The content in this issue of Axon: Creative Explorations offers a set of variations upon the theme of Absent Presences, the Secret and the Unsayable. The symposium of papers and poems gathered here derives from a day-long conversation at Reading University, UK, in June 2018. Practitioners and commentators from across the UK, and colleagues connected with the International Poetry Studies Institute, University of Canberra, convened to consider several preoccupations in Contemporary Lyric writing. We explored the parameters of our general theme through panels grouped variously under the titles ‘Present Absences and Absent Presences’; ‘Keeping a Secret by Saying You’ve Got One’; ‘Ambiguous, Ambivalent, and Open Utterance’; and ‘Showing the Unsayable’. These topic headings are worth repeating now, since their residual aftermaths are evident in the texture of the material in this issue. Much of the content published here has been reworked after our June 2018 conversations, and new material has been added by colleagues unable to speak at the initial symposium. The poems also included here offer a new slant, new impetus around the shared themes. This issue of Axon, therefore, contains multiple extensions from, and new reflections on, that original moment.
What is striking is the shared dynamic of the conversation, whatever the experience of the speaker, her background in poetry. Lyric writing emerges from this colloquium as an essential element in contemporary discourse; precisely as a site or time where we are confronted by challenges to our understandings of our situation in the world. Despite the traditional origin of lyric as a means of self-singing or saying, paradoxically the symposium presents the genre as opening an enticing space of dramatic possibility and liberation—what Nathalie Pollard, one contributor here, calls an invitation for interlocutors to relish and confront ‘the instabilities of self and other’. Or, as Katharine Coles quotes Scott Black, as a challenge: ‘What does it mean … to have a space where you don’t have to be yourself, or even a self at all?’ The papers included in this issue of Axon, consequently, offer original versions of lyric consequence, in which tradition confronts a range of modernities, and in which the form itself comes under various challenges; which it always escapes in exciting and energetic ways. One of the striking aspects of this symposium is the delight taken in, and admiration displayed for, such a contrasting panoply of models for contemporary lyric possibility (Stein, Riley, Sullivan, Heaney, Rilke, Celan, Bishop, hibakusha poetry etc). That possibility is then demonstrated in the new poems, which form an important part of the dialogues presented elsewhere in this issue.
As mentioned, the threads of the shared themes of the original symposium run right through, and bring into conversation, the papers and poems gathered here. Cassandra Atherton considers the ‘objective correlatives’ of modern poetry in the light of work by atom bomb survivors; Susie Campbell reflects upon her own practice at a moment when the UK’s national commemorative actions display such blindnesses and forgetting. Conor Carville celebrates the serendipities and coincidences of childhood, and Walter Benjamin’s contention that ‘every childhood binds the accomplishments of technology to the old worlds of symbol’, as a means towards new poetry. Memory, and encounters between the human and the animal, or the non-human, are scrutinised by Katharine Coles; the self awarenesses of the lyric, the connections between writing and reading, carry lyric towards other kinds of attention, as symbolised for example in the animal. Paul Hetherington considers the paradoxical concentration of lyric poetry, whereby the naming with which it is involved often reconstitutes ‘a sense of absence’, or loss; and resists paraphrase, is otherwise irrecoverable. Steven Matthews reflects upon the drive of the symposium in its religious implication; through the trope of falling, he opens the dangerous potential of considering absences as presences. Natalie Pollard discusses the ‘disconcertingly collaborative’ aspect of reading in the lyric, and the closer attentions to the unsayable and the inarticulate that such reading involves. Peter Robinson, chief architect and scripter of the original symposium’s themes and preoccupations, reflects upon his own lyric practice, using each of the panel headings as prompt. Lesley Saunders shows the half-seen and partially-buried shapes that absence can take in poetry, and their relation both to terror and to the sacramental, the two as one.
Our gathering of practitioners speak out of, and back to, their own extensive experience with lyric writing, and often open out that experience as an aspect of their reflections. Through the papers, and then through the poems that emerge from the thought on display in the papers, the scope and exhilaration of lyric, its continuing vibrancy in harsh times, and its urgency, are amply exhibited.
Steven Matthews, editor