The presentation of the mind in Dane Zajc's lyric poetry.
In recent times, the literary presentation of the mind has been studied in detail by representatives of cognitive narratology (Alan Palmer and Lisa Zunshine, among others), with a focus on literary characters in novels. They are interested in what the mind encompasses in the first place (internal speech, thinking, perceptions, emotions, moods, dispositions, memories, beliefs, etc.), what narrative techniques make its representation possible in first-person and third-person narratives (internal monologue, free indirect speech, descriptions, etc.), how a character's mind is presented in the minds of other literary characters, what the role of readers and various contexts is in constructing minds, what parallels can be drawn between literary characters and real-life persons, and so on. This article connects some findings by cognitive narratologists with the theory of lyric poetry, which is traditionally considered the most subjective literary genre, and then applies these findings in an analysis of the presentation of the mind in some selected poems by Dane Zajc.
Dane Zajc (1929-2005), a charismatic person of rare words and a brilliant presenter of his own poems, excelled as a poet, playwright, and essayist. He became part of the Slovenian national literary canon by the 1960s, and he received the highest national award for lifetime achievement in 1981. In the last decades of his life, he was considered the greatest living Slovenian poet. A public secret (because information about candidates is not officially revealed) was that he was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize by certain Slovenian institutions. However, his international reputation, unsystematically built on translations of his selected works into several languages and on his readings abroad, remained more or less confined to certain prominent poetic circles, as is usual in the cases of many other Slovenian poets. For example, when he was a Fulbright fellow at Columbia University in New York in 1982, Joseph Brodsky is said to have praised his poems as the great work of a small nation.
Some Theoretical Perspectives
The first question I focus on in this section is what it means to define lyric poetry as the presentation of the mind, and how important the fictiveness of the presented mind is in this regard. In his article "The Lyric: Problems of Definition and a Proposal for Reconceptualisation," Werner Wolf summarized nine alleged traits of lyricism (or poetry, because he acknowledged that no distinction between these terms seems to be appropriate any longer). Among them, "the existence of a seemingly unmediated consciousness or agency, perhaps even of a 'persona' as the fictional origin of the text" (27), is one of paramount interest for this article. According to Wolf, the fictional persona is often addressed as the lyric I. He admits, however, that for some critics the lyric I is not a constituent generic feature of lyric poetry, given that many poems do not contain it. The impression of the immediate presence of a consciousness can be explained as the result of speaking in the first person. If the poem is conveyed in the second or third person, the origin of the text obviously cannot be addressed as the lyric I; for this reason, names such as speaker, voice, lyric subject (German: lyrische Subjekt), or even narrator seem to be more appropriate. Mediated consciousness is not included in Wolf's taxonomy of lyric or poetic traits, probably because it is supposed to be typical for narrative fiction. However, there is no doubt that poems conveyed in the second or third person can produce the effect of representing the mind or consciousness (in this article, I use both of these terms as synonyms). Whether consciousness is mediated or seemingly unmediated does not change the result; the access to the mental states of an alleged person can be gained anyway.
There is a long tradition of questioning the identity and ontological status of the person whose consciousness is supposed to be represented in lyric poetry. Broadly speaking, when a text is conveyed in the first person, the speaker is also the protagonist of the poem (or, to put it in narratological terms, its autodiegetic narrator). Peter Huhn, a theorist that promotes mapping narratological concepts onto poetry, noticed that "romantic poems, for example, often suggest the identity of narrator (speaker) and protagonist" (153). Romantic poems are one example of this model, but it can also be found in poems from Antiquity. Plato and Aristotle identified it as the mode of speech that allows the poet to speak in his own name. Theoretically equating this mode of speech with lyric poetry was surpassed when the new critics introduced the concept of the fictive speaker. As the result, in the twentieth century lyric poetry has usually been considered as "the dramatization of thoughts and feelings of a speaker whom one reconstructs" (Culler 76).
