JONATHAN CULLER: So one of my tasks in recent summers has been to add a bit of poetry to the otherwise very socio-political, shall we say, agenda of SET speakers and seminars. Even when the directors have invited English professors to teach seminars, they've often ended up teaching on quite non-literary topics. So I've been persisting in offering talks about various aspects of the lyric.
Today I propose to take up a theoretical question that's a rather traditional sort. So this microphone is not relevant, right? I have these two, but I don't need that third one?
AUDIENCE: That's a light, actually.
JONATHAN CULLER: That's a light. Oh, OK. I don't need to lean into that microphone. Good.
It's a very rather traditional theoretical question about the importance of generic categories for literary studies. Wai Chee Dimock, last week, broached the question of genre in her lecture and argued that focus on genres directs literary study towards multilingual study, since genres are not tied to particular languages, and that genres can lead one to focus on what she called switchability and-- switchability, and stackability, switchability, and scalability. Scalability, which are important matters that I can take up from a different angle, though most of that would be left, I think, for the discussion period.
I want both to explore the pertinence of genre-- what sort of notion of genre is most appropriate, most suitable, most productive for literary studies-- and then, specifically, to take up the category of lyric, which has been the object of various kinds of skepticism in recent decades, especially recently.
So for locals in the audience I might just say that this talk is closely related to the talk last year on theory of the lyric but is focused on what could properly be considered a prior question-- a logically prior question-- of whether it makes sense to try to speak of the lyric at all. Since I did that last summer, obviously, my answer is yes that is does make sense.
Well, the article that Wai Chee Dimock submitted for discussion in SET, a discussion which I was unfortunately not a part of, "Genres as Fields of Knowledge," which came from the special issue of PMLA, Remapping Genre, noted that the notion of genre has not been a popular one in literary studies recently.
Maurice Blanchot, in Le Livre a venir, articulates an extreme version of what has become a common view. That's the first quotation on the handout, but I'll read an English-- produce an English translation for you. "The book is all that matters, just as it is, far from genres, outside of the rubrics, prose, poetry, novel, testimony, under which it refuses to place itself and to which it denies the power to fix its place and determine its form. A book no longer belongs to a genre-- every book stems from literature alone, as if literature possessed, in advance in all their generality, the secrets and formulae that alone make it possible to give to what is written the reality of the book. It would thus be as though, genres having faded away, literature alone were affirming itself, shining alone in the mysterious clarity that-- where's my-- pages stuck together-- that propagates and that each literary creation sends back to it multiplied, as if there were therefore an essence literature."
Now that passage is frequently quoted in discussions of genre, because it does represent a certain modern attitude. What we value in literature is its singularity, and so to expect it to conform to the conventions of a genre or to approach it through the lens of genre, is to aim at something other than its distinctive literariness.
But I'd like to point out something to which the two comme si in the Blanchot passage and the conditional in the last sentence ought alert readers and quoters of this passage. [SPEAKING FRENCH]
Far from affirming a notion of literature based on the book and separate from genres, Blanchot entitles this section, little section of his essay, "La non-litterature," and affirms that what's been at stake in literary production since Mallarme is an impossible quest. [SPEAKING FRENCH]
And so, though Blanchot writes of a conception of literature and this certain conception is certainly around, the conception of literature since Mallarme in which only the work counts, which is seen as beyond what Blanchot in this very essay calls "la realite de genres," he's not, in fact, affirming a positive concept of literature that replaces and dispenses with genres-- but a negative one. And so the place occupied by genres is still up for grabs in some ways.
In this, his thought is considerably more complex than that of, say, Benedetto Croce who, affirming the singularity of the work and rejecting the notion of genre notoriously said, that everything related to genres and to the categories of the literature could be burned without loss. So Croce's opposition to the notion of genre was based on the concept, of course, of genre as rule where obeying the rules genre-- as in certain kinds of neoclassicism-- violates the creative spirit of literature. The genres are forms of oppression.
Well, of course, now today, as readers of Foucault and Foucault's critique of the repressive hypothesis, we know that norms are productive, as well as constraining, that they make possible what they purport to control or describe. But even if one were skeptical Foucault's arguments, there's now a long and varied tradition from Ernst Gombich's Art and Illusion, and Erving Goffman's Frame Analysis, to recent cognitive science-- a quite varied tradition demonstrating how essential various sorts of schema or frames are to perception and especially to creation.
So even if we think that singularity is what we value, we're now likely to recognize that singularity can emerge only against some frame or norm. So the question really is whether genre is a crucial frame or not.
Now traditionally theorists say that there are two sorts of theories of genre-- empirical and theoretical. The latter based on some claim about elementary possibilities of thought, of language, of representation, discourse, et cetera. I mean, Aristotle distinguishes literary types according to possible modes and objects of representation. The lyric is set aside as non-mimetic but was finally made one of three fundamental genres during the Romantic period, when it was sort of recuperated as a form of mimesis after all, mimesis of the experience of the subject.
So distinguished by its mode of enunciation, lyric is, in these generic schemes, it's a mode of enunciation where the poet speaks in propria persona. Lyric becomes the subjective form, with drama and epic as objective and mixed-- though, depending on the theorist. Alternately, objective and mixed-- different theorists have different views of which is objective and which is mixed.
Northrop Frye, in a slightly different scheme, speaks of radicals of presentation or root forms of presentation. He writes, "Words may be acted in front of a spectator, they may be spoken in front of a listener, they may be sung or chanted, and they may be written for a reader." These fundamental possibilities of discursive presentation, for him yield drama, epic, lyric, and narrative fiction.
Of course, there many other versions of such theories attempting ground genres on fundamental possibilities of thought, discourse, representation, human behavior, et cetera. Goethe spoke of "drei echte Naturformen der Dichtung," three pure natural forms of poetry-- epic, dramatic, and lyric-- which he distinguished from the variety of Dichtarten, which one might translate as empirical genres-- things like ballads, drama, epistles, fables, ode, novel, parody, romance, et cetera.
So that would be the alternative to theories of genres based on logical divisions of a sphere of possibilities. These empirical genres, groupings-- they're observed or practiced based on principles other than theories about language or representation. So lists-- basically lists of whatever genres people believe exist, some based, of course, on form, others on content-- classifications that don't seem very logical, do not cohere on a logical scheme, unlike the categories we find in a bookstore, of course.
Now these do seem to be two different conceptions of genre, which we can indeed call theoretical and historical, for example. But I believe, in separating the two conceptions, you end up obscuring fundamental aspects of genre. And, especially, by doing so, you create a certain kind of confusion that contributes to the tendency to dismiss genres-- if they are two completely different schemes.
On the one hand, theories of genre, you have usually, in fact, attempted to find a logical basis for taxonomies which situate historically attested genres. An attempt to posit genres based on fundamental features of language or of representation or communication-- always draws on historically existing genres, as Gerard Genette argues in his fine little book about genre. The title conceals that from you, but the book called [FRENCH]. And in English it's even more strange, Introduction to the Architext, which is a book about genre theory.
So they're always based on trying to ground historical genres, even if, as in the case of romantic genre theory and the division into subjective, objective, and mixed, theorists couldn't agree about whether drama or epic was objective and which was objective and which was mixed.
Insofar as genres are literary categories, the projection of naturalness onto them is fallacious, Genette argues. On the classification of genres, he writes, "No position is essentially more natural or more ideal than any other. They're all historical categories."
That's important because, in our historicist age which has tended to be suspicious of genres-- especially of the generic categories that previous theorists have claimed to base on some fundamental aspect of language, communication, or representation, as if these were each eternal, atemporal categories, which, of course, they're not-- It's the recognition that these are all-- even the most abstract and most general, generic categories-- are attempts to ground historical genres is an important step to take in dealing with that problem and that source of skepticism.
But if, on the other hand, genres are seen as merely contingent empirical groupings, categories that people have, for various reasons, found it convenient to use in dealing with literature, then it's easy to dismiss them as mere conveniences of classification as in a bookstore or a catalog, with no critical purchase or real serious critical function.
But I think the notion of genres as merely empirical categories is very dubious. Classification schemes are never without some kind of ideological or theoretical basis. Even the most heterogeneous, which might be based, say, on marketing schemes and hypotheses about the fact that there are quite separate audiences for different kinds of different products-- even those divisions are theoretically based, in one way or another.
And a great many supposedly empirical generic categories, of course, do play a constitutive role in reading and writing, whether independently when a writer sets out to write a detective story or a romance novel, or in reading when readers discover that what they thought was a detective story is actually mingling genres in ways that the reader does not approve of or does not find satisfying-- doesn't want so much depth of character in this detective story, here. It's pretending to be a novel instead of a detective story. Or whether independently, or in conjunction with one another, as, of course, generic categories frequently function-- as when a writer deploys the conventions of one genre while ostensibly working in another.
Wai Chee Dimock's PMLA number on remapping genre has a fine article by Wendy Knepper on exploring how Patrick Chamoiseau manipulates the conventions of crime fiction in order to investigate neo-colonial modes of thinking that continue to a haunt the francophone Caribbean, for example.
If one avoids the temptation to separate generic categories into theoretical and empirical, but insists that genres are both historical and based on some sort of theoretical rationale, then they are more defensible. But, of course, one still has to debate what the appropriate and functional categories might be.
