Symposium 4: Against Storytelling

Lyric Embarrassment: Or, Why I Can’t Tell a Story

Cover, National Geographic Magazine, 1915. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Lyric Embarrassment: Or, Why I Can’t Tell a Story

Tiffany Atkinson

When I first received Amit’s concept note for the symposium with its opening provocation, ‘Fuck storytelling!’ I felt a little pop of relief in my chest, and in the parts of me that I think love poetry and theoretical writing more than narrative writing, and I thought ‘yes, I agree, fuck it, fuck storytelling.’ How great to have a chance to think about writing without having to address that demand first and foremost, because it’s one that I find increasingly both exhausting and predictable. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy stories, I love hearing them and I love reading them, but I don’t write them and I don’t really think in them. I don’t think I am a born storyteller, so I find myself resisting first of all the association of all models of literacy with storytelling, and also the demand to couch everything in terms of story, from one’s own personal life to — in the university world, for example — research ‘trajectories’ and learning ‘outcomes’ and so forth.

Nonetheless I can see, obviously, the value and merit in storytelling, so my take against storytelling here is not really so much antagonism or direct opposition, or a desire to overthrow (which I suppose is in itself an agonistic narrative structure), but more a kind of leaning against, an askance-ness, a benign friction or pressure that at least tries to assert the value of alternative notions of language-use. The idea of a benign friction is something that interests me at the moment because it’s how I would describe embarrassment, and recently I’ve been trying to follow through a hunch that more than any other literary genre, poetry is a field prickly with embarrassment, despite the best efforts of literary theory or creative writing teaching (which are aspects of my day job) to behave otherwise. This may just be making virtue of necessity since poetry has always felt like the embarrassing other of my critical work, and the predicament of actually being a poet can be just embarrassing all round.

For example, in his recent polemic, The Hatred of Poetry (2016), poet and critic Ben Lerner describes an awkward encounter with his dentist when the subject of his own profession comes up. He reflects, ‘There’s embarrassment for the poet – couldn’t you get a real job and put your childish ways behind you? – but there’s also embarrassment on the part of the non-poet because having to acknowledge one’s total alienation from poetry chafes against the early association of poem and self.’ He continues, ‘I had the sensation that Dr. X, as he knocked the little mirror against my molars, was contemptuous of the idea that genuine poetry could issue from such an opening.’

I will return to the dentist’s surgery, and to the question of what may issue from such an opening, in due course. But I think that most poets would recognise the tenor of Lerner’s encounter and indeed I would supplement his observation with one of my own: the follow-up question that is very often asked when I admit to writing poetry, which is, ‘Oh! But have you ever thought about writing a novel?’ and there’s an unspoken but palpable second clause to that, which is, ‘…when you grow up’. And closer to home, my father, when he read my recent collection (I don’t come from a literary family at all) said, ‘Oh — what poets should do [effectively to put readers like him out of their misery] is to have the poems on one page, and then on the other page a couple of paragraphs by someone telling us what the poem was really about. Why,’ he wondered, ‘hadn’t my publisher thought of this’?

So in response to the palpable flinch that I think poetry seems to provoke in others and sometimes in oneself as a poet, I’ve been trying out this kind of what if question: that is, what if we turn towards the embarrassments of poetry reading, writing, and teaching, perhaps in an effort to find them fruitful? This follows a mode of thinking that feels to me more like the writing of a poem, which can be uncomfortable and more about hunches and the turning up of carpets, than to the tidy literary housekeeping of criticism. It is composition by discomposure perhaps. In this essay, I’d like to try to think through some aspects of lyric embarrassment as a kind of resistance to story and to storytelling, both for the writer and reader of poetry, and hopefully to argue that there may be something to be gained from this. But first, I’d like to draw out some of the connections between embarrassment and lyric poetry.