At this point, it is appropriate to address the problem of speakers' fictionally. Does it matter whether the speaker is fictive or the poet himself or herself? According to Sabine Coelsch-Foisner, "The question whether the poetic self is a fictional persona or the poet speaking in his or her own nature is a flawed question" (72). Fictional or nonfictional, according to the theory of the narrative self, the self is always constituted by narration, and therefore "we are not dealing with a different ontology" (72). Regarding the function of the empirical or biographical author, it should be emphasized that Huhn recently recognized this author as one of the four mediators of incidents (or the story) in poetry as well as in narrative genres (the other three agents of mediacy are the textual subject, or implicit author, speaker or narrator, and protagonist). More importantly for this article, "the empirical author is relevant merely as a criterion for determining the historical (and cultural) plausibility of possible frames and scripts" (152).
The central role assigned to the speaker in recent theories of lyric poetry can lead to the conclusion that the speaker, and not some other agent, must be in focus when discussing lyric poetry as a presentation of the mind. As mentioned at the beginning, narratological investigations of the literary presentation of the mind mainly focus on characters in novels. Alan Palmer's most important methodological tool is attribution theory; he examines how narrators, characters, and readers attribute states of mind to characters and, where appropriate, also to themselves. Lisa Zunshine (2) similarly grounded her analysis on the Theory of Mind (or mind reading). The basic definition of Theory of Mind was given by Baron-Cohen: the concept describes people's ability to explain behavior in terms of underlying thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions. Both theories seem to fit well into the realm of lyric poetry, although this is traditionally regarded as a genre that does not represent actions, but feelings. The investigation of the presentation of the mind in lyric poetry therefore could focus on two questions: Who attributes states of mind to whom? What techniques are used to attribute states of mind?
Regarding the first point, only slight modifications of Palmer's taxonomy are needed: in lyric poetry, (implied) authors, speakers, and (implied) readers usually attribute states of mind to speakers; compared to narrative fiction, characters' consciousness seems to be represented less often in lyric poetry (most obviously in the dramatic monologue), and it is not usual for characters to attribute states of mind to other characters. However, two additional observations, already suggested in this article, should be considered: 1) in lyric poetry, speakers often merge with the role of protagonist; and 2) the assumption that the first-person narrator, so long as he remains unnamed, must be the poet himself is still "the chief rationalization in any reading experience" (Rifaterre 255).
As far as techniques are concerned, I assume that the same techniques can be used in narratives and lyric poems; however, some of them are more common in one or the other genre, and, furthermore, their frequency changes in different periods and personal styles. Linguistic models of discourse presentation, which are often applied when discussing the presentation of the mind in novels, include several categories that are also relevant for the analysis of presenting consciousness in lyric poetry. First-person expression of thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions in free direct speech (or, rather, free direct thought if one considers romantic theories about lyric poetry) is probably the most common lyric model because it can be found in countless poems written by Sappho, Catullus, Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Preseren, not to mention contemporary poets. In modernism, the interior monologue (a type of first-person free direct thought) prevailed as a mode of representing the "stream of consciousness," which includes subconscious or pre-speech levels of consciousness (Humphrey 3).
Another applicable linguistic category, introduced by Elena Semino and Mick Short in their seminal volume Corpus Stylistics, is "internal narration" or "narration of internal states." They described it as a technique for representing a "character's cognitive and emotional experiences without presenting any specific thoughts" (46). For example, in "For a moment she didn't know where she was," "we are told that one of the characters experienced a moment of cognitive disorientation, but no thoughts are explicitly reported" (46). Semino and Short stressed that internal narration is the most frequent of their thought presentation categories, and that it also occurs in first- and third-person narration. In their definition, internal narration "does not include reports of characters' perceptions, whether those stimuli are internal ("She felt a pain in her stomach") or external ("She felt the softness of his hair"). Examples such as these were coded as Narration (N)" (46). Because they defined narration as "presenting states, events and actions in the fictional world" (10), they do not discuss it as a part of speech or thought presentation. On the other hand, action descriptions are of primary interest from the viewpoint of attribution theory. As Palmer stressed, "What appear to be simple action descriptions in novels often contain a good deal of explicit information about characters' consciousness" (85). Again, this technique could also be useful when analyzing the presentation of the mind in lyric poetry.
