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The Lyric Now

For more than a century, American poets have heeded the siren song of Ezra Pound’s make it new, staking a claim for the next poem on the supposed obsolescence of the last. But great poems are forever rehearsing their own present, inviting readers into a nowness that makes itself new each time we read or reread them. They create the present moment as we enter it, their language relying on the long history of lyric poetry while at the same time creating a feeling of unprecedented experience. 

​In poet and critic James Longenbach’s title, the word “now” does double duty, evoking both a lyric sense of the present and twentieth-century writers’ assertion of “nowness” as they crafted their poetry in the wake of Modernism. Longenbach examines the fruitfulness of poetic repetition and indecision, of naming and renaming, and of the evolving search for newness in the construction, history, and life of lyrics. Looking to the work of thirteen poets, from Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot through George Oppen and Jorie Graham to Carl Phillips and Sally Keith, and several musicians, including Virgil Thomson and Patti Smith, he shows how immediacy is constructed through language. Longenbach also considers the life and times of these poets, taking a close look at the syntax and diction of poetry, and offers an original look at the nowness of lyrics.

128 pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 | © 2020

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


"[Longenbach] does prove—with stylistic wit and epigrammatic verve—that close reading can be a literary art in its own right. In chapters on unfamiliar poems from familiar poets like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Marianne Moore, Longenbach delivers fresh, often-surprising insights. . . . Taken together, these essays, and those on less familiar poets, make an implicit case for the importance of syntax to lyric poetry. This is particularly evident in Longenbach's reading of Moore’s 'The Octopus,' and in masterful readings of poems by Jorie Graham and Carl Philips. When he contrasts Patti Smith’s prose and John Ashbery’s poetry with the songs of Bob Dylan, his skill as an expert close reader proves his point about the power of syntax. This volume proves a simple yet fundamental truth: 'a lyric works particularly, sentence by sentence, line by line'. . . . Summing Up: Highly recommended."


"A talented poet and critic.”


“Longenbach is a lyric poet, practical critic, and literary scholar. These are distinct roles, and there are vanishingly few people good, let alone so distinguished, in all three. In The Lyric Now, he brings a career's worth of wisdom to bear while writing with élan and urgency for both the specialist and nonspecialist reader. No one is better at explaining how poems work, how literary history happens, and why we should care about both.”

Langdon Hammer, author of James Merrill: Life and Art

“’A poem creates the moment as we enter it,’ writes Longenbach, and with his masterful discernment and elegant prose, he illuminates the richness of that moment. Wending from Marianne Moore’s Observations to Sally Keith’s River House, Longenbach traces the entire development of modern and contemporary American poetry, even as he attends to the unique imaginations of the poets themselves, to ‘the way in which a particular poem creates the repeatable event of itself.’ I’m convinced The Lyric Now will be with us for a long time to come.”

Peter Campion, author of Radical as Reality: Form and Freedom in American Poetry

"The Lyric Now will give great pleasure."

Modern Philology

Table of Contents


I    Poet of Argument

II    Home Thoughts

III    Visions and Revisions

IV    Drawing a Frame

V    A Test of Poetry

VI    Life after Death

VII    Very Rich Hours

VIII    Potential Space

IX    Moving On

X    Disliking It

XI    The Lyric Now

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