With the exception of Christopher Ricks’s Keats and Embarrassment of 1974, embarrassment has received short shrift in literary studies, despite the recent ‘affective turn’ in literary criticism. Shame, on the other hand, is the subject of a growing body of critical work, for example Elspeth Probyn’s Blush: Faces of Shame from 2005, and an edited collection called Shame and Modern Writing about to be published by Routledge. In poetry, there have also been a number of publications that have to do specifically with shame — for example, Nuar Alsadir and Denise Riley have both written powerfully about lyric shame. But I’m interested in how easily discussions of embarrassment quickly shift into a higher-octane, higher-status affective language of guilt, shame, dislike or hatred (to use Ben Lerner’s example). This seems to be part of a general slippage from a kind of low-stakes affect to high-stakes (or more reliably narrative or melodramatic) affect. Shame tells a better story than embarrassment. Ben Lerner’s book, for example, begins with a couple of interesting anecdotes about embarrassment, but since his theme is hatred, the rhetoric of the book quickly undergoes a compelling but rather grandiose affective inflation composed around the tragic slippage between our expectations of poetry in the abstract and the falling short of actual poems. Thus, he writes, ‘You’ll move to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. Thus the poet is a tragic figure, the poem is always a record of failure.’ I don’t want to dismiss this argument — though it’s possible that what Lerner describes is the condition of language per se, which is not particular to poetry and something we all have to contend with — but I would like to arrest its possibly rather masculine hurry towards modernist, Romantic or indeed Platonic stories of the hobbled sublime, in order to dwell itchily on its initial, softer premise of embarrassment. This is comic more than tragic, absurd more than sublime, miniaturist more than epic, gauche more than urbane, a frisson more than a dialectical position, a niggle more than an epiphany; in other words, not very promising narrative material. Nonetheless, it is an affective field that governs an astonishing proportion of everyday behaviour. Sociological theory is pretty unanimous about this, often citing Erving Goffman’s influential 1967 essay, ‘Embarrassment and Social Organization’, to the effect that ‘the social codes which permit daily interaction would lose their force without the threat or possibility of embarrassment,’ and that, ‘a quiet but compelling drive to avoid embarrassment pervades our daily life.’

Be that as it may, I’d like you, just as a brief experiment, to summon a recent embarrassment of your own, and consider how hard it is to dwell in that affective moment. Embarrassment is volatile and unstable, and very quickly peels off in another direction, generally either becoming comic and something to laugh or shrug off — a nonverbal dismissal that I suppose forestalls actual communication; or in another direction, which I tried to describe earlier, towards something with more moral and narrative gravitas, like shame or mortification; and as with Lerner’s flight into hatred, I feel compelled to put my foot in the door that swings between embarrassment and shame, and to uncouple these sister states.

The foot in the door is an apt metaphor as it turns out, not only recalling the feet of metric verse but summoning the very etymology of embarrassment, a much younger word than shame and having precisely to do with obstruction. Originally meaning to block or impede, its etymology derives from the 15th century Spanish embarazar and Portuguese embaraçar , a compound of the prefix em and baraço meaning a cord; probably a reference to animals being restrained by a cord or a leash. It retains its obstructive meaning until the mid 18th century when it acquires its modern transitive aspect of making a person feel awkward or self-conscious. Two early examples from the OED are, from 1751, John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Coxcomb: ‘My steadiness of gaze began to embarrass and give her pain,’ and from 1796, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark: ‘I wished to have had a room to myself; for their attention, and rather distressing observation, embarrassed me extremely.’

Shame, by contrast, comes from the Old English scamu scamu via the Gothic skama, inferring the covering of oneself, and signalling much stronger states of dishonour, ignominy and disgrace, apparently acquiring a transitive turn around the 13th century, when it came to imply fear of such dishonour, thus accommodating a switch from masculine codes of dishonour to feminine ones of modesty. For example, from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue (1368): ‘In habit, maad with chastitee and shame, Ye wommen shul apparaille yow’ [in habits made with chastity not shame ye women should be garmented]. These comparisons certainly bring into focus the common ground between the two states, in their regulatory function around social norms, and a crucial relation to a witnessing other who may be actual or imagined, but who activates a kind of triangulation whereby the self is made self-conscious by their presence. Both terms come to encompass an uneasy association with feminine self-consciousness, which is perhaps where that slippage occurs, but for my purposes today, I’d maintain that they have very different trajectories, and in the spirit of hunches I’d like to follow these differences through a little.

