Posts Tagged ‘sensual pleasure

26
Jul
17

On Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric

 

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Jonathan Culler – Theory of the LyricIn Theory of the Lyric (Harvard University Press, 2015), Jonathan Culler does not attempt to provide a definition of what the lyric poem is. Instead he gives us new ways to approach the lyric poem, as Culler believed previous methods were ineffective or lacking. For instance, in the past, some scholars and teachers of poetry have tried to reconstruct the poet’s/speaker’s experiences or motives for writing the poem, even though the poem does not benefit from or need those reconstructions, especially since it doesn’t address what the poem and its language are doing; or the New Critics approach – “[Culler] was no longer oriented by the New Critical assumptions that poems exist to be interpreted. It [his chapter on the apostrophe in particular but the book in general] sought, rather, to explore the most unsettling and intriguing aspects of lyric language and the different sorts of seductive effects that lyric may have” (viii). Culler throughout suggests the reader address the lyric poem as an experience, and he provides many ways to do that. Because of this, perhaps, Culler uses accessible language (as opposed to high-academic or obfuscating language that we often encounter when reading literary criticism). Even with the accessible language, my reading was fully engaged and slowed as I wrote plentiful amounts of marginalia and would often to pause longer than normal to contemplate what he wrote or to re-read his poem examples to see how poem worked with his ideas. The book is a concentrated study of the “Western lyric tradition” (3) from the ancient Greeks to Modern poetry, and on one occasion, contemporary hip hop.

One way to approach a lyric poem, according to Culler, is to realize that it is an event, a repeatable speech act. The lyric is performative to a degree and not constative. The lyric poem seeks to make something happen and is not designed to be read for signs of character or plot. The sensual pleasures of the lyric poem – rhythms, harmonies, line breaks, memorable lines, etc. – are often what attract the reader to the poem in first place, as opposed to a hermeneutic reading for meaning. In other words, “The meaning of a poem, he [Amittai Aviram] claims, allegorically represents ‘aspects of the power of the poem’s own rhythm to bring about a physical response, to engage the readers [sic] or listener’s body and thus to disrupt the orderly process of meaning’” (165). This evokes what Robert Frost said, those who read poems with their eyes are barbarians; you must learn to read with your ears.

The articulation or enunciation of the lyric poem creates a timeless present and underlines the poem’s lyric nowness. The lyric exists outside of time, it doesn’t move chronologically, and it exists in the eternal now – the event of its reading. “The fundamental characteristic of the lyric,” claims Culler, “is not the description and interpretation of a past event but the iterative and iterable performance of an event in the lyric present, in the special ‘now,’ of lyric articulation. . . . Fiction is about what happens next; lyric is about what happens now.” (226). The poem is its own event.

This lyrically event, according to Culler, with its sensual pleasures might be especially important in times of prosaic complacency, reasoning, argumentation, and political oppression. As Merleau-Ponty says, the lyric poem resists “the prose of the world” (304). Similar to Surrealism, the lyric poem with its sensual pleasures releases the mind from prose’s abstract thinking and “perception of the world” (304). This becomes important in building a community, especially when coupled with the lyric I. The lyric I or “the subject is constituted as the subject of this sensory experience, which is available to any wanderer” or reader (323). In other words, the lyric I, while a seemingly personal subject and thus in opposition to the masses, becomes a voice for the masses, the powerless, the voiceless and unheard ones overwhelmed by power and ideology. Because of its sensual pleasures, its non-prosaic thinking, the lyric poem can “generate a community that it addresses, to assert social values, to participate in a restructuring of the sensuous and affective domain of life” (330), of which Culler gives plentiful examples. The lyric is communal and political.

While it might seem that Culler is defining what a lyric poem is, I contend he is showing what the lyric poem does, and what it does is usually overlooked in criticism and the teaching of lyric poetry. The lyric poem in its doing uses iterable musical events as an antidote to the blind allegiance to facts and signification. It makes “a new organization of experience presuming the centrality of unrealized amorous passion, which has animated the lyric and popular song” since the time of Petrarch (315). While there are a variety of themes and forms of lyric poems at any given time, it’s the experience of the lyric poem that is missing from the critical discussions of lyric poetry, and this is one Culler’s main concerns.

Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric is much more exhaustive than exploring the lyric poem as event and social force. It also examines its non-mimetic properties, explores aspects of the genre through history, reflects on theories of the lyric, provides a good study on rhythm and meter and the social meaning of meter, has a fascinating chapter on the apostrophe, delivers a well thought out study of the sonnet through time, and a concluding chapter on “Lyric and Society.” I recommend this book to every teacher of poetry, as it gives a few pedagogical approaches to teaching poetry, especially by way of rhythm:

A greater foregrounding of rhythm as central to lyric might enable the teaching of poetry to regain some of the ground lost in recent years and also might lead to a different set of poetics. One could thus imagine an approach more connected with evaluation, which has not been central to literary studies recently: What works and what doesn’t? What engages our attention, our corps de jouissance – to use Barthes’s term – and what does not? For such a poetics an important part of the teaching of poetry would be accustoming students to hearing and experiencing the rhythms of traditional verse – they have a surprisingly hard time hearing iambic pentameter without the practice of recitation, for instance, though they fare much better with four-beat rhythms. (173)

And I recommend it for every poet, as it’s a cross between a craft book (in a certain way) and a critical approach, but written by someone with a firm understanding of what poets are up to by way of the ear to the heart to the mind. //

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Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Print.

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