Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Elizabeth Helsinger reviews Theory of the Lyric

Jonathan Culler. Theory of the Lyric. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015. 391pp.

Review by Elizabeth Helsinger

Should there be an article, definite or indefinite, before Theory? Is this theory or Theory? This book might perhaps be better inscribed under the title of a talk Jonathan Culler gave not long before the book was published: “What would a Theory of the Lyric Be?”

Culler has always maintained that you cannot set out to write Theory. If that is the case, this book is a prolegomena to a theory (small “t”) of the lyric: a poetics of the lyric poem that he intends to be of practical use to poets, readers, and teachers of poetry. Moving from an analysis of the inadequacies of current theories, particularly those that approach the lyric either as a poem of personal expression pure and simple (a description attributed to the nineteenth century) or as a form of impersonation on the model of the dramatic monologue (the default assumption that has captured classroom pedagogy since the mid-twentieth), Culler offers a redescription that begins from features that these approaches too often neglect. These include much of lyric poetry's formal patterning (rhythm, rhyme, and repetition as melos and opsis), its peculiar temporality, and its varied forms of address. This is at once a modest proposal and an ambitious one. It is theory in what Culler describes as the desiring or optative mode of lyric itself (“what would a theory of the lyric be?”).

Culler's point of departure is the G. W. F. Hegel for whom lyric, like music, provides poet and reader the experience of “subjectivity encountering itself,” but with the important proviso that the “lyric enunciation” of this subjectivity is “not the expression of personal affect nor the articulation of individual experience, but above all a formal unifying function for lyric” (p. 105). But from Käte Hamburger, whose work extends and modifies Hegel, Culler takes a second postulate critical to his own arguments: that “lyric enunciation” is not “the fictional imitation of an ordinary speech act but . . . a linguistic event of another type”—an event that is closer to that of ritual or reiterated performance (p. 109). Performance, as Culler glosses the term, is what the Greeks meant by epideixis : “discourse conceived as an act, aiming to persuade, to move, to innovate” (p. 130); it is here that Culler identifies “the distinctiveness of lyric” (p. 125). Lyric performance, he continues, “succeeds as it acts iterably through repeated readings,” inscribing itself on personal and cultural memory (p. 131). Repeated acts, events, or performances of reading constitute the lyric poem's “functioning in the world” (p. 131). Theory of the Lyric is conceived as a strategic intervention: “Criticism must resist the dominance of the fictional, lest the distinctiveness of lyric be lost. Just to redress the effects of this dominant model, we must focus on the ritualistic elements of lyric” (p. 125).    

The most interesting results of Culler's focus on lyric as ritual event can be seen in his discussions of lyric temporality and its construction through rhythm and lyric address. Culler leans on a common feature of the poems he examines, their use of “a special nonprogressive present with verbs of action” (p. 287). Pausing over the “oddity” of this lyric present of enunciation, “which is both that of a speaker/poet and that of the reader, who may speak these words also” (294), Culler speculates that this lyric now, always anticipating its own iteration in other readings, works to “incorporate events while reducing their fictional, narrative character and increasing their ritualistic feel” (p. 287). Rhythm, as an experience unfolding in the now of lyric reading, may thus be “what is most salient in lyrics” (p. 138). Culler understands rhythm as a bodily rather than a simply aural (or visual) perception; it gives lyric “a somatic quality that novels and other extended forms lack” and “enlists us in a process in ways that other texts do not” (p. 138). This leads him to express cautious preference for Derek Attridge's “beat prosody,” where identifying rhythmic pulse or beat is preferred to more elaborate schemes of metrical analysis . Culler follows Attridge in arguing that a simplified approach to poetic rhythm offers more immediate access for the untrained to those qualities of verse that distinguish it most sharply from prose. “A greater foregrounding of rhythm as central to lyric,” he suggests, “might enable the teaching of poetry to regain some of the ground lost in recent years and also might lead to a different sort of poetics” (p. 173).

Culler is equally interested in how the varieties of lyric address, often combined in a single poem, contribute to the perception of the poem's unfolding in the present tense of reading. Here he expands his 1977 essay on “Apostrophe” to argue that both the frequent use of apostrophe (often to more than one object in the same poem) and the common “I-thou” structure of many poems which directly address another while indirectly addressing the reader help give the poem its feeling of eventfulness. The less ordinary the addressee (“whether a muse, an urn, Duty, or a beloved” [p. 187]), “the more the poem seems to become a ritualistic invocation” in which the reader participates (p. 188).

One might imagine this description of lyric eventfulness invoked in support of a claim for its social or political effects. But Culler, using examples from ancient Greek epideictic lyric, the Renaissance sonnet, Wordsworth's lyrical ballads, and modern “political” poems by W. H. Auden and Robert Frost, read in light of arguments by Theodore Adorno and Jacques Rancière, concludes that while it is possible to see lyric poems as “contributions to structures of feeling, community formation, instantiation of ideology or its disruption and exposure, subversion or containment,” it's always an act of critical hubris to do so. Such claims, however attractive, may look plausible in retrospect but hardly constitute secure prediction: a poem is always at the mercy of the changing terms in which it may be read. “Above all it is the unpredictability of lyric's efficacy and the different kinds of framings to which it is subject,” he concludes (with a caution one must admire even when it disappoints), “that make any reflection on lyric and society a process in which the analyst cannot but be humbled and dismayed by the contingency of his or her own discourse” (p. 348).

Challenges to Culler's book will be voiced from at least two directions: first, that there is no such thing as “lyric”—the word, as applied widely in romantic and post-romantic criticism and theory, cannot, it is objected, cover the multitude of incompatible practices of writing and reading short poems even within the last several centuries, much less be used to construct a tradition of objects reaching back to Sappho (who did use a lyre). Culler's book sets aside Virginia Jackson's recent arguments (in her article on lyric for The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, for example) that lyric is a limiting critical fiction, an adjective first used by the Alexandrians for something already a distant memory (poetry sung to musical accompaniment); later applied to a variety of short poetic forms evolved for different occasions and social functions, including songs, odes, and sonnets; and only in the last two centuries re-purposed as a noun designating an idealized form of the poetic as subjective poetry of feeling. To this Culler replies that dissolving lyric into incompatible practices doesn't reflect what poets and readers do. It obviates the possibility of comparison. He points to the multitude of intertextual allusions and reworkings as one way in which poets have constructed a lyric genre across historical differences. “The claim is, then, that a broad conception of lyric as genre is helpful for thinking about short, nonnarrative poetry, permitting exploration of its historical tradition, making salient its discursive strategies and possibilities in a range of periods and languages” (p. 90).

A second objection might be raised to Culler's choice of poems—limited, as he warns us upfront, to poems in languages that he knows and which have been “generally recognized” as great lyric poems, from Sappho to Ashbery. In practice, this means poems in classical and modern European languages. Were this A Theory of Lyric, or The Theory of Lyric, or perhaps even Lyric: the Theory, this would be an important drawback—a truly comparative theory should presumably take account of poetry in Chinese, or Russian, or in the multitude of other Asian, African, and American indigenous or hybrid languages.

How interesting, how convincing, and how disturbing to received ideas are the features to which Culler draws our attention? How useful or how provocative—for poetry, for thought, and for Theory—are his speculations on the forms and conditions of poetic meaning to which these observations lead? 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.