Shame is ancient; embarrassment, modern. Shame a moral infraction, embarrassment a social one. Shame is essentially religious, embarrassment secular. Shame’s relationship to the other is dialectical, a sort of zero-sum game — a contract, a fixing in place of self and other; embarrassment is sticky, infectious and rhizomatic; it is often unclear who the embarrasser and who the embarrassee is (we might recall Lerner’s mutually embarrassing encounter with his dentist). Perhaps shame has to do with opposition, embarrassment with contiguity, and where shame asserts boundaries, embarrassment wobbles. Shame potentially activates a redemptive narrative or a symbolic circuitry of retribution, penance, reconciliation; embarrassment seems fundamentally non-narrative, leading nowhere, stranding one hotly in the present, in a peculiar and unscripted intersection of self and other and where one’s role in the dynamic is not always entirely clear.

The mutually disconcerting relationship to the other that embarrassment elicits is described by the philosopher Luke Purshouse (2001) in these terms: ‘Embarrassment is essentially about the exposure of one person to another. Interpersonal exposure occurs when an aspect of one person, whom I shall term an exposee, enters the thoughts and experience of another, the recipient. The aspects of the exposee that can be exposed include his physical body, mental states, dispositions of character and actions. Exposure also takes place when one person obtains knowledge about somebody else.’ Purshouse also emphasises the reciprocal dynamic of embarrassment, noting that one can be embarrassed when construing oneself as either participant in the exposure. There are thus occasions where he writes, ‘it is less clear who is the recipient and who the exposee, and, indeed, where exposure may be a two-way process.’

We might almost call this wobbly condition reading, and consider how much of our daily lives are governed by this benign friction. I’d like to consider how the lyric poem specifically thrives on this wobble, and on how, rather than activating the reparative and narrative moral dimension of shame, it potentially elicits a softer but nonetheless ethical relation to the other or others invoked — or touched — in the reading process. Embarrassment announces a specifically modern relation of contiguity, recognition and contagion, I argue, rather than an ancient and dialectical one of opposition and moral contract. It is moreover, essentially a non-narrative state and as such belongs to the discontinuous instant that is central to lyric poetry. The triangulations of social embarrassment are thus, in many respects, mirrored in the development of the conventions of the modern lyric poem.

The lyric poem of course has a long history, beginning, as its name attests, with song, continuing in written form through the ode and dramatic monologue, all of which own an explicit and coded relationship between the audience and the addressee. But in its generally accepted modern form, the lyric seems to have something of embarrassment embedded in its very structure. I turned to my old undergraduate textbook, MH Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms (1956 — but still a standard text in the early 90s) for a hands-on definition, which is, ‘any fairly short, non-narrative poem presenting a single speaker who expresses a state of mind or a process of thought and feeling.’ The emphasis on reflexive subjectivity as it were ‘caught in the act’ is clearly a post-Romantic formulation that separates the lyric from the ode in its introverted structure of address, and from the epic and dramatic forms in its construction of the discontinuous lyric instant, divested of wider dramatic or social narrative. Now, already this places the reader in the potentially embarrassing position of an eavesdropper rather than designated audience. John Stuart Mill, in 1833, thus observed that ‘eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard… Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude.’ Northrop Frye (1957) later identifies both the artifice of this privacy and its secular nature as enduring features of the modern lyric. He writes, ‘The lyric poet normally pretends to be talking to himself or someone else: a spirit of nature, a muse, a personal friend, a lover, a god, a personified abstraction, or a natural object… The radical of presentation in the lyric is the hypothetical form of what in religion is called the ‘I-Thou’ relationship. The poet, so to speak, turns his back on his listeners.’

