Prof. Jonathan Culler, English and comparative literature, spoke Wednesday about his new book The Theory of the Lyric as part of Cornell University Library’s Chats in the Stacks book talk program.
The Theory of the Lyric, published by the Harvard University Press in June, explores the Western lyric tradition across millennia, continents and cultures. Culler drew upon 40 years of research on a wide range of poets, including Sappho, Baudelaire, Petrarch, William Carlos Williams and even nursery rhymes to help determine how the lyric continues to exist socially and enchant readers today.
“[Culler] challenges us to reexamine what we think we know about the lyric poem and expands our concept of the lyric as a genre,” said Bonna Boettcher, director of Olin and Uris Libraries.
Culler explained that his new publication originated in his curiosity of the strange ways lyric poems often addressed subjects such as time, winds, trees and the dead and how the poems asked its subjects to do something or refrain from doing what they usually do. Culler said that from the Greeks to the moderns, poets often called upon the universe and other subjects they thought to be responsive and issued demands.
“The question is ‘what’s really going on here?’” Culler said. “What do these strange ways of speaking tell us about the investments and ambitions of lyric poetry? How should we approach it?”
In 1975, Culler published an essay on the figure of speech known as apostrophe, which he said is an act of breaking off one’s speech to address anything that is not a regular interlocutor such as the dead, urns, nightingales or sofas. Culler argued in his paper that “the strange habit of address” is central to the lyric tradition. He said the paper marked a break away from his earlier work in New Criticism.
“That was really the seed from which this project grew. It took 40 years to grow,” Culler said. “I was no longer oriented by the New Critical assumption that poems exist to be interpreted and that my goal was to produce a more complex and intricate interpretation than anyone has done before. That essay sought to explore the most unsettling and intriguing aspects of these poems and their lyric language rather than producing interpretations of the poems.”
From his foundational research on lyrical address, Culler began a broader project investigating the Western lyric tradition as a whole and attempting to work out a general framework for a theory of the lyric itself. Culler said he was not attempting to deem what is and what isn’t lyric poetry or produce more brilliant readings of such poems. Instead, his book seeks to register the sorts of pleasures lyrics offer readers.
“The first thing to say about lyrical poetic systems is that they are non-mimetic,” Culler said. “Aristotle wrote a treatise on mimetic poetry, which is poetry as imitations of action and character. He did not write about lyric poetry in Poetics even though he was very familiar with lyric poetry and wrote such poems himself. And as a result of the exclusion of these important Greek lyric forms from Poetics, the genre was not really theorized in Western theory for a very long time.”
Culler said that even though lyrical poetry was a very important form for the ancient Greeks, Romans and Renaissance writers, Western literary thought did not become cognizant of the lyric until the Romantic period at the end of the 18th century. He said that this was likely because Romantics, with their more robust conception of the individual subject, thought of lyrics as mimetic and created a model of lyric poetry as a way for the subject to express intense experience.
“That conception of lyric as a representation of subjective experience doesn’t have much currency in the academic world today.” Culler said. “In the Anglo-American academy at least it has been more or less replaced with a model of the lyric as a representation of the action of a fictional speaker or persona whose situation readers are supposed to reconstruct. That’s a conception of lyric that informs important textbooks such as Helen Vendler’s Poems Poets Poetry.”
Culler pointed out that many great poems in the Western tradition are dramatic monologues, especially in the English tradition, which drives the possibility of thinking of lyric poetry as an imitation of speech. He said the problem with this model is that it fictionalizes the lyric, directs our attention to characters and situations and distracts us from all the elements that are the responsibility of a poet, not of a character created by the poet.
“The basic impetus of this project is to investigate the inadequacies of these current models of the lyric and to explore alternatives,” Culler said. “There are many poems in the tradition that explicitly are telling us things about the world rather than creating a fictional character.”