Nathaniel Tarn epitomizes the image we all have of a Cambridge-educated scholar; he is eloquent, dapper, and has that dry, yet biting, wit. However, in a Tuesday talk given by the esteemed poet, translator, editor, anthropologist, and University of Chicago alum, Tarn revealed himself to be a true polymath. His first lecture in 30 years, “On Poetic Production: The Embattled Lyric and the Topology of Hope,” drew on multiple areas of knowledge, ranging from anthropology to sociology to neurology.
“I believe that poetry is the purest incarnation of hope because of its solitude and lack of consequence,” Tarn declared to an audience predominantly composed of men wearing horn-rimmed glasses and plaid shirts. Tarn then plunged into an intricate discourse on the specifics of how he believes lyric poetry creates hope in a world that seems completely hopeless. Tarn defines his approach as “auto-anthropology,” with which he seeks to find a scientific language with a lyrical quality. He identified the vocal, the choral, and the silence components of lyric poetry as different actors that can function in conjunction or in opposition to each other. He considers the vocal to represent the poet’s individual aims in creating a successful poem, and the choral to be the collective voice of poetry in general. Although Tarn claims that the vocal and the choral are “opposed illusions of each other,” he believes a proper balance in the two components creates a successful poem. The silence is where the vocal and choral may eventually meet, and it is a point of unstable idyll. According to Tarn, the silence is where the poet feels the poem cannot be finished.
In what he calls his “archeological” basis for hope in poetry, Tarn cited the classical myth of Orpheus as a representation of the poet. Like Orpheus, who never gives up and keeps venturing to the underworld to find his wife, the poet similarly holds fast to hope and delves into past poems with the intentions of creating something new. Tarn then explained his “neurological” thesis for hope in lyric poetry, in which the vocal or “ego” of the poem wishes for both eternal death and continued life. In the silence, the poet asks if it is the right moment in history for this particular poem, or if the poem should be abandoned.
Throughout the course of the lecture, Tarn’s pure intellect was made apparent. As a student of Claude Levi-Strauss (an experience he summed up as “four years of hell”) and scholar of Ernst Block, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin, Tarn was clearly influenced by some of the most powerful ideas of the 20th century. Most importantly, he demonstrates the unique capacity to apply multiple disciplines to a single topic, hence producing the richest possible analysis.
Ultimately, Tarn, a self-proclaimed terminalist, believes that poetry is the last potential human responsibility in this world because poetry “quasi-religiously” satisfies the reader, instilling an identical sense of hope. “I see poetry as exactly coterminous with hope,” he concluded. “Poetry is hope.”
Tarn’s humor gave way to certain gems during the question and answer section. “Poets are pathetic people, for God’s sake!” Tarn exclaimed. “All they do is make little poems.” After a brief pause, he added, “But, within that, I see action, and I see ingenuity.”