Well, generic categories frame both reading and writing, as I've said that writers write in relation to other texts and textual traditions, both consciously and unconsciously, imitating, misreading, rejecting, et cetera. And readers approach works differently according to how they conceive of them, even if those expectations are going to be disappointed. All this, you know.
Effects achieved by contesting or mixing genres depend, of course, on generic categories that are disparaged. It was crucial to the French nouveau roman, for example, that these texts were identified as belonging to the novel or were approached us novels within the framework of expectations about characters, plots, and the generation of meaning. The concept of the novel, in particular in its capaciousness, has proved a very fruitful one for thinking about literature, and perhaps fruitful especially for productions that have seemed to lie on the margins of that concept of that genre.
So the theory of genre is an abstract model, an account of a set of norms or structural possibilities that underlie and enable the production and reception of literature. And reading something as an epic or a novel involves, of course, particular sets of conventions and expectations-- as I've said, even when the text is contesting or undermining them.
So a claim about a generic model is not an assertion about some property that all examples of the genre possess or all works that may be read under the aegis of this genre would prove to possess. It's a claim about fundamental structures that are generally at work, perhaps even if not manifest-- a claim which directs attention to certain aspects of work, aspects which mark a tradition and an evolution, provide dimensions of transformation and, hence, the context within which to think about historical change.
Given the historicizing inclinations of criticism these days, I think it's probably important to maintain that, or at least stress, that conceptions of genre are not just accounts of what people of a particular period thought. It's crucial to the notion of genre as model that people might have been wrong about them and unaware of affinities or recognizing only a narrow attenuated version of a larger tradition, which, in a wider perspective, where one can detect continuities and other sorts of discontinuities, for example.
So it's not a matter of, for example, just looking at what Renaissance critics say about genres and using simply those categories and no other for thinking about Renaissance literature. Though, of course, one wants to try out Renaissance conceptions of genre, but more capacious, more historically informed, categories may certainly be useful.
In working on the lyric, I have certainly wanted to argue that various groups, including poets themselves, have had erroneously conceptions of the lyric-- whether it be lyric as direct expression of emotion, or lyric as emotion recollected in tranquility, or lyric as dramatic monologue, et cetera.
And certainly the desire to reach a more adequate account of a genre presumes that the genre is more than the construction of a moment, more than what people of the moment think. So, in that sense, it's different from the category, shall we say, of a language-- which synchronic reality of the language in a particular moment. And that the weight of tradition helps make there be something, in this case, to be right or wrong about.
In particular, one would say that a given historical construction of, or a notion of, the lyric can neglect or obscure critical aspects of the nature and functioning even of forms to which the construction is supposed most directly to apply.
Now the relationship between capacious and narrow generic conceptions is always up for grabs and unpredictable. My own inclinations go towards the more capacious. But the analysis of a narrow generic tradition, like the Latin love elegy, for example, can be extremely illuminating.
I suppose the test case-- the test of generic categories-- is how far they help activate aspects of works that make those works rich and interesting. Though, it's I think crucial to stress that the interpretation of individual works is not the goal of poetics, to which genre theory belongs. The poetic seeks to understand how the system of literary discourse works and has worked.
But time for the lyric, here. As I mentioned, set aside by Aristotle as non-mimetic, lyric was finally made one of three major genres during the Romantic period as mimetic of the experience of the subject. And Hegel gives the most authoritative-- or fullest, anyway-- expression to the Romantic theory of the lyric, whose distinguishing feature is the centrality of subjectivity coming to consciousness of itself through reflection and experience.
The lyric poet absorbs into himself the external world, stamps it with internal consciousness, and the unity of the poem is provided by that subjectivity. Now that's a familiar, in its outlines, familiar conception of the lyric, which perhaps no longer finds great explicit adherence in the academic world.
There's a notorious article by Rene Wellek, which I listed on the bibliography, "Genre Theory, the Lyric and Erlebris," in which Wellek concludes that the idea of the lyric, or at least the idea inherited from German romanticism as expression of intense subjective experience, doesn't work.
"These terms," he writes, "cannot take care of the enormous variety, in history and different literatures, of lyrical forms and constantly lead into an insoluble psychological cul de sac-- the supposed intensity, inwardness, and immediacy of an experience that can never be demonstrated as certain and never be shown to be relevant to the quality of art." "The way out is obvious," he writes, "One must abandon attempts to define the general nature of the lyric or the lyrical. Nothing beyond generalities of the tritest kind can result from it."
Anyway, Wellek proposes that we focus instead on describing particular genres, such as the ode, elegy, and song, and their conventions and traditions-- which I think is not a very promising strategy for 19th and 20th century poetry, certainly, where many of the most interesting lyrics do not seem to belong to these particular genres or sub-genres.
But a more recent critique of the notion of lyric ends up with a surprisingly similar conclusion-- what some have called "New Lyric Studies." That's the title of section of an issue, the January 2008 PMLA, which collected a series of short papers and short ops or react-responses to this notion. The New Lyric Studies, which is best observed in Virginia Jackson's book Dickinson's Misery, but in the PMLA issue of January 2008, there's the introduction by Jennie Jackson, and there's an article by Rei Terada, which is strong and perverse and interesting. And there's many-- a number of others, but I particularly recommend Jackson and Terada in that collection.
In Dickinson's Mystery, Jackson defines the process of she calls lyricization, or lyrical reading, which she takes partly from de Man, whereby various kinds of writing in which various kinds of writing in which Dickinson engaged, were made by editors and critics into lyric poems. She argues that it's criticism that has made Dickinson into a lyric poet according to a particular model of lyric. Whereas, for her, producing this verse was continuous with other mundane activities, such as writing letters to friends, working in the garden, et cetera.
The first poem on your handout, there, is a very striking and egregious example, a wonderful example. It comes right at the beginning on page four of Jackson's book, where Thomas Johnson, the editor, doubtless noting the rhymes in a manuscript letter, which is very hard to read-- once you see the poem that's printed, you can-- Jackson also gives a photocopy of the manuscript page, but you can vaguely make out the poem, the words on the page, once you see the poem printed. But Johnson has extracted this passage from a letter and made it into a poem.
So for the camera, I suppose I should certainly read this poem. I should say that for the gap between lines three and four on the handout is a page break between page four and page five in Jackson's book, and not a lineation of the editor. Whereas, the break between-- in the second break in the poem suggests to me that Johnson was able to recognize rhymes and poetry, but was not able to recognize stanzas when he found them hidden in a letter, but anyway.
The poem-- this is a constructed Dickinson poem, taken-- indeed, taken from a letter, which is very, very bizarre. "There is another sky, ever serene and fair. There is another sunshine, though it be darkness there. Never mind faded forests, Austin, never mind silent fields. Here is a little forest whose leaf is evergreen. Here is a brighter garden where not a frost has been."
Then should come the stanza break, right? "In its unfading flowers, I hear the bright bee hum. Prithee, my brother, into my garden come."
Very strange letter to be writing to your brother. Not to make it-- it's not surprising. It's not surprising that Johnson would have thought, hey, this is a little poem. But, in any case, this is a perfect case for Jennie Jackson. She writes, once established as a lyric in 1955 by Johnson's edition-- it was the second poem in this edition-- these lines attracted a number of close readings, which is what happens, of course, to poems in our day.
By 1980, the lines had circulated for a quarter of a century as a love poem with a female speaker. Which is to say, they were read according to a theory of their genre that included the idea of a lyric persona. Jackson takes this is emblematic of the process by which lyric takes form during the 19th century, through the development of various reading practices which she says eventually become the practice of literary criticism.
"In the process," and I quote again, "as poetic sub-genres collapsed into the expressive romantic lyrics of the 19th century, the various modes of poetic circulation-- scrolls, manuscript books, song cycles, miscellanies, broadsides, hornbooks, libretti, quartos, chapbooks, recitation manuals, annuals, gift books, newspapers, anthologies-- tended to disappear behind an idealized scene of reading progressively identified with an idealized mode of expression."
The new lyric studies, for which Jackson is calling, would be a critical history of this process of lyricization, the invention of the lyric, in-- she says in the 19th century. But primarily it's, it seems to me, in the 20th century, on the basis of 19th century theoretical models of poetry. Where-- and that's a project that I'm certainly happy to endorse.
Where Jackson I disagree, I think, is that she wants to dissolve-- seems to want to dissolve the category of lyric, to perhaps to return us to a variety of particular historical practices, though this isn't entirely clear. When I was reading her book in manuscript, I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, and I thought that she was going to tell us at the end, how do we-- if these aren't lyrics, what are they? How should we read Dickinson?
But it never happened, as it were. What we have is all of these different kinds of practices in which Dickinson was engaged, in which criticism has made into lyrics-- which doesn't seem to me an altogether bad thing to have done, by the way. It's more nicer to have this poem there as a poem on the page, then just hidden in a letter to her brother. Or, at least, there are various advantages to that operation.
As I say, Jennie Jackson doesn't really tell us how she thinks we should treat Dickinson's verse if we don't make it into lyrics. Whereas I think that a critical history of lyricization should lead us to a more capacious-- rather than a dissipation of lyric-- to a more capacious understanding of the lyric tradition, which is not restricted to either the idea of decontextualized expression of subjectivity-- which is what she sees critics as doing with Dickinson, essentially, in making her a lyric poet-- or to the idea, to what I take to be the successor to that idea, the model of the dramatic monologue with a speaker whose situation, attitude, and goals we should novelistically construct.