I’m really struck by Frye’s image of the poet turning his back on his listeners, and how in the context of telling a story, or any utterance for that matter, that would be a very strange physical thing to do. It also occurs to me that the only other time where one tells any kind of story with one’s back to the listener is in Freudian psychoanalysis, but alas I haven’t time to pursue that thought here! Meanwhile, Barbara Herrnstein Smith (1979) further elucidates the artifice of the lyric as overheard speech when she calls lyric poems ‘fictive utterances’, as if, she proposes, ‘every lyric began with the invisible words, “For example, I (or someone) could say…”’

The structural embarrassment of the lyric, then, already seems implicit in its status as overheard private utterance, embarrassing for the receiver, yet also an artificial and hypothetical utterance which ought to be embarrassing for the poet, whose relationship to the implied speaker of the poem is ambiguous, and at the very least one of pretension. Whether we are writer or reader, the very form of address compromises both of us: the writer, through her simultaneous desire to speak out, but aware of the injunction against pretension, the reader through her audiophilic desire to overhear. The double bind required of the lyric, its desire for the effect of spontaneous authenticity, is indeed a Jonathan Culler (1981) singles out the trope of apostrophe as indicative of a specifically lyric cringeworthiness: this is the ‘O’ that we learn as a characteristic sign of poetic diction, from such immortal lines as ‘O Rose, thou art sick!’ ‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being!’ ‘Oh! But it is dirty!’ etc., but which to the modern reader is the very navel of lyric embarrassment. Culler himself describes apostrophe as ‘the pure embodiment of poetic pretension,’ since the vocative ‘O’ announces a special poemy relationship with its object, while still claiming the status of overheard, spontaneous utterance. Enunciating these exclamations is, of course, awkward all round, at least if the measure of comfort is direct or naturalistic speech. He writes, ‘such apostrophes may complicate or disrupt the circuit of communication, raising questions about who is the addressee, but above all they’re embarrassing: embarrassing to me [the reader] and to you [the listener].’

Apostrophes, then, are a block, an embarrassment, bringing about a wobble in the circuit of communication and the storytelling promise that may be suggested by first-person lyric address. But more than that, they are linguistically excessive, and precisely the kind of textual detail that’s edited out in the descriptive, summative account of poetry required by practical criticism, or ‘unseen appreciation,’ as I was taught it at school. ‘What’s Blake really talking about?’ Mrs. Tucker might have asked class 5B. ‘What’s happening in this line? What do we think that Elizabeth Bishop’s trying to say?’ He’s saying that the rose is sick, Miss. She’s telling us the filling station’s dirty, Miss. Except that’s not it, quite. There is something irreducible about the apostrophe which gets to the very heart of the lyric bind and which is always lost in narrative paraphrase. ‘O’ describes a specifically lyric circuitry between spontaneous utterance and the artifice of poetic language: not either/or, but both at once. But to inhabit that ‘O’ is as hard as dwelling in embarrassment, the shimmer of affect where one briefly accommodates the flash of multiple exposures — the desire for overheard authenticity and the desire for a special poetic effect — and quite literally doesn’t know where to put oneself.

My contention is that there’s something valuable in this moment, dramatised by ‘O’ but actually present in all lyric address, that is lost if it’s immediately assimilated into the narrative of shame or sublime linguistic failure, or indeed into more banal narrative paraphrase. The lyric poem is a space where one can momentarily ‘touch’ the other without shame or mortification, and I say this knowing that in the present climate these are pretty loaded terms. But I mean that there are types of mutual exposure that occur within, as it were, controlled and artificial environments, where one can be momentarily cast adrift in the hypothetical space of ‘what it is possible to say,’ and indeed, ‘what it is possible to hear’; where we are positioned neither as innocents nor villains, nor even as ironists, but outside narrative positioning, as recipients (but in our very desire, exposees ourselves) of what it might mean to be human. An embarrassing place, but also one for the genuine, perhaps.

