poems. Arguments about whether lyric poetry is deserving of praise or censure circle around what White calls “the missing lyric object”: an idealized poem that is nowhere and yet everywhere, and which is the product of reading practices that both the advocates and detractors of lyric impose on poems. Drawing on current trends in both affect and lyric theory, Lyric Shame unsettles the assumptions that inform much contemporary poetry criticism and explains why the emotional, confessional expressivity attributed to American lyric has become so controversial.


  • Important, insightful and very much of our time, White’s book will get noticed immediately, as it should—and it will certainly affect current debates about ‘lyric’ and ‘poetry’ and the contemporary. This volume takes its place in a line of books about how aesthetic effects in modern and contemporary poetry come from, and speak to, intellectual history, to institutions, and to social life: there’s a lot we can learn from it.

    —Stephanie Burt, coauthor of The Art of the Sonnet


  • Gillian White is Associate Professor of English at the University of Michigan.

Book Details

  • 360 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press