When discussing different modes of the presentation of the mind, it must be noted that states of mind can be conveyed not only literally, but also figuratively. Particularly in romantic poetry, feelings are often represented through metaphors and symbols, and the concept of projecting feelings into the outer world, not necessarily nature, is still deeply rooted in some contemporary poetry. Among the poets related to the idea that lyric poetry does not only represent feelings, as was emphasized in romantic theories, but instead different experiences, I would like to highlight Stephane Mallarme. In his well-known definition of the symbol, he stated: "To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which derives from the pleasure of step-by-step discovery; to suggest, that is the dream. It is the perfect use of this mystery that constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little, so as to bring to light a state of the soul or, inversely, to choose an object and bring out of it a state of the soul through a series of unravelings" (trans. by Roger Pearson 164). As Roger Pearson noticed in his volume Stepnane Mallarme, "often 'etat d'ame' is translated as 'mood' or 'feeling,' but Mallarme very specifically has in mind the way in which a particular object or experience, however banal or apparently meaningless, in fact serves a function for a 'state of soul' of which we may be only subliminally conscious" (164).
At this point I would like to expand my topic with yet another problem that demands at least some brief attention. So far I have not questioned how the mind or consciousness is defined. I silently followed the idea that the mind is an interior domain, opposite to the outer world. However, as the literary theorist David Herman noted, the so-called Cartesian model of the mind was recently replaced by models of the mind as distributed across the brain, body, and world. According to post-Cartesian research frameworks, "minds are inextricably embedded in contexts for action and interaction, and arise from the interplay between intelligent agents and the broader social and material environments that they must negotiate" (9). Enactivists have claimed that cognition is not the recovery of a pregiven outer world or a projection of a pregiven inner world, but an embodied action. Cognition is "the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs" (cited in Herman 256). Mental states can be viewed as both shaped by and contributing to action possibilities, and they are more or less tightly imbricated with local environments for acting (257). Herman claims that modernist writers have already pointed to the inseparability of perceiving and thinking from acting and interacting (253). In his analysis of a selected passage from Mrs Dalloway, he demonstrated how "the passage anchors intentions, desires, inferences, and emotional responses in possibilities for action that are shaped by--and also shape--the characters' sense of what is going on" (263). Without any further research, I can only assume that applying the enactivist model of the mind to modernist poems would lead to similar conclusions.
A Brief Survey of Dane Zajc9s Books of Poetry
Zajc's first four books of poetry--Pozgana trava (The Burnt Grass, 1958), Jezik iz zemlje (The Tongue Made of Earth, 1961), Ubijavci kac (The Killers of Snakes, 1969), and Rozengruntar (Rozengruntar, 1975)--can be read as a narrative whole. (3) The story of the speaker begins with his youthful disillusion, continues with attempts to rebel against God, and ends with the individual's dissolution. In the book Ubijavci kac, the collective steps to the fore, but the crowd of people is looking in vain for their savior. The cycle of poems titled "No svet," which stands at the end of Rozengruntar, summarizes some basic findings about the world and human beings: God is absent; time runs cyclically; life is a theater in which players wear masks; and reprobates disable individuals that have noble objectives. Zajc's poetry published after the volume Rozengruntar is thematically different. The speaker is more mature, and he has come to terms with the world, thinks about the transience of life, and intensely accepts sensory impressions. When he looks around for the first time, he wonders about everything he sees and hears; hence the title of the book: Si videl (Did You See, 1979). What is most important seems to be his discovery that a mountain is a sacred place. The speaker in Zarotitve (The Spells, 1985) experiences ecstatic moments on the mountain, whereas in the book Dol dol (Dawn, Dawn, 1998) he admits defeat when he realizes that the altars of the mountain cathedral are empty.
In the first books, metaphors and symbols often indicate the mood of the speaker, in particular his loneliness and existential dissatisfaction. Frequent are also projections of emotions in nature, which is a feature typical of the romantic poets, who did not describe emotions directly but posed them as features of outside world, especially the landscape. In some poems, the speaker's desire for fusion with nature is thematized; this is also a romantic feature. Dane Zajc returned to this theme in the book Zarotitve; for example, the poem "Razfrcis se gor pa dol" describes fusion with a tree after the addressee reaches a bodiless state in which thoughts do not switch on or off. Experience is ecstatic, comparable with mystic experience.