All of which returns me to Ricks’s Keats and Embarrassment which, taken as a whole, is a valiant effort to dismantle a developmental story of poetic sensibility that privileges ‘mature’ detachment and irony over the ‘naive’ and embarrassing effects of enthusiasm, sensory excess and self-disclosure. Let’s not forget the mortifying jibes the young Keats received from his peers (Byron, for example, who lambasted ‘Johnny Keats’s p-ss a bed poetry’ and described him as always ‘f–gg-ing his Imagination’). But Ricks reads in Keats’s adolescent sensibility a penetrating emotional intelligence, an ethical kind of embarrassensibility, if you like. Taking the blush as an example, which like ‘O’ is a duplicitous signifier, a two-way exposure, at once a sign of modesty and of knowing (and much beloved of Keats), Ricks writes: ‘Keats knows the blush of guilt (though even there the recognition of guilt is from one point of view a matter for approbation or at any rate hope — unblushing is always a penetrating accusation and enough to make some people blush). But Keats knows too the blush of innocence … He knows indeed the blush which is made up of both.’

For Ricks, an active dimension of Keats’s negative capability, being ‘without irritable reaching after fact and reason,’ is precisely his ability to tolerate embarrassensibility to a degree that destabilises the cliche of Romantic self-governing identity; in Purshouse’s terms, to explore the terrain of ‘exposure’ from as many simultaneous angles as possible. And of course the lyric poem is very much tied up with the risks and openness of identity. In Keats’s own words, ‘A Poet is the most unpoetical thing of anything in existence because he has no Identity.’

I opened with the anecdote of a poet embarrassed at the dentist, and to finish, I’ll return to this theme with Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘In the Waiting Room,’ written in 1967, the same year that Marianne Moore, Bishop’s friend and mentor, published the final, stripped-down version of her much-revised poem, ‘Poetry’. This fifth revision is the one that Ben Lerner alludes to at the beginning of The Hatred of Poetry, and which furnishes him with an embarrassing anecdote about failing to memorise a poem. I’m sure you all know it, though — but in case not:

I, too, dislike it.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine.

So now I will read ‘In the Waiting Room,’ which I’m treating as a sort of sister poem to ‘Poetry’, and which I was moved to go back to after reading Ben Lerner’s anecdote about the dentist.

In Worcester, Massachusetts,

I went with Aunt Consuelo

to keep her dentist’s appointment

and sat and waited for her

in the dentist’s waiting room.

It was winter. It got dark

early. The waiting room

was full of grown-up people,

arctics and overcoats,

lamps and magazines.

My aunt was inside

what seemed like a long time

and while I waited I read

the National Geographic

(I could read) and carefully

studied the photographs:

the inside of a volcano,

black, and full of ashes;

then it was spilling over

in rivulets of fire.

Osa and Martin Johnson

dressed in riding breeches,

laced boots, and pith helmets.

A dead man slung on a pole

—‘Long Pig,’ the caption said.

Babies with pointed heads

wound round and round with string;

black, naked women with necks

wound round and round with wire

like the necks of light bulbs.

Their breasts were horrifying.

I read it right straight through.

I was too shy to stop.

And then I looked at the cover:

the yellow margins, the date.

Suddenly, from inside,

came an oh! of pain

—Aunt Consuelo’s voice—

not very loud or long.

I wasn’t at all surprised;

even then I knew she was

a foolish, timid woman.

I might have been embarrassed,

but wasn’t. What took me

completely by surprise

was that it was me:

my voice, in my mouth.

Without thinking at all

I was my foolish aunt,

I—we—were falling, falling,

our eyes glued to the cover

of the National Geographic,

February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days

and you’ll be seven years old.

I was saying it to stop

the sensation of falling off

the round, turning world.

into cold, blue-black space.

But I felt: you are an I,

you are an Elizabeth,

you are one of them.

Why should you be one, too?

I scarcely dared to look

to see what it was I was.

I gave a sidelong glance

—I couldn’t look any higher—

at shadowy gray knees,

trousers and skirts and boots

and different pairs of hands

lying under the lamps.

I knew that nothing stranger

had ever happened, that nothing

stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,

or me, or anyone?

What similarities—

boots, hands, the family voice

I felt in my throat, or even

the National Geographic

and those awful hanging breasts—

held us all together

or made us all just one?

