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The Problem of Fictionality and Factuality in Lyric Poetry

From: Narrative
Volume 22, Number 2, May 2014
pp. 155-168 | 10.1353/nar.2014.0014

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The term “fictional”—as logically opposed to “factual”—normally refers to “the species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters,” comprising novels, short stories, novellas, and also—by implication—dramas and films. Applying the terms fictionality and factuality to lyric poetry is uncommon and usually considered inappropriate or irrelevant. But implicitly most poetological concepts by poets, critics, or theorists do in fact contain statements that opt either for the fictional or the factual status of poems, without using these terms. However, explicitly applying these terms to lyric poems is apt to highlight specific and distinctive features and functions of poetry. Comparing the poetic genre in this respect with the other two genres can be justified by the observation that, like fiction and drama, poetry in principle also features narrative elements, albeit with significant differences. Poems contain narrative sequences predominantly of a mental kind such as thoughts, perceptions, emotions, recollections, imaginings, or generally experiences, and they present them typically in an abbreviated, condensed, compact form, as micro-narratives so to speak, relying on the narrative competence and world-knowledge of readers to fill in gaps and provide missing links.

Pointing out such basic similarities between poems on the one hand and novels and dramas on the other does not presuppose a comparable definition of the generic status for poetry. As recent critics have argued, poetry cannot be considered a genre in the same sense in which narrative fiction or drama are genres, definable by a single central criterion such as the mode of representation, according to which happenings are mediated through a narrator in a written or spoken text in the epic genre and performed by live actors on a stage in the dramatic genre. Poetry can employ either mode of representation; poems may indirectly mediate mental processes through the report of a speaker (analogous to a narrator), or they may perform such sequences directly, in a quasi-dramatic manner, in other words, either on the story level as a condensed rendering of a course of action or experience—mostly in the past tense—or on the discourse level performatively enacted as an ongoing process in the present tense. Poetry thus basically shares the constitutive features of both genres, leaning either in the one or the other direction. This participation in the basic structures of narrative fiction and drama can be taken as a defining feature of the genre of lyric poetry.

The Opposition of Fictionality and Factuality

The opposition between factual and fictional concerns the doubleness of sign systems and semiotic media, such as language in verbal texts, visual images in photographs and paintings, or their combination in films, that is, the mode of representation, in the relation between signifier and signified. Considered from this perspective, it appears to be relatively uncontroversial to explicate what is basically designated by these terms. The commonsense understanding is that this opposition concerns the question of referentiality, in other words, the ontic status of the signified, of the represented entities and happenings (characters, situations, places, points in time, changes of state as well as attitudes, emotions, experiences), namely, whether the representation refers to something that exists independently of the act of representation or whether the represented is (wholly or predominantly) invented, fictive, and projected by the semiotic representation in the first place.

This opposition is, however, less clear-cut and less discriminating with respect to texts than it purports to be. For, on the one hand, even unquestionably fictional texts, such as novels, contain numerous references to entities that do exist outside the specific text—not only places and institutions (e.g., London, the New York Stock Exchange, Oxford University, South Africa) and persons with proper names (e.g., Napoleon, Caesar, Shakespeare), but also historical conditions and events (e.g., the French Revolution, the British colonial empire, the establishment of slavery in America)—and, on the other hand, factual texts may include fictional elements, albeit to a lesser degree, such as the mediation of people’s thoughts in a history book. Consequently, these two terms, especially that of fictionality, have to be understood as classifying the referential status of texts in their overall, their...



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