JONATHAN CULLER: It's always a pleasure to speak here at SET. I would say that I'm sorry to have missed most of the activities this summer, except I had the good fortune of being in cool, wet Paris instead of in burning hot Ithaca. So I am not too sorry to have missed things. But I hope you have had a good summer, despite the weather.
I proposed to one of my functions in speaking at SET each year, if invited to do so by Amanda, is to reaffirm the place of the literary in theoretical discussions, and do something literary. And so today I'm going to return to a subject that's been somewhat out of fashion since, say, the 1970s. Back in the 60s and 70s we were very interested in relations between linguistics and literature and attempts to define the specificity of poetic language. So it's back to back to poetic language and its possible distinctiveness.
In structuralist poetics in, as I said, 1975, I advocated a poetics that would stand to literature as linguistics stands for language. The task of linguistics is not to provide new interpretations of English sentences, but to reconstruct the elaborate system of rules and conventions that permit utterances to have the meanings they do for speakers of the language. And similarly, literary studies ought to give priority to understanding the system of conventions and inferential practices that enable literary works to have the meanings and effects they do for readers, rather than seeking to discover always new and deeper meanings for the most highly valued literary works. So hermeneutics rules in literary studies about poetics ought to take priority, as I still believe.
Well, in thinking about of poetics of the lyric-- which is my current project-- an obvious question is, even though we have long resisted the notion of a special poetic language, whether they are not particular uses of language that are characteristic of, or even distinctive of, lyric. But I think I need to begin by saying something about what I take lyric to be, especially because in critical circles these days, there is considerable historicist resistance to the idea that there should be a theory or poetics of the lyric. The new edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which will be out in September, the lyric article is devoted to refuting the idea that it would make any sense at all to speak of lyric. Jenny Jackson, the leading anti-lyric theorist was assigned the lyric essay, which seems a little bit perverse.
But the question really is, are not the poems we call lyric from the Greeks to the present so varied, so tied to completely radically different cultural practices and circumstances of production, that the idea of a theory of the lyric is bizarre, if not ridiculous? And if, of course as we critics tend to think, if what we value about literary works is their singularity, the distinctiveness of the individual work, is not any attempt to produce a count of the lyric general, and worse, risible? At best, a regression to the days of a certain kind of genre criticism when theorists, perhaps misunderstanding Aristotle, sought to lay down the law for the productions of each recognized genre?
Well those are both rhetorical questions. And I take the answers to be no. And I do defend the category of the lyric. But Northrop Frye once defined lyric as, "any poem you have a good chance of getting uncut into an anthology"-- which emphasizes the central feature of brevity-- and a poem easily read or spoken in one sitting. And I myself prefer to be able to do more than one in a sitting, as it were, not take a whole sitting with one lyric. So I would stress that. But I would stress that lyric is characteristically non-narrative, though it effectively subsumes many little narratives, assimilating them to a present articulation, about which I'll be speaking later.
Historically, lyric is bound to voicing and pronounced, rhythmic patterning, a foregrounding of the signifier through rhythm, rhyme, though modern practice has made it more appropriate to speak of a figure of voice and, thus, to speak of poems for which the line, rather than the page, is a crucial unit. So linear, rather than tabular in form. That would be a good rule of thumb. You're no longer dealing with lyric when it's the page is the basic unit.
So lyrics are poems that can be voiced. Writing shaped to be heard. And, therefore, a crux for the theory of the lyric is the relation between sound, voicing, and concepts of speakers and subjects, which are always partly imaginary. Now the simplest and most immediately compelling argument for a theory of the lyric, I think, is pedagogical, that if, when we teach poems, if we don't give our students a model with which to approach them, they will approach them with whatever implicit model of the lyric they have picked up in secondary school or somewhere else-- street corners. And if we don't tell them what to look for, outline some parameters at least, they will make assumptions about what these literary objects are, and operate with some sort of theory of the lyric-- and, in many cases, a very unsatisfactory one.
In many, many cases of course, it will be an expressive theory of short poems as the locus of a poet's expression of feeling and rendition of personal experience, a model which offers purchase on many lyrics, but is not a useful way into many others. And an alternative model, of course the one that today, I think, dominates the pedagogy of the lyric in the United States at least, is to some extent a reaction against that model, that a poem should not be read as an expression of the poet but as spoken by a persona. And to study the poem is to reconstruct why someone might speak thus. So, my clicker, yes.