How—I didn’t know any

word for it—how ‘unlikely’…

How had I come to be here,

like them, and overhear

a cry of pain that could have

got loud and worse but hadn’t?

The waiting room was bright

and too hot. It was sliding

beneath a big black wave,

another, and another.

Then I was back in it.

The War was on. Outside,

in Worcester, Massachusetts,

were night and slush and cold,

and it was still the fifth

of February, 1918.

—Elizabeth Bishop, In the Waiting Room

If you recall, we left Ben Lerner in the dentist’s chair with ‘the sensation that Dr. X, as he knocked the little mirror against my molars, was contemptuous of the fact that genuine poetry could issue from such an opening.’ The matter of what sort of ‘genuine’ utterance might issue from the open mouth — and the complexity of claiming a voice at all, and for what moreover if not to tell a story — is also central to Bishop’s poem which, as well as recounting an embarrassing event, is replete with the dynamics of lyric embarrassment. I’d like to open these out a little, first by confessing a professional embarrassment of my own, which is that when I returned to this poem recently, I realised that I’ve probably been misreading it all these years, at least according to a certain body of criticism. But because I’m not averse to destabilising the professional storytelling of criticism with a literary pratfall, I’m going to see if I can make this reading stick as an example of embarrassensibility in action. That’s to say, performing a reading that ruffles rather than quells or sublimates its embarrassments, and thinking about what the embarrassment of the poem itself might be, in relation to conventional language use, and bearing in mind that this may be different again from the embarrassment of the speaker or the reader.

The critical consensus on Bishop, especially among her peers, has been to praise her powers of observation, description and restraint, often as opposed to the more transcendent lyric flourishes of modernist contemporaries like Stevens and Yeats. Bishop’s voice is seen as modest, composed and dependably unembarrassed: John Ashbery, for example, describes her poetry as speaking in a ‘pleasant, chatty, vernacular tone… calmly and unpoetically’, while Robert Lowell also praised it for being ‘unrhetorical’. The implication is that we should see Bishop as an exemplar of observational immediacy and precision, or of the micro-narrative perhaps, but probably not of lyrical or metapoetic complexity.

And indeed the opening lines of ‘In the Waiting Room’ seem to support this perspective, being factual and unflamboyant scene-setting, almost anecdotal. Widely anthologised as it is, there’s a great deal of published commentary on this poem, most of which responds to the imperative to see Bishop’s work as literal and documentary by kicking off with a narrative account of its ‘events’. Lee Edelman, in his excellent essay on Bishop’s geography of gender (1985) summarises the consensus that ‘the poem presents a young girl’s moment of awakening to the separations and the bonds among human beings to the forces that shape individual identity through the interrelated recognitions of community.’ So far, so A-level. He continues, ‘critics have felt themselves both able and obliged to summarize the “story,” to rehearse the events on which the poem’s act of recognition hinges. Helen Vendler, for example, recapitulates the plot as follows: “waiting in a dentist’s office, reading the National Geographic, feeling horrified at pictures of savages, hearing her aunt cry out in pain from inside the dentist’s room, the child feels vertigo.”’

The emphasis here on narratological terms, the sort of story, the plot and so forth does raise the question for me of why the poem should place such pressure on critics to furnish it with a story, and one moreover that makes the poem seem rather banal and folksy. It’s an interesting question to me as my own misreading, as you may have guessed, turns on this cry, the ‘Oh’ attributed by Vendler and most critics to Aunt Consuelo alone, but which I’d like to claim is a more complex figure and indeed as the embarrassment of the poem itself.

But first we might unravel the poem’s secondary embarrassments, one of which is the situational one of the child’s precocious reading. Lee Edelman observes that the parenthetical and unnecessary statement, ‘I could read,’ really ought to flag up the poem’s metatextual reflection on the relationship between reading and the constructing of subjectivity. The adult reading matter — and I think that in 1918 we can consider the anthropological images available in National Geographic ‘adult’ in its euphemistic sense — furnishes carefully choreographed examples of binary oppositions: inside and outside (the volcano), primitive and civilized, human beings and animals or meat, literal and figurative language (‘a man slung on a pole’ vs. ‘Long Pig’) and, of course, gender. Elizabeth’s identifications vacillate between these: human, civilized, female; this last the axis which throws her into disarray, being ‘one of them’ in relation to the women available in the poem: ‘foolish, timid Aunt Consuelo,’ cross-dressing Victorian explorer Osa Johnson, and the ‘black naked women’ whose ‘breasts were horrifying.’