I would add that the historical construction of lyric is, of course, is carried out by poets as well as critics. So we can certainly as part of this critical history of lyricization study, for example, the struggle between Wordsworth's move to constructing lyrical ballads, as he called them-- attaching lyric to the modest anecdote, rather than taking the ode as the model for paradigmatic for lyric, while Keats and Shelley, on the other hand, exploited that latter strain in new and powerful ways. The process of lyricization is not just one to be attributed to 20th century critics. There are struggles going on within poetic practices.
But the question is whether a broad conception of lyric as genre is helpful for thinking about the short non-narrative poetry, and particularly about how its relation to the historical tradition and to a wide broad range of possibilities for lyric in many periods and many languages, whether that cannot help prevent a certain narrowing of the conception of lyric and help prevent a tendency, understandable given the realities of contemporary pedagogy, to treat lyric on the model of narrative.
I've written elsewhere about this-- the problem of what I take to be the treatment of the dramatic monologue as the paradigm for lyric, and I'll be happy to return to that in discussion if that seems relevant or interesting. Lyric as transnational, as Wai-Chi Dimock stresses, and as broadly historical can open up a field that Jennie Jackson sees-- the lyric process of lyricization as closing down or narrowing down.
Let's try to think more concretely about this issue in relation to some other poems. In the idea of lyric, Ralph Johnson writes about Horace, "No other lyricist has possessed the idea of his genre so completely." So let's begin with Horace to illustrate the certain potentialities of the notion of a genre.
Horace, of course, notoriously models himself on the Greeks, and quite extraordinarily aims to join the canonical nine Greek lyric poets, to be placed, as he says, "among the lyrici vates," as he says in the first of his Odes. We think, of course, of Greek and Roman poets as ancient classics, so it can seem to us that this ambition would just be a natural attempt to continue the classic lyric tradition.
But in fact, when Horace decided to write lyrics, despite some experimentation by Callimachus and Theocritus and especially Catullus, there was really no living tradition of lyric to generate some sort of natural and rule-generating form. The Hellenistic scholars and grammarians who were Horace's conduit to the Greeks had an intense sense of their own belatedness.
And the major Greek lyricist closest to Horace in time, Pindar, had died over 400 years earlier. So Horace was as far removed from Sappho as we are from Petrarch and as far from Pindar as we are from-- what-- Tasso.
But Horace adopted Greek lyric meters and reinvented a genre that did not exist in the minds of contemporary readers. Though his forms are written for circulation in print, he presents himself as a singer to the lyre, affirming a relation to the tradition and working to constitute this genre on a fictional basis with its with specific conventions.
So I put on the handout one famous poem, which has the virtue of being shorter than many of the other odes, "O fons Bandusiae," which, since I don't really understand Latin meters, I will read to you in English if you'll allow me.
"Oh fountain of Bandusia, brighter than glass, well do you deserve an offering of sweet wine and flowers, and tomorrow you'll receive a kid, with new horns bulging on his brow marking him out for love and war. To no avail, since he will stain your cold stream with his red blood, this offspring of the amorous flock. The cruel hour of the blazing dog star, the Caniculae, cannot touch you. You give delicious coldness to oxen, weary of the plow and the straggling flock. You, too, will become a famous fountain as I sing of the home oak above your cave, in the rock where your waters leap down chattering."
So classical models of the lyric have the virtue of encouraging us not to imagine lyric as the fictional imitation of real world speech acts, as today's pedagogy of the lyric has us do. They provide a panoply of specifically poetic speech acts, of praise, invocation, celebration, complaint-- which don't have, without empirical correlates.
This poem emphasizes its link with other rituals of ceremonious praise and announcing that tomorrow-- presumably the 13th of October, Fontinalia, or the Festival of Springs-- announcing in its encomium to the spring, or the fountain, that the spring will receive a special sacrifice of a young goat. But the hymn of praise is explicitly not part of the ritual that would be performed on that day, which was tomorrow.
Tomorrow emphasizes that. Not the fictional representation of some other sort of speech act, but an act that performatively sets out to accomplish what it declares, that this spring will become a famous spring like the springs of the Muses-- Arethusa, Hippocrene, Dirce, or the Peirene spring. And, of course, the poem has succeeded. Though nobody knows where this spring is, or even whether there is such a spring, it is famous.
For modern readers of this poem, I imagine attention flows to the kid to be sacrificed and the apparently gratuitous celebration of his budding horns marking him out for love or war, and then, clunk, the axe falls. "In vain, to no avail," et cetera. "Since he will stain your cold stream with his red blood." It's interesting. I mean, the reader is sort of enlisted in a sacrificial operation where you are made to think of the kid's-- the energy of the kid's potential life, so ready for this, and then cut off.
Perhaps is the energy of the kid's life which then stains the spring, is it an excess that is sort of answered by the excess of fame promised in the final lines to the spring? At least, whenever we think about that, the function of that excess, the poem raises the question of the relationship of poetic pleasure to the pleasure offered by a cool spring in summer whose waters speak. They are locquentes, as the waters speak as does the poet made diecente.
So the spring, of course, won't hear this praise which is directed to us, despite the evocative and the second person verbs. But I think it makes a difference that the poem is addressed to the spring, rather than simply praising it. Without the vocative, it would be resolutely descriptive from the outset rather than invocatory. And without "your chattering waters" at the end, there would be lost, not just the possibility that the spring becomes something more than an object, something raised to a different plane with a life of its own, as analogous to the singularizing operation that's of fame that the poem promises-- but also the reciprocity between the speaking of the poem and the prattling of the spring would be attenuated, and with it the sense of lyric as ritualistic performance which is conjuring, endowing, acting.
Characteristically, lyrics raise, or allow to be raised, the question of the efficacy of poetic language, the possibility that the poem itself describes, operations that pertain to its own relation to readers. Now this poem has a first person speaker, as is characteristic of many lyrics-- a speaker not much characterized. Other Horacian odes, of course, give us more of a sense of the values, the stance, of this particular speaker.
Since many accounts of the genre, including Jackson's account of lyricization, have focused on the first person, as if this were necessary to the genre, let's consider another poem, unquestionably lyric, without a first person speaker-- one of Goethe's most famous Lieds, today known above all in Schubert's beautiful setting, "Heidenroslein."
Schubert's setting is, I think, a little bit too lilting for this poem. It's very beautiful, but it's (SINGING) buu-bum, buu-bum, buu-ba-da-dum-- you know, not the right way to end the refrain, here.
So here there's no first person or character whose attitudes we need to reconstruct. If we take the evocation of the rose in the refrain as addressing it, that implies an enunciation, an [NON-ENGLISH] certainly, but not a subject or a character who speaks. The poem is a brief anecdote recounted in the past, a very common lyric structure.
Though the rose's response to the boy's address lifts us out of that anecdotal space into a distinctively poetic one. And, of course, the repetition of the refrain attaches this story to the present time of lyric discourse, in which the rose is repeatedly invoked.
So actually the temporal structure is quite complicated. The anecdote in the past recounts a threat and a prediction, which projects a future, "you will always think of me"-- a future which will be a repetition of the past, and the poem which returns chantingly in each stanza to the rose sort of shows us, illustrates, what this would involve. We always come back to the roselein, roselein, roselein, throughout the poem. Refrain is an important constituent of lyric-- one of those elements of lyric ignored by those structures that have us treat lyric as dramatic monologues, since dramatic speakers do not tend to engage in refrain themselves.
It's, first, an instance of the repetition that Roman Jakobson famously took to define the poetic function of language-- what he called "the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination," so that equivalence becomes the constitutive device of the sequence. But above all, refrain disrupts narrative and brings it back to an atemporal present of discourse, a time of enunciation rather than of the [NON-ENGLISH]. It's through refrain, for instance, that ballad tries to remain lyric while relying on narrative structures.
Well, this poem presents a complexity of structures of address, a ritual aspect, effects of presence, and a certain performativity as the reader, invited to repeat the refrain, finds him or herself in the position of the Knabe who addresses the rose. And the poem produces the predicted result, that you will always think of me. And, finally, the poem posits, through its rhetorical structures, an interpersonal relation between man and nature, which interpretation here will render sexual where nature is invested with affect, agency, and signification in quite extravagant fashion, even though one scarcely realizes this because the poem is very delicate and quite modest in appearance.
These two historical examples work against the more modern model of lyric adduced in Jennie Jackson's account of lyricization, and help to suggest that it is, indeed, modern criticism and pedagogy which, drawing on 19th century theories of lyric as first-person meditation or expression, transform lyrics into decontextualized expressions of the interiority of the poet, shall we say, or in a more modern and sophisticated version, the drama of a lyric persona or a lyric character.
So let me turn to a modern poem, Baudelaire's "A un passante," made famous, above all, by Walter Benjamin who, building on a discussion by-- a wonderful discussion by Albert Thibaudet, a critic largely forgotten these days-- Thibaudet certainly took, not only took Baudelaire as representative of a modern urban and alienated existence, the first to take urban existence as the norm, but also speaks of packed Paris as the capital of the 19th century, et cetera. We can see where Benjamin got his best ideas. I'll read "A un passante," here.