Helen Vendler's influential textbook, Poems, Poets, Poetry, begins with this presumption, that given that each poem is a fictive speech act by an imagined speaker, she urges students to then to ask, to study the poem is to reconstruct why someone might speak thus, in what sort of circumstances, to what end, with what motive, to ask what speech act is being performed-- and she provides a list of speech acts poems might perform-- what sort of speaker is constructed, what sort of drama of attitudes is enacted, and finally, "under what such circumstances would I find myself saying this?" I think frankly the honest answer to that question is never, unless I'm unless I'm reciting a poem, performing a poetic act.
This is, I think, a very widespread model, but seldom really made explicit in theoretical terms. The most explicit theoretical account of the model, I think, comes from Barbara Hernstein Smith of On The Margins of Discourse, and more important, perhaps, in Poetic Closure, a study of how poems end-- which, though published in 1968, is still to my mind among the very best contributions to the poetics of the lyric, even though I think the general model is quite incorrect. Smith maintains that while plays and novels are fictional imitations of actions, the poem is a fictional imitation or representation of an utterance.
So poetry is a representational art, she emphasizes, and each poem, and I quote, "represents not merely the words of an utterance, wants but a total act of speech." Or in another formulation of hers, "imagine each lyric to be prefaced by the formula. For example, I or someone might say." I or someone might say, "I wandered lonely as a cloud." So it's an example of a personal utterance.
The most obvious example of this, she notes, is dramatic monologue. And indeed, this theory-- which, as I say, is now very widespread in lyric pedagogy-- urges students to treat basically every poem as a dramatic monologue with a fictional speaker whose situations and motive must be reconstructed. Why would someone speak thus?
This approach makes the poem into a mini novel with a character whose motives are to be analyzed. And this can be quite encouraging for students accustomed to fiction and who say they don't like poetry. They say, well it's really just like a novel, only a lot shorter. And you get to imagine who the character is. He doesn't even have a name, for example. So it's more fun.
So it's pedagogically useful, but has a number of flaws. First, in defining a poem as fundamentally an imitation of a real-world speech act, it treats as marginal, ancillary, all those aspects of poems-- the rhythm, sound patterning, intertextual relations, et cetera-- that are most distinctive of poetry. And secondly, it takes a very particular case for the norm, ignoring the fact that many poems do not put on stage a fictional character performing non-poetic acts, but engage in an act or speech act that is distinctively poetic.
Now Smith, for whom I have great respect, adopts this concept, I think, first because she wants to resist attempts to distinguish poetic language from everyday, ordinary language, which was the sort of thing that was endemic in those days, back in the 60s, since an important part of her argument is that poetic effects are achieved by the ways in which the language of poems is tied to uses of discourse in other contexts, in daily life. The fact that poetic effects do depend upon, as she writes, "our experience, with an incalculable number of verbal experiences, acts, and scenes" does not mean that poem is a representation of a real-world reference.
And second, she adopts this theory, I think, because she wants a simple, formal solution to the problem that often bedevils the theory and pedagogy of the lyric-- the relationship between the eye of the lyric and the poet. So the premise of the imitation speech act enables her to say simply that the eye is, by definition, fictional, since the poetic utterance is a fictional imitation of personal utterance. Rather than [INAUDIBLE] you can declare it, get rid of the problem once and for all, rather than warning against linking the eye too closely to the poet, as if this were a matter of tact, or critical strategy, or a possibility to be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis.
But the notion of a fictional imitation of a speech actor, or a personal discourse as she calls the speech acts imitated by lyric, of course eliminates the possibility of a poem without a fictional speaker character. And one thing that confirms for me the dubiousness of her premise, this model, is that this notion of lyric as fictional imitation plays almost no role in her actual accounts of the structure of the poems, are many of which it would be very difficult to say what utterance or possible speech act they're representing.
So for example, the very first example in Poetic Closure, which she introduces, she says, to help define notions of what does she mean by formal structure, what does she mean by thematic structure, is Emily Dickinson's "The heart asks pleasure first." So what is the real world speech act being represented here? It's really quite hard to say. We'd have to invent one. And trying to imagine a speaker would be, I think, a diversion from engaging with the poem.
