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  • Secular Lyric: The Modernization of the Poem in Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson by John Michael
  • Sean J. Kelly (bio)
Secular Lyric: The Modernization of the Poem in Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson. By John Michael. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018. 255 pp. Paper $33.97.

John Michael's latest book, Secular Lyric: The Modernization of the Poem in Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson, offers a welcome counterpoint to historical materialist scholarship focused on the influence of the literary marketplace on nineteenth-century American writing. Though well-informed by recent critical studies that attempt to (re)locate antebellum American poetry within the dynamic fields of production and reception of nineteenth-century print culture (the work of Terence Whalen, Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, Jerome McGann, Alexandra Socarides, Michael Warner, among many others), Michael, following Jonathan Culler, argues that recent efforts at "historical contextualization" are often pitted against what is perceived to be the anachronistic practice of "close reading" (2), or what Virginia Jackson refers to as "lyric reading" (4). Michael points to the potential limitations of this realignment of scholarly values and praxis, maintaining that the lyric poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson pose intentional "challenges to comprehension" (198) and leverage the "difficult sociability of interpretation" (198) for their aesthetic effects. According to Michael, critics such as Jackson privilege the "recovery of social and communicative immediacies" (4) in order to "normalize" (15) the poems within the social and discursive spaces that surround them. In Dickinson's Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (2005), for instance, Jackson examines the ways in which the imposition of lyric ideology—synonymous with the abstraction of selfhood and the illusion of subjective coherence—has helped to distort and suppress the "social or historical resonance"1 of Dickinson's writing. However, while her project asks readers to consider the implications [End Page 308] of "genre and genre formation" as "historical modes of language power,"2 she maintains that she is not advocating "an alternative to lyric reading," but instead wants to "find a way into various lyric genres … as alternatives to a singular idea of the lyric, or to an idea of the lyric as singular."3 Secular Lyric responds to Jackson's critique by arguing that the subjective perspectives represented by the lyric poetry of Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson are inherently fragmented by the destabilizing presence of the nineteenth-century reader.

Michael argues, in particular, that because this poetry stages what might be viewed as an "engagement with a crowd of readers ranging from perhaps one to the world" (200), it demands an interpretive strategy that not only makes space for, but also insists upon the dynamic open-endedness of meaning making. Moreover, he contends that if the lyric poem is traditionally characterized by the "formal insistence on a subjective perspective" (3), an "I," this perspective is, in the works of Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson, often constituted by a modern "fragmentariness of form" (3). Michael claims that such fragmentation can be traced, on the one hand, to the disorienting effects of nineteenth-century secularization, and on the other, to the writers' own transgressive manipulations of "everyday" language (through the tropes of metaphor, metonymy, catachresis, and irony) with the artistic aim of making "utterance something other and purer than a communicative act" (10). Within these interconnected frameworks, Michael's study investigates the ways in which Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson "reshap[e] their [respective] audience's assumptions about lyricism as a form of self-expression" while examining how their poetry "reflect[s] the altered relationship of the poet to the world" (16).

Michael's ambitious argument is grounded in two interrelated critical propositions, one historical and one theoretical. The first is that the nineteenth-century transformation in print culture, whose (economic and social) causes and (cultural and ideological) implications have been thoroughly examined by writers such as Terence Whalen,4 may be linked to a broader and more abstract argument about the epistemological and aesthetic effects of secularization on the writer-reader relationship. Drawing primarily on the observations of the philosopher Charles Taylor, Michael contends that the secularization of culture implies not simply the loss of belief (in transcendence, the divine, the Good), but...


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pp. 308-319
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