Thibaudet waxes ecstatic about this poem as an example, first, of the general transformation Baudelaire wrought upon the lyric by making urban life, especially life of a great capital, the norm, and, second, as a poem which, possible only in a great capital where people live as strangers to one another, "irremediably marked," he writes, "those who were young in this capital" and who, recalling the final line, after anonymous urban encounters feel completed. He has quite a passage saying at least 10 people every day who have grown up in the city feel this final line rising to con-- in memory, and it sort of assuages them after they've had one of these encounters. It's become a social imaginary.
But, of course, this is-- if this is a distinctively modern poem, it's one that also invokes a lyric tradition of the innamoramento, the transfiguring initial sight of the beloved-- as in Dante or Petrarch, et cetera-- love at first sight, which Baudelaire, as Benjamin says, transforms into love at last sight, hyperbolic, like so many lyrics, with the eye as [FRENCH] from which the speaker drinks [FRENCH] and where the woman's glance is like lightning, [FRENCH].
This poem, like a lot of modern poetry, takes the form of an anecdote in the past, rendered poetic by being taken as emblematic. And the poem, in particular and hyperbolically, dramatically, pulls itself out of that narrative temporality and into the distinctive space of lyric with the address to the [FRENCH] and with the question that she manifestly cannot answer, a question that therefore insists on the situation of the speaker. The willfullness of the conclusion of the final alexandrine. There's no "oh, you who knew that I would have loved you," as it were. There's no evidence whatsoever, of course, for the speaker's claim that the you knew the speaker would have loved her-- makes, that the willfulness of that conclusion that makes it's the social effectiveness that Thibaudet celebrates even more striking. That a wishful line like that would have, as he claims, entered the social imaginary of so many young Parisians.
In an essay on the poet, Theodore de Banville, Baudelaire writes of lyric, [SPEAKING FRENCH] "Let's note, first of all, that hyperbole and apostrophe are the forms of language, not only most agreeable, but also most necessary to lyric." And I believe that that remains residually true of lyric, even in an age of prose. I should say, parenthetically perhaps, that I don't have strong views about how much contemporary poetry ought to be considered lyric or read within the frame of the Western lyric tradition. There are certainly plenty of contemporary poets who have resolutely or explicitly denounced the lyric model and the notion of lyric, with its foregrounding of effects of voice and presence. And they may have succeeded in producing texts that requires to be read by another model.
But I do think that there's a good deal of even contemporary poetry that achieves its effects by engaging the lyric tradition and offer, as a very intriguing example, "This Room," the opening poem of John Ashbery's 2000 collection, Your Name Here. The title of the collection, which seems to allude to various bureaucratic language practices-- forms, publicity-- each of us can become the you interpolated by publicity or bureaucracy. The you who just won a million dollars in a lottery, or the you to which an iterable bureaucratic process will apply as we fill in a form. This title foregrounds the problem of singularization and iterability that's central to lyric. The "you" gets picked out as singular, "Your Name Here," but in an iterable operation of the lyric deictic.
So, "This Room." "The room I entered was a dream of this room. Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine. The oval portrait of a dog was me at an early age. Something shimmers. Something is hushed up. We had macaroni for lunch every day, except Sunday when a small quail was induced to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things? You're not even here.
Now this poem connects the problem of singularization and interability with the characteristic deictic effects of lyric, where "you" or "this room," were the "you" is, in this poem, remains unlocated. I offer it as emblematic of the way in which the structure of the lyric recuperates the recital of past events. And it's unusual, both in the explicitness with which it foregrounds the relation of lyric address, the "why do I tell you these things? You are not even here." And in it's hyperbolization of the strangeness of lyric recuperation, as in the line, "The oval portrait of a dog was me at an early age."
And, as so often with Ashbery, we end up casting around for points of reference among literary and nonliterary discourse, bits of language that this might be taking up. So this seems-- this portrait seems to recall, of course, Dylan Thomas's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog," or Poe's short story, "The Oval Portrait," or perhaps William Wegman's "Portraits of People as Dogs," or the cliche of the identity tied up with the childhood pet, or even the commonplace that after a certain time, master and dog come to resemble one another.
Anyway, for me, the punctum of this poem-- to use Roland Barthes' term for what grabs you, what seizes you-- what holds me is the involution, the perverse involution, of the formulation, "a small quail was induced to be served to us," whose function is very difficult to imagine. I would welcome any suggestions about the small quail on what we should think about that. I mean, I should say, but without any conviction, of course, that in the lyric tradition in which this poem explicitly attaches itself through the final line, birds are often addressed and invoked. And it's not unknown in poems of the 17th and 18th centuries for game birds, for instance, to hasten to be served to the lord, or et cetera. So it's not a totally implausible poetic reference, but it's not-- I say that without any conviction. I'm not knowing what to do with, "the small quail was induced." That would just give us a quail that-- why inducing?
But, however it functions, I offer for discussion this enigmatic example, hyperbolic in the strangeness-- a strangeness which it relates to dream in the first line-- and in its joking but deeply serious foregrounding of the structure of song and ode, as well as the tradition of the love sonnet, with the question, "Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here."
Preserving lyric as a category to be studied, setting lyric can be thought of as working to answer that question. So to sum up, why lyric? Because only a broad concept of lyric, with its sweep across eras and languages, provides the scope to activate possibilities that are foreclosed or occluded by narrower conceptions-- such as that of the ode or narrative traditions, such as that of the ode or elegy-- useful though they may be.
And, in particular, reminds us that the model of the dramatic monologue-- a speaker or character whose situation and aims need to be reconstructed novelistically-- leaves aside important traditional aspects and potentialities of lyric, especially those features from rhythm and sound patterning to performative address, by which-- those many features by which it differentiates itself from narrative fiction and from mimetic modes, generally.
Also this historical and linguistic breadth that the notion of genre provides, help alert us to the fact that lyric does not presuppose the subject-- is not necessarily based on a first person. Susan Stewart, who I regret chose not to talk about poetry at all in her little lecture, perversely entitled "The Freedom of the Poet," we heard earlier, writes in an article entitled, "Preface to Lyric History" that "it's almost unbearable to imagine lyric outside the terms of subjectivity." But I think that's only a modern restriction of the idea of lyric, which is one that's immediately put into perspective if we think, for example, not only of song, the form of song through the ages, and of course of song lyrics today, which float free of any particular subjectivity and work to constitute something like-- something broader, a social imaginary and the scenarios of love that define that social imaginary.
Finally, a point that I haven't made at all but worth bringing up-- it's perhaps only because the greatest systematic philosopher of the West, Aristotle, wrote a treatise on mimetic literature and didn't include lyric that lyric has not been seen as a foundational genre in Western culture, as epic and tragedy were, until the romantic era. Whereas, in other cultures, whose literature did not originate in epic and tragedy, lyric is a foundational genre. So foregrounding lyric helps promote the possibility of comparisons with other traditions.
In the conclusion to the PMLA issue on genre that Wai-Chi Dimock's essay introduces, Bruce Robbins, who's the other co-editor with her, compares notions of genre to the norms in the socioeconomic realm that allow, for instance, transnational comparisons of living standards. And he argues that the case for genre, in a nutshell, is that of historical comparison. "Genre," he argues, "is a crucial instrument for combating the professional inclination to focus on a literary period." Which he calls, "a sort of pseudo anthropocentric norm that has been adopted for a long time out of laziness." "It's one level of magnification among others, no less valid than any other, but also no less arbitrary."
So genre tempts us with versions of history that take us beyond the period-by-period agenda of our ordinary studies. Why, he concludes-- "Why," he asks in conclusion, "would criticism voluntarily deprive itself of the additional scale of transperiodic vision and the aggregation that it brings into view?" Why? Why, indeed. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: [INAUDIBLE] to take questions. Or is everybody done?
AUDIENCE: Do we have to pass the quiz?
JONATHAN CULLER: Yes, indeed. Uh-huh.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] the small quail, but also for someone who reduced the small quail, to go along with some of your [INAUDIBLE]. Lyric poems have sometimes worked by having points of energy-- or, always have points of energy. The point of energy doesn't have to be nature, but sometimes it can rise to the level of being an agent. Then sometimes that can rise to the level of being a subject. And lyric can play back and forth on that string and onto the friction of one word against another, which feels like a point of energy. I think this is Ashbery's joke about, why don't I bring another agent into this? In fact, that will work for the other poems, if you suspect it.
JONATHAN CULLER: It's not the mother making macaroni. She doesn't get any agency-- macaroni for lunch every day. It's some unnamed agent doing the inducing of the quail. Yeah, well that's good-- a point of energy.
There is a line that I haven't done anything with. "Something shimmers. Something is hushed up." which certainly suggests that there is some energy there, something mysterious going on. Perhaps the quail can take over from that moment of the shimmering and silencing of dreams. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you. I have a question-- or, I have two difficulties to propose against the more capacious notion of lyric. And I guess I'll throw them out there, and you can tell me whether they're real difficulties or how you might respond to them. The first come from sort of the shifting domain on which the theory of a lyric genre would apply into literary history. And the second comes from critical paradigms that exist now in approaching the question of cross-literary historical periods.
So when you were talking about Rene Wellek, you noted how his more taxonomic approach applies pretty well but not so much in the 19th and 20th century. And I wonder if that isn't maybe caused by the lack of period style after 1800. Some critics have noted a sort of fragmentation of style. And that's something that Hegel is picking up on in the Aesthetics.
