- Framing the Lyric
Renewed interest in the lyric seems recently to have dislodged narrative fiction, ever so slightly, from its several-decade status as an a priori object of inquiry among literary scholars. This turn to poetry has also generated, in a similarly welcome development, new dialogue about the relations among poetry, history, and theory. Inasmuch as lyric specifically, and not poetry generally, frames this debate, we might see the three books I will be considering here as marking out key positions within it: The Lyric Theory Reader, edited by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, Gillian White’s Lyric Shame, and Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric. That the divide between the first two positions and the third can be characterized by the terms historicism and theory might be somewhat surprising given that Jackson and Prins’s anthology explicitly announces itself as theory. But what is more surprising is just how these respective terms have come to be so starkly opposed. In sketching how history and theory operate in this collection of books on lyric, I will also be suggesting why a return to the larger discourse of poetry and poetics out of which these models of the lyric have been excavated might allow critics to generate a subtler, more nuanced relationship between synchronic frames and diachronic effects, a position I will call “lowercase theory.”
The Lyric Theory Reader makes a strong case for how problems native to the lyric might organize key lines of theoretical inquiry from the late eighteenth century to the present, but especially throughout the twentieth century. The editors emphasize the last century of lyric’s history because they see this as the period in which other genres (“epistles and hymns, ballads and elegies, drinking songs and odes”), and indeed poetry’s larger contextualizing functions, got swallowed up inside a naturalized version of all poetry as essentially lyrical (“General Introduction” 3). When poetry comes to equal lyric, then, all poetry seems to direct its attention to what Helen [End Page 403] Vendler calls “the mind in solitary speech” (2). The increased tendency to imagine all poetry as solitary and spoken certainly does violence to poetry’s many other contexts, modes, and functions. Still, one might wonder about the extent to which a historicist return to the less famous genres, and the would-be determinate synchronic audience circuits the editors see as organizing them, provides a solution to this problem. Nor do most of the essays included here instantiate or even propose such a return. Their reference field is vast, and broadly comparatist—it runs from ancient Greece to the present, and spreads across the globe. There are long-established classics—by Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, and Paul de Man, for instance—alongside more recent pieces by Simon Jarvis, Drew Milne, Craig Dworkin, Juliana Spahr, and others. Thus, the book sets up a basic conflict between its essays and the editorial apparatus used to frame them.
Arguably, the key though unacknowledged contribution of this anthology is to further the efforts, begun by experimental poets roughly a century ago and amplified intensely in the theoretical climate of the 1970s, to denaturalize the lyric as the essence of poetry. Indeed, the history of poetry since about 1920 is itself easy to construe as a series of articulate pushbacks against the lyricizing that Jackson and Prins bemoan. A history of nonlyric poetics might base itself not merely on the obvious examples: poetic epics by Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Anne Waldman, and others; nonlyric seriality among the Objectivists, San Francisco Renaissance, and other strands of New American poetry. Such a nonlyric line could also be based on the foundational status of the occasional mode within New York School writers like Frank O’Hara (and reinterpreted by Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, and Joe Brainard), which foregrounded the...