restricted access Theory of the Lyric by Jonathan Culler (review)
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Theory of the Lyric.
By Jonathan Culler. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Over the past five years or so, there have been numbers of books that set out to define what is special about lyric poetry: Richard Bradford’s 2010 Poetry: The Ultimate Guide (“a comprehensive definition of poetry” [xi]); Oren Izenberg’s 2011 Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life (“a revisionary account of what poetry is or can be” [1]); Jahan Ramazani’s 2013 Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres (which opens by asking “What is poetry?” [1]); Charles Altieri’s 2015 Reckoning with the Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience (which starts with an even broader question, namely “How do we treat the distinctly literary as . . . worthy of attention beyond the domain of professional literary study?” [1]); and now Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric.

These books have quite different approaches, but one aim they seem to have in common is a tacit or explicit desire to rescue poetry (or in Altieri’s case, all manner of things literary) from a presumed decline. To quote Culler: “We need to provide students and other readers with a better model of the [End Page 100] lyric in order to make possible a richer, more perceptive experience of lyrics” (4–5). He adds, “the presumption that poems exist to be interpreted has accompanied a diminution of interest in the lyric” (5). The diminution of interest in the lyric may be overstated. Culler’s book, however, has virtues that do not depend on poetry’s popularity, even if he insists more than once on the need to “enlarge possibilities of reading and engagement” (90).

Theory of the Lyric makes clear that it will focus not on hermeneutics but on poetics, or the pleasure, uniqueness, and rhetorical strategies of a range of lyrics. From the first, Culler also resists the idea that lyrics need to be mimetic—that is, to represent either subjective experience or the action of a fictional speaker—while noting that some poems, of course, do just this (2). His project is not narrow; he draws from Greek, Latin, Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English texts, from ancient to modern, from Archilochus to Louise Bennett, John Ashbery, and Jay-Z. Nor is his theory essentialist. While he criticizes historicism—Virginia Jackson’s Dickinson’s Misery is singled out in particular—Culler argues that lyric poets themselves have created a lyric tradition across time by responding to predecessors, although he looks only at the tradition that stretches back to the ancient Mediterranean world. He also questions the idea of poems as timeless by focusing on what he sees as the distinctive lyric present, a time of the reader’s enunciation or iteration, detailing how aural (and, to a lesser extent, visual) patterning allows the lyric to present itself as “an event rather than the representation of an event” (35). Most centrally, he proposes that lyric poems present themselves “to be received, reactivated, and repeated by readers” (37), although he is not concerned with how readers or readerly reiterations are historically placed (except tacitly in a final chapter on “Lyric and Society”).

It is not, in any case, that Culler is after features that every lyric must embody in order to count as a lyric. On the contrary, as the title of his first chapter—“An Inductive Approach”—makes clear, he turns to a number of exemplary poems to detail the multiple ways different lyrics use language in distinctive ways. In his second chapter, Culler not only rehearses the theoretical and historical ways in which genre—specifically that of the lyric—has been seen or used, he also argues that, in light of “the role of tradition and imitation in the functioning of genres [which change over time], genres may be best understood in terms of prototypes” (45). In sum, that Culler’s examples are for the most part well-known lyrics by more or less canonical poets is not a way of excluding what does not fit his theory. Instead, he looks at “central examples” to analyze distinctive linguistic features of more or less...