And so, lacking that sort of period style, it might become more difficult to have one concept of genre when, given the notion of genre has changed for practitioners of the lyric before and after, say, 1795 or something. The second difficulty is that when I read, say, a book by a Renaissance scholar on lyric, the focus is completely different than, say, the approaches to the genre of Romanticists. They might be more focused on prosodic forms, the social ground of lyric, and I wonder how we can bring those differences into the broader theory of the lyric you were trying to--
JONATHAN CULLER: The easy answer, but too easy, is that if you have a really broad theory, you can bring anything in under it. But then the question is whether there's any advantage that. I guess I do think that it's certainly true that the theories of genre in the Renaissance are very different from accounts of genre in the Romantic period.
I guess I do find, nonetheless, that reading Renaissance poetry, that it does seem to me that there is space for something like a conception of the lyric that Renaissance poets-- who knows about the poets-- Renaissance theoreticians, rhetoricians, don't seem to have. When we read something like Herbert's The Temple or Donne's Songs and Sonnets, et cetera, there seem to be common projects, commonalities among these poems-- even if some of them are actually elegies. Some of them are poems that do belong to the specific, recognized--
I'm sorry. I have to not gesture too much. It rattles the microphones.
Some of them do belong to recognized Renaissance genres, and others seem to fall between generic stools, et cetera, and it seems to me not out of the question to sort of put them-- to relate them to one another.
Having said that, I do think the question about the social ground of lyric practices and poetic practices is a very important differentiating element. Certainly the links between lyrics and various kinds of social ceremonies in the classical world, the Greek world is obvious, that one can't talk about Greek [INAUDIBLE] without talking about its relationship to various kinds of ceremonies and one can't really talk about Latin poetry without thinking about the banquets, and banqueting, and circumstances in which poems were performed and read. Even though I do-- it's certainly easy to argue that classicists are too inclined to think of poems as the cry of the [INAUDIBLE] and specific to a particular social moment.
But certainly, if you even compare-- but I think the notion of genre helps make possible those trans-historical comparisons. So thinking about-- I can't remember if I did this two years ago. Was it here? I think I talked about the rose poems, comparing Blake and Waller with the "Go, Lovely Rose" and "O Rose, Thou Art Sick," et cetera. With the Blake poem, it does seem to be very much a matter of working to constitute a vatic presence. The address to the rose works to constitute the poem as, in some ways, sublime poetry. And as the possibility of interaction with the rose, whereas in the Waller poem, the "Go, Lovely Rose" does not seem to be moving in the direction of the sublime in that way and seems to be engaged in a kind of social ceremonial that the Blake poem is not. That "Go, Lovely Rose" is part of a practice of compliments and rose as go-between, rose as social interlocutor, et cetera. It's constructing-- in addressing the rose, animating the rose, apostrophizing the rose, et cetera-- it's constructing it in a different-- what seems to be a different kind of social setting. And that seems to me important for thinking about that, the traditional of the lyric and changes in the tradition of the lyric.
So I guess I don't want to occlude or deny such differences, but it does seem to me that something like a notion of the lyric helps, provides a ground in which it's possible to-- easier to identify and discuss them, than if you're trying to struggle with ode, elegy, et cetera, and a handful of specifically identified lyric genres in the Renaissance than the Romantic genres.
I was hoping you were going to ask me-- you were going to argue about Jennie Jackson-- what Jennie Jackson actually wants us to do with the Dickinson poems, once we've recognize that it's critics who have constructed her as a lyric poet. Do you have any sense of--
AUDIENCE: I do disagree. She's not interested in starting up a competing method or concept of anti-genre, for example. I don't see--
JONATHAN CULLER: But she doesn't really think that we can dissolve lyric and get back to the some poems are in your garden, and some poems are in your letters, and poems scattered about in all the practices of everyday life? Or does she-- I know she's sort of working along to reconstruct those practices in which a poetry suffused daily life in ways that it doesn't quite today.
And it's certainly true that the-- it's doubtless in part the exalted conception of poetry that we have helped to produce in trying to defend it and argue for its importance that has attenuated the various kinds of poetic practices that otherwise were more common. It does seem to me that the practice of writing little versus for ceremonial occasions is-- fewer people do that now than used to, as it were.
To do that would be to try to be a poet if you were really to write little-- and so people give boring toasts instead of writing clever poems. And the tradition of light verse seems attenuated rather than powerful. And so I think that's certainly related to the operations that Jennie Jackson is describing. But they're probably other causes for that. But, of course, there are various forms of verse that are going strong-- rap poetry and things of that sort.
AUDIENCE: I'm just thinking about the giving poems, and I'm thinking about writing a poem to her brother and hiding it in a letter. I mean, that's the kind of sense of intimacy of address and of giving pleasure in private. And I actually feel like there's something like that going on in [FRENCH]. That poem is less about expressing something that I experienced. The act of giving pleasure by talking about something like this in public, which this poem makes possible. The other thing that interests me about this poem is that it's just, all-- it's always about a flash. [FRENCH] is a poem that actually has a [FRENCH] the exchange between the two lovers and that's already a goodbye. [INAUDIBLE]. So it's exactly the same sort of set of operations. But it seems to be that it's the uttering of that thing that's about [INAUDIBLE]. So it's-- both ways you can think of it as public space of address. [INAUDIBLE] certain measure of subjectivity.
JONATHAN CULLER: I don't have any independent knowledge about the Dickinson poem or what Thomas Johnson thought he was doing or what he thinks Dickinson thought he was doing. It does seem obvious, once you decipher the words, there are rhymes there, and it's curious-- the temptation to see if it works as a poem. Is it metrical? Is it strong?
So I think it's very possible that yes, as you say, that she was playing hide and seek her brother and hiding poem in the letter, in which case it's very sensible of Johnson to have pulled it out for us and let us see it, too. But Jackson, in later editions, put it back in the letters and took it out of the poems because it was a critical construction. But after it had had 20 years, or 35 years, making its way in the world, as a lyric poem it got restored to letter status.
So there the question of private pleasure is certainly paramount, and I think you're right about the Baudelaire. It is a poem that's much discussed, and I'm struck by the fact that nobody seems at all concerned or puzzled by the presumption of the final line, that [FRENCH] which just seems to jump out at you.
And I think Thibaudet's passages about this are really very bizarre. He says that this a poem that has become part of the [FRENCH] He really has this fantasy. This must have been his life as a youth, walking through the streets of Paris with this poem in his head, seeing beautiful women pass-- or maybe not women pass-- and think, oh, she would have loved me, and she knows that I loved her. And reciting this verse to himself and feeling [FRENCH] and [FRENCH], he says, and then you're back in a-- I don't know if I have that passage here. It's too long to quote. You go, you're-- I don't think I have it.
It's back in the-- somehow it makes you, leaves you [FRENCH] with your soul is, in some way, [FRENCH] and you are more back in the human community and ready to move forward in life-- or something of that sort. And he said, more than 10 people every day have this experience in the city-- are having this line come to-- this final alexandrine come to mind when they have one of these experiences.
I don't know how he got the figure 10, but of course Paris was less populous then than it is now. Probably the number hasn't increased, but it's still-- it's clear-- it's testimony to a certain kind of public pleasure in articulating that vision of yes, there would've been-- everything would have been all right, if only she hadn't vanished around the corner and everything would have been great. Sorry. I'm rambling on, there.
AUDIENCE: I just wanted to know if you wanted to elaborate a little bit in relationship to the Baudelaire poem a few minutes. Also it's status, vis a vis what some might call the politics of flatterism, or the gendering of flatterism, the disparity of the voice for Baudelaire in the poem and whether that's anachronistic, vis a vis the lyrical tradition. Or, how do you see that?
JONATHAN CULLER: That's a very broad question. Well, certainly the lyric voice has been a gendered voice for most of its history. And it's partly the work of Jennie Jackson and Yopie Prins, who has been her collaborator in some of these projects, has been devoted to not resuscitating the female lyrical voice of the 19th century England and America. Because it's precisely that construction of-- it's a very complicated process. What they're interested in is the way in which these women poets have been constructed as lyrical, in ways that makes it possible to forget them-- to put it that way.
Yopie Prins has a book on Victorian Sappho and the female lyric tradition of 19th century England, which goes along very well with Jennie Jackson's book on Dickinson, which focuses on 19th century lyrical practices in the United States. The Baudelaire, of course, women seldom speak. They seldom can speak or do speak or respond in Baudelaire. And if they do, they're told, [FRENCH]. And that's a few poems where that happens. The invocation-- the address to women-- is very common. It's a very common structure in the lyric-- an address that presupposes the silence the woman, and which an address that becomes vigorous, especially vigorous, in Baudelaire, in poems where the woman is dead, or whose death is projected.
The famous poem "Une Charogne," a carcass where the poet ends up in the tradition of carpe diem, but carpe diem over the top where he's not actually asking for anything now. So it's a transformation of carpe diem. Instead of saying, let's make love now before you become a rotting corpse, he says-- he addresses her and says, when you are dead, like this rotting corpse here, [SPEAKING FRENCH].
So when she's dead, she's supposed to say to the worms, who are eating her, that-- she's supposed to tell the worms that the poet has preserved the form of their love, of their decomposed love. It's a very ironic transformation of that lyric tradition of Ronsard. Ronsard is the obvious inter-textual relationship there, that instead of an instead of an assertion of the preservation of our love through eternity through my great verse, we have some mediation of the worms and the dead woman who is supposed to tell the worms that this is what happened. There's not a great deal of confidence, shall we say, about the preservation, nor is it clear what is actually being preserved.
