Theory of the Lyric
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Theory of the Lyric

Jonathan Culler

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eBook - ePub

Theory of the Lyric

Jonathan Culler

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About This Book

What sort of thing is a lyric poem? An intense expression of subjective experience? The fictive speech of a specifiable persona? Theory of the Lyric reveals the limitations of these two conceptions of the lyric—the older Romantic model and the modern conception that has come to dominate the study of poetry—both of which neglect what is most striking and compelling in the lyric and falsify the long and rich tradition of the lyric in the West. Jonathan Culler explores alternative conceptions offered by this tradition, such as public discourse made authoritative by its rhythmical structures, and he constructs a more capacious model of the lyric that will help readers appreciate its range of possibilities." Theory of the Lyric brings Culler's own earlier, more scattered interventions together with an eclectic selection from others' work in service to what he identifies as a dominant need of the critical and pedagogical present: turning readers' attention to lyric poems as verbal events, not fictions of impersonated speech. His fine, nuanced readings of particular poems and kinds of poems are crucial to his arguments. His observations on the workings of aspects of lyric across multiple different structures are the real strength of the book. It is a work of practical criticism that opens speculative vistas for poetics but always returns to poems."
—Elizabeth Helsinger, Critical Theory

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Lyric Address

Along with rhythmical sound patterning, what I have called triangulated address—address to the reader by means of address to something or someone else—is a crucial aspect of the ritualistic dimension of lyric. “Lyric is pre-eminently the utterance that is overheard,” writes Northrop Frye, taking up John Stuart Mill’s famous formulation distinguishing poetry, which is overheard, from eloquence, which is heard. “The lyric poet,” Frye continues, “normally pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else: a spirit of nature, a muse, a personal friend, a lover, a god, a personified abstraction, or a natural object.… The radical of presentation in the lyric is the hypothetical form of what in religion is called the ‘I-Thou’ relationship. The poet, so to speak, turns his back on his listeners, though he may speak for them and though they may repeat some of his words after him.”1
Triangulated address is the root-form of presentation for lyric, underlying even those poems that do not engage in the strange forms of address and invocation endemic to the genre. But it is scarcely clear that “overheard” is best way to speak of this pretense to address someone or something else, while actually proffering discourse for an audience. After all, we encounter lyrics in the form of written texts to which readers give voice. What we “hear” is our own ventriloquizing of ambiguously directed address, though we may, and in some cases certainly do, construe this as overhearing a distinctive poetic voice. Poems addressed to no one, such as Leopardi’s “l’Infinito” and Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow” discussed in Chapter 1, may be conceived by readers as meditations overheard, but song-like poems such as Goethe’s “Heidenröslein” or even Lorca’s “La Luna asoma” are scripts for performance more than a voice overheard.2 Whatever its inadequacies, though, Frye’s formulation has the virtue of stressing the importance of voicing and of indirection, both central to the experience of lyric. This radical of presentation foregrounds the event of address, by making it an operation not determined by its apparent communicative purpose. To invoke or address something that is not the true audience, whether a muse, an urn, Duty, or a beloved, highlights the event of address itself as an act, whose purpose and effects demand critical attention. To avoid confusion, I will use the term addressee for whomever or whatever is designated by the pronouns of address and the term audience for the presumed beneficiaries of lyric communication—most often listeners or readers.
The most blatant manifestation of triangulated address is the invocation of impossible addressees, such as unseen powers: “O wild West Wind, thou breath of autumn’s being” (Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind”), or creatures and things unlikely to answer—a lion, a ship, death, a swan, the earth:
Lion! J’étais pensif, ô bête prisonnière, / Devant la majesté de ta grave crinière
(“Lion! I was pensive, o prisoner-beast, / before the majesty of your weighty mane”; Victor Hugo, “Baraques de la foire”)
O navis, referent in mare te novi / fluctus. O quid agis?
(“O ship, the fresh tide carries you back to sea again. What are you doing?”; Horace, Odes 1.14)
Or ài fatto l’extremo di tua possa, / o crudel Morte.
(“Now you have done the worst that you can, O cruel Death”; Petrarch, Canzoniere 326)
¿Qué signo haces, oh Cisne, con tu encorvado cuello / al paso de los tristes y errantes soñadores?
(“What sign do you give, O Swan, with your curving neck, / when the sad and wandering dreamers pass?”; Reuben Darío, “Los Cignes”)
Erde, du liebe, ich will!
(“Earth, you darling, I will!”; Rilke, Duino Elegies, 9)
Address to someone or something gives the poem a character of event, and the less ordinary the addressee, the more the poem seems to become a ritualistic invocation. Nor is this address to absent or impossible interlocutors an outworn poetical fashion, as we are likely to believe, a feature of romantic poetry now left behind by a more ironic age. There are many apostrophes in modernist poetry; among the best known are D’Annunzio’s address to a torpedo boat (“Naviglio d’acciaio, diritto veloce guizzante / bello come un’arme nuda” [“Ship of steel, straight, swift, flashing, lovely as a naked weapon”]) and Apollinaire’s to the Eiffel Tower (“Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin” [“Shepherdess, o Eiffel Tower, the herd of bridges is bleating this morning”]). And a surprising range of recent poems engage in address, not just to friends and lovers or enemies (as in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through!”) or to indeterminate “you”’s, which can be the reader or the poet him- or herself, but also to such things as the sun, a flower, a leaf.3
Wordsworth, turning away from the roses of tradition, had warmly hailed the humble daisy and the invasive celandine. What, then, is left for a modern poet if not the weed.
The pigrush, the poverty grass,
The bindweed’s stranglehold morning glories,
The dog blow and ninety-joints—
They ask so little of us to start with,
Just a crack in the asphalt,
Or a subway grate with an hour of weak light.
One I know has put down roots
As far as a corpse is buried, its storage stem
As big as my leg. That one’s called
Man-under-ground. That one was my grudge.
And suddenly now this small
Unlooked for joy. Where did it come from,
With these pale shoots
And drooping lavender bell? Persistent
Intruder, whether or not
I want you, you’ve hidden in the heart’s
Overworked subsoil. Hacked at
Or trampled on, may you divide and spread,
Just as, all last night,
The wind scattered a milkweed across the sky.
[J. D. McClatchy]
That sudden “you” is a very effective touch—one we don’t expect. It moves the poem from poetic reflection to invocation, event, and makes it more than a musing on the resilience of some plants: a celebration of their energy and overcoming of adversity, as the address to a “you” brings speaker and plant together in the hope of dissemination. McClatchy’s last line recalls the conclusion of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth,
And by the incantations of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
More modest than Shelley’s “Scatter my words,” McClatchy’s “may you divide and spread” evinces the same desire for the scattering or dissemination of the lyric words.
Or here in “Les Étiquettes Jaunes” is the supposedly prosaic, down-to-earth Frank O’Hara, who felt ill-at-ease when not near a subway station:
Leaf! you are so big!
How can you change your
color, then just fall!
(The poem concludes, “Leaf! don’t be neurotic / like the small chameleon.”)
Such blatant apostrophes have been central to the lyric tradition and mark the vatic aspect of that tradition: invoking all manner of things, and thus presuming the potential responsiveness of the universe, in what is the acme of poetic presumption. The vatic stance is a potential embarrassment to poets, as we shall see: they frequently revolt against it, mock it, or retreat from it, wh...

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