With poeticizing unusual, liminal psychological states, Zajc departed from traditional themes of poetry, and so many of his images are also unusual. A motif analysis of Zajc's imagery would show that he used and varied topoi (e.g., man is a tree, life is a journey, or love is fire), but his creative energy focused on the aesthetics of the terrible. In the books Pozgana trava and Jezik iz zemlje, images of bloody physical violence are typical (adders devour hearts, saints are burning, birds are falling apart). In Ubijavci kac and Rozengruntar, he intensified the psychological pressure; the images of violence became increasingly grotesque and sophisticated (corpses beat the living with their sacrifice, and babies are raped in their heads). The aesthetics of the terrible can also be found in the books after Rozengruntar, but the images are less direct, and the creepy merges with mystery.
The aesthetics of the terrible, typical for the first four books, arises from engaging with man's consciousness. Images of hostile animals and cruel physical violence intimate what is happening in the personal and collective unconsciousness. The German romantics already stated that man is not only a beautiful soul; the symbolists dealt with the subconscious, encouraged by the discoveries of psychoanalysis; and the expressionists observed subject dissociation in the modern city--and, although their images were different in their motifs, they also implied the disintegration of the single consciousness. Some of Zajc's images are similar to expressionist projections of states of mind; a similarity is also evident in relation to transcendence because the so-called atheism of expressionist literature was actually a pro-vocation of a hidden, unknown God. Zajc's poem "Upor" (in Pozgana trava) and his cycle "Gotska okna" (in Jezik iz zemlje) are typical examples of provoking an absent God. The attitude towards transcendence later changes: in the cycle "No svet" (in Rozengruntar), the speaker accepts that God is unknown, in the book Si videl he recognizes the signs of its presence in nature, in Zarotitve he experiences ecstatic moments while mingling with the infinite, and in the book Dol dol he cannot repeat this experience, and therefore he contemplates God's existence in terms of negative theology. Modern poetry is usually associated with the evanishment of the authorial speaker; moreover, some poems are difficult to understand as (someone's) utterance. When a poem is composed of many anonymous voices and intertwined with allusions and quotations from various texts, the reader cannot easily assemble a coherent narrative or lyrical experience. Dane Zajc did not write poems that could not be attributed to a speaker. In Pozgana trava and especially in the books Jezik iz zemlje, Ubijavci kac, and Si videl he frequently addressed another person, but he also wrote in the third and first person. Some poems from Rozengruntar appear at first glance to be completely depersonalized, but more detailed reading indicates that they can be understood as coming from the decomposed, uncentralized consciousness because the images indicate its status. The process of depersonalization in Zajcs poetry is not radical; it is mainly the authorial speaker that is erased. This happens in the second-person poems, in poems that are uttered by a dissolved consciousness, and in narrative poems.
"The Giant Black Bull"
This poem, composed of four stanzas of different lengths, appeared in the book Pozgana trava in 1958 and has remained one of Zajc's most often anthologized poems to this day. It is also part of the curriculum in the last grades of secondary schools. As is typical for Zajc, it is written in free verse, with many repetitions and parallelisms as the main rhythmic devices. Much of the poem's rhythmic impact is due to its short and syntactically undemanding lines. The verses in the first stanza each consist of one sentence, and enjambment is deliberately used for semantic emphasis in the rest of the poem. The speaker remains undisclosed. Although he does not reveal anything about himself directly, the reader is able to construct one or possibly two speakers by analyzing the utterances. Linguistically speaking, two types of speech, which could be ascribed to one or two different speakers, are combined in the poem:1) free direct speech in the third person with no specific addressee, and 2) free direct speech in the second person with the giant bull as the addressee. There is another figure--namely, the personified sun with a butcher's axe--that is briefly mentioned at the end of the poem, but there is no doubt that the bull is the main character.