So I suppose that was a long way around, starting to say that I do think that the question of the-- the interpretation of Baudelairain misogyny is a complicated and interesting operation. The other poem in which the dead-- another poem in which the dead woman is addressed is one called "Une Martyre," which somehow managed to escape censorship when the collection was condemned. Because it pretends to be a [FRENCH], it's a very extremely gory description of a lush bedroom in which all kinds of things are animated, except for the corpse of a dead woman which has been decapitated. There's the pillows are thirstily sucking up the blood that's flowing out like a river. The head is there, the body is there, et cetera.
At the end, this poetic speaker turns to this body, this corpse, and wonders whether if didn't have some perverse desires that helped get her into this situation where she has found herself beheaded, and asks and says, [SPEAKING FRENCH]. It's a very urgent-- he twice asks her to tell me, speak, et cetera, which certainly foregrounds the impossibility of that relationship between the male poetic speaker and these female interlocutors who really get a chance to speak only if they're dead and when they can't actually speak.
So anyway, I shouldn't be digressing to a talk about Baudelaire, here. It's a very interesting question about how to relate these poems to that lyric tradition. But this certainly inscribes itself in the Petrarchan tradition-- certainly inscribes itself in the Petrarchan tradition in ways that-- huh. It's still lit, but it doesn't seem to be functioning anymore. Does that matter?
MODERATOR: It's still on?
JONATHAN CULLER: The light's still on. Maybe the battery ran out.
MODERATOR: Battery check.
JONATHAN CULLER: Doesn't matter. I can probably speak loud enough to be-- can you hear me in the back if I talk like that? Yeah. Let's not worry about it.
AUDIENCE: I'm wondering how the lyric and the problem of the visual. And I'll be more specific. So the example of Dickinson and Jackson's claim that criticism has made Dickinson into a lyric poet. And I'm thinking not only the example of extracting a poem from a letter to her brother, but also her poetry in general. Whereas, when you look at the manuscripts, it's not clear whether or not those are three em-dashes or she's just wiping the pen, and what that does.
And another example of what I was thinking of was Blake, and what happens to-- what happens to lyric when it's taken from a place and turned into lyric poetry. So when Blake is anthologized or canonized without the visual.
And so I guess my question is, is that a failure of our understanding of lyric as a genre? Is that a failure of genre to be capacious enough? Or is it just-- or is it a problem of the actual poetic instance, itself? Like, has Dickinson or Blake presented us with this problem, or is it generic?
JONATHAN CULLER: I think it's a generic problem in that, certainly-- well, the situation of course varies and varies a great deal from one case to another. But, as I mentioned that Horace presents himself as singing, a singer to the lyre, though there's no evidence that he actually knew how to play the lyre or ever played a lyre or sang or that any of the poems were ever presented in that way. And they were mostly made to be read as writings.
So really, there are arguments about the status of writing in even early Greek lyric, when poems would get repeated in other circumstances. It seems that one of the reasons Pindar so seldom addresses-- even though Pindar's odes address everything under the sun-- all kinds of gods, everything-- except he never addresses the actual people who were paying him to create this ceremonious ode on the occasion of somebody's victory. And perhaps one reason for that may be so that they can be recycled and used on other occasions if they don't have a very specific address. But, certainly, Sappho poems and other poems were performed on other occasions, even if they were not being written down.
So from the very outset there's a tension and interaction between the written form and the oral form poetry. Lyric poetry, I think, always has a strong oral component of some sort that poetic rhythms are detectable only really properly detectable if the poem is read aloud. And various kinds of sound patternings and echoes become palpable on reading aloud, even though you can notice them, to some extent, when reading silently.
But poems do depend-- have quite a lot of variation in their dependence on the visual, the visual medium. Line endings matter, especially in poems, a verse that's not rhymed such as Latin verse and other kinds of verse. You want to see it on the page. It functions differently when its seen on the page, even if it doesn't have marginal engravings like Blake.
In the case of Dickinson, I really don't understand-- I've always found the dashes very annoying and don't know what to do with them. And I guess I do feel sympathetic to editors who constructed something interesting and manageable about it and have no nostalgia whatsoever for the "ure" text of Emily Dickinson. So that's not a good case for me.
Whereas Blake, with the little engravings in the margins, I do think of that as an important contribution to the poem, that it is more engaging to read them in facsimile than to read them in anthologies. Though I would say that from the very beginning lyric has been a form that lends itself to anthologization. Most of us don't read the complete works of X, we read-- of course, complete works are usually not what the poets produced, anyway. They produced volumes, which then may by trans-- when they become great poets are transformed into chronologically arranged editions or something of the complete works.
So poems are made to be separable-- separated from, even of context, of publication and repeated. One of the things that distinguishes lyric from narrative, characteristically, is that the reader puts him or herself in the position of enunciation in reading a poem. That you repeat the speech act of the poem with various degrees of closeness and distance. But certainly a lot of the pleasure of poems comes from those moments of saying to yourself, "I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed." Dramatizing yourself in those lyrical moments as the speaker of that poem. I don't know if that's not very helpful to this question, but I do think those two dimensions go together, and the interaction is not easy to chart.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering to what extent you were playing the genre of lyric as [INAUDIBLE] and particularly the Baudelairian category with hyperbole being useful there. There's a number of instances of hyperbole as expressed through the exclamation mark, actually [INAUDIBLE] exclamation mark, I read exclamation mark. We do not normally see [INAUDIBLE]. And the Baudelaire ones don't seem like that. He's seen surely as a sort of [INAUDIBLE] certainly in terms of the plethora of exclamation marks in the final stanza, right?
It's interesting in this regard that, while the English translation translates the first three exclamation marks, it can't quite go there. It can't quite translate the last exclamation mark, and it thus returns it to a lyric register, that we're more familiar with-- rather than keep it savage, sort of fantastically, ridiculously, beautifully ironic.
So I was wondering if a third example would be somebody like Frank O'Hara who had absolutely obsessive use of exclamation marks. 'm [INAUDIBLE] really ask, something like fleeting as a personality or the changeability of personality. And the speaker with personality can see one another.
Yes, precisely. I suppose the question is, really, to what extent when you're arguing against Wellek, do you want to put the lyric back in, which is also [INAUDIBLE] back in, or are you more interested with lyric as a genre that, as it were, regurgitates itself so that that's the man [INAUDIBLE] Baudelaire to-- from [INAUDIBLE] Baudelaire to O'Hara to Ashbery, making a more appropriate generic form.
JONATHAN CULLER: I guess I do think that lyric can be hyperbolic in lots of ways that don't necessarily involve exclamation marks. It can be-- the Ashbery poem has a certain hyperbolic dimension to it, too, I think, in its strangeness and weirdness. Now I'm not so much interested in putting back Erlebnis. Indeed, I'm not-- I mean, I used the Goethe example partly because I do think that-- because that's a poem that nobody can say isn't lyric. If that's not lyric, nothing is.
And that yet it's not a poem that is-- you can make it into a poem about some kind of individual experience, but that certainly takes some critical work, and it requires there to be a presumption that that's what lyrics are about-- that to understand a poem is to find a way of treating this as a record of the experience of a subject of enunciation. We have some experience of the Knabe, but it's a non-empirical experience that's hard to inscribe in that particular lyric lineage.
Yes. And I'm interested in the ways in which, for example, with song lyrics, they get covered, they get passed around. Nobody, when Elvis sings, "You ain't nothing but a hound dog," we don't ask, well, who-- who is it who's nothing but a hound dog? Who is that? We don't ask those same questions of song lyrics that we do-- we assume that that's a genre where the deictics are flowing and that can pass around. It's not an expression of a subjectivity. It's a construction of scenarios of subjectivity, certainly-- those kinds of amorous scenarios that help to define our culture.
And so I am, certainly, interested in lyric as a form that resists that-- or that it can certainly be inscribed in the context of the expression of the experience of a subject. It can also transcend, go beyond, as well very many lyrics do.
The question of the construction-- the case for O'Hara is a very interesting one. And I said at one point that I didn't have strong views about-- I don't have strong views about whether contemporary poets have managed to extract themselves from the realm of lyric and do something else that language-- I don't want to try to fight language poets and say, you're really still somehow in a lyric tradition even though you don't want to be.
And it may just be that the poems that I find interesting do seem to play off against, and require a relationship to, a lyric tradition, even when they are explicitly prosaic, which of course is the case with O'Hara.
But I am frequently being surprised at coming across apostrophes in modern poems where I don't expect them, that they appear. They pop up there. And whether or not just in the Ashbery, but I don't know. I came across a poem by Sandy McClatchy the other-- which I think I used last year here. Which McClatchy is a poet one would not expect to be apostrophizing. But he apostrophizes a weed growing out of the sidewalk in New York City, where, again, the poem sort of centers around that gesture of grandiloquent-- self-conscious, but central, I think, to the fundamental, the underlying structure of lyric. And that's why it's there.
AUDIENCE: Yes, I'm really interested in step outside poetry and move toward theory. And I'm really interested in how the variety of critical and theoretical [INAUDIBLE] to kind of work together in combination to enhance our ability to understand things at work. And I was wondering if you could speak just a little further on how you see structure working with or offering further interpretive possibilities when it's combined with historicists interpretive practices, not just in regard to genre-related, but also in regards to public reception of works, similar to characterization, a narrative voice, or authorian persona.
