By Janet Sassi
Heather Dubrow, Ph.D., Fordham’s Reverend John Boyd S.J. Chair in Poetic Imagination
Photo by Janet Sassi
Heather Dubrow, Ph.D., will be the first to admit that trying to define lyric in poetry is a complicated undertaking.
“There is no agreement on it,” said Dubrow, Fordham’s Reverend John Boyd, S.J., Chair in Poetic Imagination. “Most people would say it’s a short poem influenced by music, or personal experience—one that doesn’t primarily tell a story.”
Some people, Dubrow said, might even describe lyric as “air” or “the act of turning” or any one of many metaphorical comparisons that attempt to get at the heart of an artistic style, often associated with sonnets and odes, that has also shifted in form and meaning over history.
In her book The Challenges of Orpheus: Lyric Poetry and Early Modern England (Johns Hopkins, 2008), Dubrow challenges widespread assumptions about lyric poetry of the Renaissance by looking freshly at poets of that time, including Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Wyatt and Dunne.
She incorporates contemporary critical interests, such as gender, politics, publishing practices and audience, into her analyses. From there she devises new ways of interpreting how lyric poetry functioned in 16th- and 17th-century England.
Her title refers to the mythological son of Calliope and Apollo, whose lyre enchanted all who heard it.
“The character Orpheus is the poster boy of lyric in the period,” according to Dubrow, who said that lyric can better be approached by re-evaluating certain fundamental assumptions about its own myth. “Orpheus represents extraordinary success: animals stop when Orpheus sings and rocks move to watch him. And yet he is associated with extraordinary failure as well [when he loses his wife, Eurydice]. So the ambivalence of [early modern] lyric is encapsulated in his figure.”
He was also, Dubrow pointed out, a lyric poet himself.
“I refer to Orpheus partly to suggest that one of the best ways to look at lyric is to avoid the . . . problematical descriptions and instead look at the indirect and powerful ways in which people defined lyric.”
Dubrow’s book analyzes four critical areas of lyric: audience, immediacy, length and relationship to narrative. One observation she makes is that critics too often assume that a reader of lyric identifies with the voice presented. Not necessarily, she said; readers can take a range of positions, including some critical of the voice itself.
Dubrow also studies how material text, or the printing of the poem, affects the lyric. According to Dubrow, a two-line summary rhyme, known as a couplet, is used by poets as a base line and source of stability in a poem. Yet if a printer physically sets the couplet in a different font or in a different indentation, its presentation can affect the very interpretation of the lines and the overall feel of the poem.
“One thing the book attempts to do is to say, OK, these are things we have long believed about lyric; let’s rethink them,” she said.
Dubrow chose to write about lyric at a point when, she said, modern critics working on 16th- and 17th-century literature have been largely focusing on drama. It paid off: Orpheus was named a 2008 Outstanding Academic Title by Choice magazine, an academic review publication of the American Library Association.
As a literary critic, Dubrow advocates for more inclusiveness among critical methods and a shift away from what she calls the “bald denigration of other methods” among some critics. Writing Orpheus, she said, was a way to address broader issues in an academic world that practices and evaluates literary criticism too dogmatically.
“I try to be open to a lot of different ways of reading, rather than assuming that criticism involves a single trajectory of progress,” she said. “In other words, let’s create bridges between ways of reading poems.”
As a college student, Dubrow wrote poetry, but gave it up once she became rooted in academia. There is a natural suspicion, she said, between creative writers and the academics who critique them.
Dubrow eventually returned to creative writing, however, and has published two chapbooks of poetry and nearly 90 poems in journals and collections. Her poem, Garden Party, was published recently in Poetry International. Currently she is seeking a publisher for her newest completed volume.
She is also working on strengthening poetry’s presence on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus, to complement the renowned Poets Out Loud series at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.
She has teamed up with Brennan O’Donnell, Ph.D., dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, and James McCabe, Ph.D., director of the William D. Walsh Family Library, to create a poetry room in the Walsh Library. The room will display original manuscripts and poetry volumes, and will be open to the Fordham community for small gatherings.
Beyond that, Dubrow is working on two additional books. One analyzes lyric immediacy, and includes a look at the use of deictics—words, such as here, there, and then that identify spatial or temporal locations within a poem.
The second will address the effects of personal crisis on the profession of academia, and will focus on faculty of literature and foreign languages.
All of these projects, says Dubrow, are pertinent to her role as the Chair of Poetic Imagination, a pusuit that the chair’s namesake, John Boyd, S.J., the late professor of English, also held dear. She hopes her work at Fordham lives up to his name.
“Poetic imagination helps us to see more sharply what is close to us, as well as worlds more distant than our own,” she said.