Extract from work on the poetry of Nerys Williams: Writing the ‘Collapsed Lyric’

by Dr Matthew Jarvis

[This extract follows a consideration of some reviews of Nerys Williams’s 2011 poetry collection Sound Archive.[1]]

In the context of assessments that register notions of difficulty, complexity, and bafflement, it is helpful to turn to Williams’s commentary on her own work that she advances in interview with Alice Entwistle in the 2014 volume In Her Own Words: Women Talking Poetry and Wales.[2] Here, then, Williams expresses the intriguing idea of pursuing what she calls the ‘collapsed lyric’[3] – a notion that is, Williams suggests, intended to describe a poetic practice that is to do with ‘a breaking-down of lyrical expectations’,[4] most particularly the notion of a single, coherent voice. Thus, Williams explains that:

You could think of [the ‘collapsed lyric’] as the expanding and collapsing bellows of an accordion, which sometimes produces a cacophony of dissonance and competing notes, and often only the insistence of one solitary tone. I guess I’m trying to find a term that moves us away from Bakhtinian ideas of polyphony while avoiding taking a single speaking voice for granted.[5]

What Williams appears to be suggesting here is that her concern is to create a sort of poetry that is crucially variegated, both embracing and steering clear of the coherence of the ‘single speaking voice’ or the ‘one solitary tone’.  A key reference point in Williams’s thinking at this point is the twentieth-century Russian literary critic and thinker Mikhail Bakhtin – specifically his notion of polyphony. And this refers to ideas put forward in Bakhtin’s 1963 volume Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, in which he argues that:

A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels. What unfolds in his works is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.[6]

Williams’s point, of course, is to see the embrace of the ‘plurality of unmerged voices and consciousnesses’ that Bakhtin outlines as one that she seeks somehow to move beyond – in pursuit of a poetics in which polyphony can exist alongside the ‘single speaking voice’, but without assuming a primacy for the latter (without, in her terms, ‘taking [the single speaking voice] for granted’). Indeed, in her use of the word ‘cacophony’ as expressing what she is sometimes trying to achieve poetically, Williams seems to evoke not just multiplicity but the sort of radical incoherence that Bakhtin suggests would be a fundamental misinterpretation of Dostoevsky’s polyphonic aesthetic. Thus, Bakhtin argues that:

From the viewpoint of a consistently monologic visualization and understanding of the represented world, […] Dostoevsky’s world may seem a chaos, and the construction of his novels some sort of conglomerate of disparate materials and incompatible principles for shaping them. Only in the light of Dostoevsky’s fundamental artistic task […] can one begin to understand the profound organic cohesion, consistence and wholeness of Dostoevsky’s poetics.[7]

Williams, by contrast, seems happy with ‘cacophony’. So her notion of the collapsed lyric is seemingly a vision of a poetry that is both monologic (in other words, a single-voiced enterprise) and also disruptively polyphonic – by which I mean that the latter may be pursued to the point of dissonance. Or to put it another way, the collapsed lyric as Williams proposes it both draws back from and goes disruptively beyond the organically unified polyphony that Bakhtin sees in Dostoevsky.

§   §   §

Perhaps the clearest place to start in considering such matters is with the issue of multi-vocality itself – at least in part because the opening poem of Sound Archive is, I think, an interesting negotiation between ‘solitary tone’ and ‘competing notes’ (to use Williams’s own terms for the formal issue that is in play here). The poem in question, ‘Kinetic Melodies’, starts with a speaking voice that suggests an origin in academic discourse in its discussion of ‘phonemes’ and ‘dialogic imagination’:

It is easy to speak of language as ownership,
your purring phonemes are not my right
nor any dialogic imagination.