JONATHAN CULLER: I guess I would say that, probably, I do feel that I remain at some deep level a structuralist, that though I've spent my career not doing the things that I've said in structurists poetics that we ought to do, that we ought to attempt to produce a poetics and stop interpreting poems and try to do poetics rather than hermeneutics. But I've sort of done a little bit of work, some work, along the line of poetics. But I certainly haven't attempted to produce a systematic poetics at all. And it's, of course, because it's difficult. Because interpretation is fun. Not that I've done vast amounts of critical interpretation either. It's been more-- More of it's been along the lines of writing about critical approaches and computing critical approaches and things of that sort. So I do feel that there's been a sort of, at some level, a failure to pursue a project which I still believe but whose difficulty makes it hard to imagine how to approach.
I did not return explicitly to poetics a few years ago and worked on the problem omniscience in narrative. It does seem to me that narratology is a very important branch of poetics that, for a while, did flourish and is now back in favor to a certain extent. It's going strong in Germany and the United States, at least.
The big question in narratology these days is, is the relationship to cognitive science. And the temptation on the part of narratologists is to try to latch onto the cognitive science and make that the stand-to narratology as linguistics previously did, when linguistics was going to be the sort of under-girding for the [FRENCH]. And there just are questions about is that going to work. Does cognitive science really bring something new to narratological investigations? Is it going to help, or is it just going to require translation into a different vocabulary?
But I took up the problem of omniscience because it seemed to me that was a term that-- well, it was partly I was embarrassed that I had used the term in my very short introduction and hedging it around a little bit of quotation marks and things like that, but without paying any attention. And somebody called me on this, and said, why are you-- that I was sort of hedging but didn't say that I thought it was a dubious concept, and yet sort of distancing myself from it. So I decided to decided to think about it. And it's interesting that there are-- almost no one actually defends the concept of omniscience except for Meir Sternberg, who has been defending it for many years.
But it's one that's very broadly used. And I think it's used wrongly, that it groups together a variety of quite distinct phenomena and that it's not hard to see that the phenomena that we lumped together under the heading of omniscience are, in fact, quite distinct. So it was actually quite gratifying to do that work on omniscience. The essay is pub-collected in the Literary in Theory, the most recent book that Amanda mentioned.
But it did make me regret that I had-- when I did that, that I had not spent more time on really attempting to do poetics in a serious fashion. But it required omniscience with a somewhat manageable problem, a particular term widely used, very little theorized, almost never defended-- which posed a clear problem and where one could hope to, if not work out a solution, at least identify the different sorts of effects that are lumped together and obscured by being grouped under the heading of omniscience.
Yeah, I do think that that's the kind of project which, if you come up on something like that, it's very much worth pursuing. You feel that you're not spending your time simply producing a more ingenious interpretation of this poem, but are actually in some way contributing to a cumulative structure of knowledge, of which we don't have all that much, I should say. It would be nice if we had more cumulative structure of knowledge that we have produced about literature and the functioning of literature.
AUDIENCE: I have a question about prose, which I'd like to approach from a slightly different angle, if you'll let me. So the really bad thing that I think Johnson does is really not with context, I think, actually. So he gives a footnote when he explains the context from which these lines have been taken. The thing he does, which he admits is completely arbitrary is delineating. I mean, we can take [INAUDIBLE] of Keats that he only wrote in letters and publish them as poems. But we publish them with the lineage in which Keats's own way.
But Dickinson, in the letter, wrote actually in prose. It was a piece of prose with remarkably regular-recurring rhymes which was kind of buried in it. You can get kind of buried rhymes in styles of essays, as well, but we still call them essays. We still think of them as prose. I want to ask about whether-- what do you think about lyric prose, whether the lyric is a measure that can apply to prose, or whether you think it's just a genre which applies to verse, to versified lines. And I want to ask, because I suppose, for me, the really interesting way of thinking about lyric is always particular. It's what did this particular writer think that lyric was, and, therefore, what kind of thing are they invoking.
And for Baudelaire, of course, this is very interesting because he famously wrote, who has not imagined the possibility of a truly poetic prose, which it's-- undulates according to the lyric movements of souls. So I wonder what that would do to your understanding of what Baudelaire thinks about lyric, and generally whether lyric prose can exist as a category, or whether it only exists as a category if the writer is looking at a particular fixed process.
JONATHAN CULLER: I certainly have resisted treating lyric as an adjective and wanted to make it a noun and have it be genre. The question of whether it should be thought of as a mode so that you could have lyrical drama, lyrical prose, lyrical fiction, et cetera, or whether to think of it as a genre-- is one that runs throughout debates about genre theory. But there I've opted for the noun and the lyric as a genre.
Certainly, I guess in general, I find that I'm not at all interested in lyrical prose-- except I'm interested in Baudelaire's prose forms, but not, I think, not because they're lyrical prose, but because they're prosaic prose. Because they're prosaic poems, shall we say, especially when there's the transformation of-- especially when there's the rewriting of a verse poem-- whatever the chronology is. Sometimes we know which one was written first, but most times we don't. When there are pairs of poems, verse poems and prose poems, that seem to go together.
But there, comparison-- those comparisons and those interactions are certainly extremely interesting and useful. Certainly the prose poems accentuate the modern tendency to make literature of anecdotes that can be taken as emblematic. That's a very basic, fundamental structure in lyric, as well as in prose poems. And it's one that prose poems seem to adopt resolutely.
But I do you find that, in general, prose poems are not forms that are interest me at all. And I'm not quite sure why. I don't think it's just a [FRENCH], because I was not interested in prose poems even before I became interested in lyric as a project, shall we say. So it's not simply the result of the project. And it's not because of some concern for purity either. There are many cases-- certainly something like the [FRENCH] where it is interesting precisely because of a certain kind of impurity. So it is something of a puzzle for me. I don't really have a good answer to that question. But I can say that, no, I want to think of lyric as a genre and not as a quality that can be possessed by various kinds of--
I guess I don't think that, for the most part, those prose poems are not-- I mean, that's not prose that you would automatically call lyrical. There are some passages, little passages, you might call lyrical, in comparison with lyrical passages in novels where you pick out moments that seem--
AUDIENCE: But Baudelaire wanted to call them lyrical.
JONATHAN CULLER: Baudelaire wanted to call them lyrical, yes. That's right. And they are hyperbolic. And they do have apostrophes in them. So they might fit some of his definitions of lyric.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, I had also wanted to ask a question about mode, especially since the [INAUDIBLE]. I'd be curious to hear some more to your resistance to mode, as opposed to just to elucidate, to me, the status of that question. That was-- especially since you [INAUDIBLE], I've been quailing at offering up my reading of this room in relationship to "Yankee Doodle--" right? You know, where "macaroni" is the word, that key American refrain.
JONATHAN CULLER: Ah.
AUDIENCE: It seems like there's actually a case where that word for excess, right? The macaroni in that context. But every school child knows what macaroni means in "Yankee Doodle." It works in the kind of conversation that Neil was talking about, the quail as [INAUDIBLE]. And why does this matter? What is this desire [INAUDIBLE]? It seems to me that this room is prosaic, right? You actually think about it, it would be like the event of this most basic lyric. And you get into this kind of modal question-- this instance is kind of moral comic book. Which becomes really interesting from the point of view of what Ashbery's trying to do a lot of things with ideas of intention and location of intention during that. And this is very associative, but isn't an edition of Dickinson that Virginia Jackson did that Walter Michaels takes out after in the shape of signifiers?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, Susan Howe and Jackson, I think, both collaborated on an edition of Dickinson that Walter Michaels makes his exemplary case of feudal quests, and they carry out the signifier. In exactly as we're talking about-- he's-- that position's trying to preserve exactly the way the poems were written out. And so they could never do that, and, therefore, for Michaels, we should give up and assign fictionality to the author in its way, right? But isn't, in a way, the whole purpose and the kind of middle ground classification that you're embarking on could be able to say more interesting things about friendship. Wouldn't that language of mode become the traditional way to get to some of those more interesting configurations.
JONATHAN CULLER: I'm not opposed to mode, as such. I'm perfectly happy to say that this is-- such and such is prosaic. I just am resisting the step of treating lyric as a mode, and especially because you don't want the same term to be both a mode and a genre. And it seems to me, if you make lyric a mode, then the whole question becomes, what are the-- are there lyric genres? And what do we do with all the little poems that are not odes or elegies, or some identify-- and, plus, we get a very extremely heterogeneous set of genres.
Is the sonnet a genre? It's a form. It's not clear that the sonnet is a genre, though it has a history, it has a tradition, it has all sorts of things that would make a genre-like. But it's not-- it shares-- many of those things, of course, are shared with other poems that are written that don't have 14 lines, or something of that sort. I do, I guess-- and it's partly just the desire to retain the notion of lyric that I-- so I'll be happy to have another name for a mode if-- it's not that I'm opposed to modes in general.
I don't know. Is that right? Ben, did Jennie do a-- it's Jennie Jackson who did an edition of Dickinson that Walter Benn Michaels took? I didn't know about that either, which is strange.
JONATHAN CULLER: I don't think, yeah.
BEN: I think she comes up in the discussion.