The odd, obstructive phrasing of the next line, ‘I read it right straight through’ (a line I can never read ‘straight through’ without tripping over the words) describes the speaker’s literal embarrassment — ‘I was too shy to stop’ — but also draws attention to ‘right’ and ‘straight’ as properties of reading, which is to say fluent, but also correct American moral and heteronormative ways of reading, that resist the sideways glance at black skin, body modification, naked breasts and Osa’s unseemly breeches (the homonymic pun on ‘breaches’ perhaps also too good to overlook). But this gaze nonetheless overspills later (we recall the primary image of the volcano and its contiguity to the spilled surface heat of embarrassment), in Elizabeth’s glances at the others in the waiting room, or more precisely, at their lower bodies and crotches: ‘I gave a sidelong glance, I couldn’t look any higher.’ This queering pull of the gaze to the sides of the page and the room itself, a movement of contiguity, confusion and embarrassment, carries over from the visible into the audible, culminating in the hinge of the poem, which is an embarrassing (and quintessentially lyric) overhearing: ‘Suddenly, from inside,/ came an oh! of pain…’

The sound of that syllable, ‘oh’, we already know, and as Bishop also must, is a mark of poetic diction as much as a spontaneous involuntary cry, and indeed it’s an unusual choice to denote a cry of pain more commonly inscribed as ow or ouch maybe argh, so there seems something artful about it even as it presents itself as the very emblem of involuntary utterance, embarrassing both for those who utter and those who hear it. Yet Elizabeth tells us she wasn’t embarrassed or surprised by her aunt’s behaviour, as long as she can see it as her aunt’s, for whom she has already expressed a measure of resigned contempt. What’s actually surprising and mortifying is the realisation that it’s her voice. The literal, narrative or ‘proper’ reading of this is that in the cry, Elizabeth recognises traces of her own voice, the family women’s voice, and is thus inducted into her identity as that particular Elizabeth. But in my misreading, which has a poetic rather than narrative temporality — and which is a wobble or maybe an instance of negative capability — Elizabeth really does cry out ‘oh’ at that same time, not only because ‘oh’ is a natural exclamation of surprise, but because she has in fact fully identified with the embarrassing aunt and is subject to the empathic shimmer of contagion, whereby the receiver-recipient relation is momentarily undone.

In other words, the ‘oh’ is at once Consuelo’s, Elizabeth’s, and the poem’s own uncertainty about who is speaking, and from which perspective, from which ‘inside’: a conceit only possible in poetic rather than narrative language, where that syllable is capable of holding at once pain, contempt, empathic identification, genuine surprise, and the index of, or inauguration into, lyric artifice itself. I might even suggest that this poem takes a sideways glance at Moore’s poem of the same year and offers ‘oh’ as a response, the genuine response of the lyric poem, structurally embedded in a scene, a ‘waiting room’ of embarrassment into which the genuine may be ushered, with all its sideways glances and refusal to ‘look any higher.’ And to return to Ben Lerner, this falling away from the pure potentiality of being human into the vicissitudes of being an actual person in a concrete historical situation — ‘Outside / in Worcester Massachusetts, / were night and slush and cold, / and it was still the fifth / of February, 1918’ — is precisely what makes it genuine, embarrassing, lyric poetry.

Tiffany Atkinson is a Professor of Creative Writing (Poetry) at UEA. She has published four poetry collections, Kink and Particle (2006), which was winner of the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, Catulla et al (2011), So Many Moving Parts (2014), and Lumen (2021), which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and winner of the Medicine Unboxed Creative Prize. Tiffany was awarded the Cholmondeley Award for Poetry in 2022.