Notably, the reference to ‘dialogic imagination’ here is another gesture towards Bakhtin, this being the title given to a 1981 translation of four of his essays.[8] However, what is significant in this context is the speaker’s sense, across the second and third lines of this stanza, that she has no ‘right’ to a ‘dialogic imagination’ – in other words, no right to an imagination which is defined by polyphony. Someone else’s language – ‘your purring phonemes’, in the words of the poem – is not hers. As is the case in Williams’s interview with Alice Entwistle, there is a suggestion here that ‘Bakhtinian ideas of polyphony’ are somehow not entirely satisfactory, or at least not a desired culmination-point within this poetics.
Nonetheless, notwithstanding this opening element of the poem’s sense, it is simultaneously the case that the poem as a whole tends in a direction that seeks precisely to include a ‘dialogic imagination’ as part of its textual character – however much its opening speaker may declare that she has no right to ‘phonemes’ from elsewhere. Most obviously, the narrating voice of the poem’s first five stanzas is a striking tonal mixture. Specifically, its initial style of academic reference gives way, in stanza two, to what reviewer Alison Brackenbury describes as a ‘humorously surreal’ quality,[9] with the speaker finding herself ‘nude, addressing a crowd’. The second line of stanza three shifts to a mode which introduces the wittily gnomic utterance of ‘An empty lectern, a thousand eyes’, whilst stanza four variously incorporates:

1. Dylan Thomas (in the phrase ‘colour of saying’);[10]
2. another hint of academic discussions of language (in a reference to dialect); and

3. the English idiomatic phraseology of ‘tall tales’.

Stanza five is different again, as the loss of both ‘I’ and ‘my’ creates the stylistic impression of a far more objective narrator:

After storm fields have disappeared
sulphur fills the air where the tree stands.

I do not think it is the case that such shifts in register and style constitute Bakhtin’s radical artistic vision of a ‘plurality of unmerged voices and consciousnesses’ that I referred to earlier – although, I think one can certainly argue that the more objective narrator of stanza five is a distinctly different voice from the more personal, first-person tones of the initial two stanzas, with their deployment of ‘I’, and ‘my’.  Nonetheless, even if there are only a couple of distinct voices in the first five stanzas of ‘Kinetic Melodies’, the shifts of register and style do seem to gesture towards a certain linguistic plurality within the poem’s texture. Moreover, in addition to this, the poem’s sixth and final stanza unequivocally introduces a completely new voice, ensuring that the overall movement of the piece is out and away from the first person lyric voice of its opening – and towards at least an element of vocal plurality. Here, then, the tree mentioned at the end of stanza four is given the chance to speak, which it does in terms that gesture towards elemental forces:

Here it says I am branch
root and hollow, rub my charcoal into clean hands,
serenade me with your speech,
curse the carrion crow below.

But what is perhaps most interesting, in terms of a poetic engagement with ideas of voice as such, is the sense in which one voice in this final stanza calls for the response of another, as it urges the reader (or an unspecified interlocutor) to ‘serenade me with your speech’ and ‘curse the carrion crow below’. There is, in other words, the strong sense here of the desire for an antiphonal ethos, a notion of call-and-response. Or perhaps, as Williams puts it to Alice Entwistle in discussing her experience of bilingualism (Cymraeg and English): ‘I really do think that knowing more than one language teaches adaptability and gives you an openness to shifting gears from early on.’[11] The movement between registers and voices in this first poem of Sound Archive is, in these terms, precisely ‘an openness to shifting gears’ within the poetic moment.

[1] Nerys Williams, Sound Archive (Bridgend: Seren, 2011).

[2] ‘Nerys Williams’, in Alice Entwistle, ed., In Her Own Words: Women Talking Poetry and Wales (Bridgend: Seren, 2014), pp. 193-207.

[3] ‘Nerys Williams’, p. 197.

[4] ‘Nerys Williams’, p. 198.

[5] ‘Nerys Williams’, p. 198.

[6] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. by Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 6; emphases in original.

[7] Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, p. 8.

[8] Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. by Michael Holquist; trans. by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981).

[9] Alison Brackenbury, Rev. of Sound Archive by Nerys Williams and The Sleepwalker at Sea by Kelly Grovier, Poetry Wales, 47/2 (Autumn 2011), pp. 59-60: p. 59.

[10] See ‘Once it was the colour of saying’, in Dylan Thomas, The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The New Centenary Edition, ed. by John Goodby (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014), pp. 107-8.

[11] ‘Nerys Williams’, p. 202.