The first verse, repeated at the beginning of the second and fourth stanzas, is a simple report of the poem's main event: the giant black bull roars in the morning. Characterization, based on this single act, does not reveal anything about the bull's motives or intentions. The reader can activate different scripts at this point, assuming that the animal is loud out of pain, anger, joy, or excitement. More clues that help in interpreting the bull's behavior and comprehending its mental states are inserted in the speaker's words, addressed to the bull. Twice he asks whom the bull was calling and, when he does not receive any answer from the animal, he offers his own assumption: that the bull was trying to reach someone in order to surmount its solitude. Because there is nobody that could hear the bull, the speaker even suggests that the animal enjoys listening to the echo of its own voice. Eventually he commands the bull to be quiet.
In order to interpret the bull's action, the speaker has to work out its disposition. The reader's job is doubled because he has to comprehend not only the bull's mind, but also the speaker's mind. So far, one can assume that the ideal reader thinks that the speaker believes that the bull is lonely. However, the states of mind ascribed to the bull can easily be interpreted as projections of the speaker's own mood. In this case, the reader's interpretation grows from the assumption that the speaker sensed an analogy between the bull and himself, and, when addressing the bull as deserted and unheard, he actually revealed his own existential desperation. In the context of the late 1950s, when the poem was published, existentialist interpretation was more than plausible and it can be still supported with other poems by Zajc with similar themes. However, for some readers the interpretation does not end at this point. They would argue that the speaker has to be Zajc addressing himself metaphorically when speaking to bull in the second person because he as a poet must have been personally concerned with the possibility that nobody would listen him or respond to his poems. Another interpretation, which seems to be similarly farfetched, occurred when Zajc submitted the book to the prominent publisher Cankarjeva Zalozba. Ivan Potrc, the editor and a writer himself, believed that the bull might represent Boris Ziherl, a Slovenian political leader at that time, who was known to shout very loudly. PotrC asked the poet to drop the poem; Zajc declined to do so, and he decided to publish the book on his own. (4)
Because the poem does not contain any firm explanation of the bull's behavior, the question of why it roars remains the key one for different interpretations. One of them recapitulates the motifs spread through the poem and related to the Mithraic rite, which was popular among Roman soldiers and also known in some parts of what is today Slovenia in the first centuries AD. According to the scene depicted in Mithras's temples, the god Mithras slaughtered a bull. Because there are no original written documents to explain this scene, its meaning is uncertain. As far as is known, the main ceremony was a feast, which followed the example of Mithras and Sol (the Sun), who shared a meal over the dead bull's body (Hinnelis 92). In Zajc's poem, the very act of slaughtering does not take place, but several hints point to what is supposedly going to happen. As mentioned before, the personified sun honing an axe appears in the last verses. Intertextually, one can recognize an allusion to Appolinaire's enigmatic verse "Soleil cou coupe" (in Zome). Meaningful is also the comparison in the second stanza, in which the third-person speaker compares the sound of the bull's roar with blood jetting towards the apexes of spruces. Once again, attribution theory proves to be a helpful tool to fill many gaps in the poem. The reader can assume that the bull roars because it expects to be slaughtered. In order to activate this script, the ancient myth does not even have to be mentioned. When Mithras killed the bull at the Sun's command, he caused the emergence of plants and animals. If Zajc's poem is read as a reinterpretation of this myth, killing the giant black bull is a precondition and symbol for the cyclic renovation of life. Part of the poem's timeless appeal is that other interpretations are possible when the bull is regarded as a symbol of virility or fecundity apart from the Mithraic myth.
"Two" is a cycle of six poems in the book Jezik iz zemlje, and it relates to the motif of two lovers thematized in them. The individual poems do not have any titles besides numbers. The fourth poem is one of Zajc's best-known poems, although it does not present the love theme in a traditional manner, as a source of eternal bliss and happiness. Slovenian is one of the few modern languages that uses the dual as a grammatical number, and it is already able to emphasize the intimacy of two lovers with minimal effort at the grammatical level. Zajc used the dual in an equally persuasive way to express how solitude disappears and then alienation grows again between two persons in love. Again, characters and their dispositions are essential for understanding the poem. Unlike "The Giant Black Bull," the speaker's states of mind are not in the foreground and he is not part of the story that he narrates in the present tense. An omniscient perspective allows him to describe precisely what is happening and to penetrate the two lovers' minds. As is usual in many of Zajc's poems, narration is combined with direct speech. In this poem, the sentences uttered by the two lovers are tagged with the verbs say, answer, and whisper, although quotation marks are absent.
