Learning to ‘re-see’ the pervasiveness of lyric poetry across cultures

As convenor of the Franke Lecture series this fall, Ayesha Ramachandran is inviting audiences to dive into lyric poetry — across time, cultures, and languages.
Ayesha Ramachandran with a poem in Shikasta script from 1779.

Ayesha Ramachandran and a poem in Shikasta script, 1779 (Yale University Art Gallery). Shikasta, a Persian calligraphic poetric style, “favours beauty over legibility” — an aestheticised, highly symbolic form of poetry.

During the pandemic lockdown, Yale’s Ayesha Ramachandran tried an experiment in poetry consumption.

Ramachandran, an associate professor of comparative literature, bought stacks of books of contemporary poetry and committed to reading a volume a night. The exercise proved to be “incredible,” she said, because over time it taught her not just what she likes and doesn’t like in contemporary poems, but also about the cultural place of poems in our contemporary world.

I think that we’ve become a culture that doesn’t think we can consume poetry in large quantities, except when we are listening to song albums,” said Ramachandran, a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “But we read novels, we read blogs, we read magazines.”

As this year’s instructor of the Franke Seminar in the Humanities, and convenor of the accompanying Franke Lecture series, Ramachandran is inviting her audience to take a similar deep dive, but this one into lyric poetry, as considered across time, cultures, and languages. The theme echoes that of the Model Research Collection she recently curated for the Bass Library, and is also the subject of her current book project, “Lyric Thinking: Towards a Global Poetics.”

In anticipation of the fall Franke lecture series (which kicks off Sept. 19 with a talk by the University of Chicago’s Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy) Ramachandran spoke with Yale News about the pervasiveness of lyric poetry in the world, her expansive approach to the form, and the importance of reciting poetry out loud. The interview has been edited and condensed for space.

How do you define “lyric” poetry?

Ayesha Ramachandran: I define lyric for the purposes of the Model Research Collection, my class, and for the book I’m writing as a shortish poem that comes from a first-person standpoint, and that is concerned with a distinctive existential stance, the world as seen from the perspective of the person.

For me, lyric represents the many forms that hold an ethical commitment to the question of the particular — the particular person, the particular self, the particular place. It’s a more capacious vision of what lyric is than most literary scholars would be comfortable holding. By this definition, certain kinds of prose are lyric, and certain kinds of poems are not lyric.

There is also a crucial, underlying politics in my work with lyric. Lyric often gets divided up among national literary traditions. Particularly in the West, the emergence of lyric becomes associated with modernity, and thus, racialized. Historically non-Anglo- European cultures have been deemed not to have “lyric” because they’re not modern, not “Western,” not white.

This complicated racial separation of who gets to have lyric and who doesn’t is simply not true to the long history of the form. I insist that what I call ‘lyric’ is global, diverse, and inclusive in response to a long literary tradition of keeping separate Anglo-European poems from other parts of the world as well as to the politics of what gets to count as lyric and what doesn’t.

Is lyric prevalent across Western and non-Western cultures?

Ramachandran: I would say, yes absolutely. Others would say that it depends on what you mean by lyric. There are consequences to applying a word like lyric — which comes out of Greek and an Anglo-European lexical tradition — to literary cultures that don’t have that word or an easy equivalent.

Part of the purpose of defining lyric so capaciously is it allows us to think about the different places occupied by this kind of writing in a range of different literary cultures. We can identify poems that share a first-person existential stance in languages all across the world. It’s a phenomenon that we see in Western and non-Western traditions equally. We need to move beyond focusing only on the differences between cultures, languages, and particular poetic forms in order also to see continuities.

Poets themselves tend to be interested ecumenically in poems across histories and traditions; many poems have thus had a huge influence across cultural and linguistic lines. The classic example that we always give of this phenomenon in comparative literature is the German poet Goethe who wrote his poetic collection, “The West-Eastern Divan,” inspired by the Persian poet Hafiz even though he couldn’t read Persian. He didn’t have access to Hafiz except in translation, but he called Hafiz his spiritual brother. How is it possible for poets across time, space, and languages to still want to learn and see things in other poetic cultures?

Your Modern Research Collection explores how lyric can shape political formations, its use across religions and spiritual practices, its circulation across multiple forms of media and art. In looking through the online exhibit, I was surprised by just how pervasive lyric has been across time and in so many aspects of human existence, at least the way you define it. How does it show up today? Is it sort of hiding in plain sight?

Ramachandran: The short answer is yes. We often associate lyric with a kind of high aesthetic cultural form, certainly within the university. Things like song lyrics or liturgies associated with different religious rituals often get sent off to anthropology or ethnomusicology or religious studies, and don’t get studied in literature departments. I’m committed to reminding us that lyric is, and has always been, a part of the cultural life of pretty much any part of the world.

If you type in “lyric” on a Google search, the results are incredible. The Internet is buzzing with poetry. Should we as academics and teachers dismiss that popular poetic culture that is not worth studying, or do we take it seriously?

In a Beinecke Library talk you gave last spring about your Modern Research Collection, you said you require your students to memorize poetry. Why is that important?

Ramachandran: You come to know a poem intimately and very differently when it’s in your mouth. Poetry is sound, and sound is produced in a somatic way. Whatever amount of visual engagement you might have with poems, you never quite hear the careful craft of its music, its phonics, the way in which sound transforms sense until it’s part of your body. Recitation achieves that.

Poetry recitation is part of many cultures’ fabric. Take religion: the liturgy is an act of recitation. Hymn singing is an act of recitation. It’s about bringing it back to your body. In the process, poetry also becomes a shared language. An act of community building happens when recitation is a shared practice.

How did you select the poets who will be speaking in the Franke Lecture Series?

Ramachandran: I seek to confront the histories of racial separation in lyric and to imagine a different way we can approach these poems across cultural traditions. The poets I’ve invited have all thought about these questions in different ways.

Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy [a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Chicago] is giving a talk about poets who have written poems in their second or third languages. Marilyn Hacker learned Arabic and has translated extensively from the Arabic and from French. She’s also one of the most important queer poets living in America today. Robin Coste Lewis is a major Black poet who has written about the complicated interracial family histories that she herself has delved into. And Linda Gregerson [director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan] is somebody who has written about what it means to be a woman and a writer, and to think about the natural world.

Each of these poets confronts the fraught legacies of subjectivity in the history of the lyric. We usually see a lot of white men when we teach lyric poetry. With my Franke Seminar students, I want to re-see that history.

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