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John Hyland



For reasons I can’t quite recall, I found myself, some time in the last year, rereading Aristotle’s Poetics. And as I began to make my way through the strained logic of those pages, I came across a strange line. It struck me—and still does—as absurd. Occurring in the sixth chapter titled “A Description of Tragedy”—but the tragedy here seems more than simply descriptive—it reads: “song is a term whose sense is obvious to everyone.” Something inherently hierarchical informs such flippancy; something deeply problematic and unexamined resides here.

Without falling into a rehearsal of the assertive categorizing that is the Poetics, I’d like to point out the context for this seemingly insignificant line: Before stating what “is obvious,” Aristotle declares “song and diction” as the “medium of representation.” Diction here is “the arrangement of verses,” and song is “a term …” etc. The equation here is obvious if not worn—but also irritatingly often the case.

All of this is to say, the notion of song informs much of my work lately. (In another project, titled Song Notions, I am trying to write what occurs in a lyrical space haunted by and tangent to song.) I’m interested in the ways that “song” functions as a poetic principle. “This is Not a Song” seeks to eschew such Aristotelian logic for “arranging verses” while still developing a lyric-informed space. As I wrote a few years ago in a series of meditations: “This is not a song. This is me singing, though. Liquid notes/intrude the air around me.” And it is this possibility of singing without song that at times holds but more often eludes my attention.

Often disembodied, “This is Not a Song” is preoccupied with sound as both an organizing principle and a signifying element. Recently I have been reading the work of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, and in his 1979 talk History of Voice he says that then recent Caribbean poetry is “based as much on sound as it is on song”: This accurately describes one of the primary concerns of this sequence. I’m interested in sound relations that move not beyond per se but away from questions of prosody; the internal sonic, not to mention semantic, resonances of a given word or phrase often determine the external arrangement of these “verses.”

Several years ago, an editor I respected told me that my work was too emotively self-conscious. While I’m still not totally sure what that means, I think a similar observation could be made here, if that makes any sense. But I’m no longer convinced such an observation is a bad thing.

Of course other concerns lurk and assert themselves here, but most crucial to this sequence is the particular fact of those poets who are often, if not always, singing within me.


John Hyland

Still River, MA

21 April 2007



from This is Not a Song



What is image

or sound from


the outside

the outset—


another’s glare

or utterance—


relief of another’s

tongue, nothing


or all between

quotation …


Or only this

as I

           that I

call my own



stratified if listless

glance. Flare


if inward

then not


also bent,



beyond questions

of the seen


what trails

sun-marked or


tinged with





To arrive late

as if early

were to be prized


as if to be

world, unfettered

or lit,


were pure fact

of syntax

measured, waiting


—to weigh the self

against a self

perhaps another …


All here,


in handy basket


in buried coffer

marked as this

assumed as that


after or before

some unquantifiable

brush or rush with



Often to forget is to recall

the overlooked and out


this second-story window:

just sky traced and tempered


with what is sought and sought



           Other poems

to live in, to begin—


never to finish, never to finish—

concerning sky, a kind


of lucid forgetfulness,

a returning


to what’s unwritten.

This is a poem to read


before leaving this vanquished city,

where I heave my quiet at the world.



Not home but desire

as in inter—


but what emerges is not a question

of the new or the now.


The broad scope postpones

the queried line, the smear.


Nothing in isolate—

it’s all impossibly


or probably likely

on the verge of here.


Morning’s historical lens

busts or mends past


boundaries of world,

visions of this


opposition lacerates

permissions of


limits still intercede,

excoriate unification.




—and up

into sky


to become

look like



to clamber






a new





image sense

wind (sure)





a shift

in air


to be

a verb


as rain

(a rain of)


then send




Nothing but what happens between

slips into prosody


I suppose, perhaps

I am a drawn point, a focusing of


while birds turn in wind

while I think to say yes or


enough with yes enough

with if this if that then yes or

no I think not, and thank you.


To where some possession

might return, might stay—


might exclaim crude ligature

burnished with if emptied of


stained world in edge of

mouth shut by its own delay.

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