- Returning to Lyric
There seems these days to be something of a turn to lyric. A January 2008 "Theories and Methodologies" section of PMLA entitled "The New Lyric Studies" gathered short papers that originated as presentations at the 2006 MLA convention, which, under the presidential aegis of Marjorie Perloff, focused on lyric; and while the particular phrase has seemingly not caught fire, a significant mass of recent work perhaps justifies the rhetoric of the "turn."1 Yet one might also say that recent critics have turned against lyric. The two most polemical pieces in the aforementioned collection, by Virginia Jackson and Rei Terada, look askance at the figure of lyric, Terada arguing that we should abandon our obsession with lyric's empty specialness, Jackson proposing an analysis of how that specialness was imputed to short poems by a particular history [End Page 180] of reading. "Lyricization" and "delyricization" have entered the vocabulary of criticism.2
Against this backdrop, Robert von Hallberg's beautifully written, wide-ranging Lyric Powers looks almost old-fashioned. Neither demystifying nor historicizing in its procedures, uninterested in the rhetoric of contemporary criticism, the book is engaged not with claims "for" lyric but with claims made "by" lyric—with the capabilities lyric poets have sought to marshal. Indeed, the criticism of lyric seems for von Hallberg little more than fashion. Noting that claims of literary autonomy have been regarded with "strenuous suspicion" over the past half century (a suspicion he does not explicitly link to recent critics such as those I've mentioned), von Hallberg remarks, "this too will pass" (7). The "aspiration" to lyric autonomy (10), for von Hallberg, is poetry's desire to pull itself up by its own bootstraps: while he will invoke the quasi-conceptuality of the aesthetic in its defense, he remains agnostic about the truth-claims that might be made for this autonomy. He is equally uninterested in the question of the lyric subject. And, after observing that "[w]hat is called lyric is more effort than thing" (11), he sidesteps a third theoretical topic: the question of lyric's materiality, which, since modernism, and more recently with the rise of "thing theory," has provoked significant debate. Yet the question of poetic authority—for von Hallberg, a theoretical problem instrinsic to lyric—remains crucial to him, and his approach to this question allows his argument to be compared to other recent work on lyric.
The book's chapters are organized by function or "power": these, as von Hallberg enumerates them, are "authority," "praise," "civility," "thought," "music," and "universality." His central, working dichotomy is that of the "orphic," with which he associates invocations of authority and the power to praise, and the civic or "rhetorical" (2), the mode in which poetry [End Page 181] engages with civic discourse and problems of knowledge. Musicality and universality (themselves, as it turns out, closely related) are common to both. (One might compare Gerald Bruns's division of modern lyric into orphic and hermetic modes; as the changed terms of the dichotomy suggest, von Hallberg's study is particularly interested in styles of lyric that aspire to the worldly.) Why lyric powers? Von Hallberg notes that the sense of inspiration as "unsustainable" is specific to the lyric: "This authority does not belong to dramatic or narrative poetry" (21). Strong accounts of authority, for von Hallberg, are orphic; this is the "dominant tradition" of lyric, asserting the distinct quality of poetic language (71). Against orphic poetry, von Hallberg poses the heterogeneity of "speech-based poetry" (103), which draws its authority from diverse sources (among them, "the dominant, rhetorical line of literary criticism" ). All the predicates of social identity now come into play.
Here we begin to see a theoretical stance articulated. An opposition which for some critics obtains between lyric and other discourses is for von Hallberg installed within lyric itself—we have, as it were, autonomous and heteronomous lyric. At the beginning of his first chapter, von Hallberg sets out his thesis, that "the most distinctive authority of lyric rests still on its affirmative...