As far as the vocabulary is concerned, the two lovers and the speaker use similar figures of speech--namely, metaphors and comparisons. The poem begins with the speaker's metaphorical description of physical intimacy--when the man touches the woman, the ice of her body melts away. Presenting emotional detachment in terms of low temperatures or even ice is not unusual because love as the opposite feeling is conventionally equated with fire. Zajc managed to revitalize the metaphor "emotional disinterest is ice" when he replaced the abstract term with the concrete noun body and added a secondary, semantically connected verbal metaphor: "melts away." At the same time, he also emphasized the link between emotions, thoughts, and the body. Once her body is free of ice, it is associated with autumn, rich with fruit. Again, the speaker reveals the woman's changed mind by using a metaphor. When the man addresses the woman, he presents his feelings and inclinations similarly, by comparing the smell of her body with the smell of moss under fruit. His words cause further emotional unifying, which is expressed with a metaphor of two forests of thoughts running in two different directions, and a metaphor of knocking down the rocky walls between their eyes. After the climax, their emotions start to cool very fast: they are both so quiet that they can hear two forests fettered in ice, and a dam growing between them, with cold water falling over it.
"The Ear of the Mountain"
Actions, speech, and figurative descriptions are essential for constructing speakers' and characters' minds in "The Giant Black Bull" and in the fourth poem from the cycle "Two." In both cases, there seems to be a firm dividing line between preexisting minds and the surrounding world, whereas in "The Ear of the Mountain" (published in Zarotitve) the speaker's consciousness tries to merge with some mysterious force that surrounds and transcends it. While the sun sets in the mountains, the speaker gives instructions addressed to no one specific, or possibly to himself (with the verbs in the infinitive); he recommends minimizing physical presence by breathing inaudibly and stopping the heartbeat, which could reveal one's presence. One has to watch very tentatively, with eyes on all four sides of the sky at once, and even open the sight on the vertex in order to recognize the signs that start to appear. In addition to the usual audible and visual sensations, there seems to arise something unknown and overwhelming that one could possibly comprehend only when paying special attention. However, suddenly the situation changes when the wind starts to blow. The person, represented only synecdochally with the head, heart, eyes, and vertex in the first stanza, becomes more recognizable in the second stanza, where the eyes and breath are marked with the pronoun yours. Sensations are now personalized; they are in charge to establish one's mind, not to dissolve it. The special moment is over because of the sounds produced by the wind, which reestablish the person's sense of singularity and fill the personified ear of the mountain.
Because Zajc enjoyed mountain hiking, the experience described in "The Ear of the Mountain" could easily be read as his personal one. One cannot ignore the fact that his background, especially during the Second World War--when two of his brothers were killed by the Nazis and the house where he was born was burned--shaped his worldview in a very distinctive way. Nevertheless, disillusionment and a deep sense of everlasting solitude, as his most prominent themes, are universal and connect this "dark modernist" with other great poetic voices of the twentieth century.
(1.) This article is linguistically proofread by Donald Reindl. The author acknowledges the financial support from the Slovenian Research Agency (research core funding No. P6-0024 (B); BI-US/15-16-079.
(2.) See Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction, Theory of Mind and the Novel, (Columbus: The Ohio State UP, 2006).
(3.) Zajcs books of poetry, except Dol dol, were republished in: Dane Zajc, Pesmi, Ljubljana, Emonica, 1990. For his last collection see Dane Zajc, Dol dol, (Ljubljana, Nova Revija, 1998).
(4.) See Dane Zajc, Intervjuji, Ljubljana, Emonica, 1990.
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Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Faculty of Arts, University of Maribor, Koroska 160, 2000 Maribor, Slovenia
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|Publication:||Forum for World Literature Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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