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  • Extending the Theory of the Lyric
  • Jonathan Culler (bio)

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It is, naturally, extremely gratifying to have esteemed colleagues invite scholars who work in other areas of literary studies to explore the implications of my recent Theory of the Lyric for their own work. It is also intriguing and somewhat puzzling, because Theory of the Lyric is an argument specifically about lyric poetry as a genre, focused on the engaging things that lyric poems through the ages do, have done, or can do. It does not offer arguments about the nature of literariness or of literature in general or offer models for interpretation that might be deployed elsewhere. If anything, it resists the notion that the task of literary study should be to produce richer, more complex, more historically-attuned interpretations of literary works and suggests that in thinking about lyric poetry we should bear in mind the model of music or song: people develop considerable expertise concerning the types of music and song that interest them without spending time attempting to interpret songs or musical compositions. So to me, at least, Theory of the Lyric seems to lack that aspect of critical or theoretical works that is most transportable: a model of interpretation. But the fact that it was not easy to conceive in advance what scholars working on the novel might find stimulating or provocative in Theory of the Lyric makes this project the more exciting, at least to me. One can generally imagine what colleagues in one's field might find contestable or productive in one's work, but resonances elsewhere are all the more interesting for being unexpected.

Let me say a little about the book itself and its major concerns before offering some comments on the directions that these intriguing responses to it take.

First of all, Theory of the Lyric maintains, against recent historicist accounts, that the category of the lyric makes sense, that there is a Western lyric tradition, created by poets themselves who read each other, who attempt similar things, even though these poems may be created in very different social and political circumstances. The singer to the lyre in ancient Greece and today's academic poet, aiming for publication in a small journal and then a slim volume from a university press or alternative publishing house, are obviously very differently situated, but this does not prevent them from writing in relation to a common tradition, or prevent there being common features in poems about the travails of love, for example. In sketching and defending the notion of a Western lyric tradition, Theory of the Lyric is first a work of genre criticism, exploring the parameters of a genre: what sorts of things do these poems do, what are the parameters on which they vary?

This is a project in poetics rather than hermeneutics. This distinction, crucial for me, is often ignored in critical writing and indeed may be difficult to make in practice. But in principle it is very clear. Hermeneutics begins with a text and asks what it means, seeks to uncover a richer, truer, more adequate interpretation than has previously been offered, though of course the standards by which interpretations are judged superior may vary considerably. Poetics, on the other hand, starts not with the text but with meanings and effects and asks how they are possible: what are the conventions and reading practices that enable texts to have the meanings and effects that they do for readers? (The clear analogy is with linguistics, which does not aim to tell us what [End Page 7] English sentences "really mean," deep down, but seeks to reconstruct the system of a language that allows them to have meaning.) In practice, as I say, it may be difficult to distinguish hermeneutics and poetics, because those who write about the codes and conventions on which a work depends for its effects often end by concluding that the work is really about these codes and conventions, so that their attempt at poetics strays into hermeneutics, but in principle the distinction is clear: poetics and hermeneutics are working in opposite directions.

Theory of the Lyric originates in my fascination with lyrics' strange way...