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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 uncontroversially lyric poems (45). I say “more or less uncontroversially lyric poems” because by the end of the book he also suggests one cannot provide a firm definition or even a durable model of “what is and is not a lyric” (349).

No full poems by Wallace Stevens receive extended attention in Theory of the Lyric. Indeed, Stevens is mentioned only four times throughout this almost four-hundred-page volume: once as mentioned in a quotation from Mutlu Blasing, when she cites Stevens in her argument about how lyrics keep the materiality of language on display (169); Stevens appears a second time where Culler talks about the importance of sound (173) and a third time when [End Page 101] he notes how poetry resists the intelligence “Almost successfully” (184); finally, two lines from “Bantams in Pine-Woods” are cited as Culler discusses “babble,” that is, pure orality or musicality (253). Presumably, no readers of Stevens will find it wrong or surprising that Stevens is quoted in chapters on rhythm, repetition, and sonic structures. That sound offers solace and pleasure will also not be news to Stevensians.

At the same time, Culler provides vocabularies for formal features of lyrics that could well be useful for discussing Stevens’ work, especially when analyzing what he calls the “ritualistic dimensions” of the lyric, such as triangulated address, rhythm, sound patterns, invocation, and other “incantatory elements” (350). Relatedly, Culler maps what he calls “voice-events or . . . voicing” or a written enactment of “voicing” for readers (223), which he insists is not necessarily the voice of a speaker so that “we might do better to say that [lyrics] create effects of voicing, of aurality” (35). This is primarily part of an argument about how lyrics offer the seductive pleasures of and somatic responses to sound and rhythmic patterning—claimed as global features of the lyric—although Culler also frames the effect of voicing differently when he analyzes how lyrics can produce a sense of intimacy using lyric address, verb tense, and deixis, or shifters. Finally, Culler insists on how lyrics are “hyperbolic,” by which he means something like what Paul H. Fry in The Poet’s Calling in the English Ode (1980) means by the odic, including giving “a spiritual dimension to,” by remaking, the world (Culler 38). While Culler does not follow Fry’s sense of how the poetic presentation of the numinous is problematic, he does raise the question of whether the effect of presence is a fundamental feature or simply a “major possibility” of lyric (38; see also 352).

It is not always clear which of the features of poetic language Culler wants to claim as fundamental, which as merely possibilities. At times he sounds as if he is calling, hyperbolically perhaps, for an overarching definition he does not think exists. For the most part, though, he proclaims, as his concluding remarks put it, that his purpose is more modest: to show why those features of poems that do not rely on semantic content should be acknowledged “more often” (353) and to encourage “a capacious appreciation of . . . poems” (349). Theory of the Lyric does focus us on the ways poetic language can work—including its ability to charm and seduce—features of language that are not perhaps as neglected as Culler implies, but that are nonetheless central to much of what we call lyric poetry.

Lisa M. Steinman
Reed College