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  • The Lyric and Its Discontents
  • Isobel Palmer (bio)
A review of Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015). Cited in the text as tl.

For a form so often characterized by its brevity, the lyric poem has been called upon to perform some large tasks: charged with providing an escape from the confines of the everyday, a passage out of time, and a way to transcend the human and the finite, it has been declared no less than “the privileged site for the unconcealment or presencing of Being and the happening of Truth” (Heidegger, as summarized in tl, 91).

At the other extreme lie recent moves to question the viability of lyric as a category at all. According to this argument (most recently and comprehensively made by Virgina Jackson and Yopie Prins’s 2013 critical anthology, The Lyric Theory Reader), the lyric as it is currently conceived—most specifically, Jackson and Prins claim, as the expression of personal feeling, but often even more abstractly, as simply “the essence of poetry, a poem at its most poetic”—is a category that arose only in the late eighteenth century.1 As the nineteenth century progressed, they argue, a complex of changes in the nature of poetic production, consumption, and criticism led to the gradual “lyricization” of all poetry—to a gradual broadening of the term lyric until it became essentially synonymous with poetry at large. In this view, [End Page 233] what we now call lyric is far removed from lyric “proper” (i.e., the poetry of ancient Greece, performed with the accompaniment of a lyre); reduced to vague catch-all, the modern term is a fiction that emerged chiefly as a convenient category for modern critical thought and whose continuing usefulness as a category of poetic analysis is open to serious debate.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Jonathan Culler’s recent Theory of the Lyric is its evenhanded avoidance of grandiose claims regarding the utopian potential of lyric in its ideal state. If its sustained and at times fierce rebuttal of Jackson and Prins’s historicist correction to such claims reveals a certain idealism of Culler’s own as to the transhistorical nature of the lyric tradition, its argument remains always rooted in the identification of the concrete qualities of lyric structures and language that might justify this vision. Herein lies Culler’s fundamental disagreement with Jackson and Prins—a disagreement that has come, in the past few years, to divide scholars of the lyric squarely into two camps. When the latter claim that the twentieth century inherited the “ambitions for lyric” fostered during the nineteenth century in attempts “to distinguish a transcendent version of lyric from contemporary cultures of circulation,” they mean precisely that our modern notion of lyric is born of what they identify as a nineteenth-century desire, typified by Hegel and John Stuart Mill, to reach beyond concrete instantiations of poetic practice to a utopian lyric mode that would “represent both perfect expression and the dialectical accomplishment of historical progress” (ltr, 3). Against this background, Culler’s study emerges as a sustained demonstration that twentieth-century criticism remains alert to the lyric as material object and not simply idealized quality.

Providing a transhistorical theory of the lyric of this sort is no small undertaking: quite apart from the high stakes of the debate, the history of the Western lyric, not to mention Western lyric reading, is a long and complex one. There is, furthermore, the pressing fact that almost all of lyric’s defining features are actually quite difficult to define. What do we mean when we speak of a lyric subject, and where do we locate this subject, if such a term is useful at all? How, otherwise, can we account for the ways in which poetry speaks? What precisely is meant by the term rhythm, and what is its relationship to [End Page 234] its sturdier cousin, meter? And how are we to understand the special functioning of metaphor and metonymy, the pleasure of rhyme, or the thrill of enjambment? These and many other problems continue to vex critics, and Culler’s survey is at its best when it addresses...


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