Book Review Archives

Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays, 1996-2008

By: Hank Lazer
Reviewed by: Alan May
Omnidawn Publishing, 2008
$19.95, Paperback

In little more than a decade, Hank Lazer has published three very important books of poetry: Days, The New Spirit, and Elegies & Vacations. During this time, Lazer has also made various presentations, written, and had conversations about poetry. We can see this fruit come to bear in the probing, provocative, and essential essays in his book Lyric & Spirit.

In Lyric & Spirit, Lazer covers a wide range of writers and musicians, including Heidegger, Creeley, Mackey, Monk, Armantrout, Derrida, Coltrane, Waldrop, Cage, Berry, Hejinian, and Fischer, among others, and discusses their relationships (and his own) with such topics as jazz, Zen Buddhism, the act of writing, and the mechanics of innovative poetry.

What I find most interesting in these essays, however, is that we learn more about Lazer as a poet and a reader, and we again encounter an intellect capable of swerving (a term he uses to describe Rae Armentrout’s “doubleness—in this case, assertion and critique—done with brevity and humor”) to explore the essence of the links between poetry and spirituality. A good example of this swerving can be found in the essay “Reflections on The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry” in which Lazer admits he has confused wisdom (as in the quality or state of being wise) with the name of a company, Wisdom Publications. What ensues is a lively account of his own reading of the text (while he reminds us of his initial confusion, knowing we are all guilty of such swervings) and how confusion informs his thoughts and opens interrogations into the poems within the anthology.

In one of my favorite pieces, “Force, Vector, Pressure” (an interview), we learn more about Lazer’s philosophy towards writing when the interviewer asks a fairly common question: “Where do you suppose the self-destructiveness trait comes from that occurs in many writers?” In the interview, and in this book of essays, the question seems to be a divergence when one considers Hank Lazer’s life and the sheer joy we find in books like Days and The New Spirit. However, Lazer has obviously given this topic great consideration. After describing the role of materialism, the marginalization of poetry, and our contemporary society’s aversion to insight and investigation, he asserts that it’s easy to romanticize the negative aspects of a poet’s life. To do so requires less thought. In movies about poets, you don’t see “the scenes of someone sitting in a chair, staring out the window, writing down three words” (and, as Lazer might say “thinking / singing” or “swerving”). Fortunately, in Lyric & Spirit, we are given a thought-provoking and honest picture of Hank Lazer at play and at work, and the insights, convulsions, and investigations that we encounter therein challenge us in both our thinking and our listening. Sept 2008

Alan May is an Assistant Professor/Librarian at the University of Montevallo.