JONATHAN CULLER: She may come up in that discussion, because of Dickinson's Misery. I don't think-- I think I would've known if she had done an edition of Dickinson, there, yeah. And I'm not sure, as I said earlier, I'm not sure-- but I don't think it's so much that she's eager to return us to Dickinson's original intentions, as such. She's interested in the variety of cultural practices that involved poetry in the 19th century, where poetry was passed around, used, in all kinds of different circumstances, more referential, certainly.
And so one of the things that she talks about in describing the lyricization of poetry is the way in which the more referential poetic genres-- poems of praise, occasional poems, et cetera-- have been sort of assimilated to a decontextualized lyric, in which they no longer function in those ways. And certainly that's something we always struggle with when we read Pope, or when we read satiric poetry. And how many footnotes do we need? How many identifications of allusions to do we want, et cetera, to try-- are we trying to plug ourselves back into those circumstances?
Certainly, when you read little bits of Mallarme-- occasional bits of Mallarme-- you don't necessarily feel you really want to know who Mrs. So-and-so was or Mr. So-and-so who's being celebrated here. You're interested in this as an example of the work of this lyric poet. And so it's certainly true, we've done that with verse. And this is an operation that has, in the interests of somehow celebrating and promoting verse as literature, has taken it away from other kinds of functions that might serve, as mark of intimacy in a letter or whatnot. Oh, she's gone, so I can't. Well, I gestured her.
So I don't think it's a matter of recreating or recapturing the original intentions, but simply an interest in the different ways in which poems circulate. Interestingly, we have projects like poems in the subways and things of that sort which are certainly attempts to revivify some kind of presence of public poetry. Though, often it's authorized lyrics that then try to get put into circulation-- favorite poems, which are supposed to be not something your child wrote, but something an authorized published poet wrote which counts as favorite poems to be published and circulated as public poetry.
AUDIENCE: I'm really interested that the modern lyric requires the subject or rehabilitates the subject. Because it seems to me-- and just to take John Ashbery's poem, here-- that the subject here is a faulty subject, or a non-collective subject. You enter the room, and it's a dream. The oval dog image seems to be a disruption of the subject. So any kind of action in the poem leads to nowhere. So agency in the poem is sort of a waste, in a way. So even at the end of the poem, it has a sort of [INAUDIBLE] it might be [INAUDIBLE], it might have a grand meaning. But it then says, why do I tell you, since you aren't even here. So it's not really had a grand meaning.
So this poem seems to sort of contradict the typical-- what you mind find in a typical lyric, right? It says, well, this might have some sort of grand gesture, but I'm telling you no. The grand gesture is that there's no grand gesture. And so I guess I was just wondering if you could talk about a little bit this idea that maybe the modern lyric challenges the unity of the subject and the sort of movement right now that's sort of leading that way [INAUDIBLE] along with the other [INAUDIBLE].
JONATHAN CULLER: Yeah. Well, certainly that was certainly part of-- it's certainly a strand, an important strand of modern poetry. Where the question is-- I mean, there are two kinds of questions. One sort of question of what happens in particular poems and what sort of presence of a subject or position of a subject seems to be sketched there. But I've been less interested in that-- in what happens in particular poems-- and more interested in what I take to be the implicit models we, especially the pedagogical models, that we have brought to lyric poetry and that have promoted the link between lyric poetry and the solidification of the subject, even in modern poetry.
Certainly with Baudelaire where there is plenty of reason to think of the dissolution of the subject, the very negative operations that are deployed in lots of Baudelaire poems can finally seem can be enlisted in a process of recuperation in which, if everything turns to dross, if everything is rendered-- There are lots of poems about self-loss which nevertheless seem to solidify the self in that an I that is in the very process of emptying itself out-- and I, especially when identified with some other that it can relate to. One of the functions of the devil in Baudelaire is to be that other that stands over against the self and helps to promote a sense of the some kind of solidity of the self, I think.
So one of Baudelaire's spleen poems, which begins [SPEAKING FRENCH] "I have more memories than if I were 1,000 years old." It runs through-- it starts off with a rather comical condition of, you know, like a professor with a totally messy desk where just so much stuff-- their things falling out the drawers, their ledgers, their balance sheets, their locks of hair wrapped in receipts, their-- all kinds of-- just a mess. And I can't find the self. The subject unable to locate itself in this excess of memories presented here. What the poem does is start with that condition, which is more ridiculous than tragic, and then move through a series of operations-- become increasingly Gothic. "My memories are so many dead corpses in a cemetery." [SPEAKING FRENCH] This cemetery abhorred by the moon, where there's-- some place may be completely negative, but there's something there that is the object of the moon's abhorrence.
And then identification in the final-- at the end of that poem with a gloomy sphinx that sits abandoned in the desert and sings only to the setting sun. So there this condition is presented as a sort of tragic one, but it's one that you-- the sort of thing you can imagine saying almost to cheer yourself up, especially if you're a Thibaudet-like [FRENCH]. You may be in dire straits, but you are abhorred by the universe, you are a sphinx isolated, forgotten on the map, and you sing only to the setting sun. There's a sort of self-dramatization there that collects the self in a negative way and protects it against that complete frittering away that this messy desk syndrome was marking at the very beginning.
That's a crude outline of a kind of operation that's quite frequent, especially in Baudelaire, but in other poets, too. Where a kind of negative category of the subject, especially in Baudelaire, takes the form often of the poetic imagination which will turn everything to dross, which will produce self-torture, self-torment. [SPEAKING FRENCH] "I can change gold into iron through the help of this Hermes Trismegistus, et cetera."
So that's a kind of an operation whereby the modern subject helps to solidify or protect itself against all the kinds of threats and shocks that experience might offer through these negative operations. There are other poems which do not have, as in the Ashbery, which do not knit together in the same kind of way, which don't-- though the I-you relationship, "Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here" This is the suggestion of the absent love. Even the poetic gesture of addressing the beloved who is usually absent is here, not put in question even though that's what poems usually do-- to tell you those things when you're not even here. But it's certainly a movement in contemporary poetry, modern poetry, that's very much worth exploring and pursuing.
MODERATOR: Do we have time for one more question, Simon?
AUDIENCE: I was just wondered whether you would agree with [INAUDIBLE] of literature requires some kind of diminution of genres we presently have. If you do-- if you would argue for [INAUDIBLE] insistence on genre as a basic structuring device, for criticism-- there's some sort of tension or some sort of risk to the [INAUDIBLE] literature which [INAUDIBLE]. Isn't there some virtue in the [INAUDIBLE] or the-- what you put the slightly wrong interpretation from the start.
JONATHAN CULLER: It's a good question. I think, if you haven't looked at it, I would suggest you look at the Jennie Jackson-- for Jackson's essay in that PMLA issue on the lyric. Because that's a question that she takes up directly, that I didn't talk about here. She says that, for the most part in history of poetry, defenses of poetry-- people were wrote defenses of poetry, not because people were not paying attention to poetry at all, but, on the contrary, because they wanted to channel attention in one direction or another, making certain kind of claims for poetry.
Nowadays, we write so many defenses of literature, because nobody's paying attention. And she thinks, of course, that's partly our defense of elevation of literature-- kind of sacralization of literature-- that has helped to create this situation where it no longer suffuses activities of daily life as it did in the 19th century. I don't know if that's true at all, but that's the argument that she's making there in that brief essay in PMLA.
I guess I would say I do recognize, certainly, the situation that Blanchot describes in that quotation of one in which the more you want to celebrate literature, the less important genres seem to be. Because literariness seems to be something that could rise above or could transcend genres. I do think that Blanchot's thinking about that is somewhat more complicated than that particular passage leads people to imagine when they quote it, as a representation of the modern lack of interest in genres.
But I guess I think-- what I do think is that the-- especially in literary education these days, the dominance of prose fiction creates a situation in which the focus on other genres and the identification of other genres as, indeed, other and different from prose fiction, is a valuable step. Whether it's denaturing the notion of-- a sort of sacralized notion of literature-- I don't know. It's difficult to say.
There's an article by-- Mary Poovey has a very-- what I take to be very perverse article called, "The lyricization of literary criticism," which claims that literary criticism takes-- it seems a very perverse thing to say these days when the dominance of prose fiction, and the study of prose fiction, and the teaching of prose fiction is so obvious. But that literary criticism is entirely caught up and bound in a model with where lyric is taken be prior. And so, for her, and also for Rei Terada in the article in this PMLA issue, getting rid of the category of lyric is partly a way of breaking away from elitism of the new criticism. And getting back, doing cultural studies more properly, getting rid of lyric as a category in the curriculum-- so I think I would say that those movements are much more dangerous for the survival of literature than feeble attempts to resuscitate and preserve the category of lyric. The idea that we should get rid of lyric so people can think of poems in connection with all kinds of other things, as likely just to me that they won't pay attention to poems at all.
MODERATOR: OK. Thank you very much.
JONATHAN CULLER: Thank you. Thank you.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Recent literary criticism and theory has not had much use for notions of literary genres, and the idea of the lyric has been thought particularly unnecessary.
Rejecting the distinction between theoretical and historical genres, Jonathan Culler defends the importance of notions of genre for literary study and, discussing poems by Horace, Goethe, Baudelaire, and Ashbery, argues for the importance of a capacious conception of lyric for understanding poems in their relation to the Western tradition.
Culler is the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature
Chair, and chair of the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell. The event was sponsored by the School of Criticism and Theory.