"The heart asks pleasure first, And then, excuse from pain; And then, those little anodynes that deaden suffering; And then, to go to sleep; And then, if it should be The will of its Inquisitor, The privilege to die." So what we have is a poetic disquisition on the propensities of the human heart with a real kicker in the tail when "inquisitor" and "privilege" give us a judgement, but one that need not be firmly assigned to some particular speaker. It certainly doesn't seem to me a poem that produces a fictional speaker or a fictional world. It's this claim about this world.
Now Smith rightly makes no attempt to work out what sort of speech event is being imitated, or what is the situation of an alleged speaker. And I think there's an important lesson for the theory of the lyric here, that there's no need to assume a speaker character and a projected fictional world. But of course, lyrics may be fictional imitations of recognizable speech acts by speaker characters. But that is best conceived as a special case, for which we have a convenient name-- dramatic monologue. A special case, rather than the general model of lyric.
Many lyrics present while presenting themselves as eminently voiced or voicable, do not project a speaker character. If we take another example, if we ask who is speaking in Blake's "The Sick Rose," again, it seems to me we obscure the functioning of the poem, which presents an event of distinctively poetic speech. "O rose, thou art sick. The invisible worm, That flies in the night In the howling storm Has found out thy bed of crimson joy And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy."
Now, real world speakers sometimes address inanimate objects-- cursing computers, I'm sure we do that, and making a spectacle of themselves-- but here we have distinctive poetic address. And [INAUDIBLE] says, [SPEAKING FRENCH] being the lyric, which [SPEAKING FRENCH] most necessary and most agreeable for the lyric. So here, apostrophic address marks this language as distinctive, establishes the speech act as poetic discourse-- which seeks to be an event, rather than to represent or describe an event-- and creates a surprisingly strong sense of prophetic revelation, even though we don't know anything about a situation.
Poetic revelation, or perhaps stipulation, declaring the rose to be sick. Paradoxically, the more such poetry addresses natural or inanimate objects, unlikely addressees, the more it proffers figures of voice, and thus, the more it reveals itself as, at another level, not spoken, but as writing that, through its address, its rhythm, and other indications of sound, engenders an image of voice for readers who are invited to take up and utter the words. Northrop Frye writes that the lyric poet normally pretends to be talking to himself or someone else-- spirit of nature, a muse, a personal friend, a lover, a god, a personified abstraction, or a natural object.
The radical of presentation in the lyric is the hypothetical form of what in religion is called the I-thou relationship. "The poet, so to speak, turns his back on his listeners, though he may speak for them, and though they may repeat some of his words after him." Well I would stress here, as Frye, so to speak, indicates, that his formulation, the poet turns his back on his listeners, is a figurative attempt to explain a peculiar discursive situation by reference to face-to-face communication. But it seems to me it does little more than mark the strangeness of turning his back on the listeners.
Consider, for instance, that while a lecturer like me, though reading a written text, pretends to be talking to you, and tries to make it seem as though I am actually addressing you directly. At a poetry reading, you never get that. Poets never pretend to be speaking the poem directly to the audience. They always make it clear that they are reading a poem which is not addressed to you. It's addressed to you only indirectly.
They are not speaking directly to the audience. The poet is not turning his or her back on the audience, but offering language to listeners with a built-in indirection, addressing them through language implicitly or explicitly addressed elsewhere. And often I think that's one of the functions of the little squibs with which poets sometimes preface their poems-- I wrote this when I was living in Nantucket and thinking about such and such-- to show this is not directed to you. This is coming to you but indirectly, even though I happen to be standing in front of you.
And I think the situation is not radically different when the poem arrives in written form. Sorry, I keep moving inadvertently into the light there. I take the fundamental structure of lyric to be one of triangulated address, where an audience of readers is addressed through address, implicit or explicit, to an imagined addressee.
That's a rhetorical structure [INAUDIBLE] John Stuart Mill, who contrasted rhetoric poetry and eloquence. Eloquence is heard. Poetry is overheard. But poetry is also eloquence and rhetoric.
Now the second person pronoun, as it appears in lyric, has a complexity that is certainly not without analog in non-poetic speech acts. And of course, the English "you" is already more indeterminate than second person pronouns in many other languages, which often distinguish singular form from plural form, or intimate form from formal address. But the lyrical English you is, at bottom, I think, characterized by a foregrounding of that indeterminate potential that makes "you" at once a specific other, the most general other, and also one-- kind of a pure placeholder for indeterminate agency, sort of staging the problem of subject and subject positions.
John Ashbery has a volume entitled Your Name Here, which is a good title that evokes questions of singularization and iterability that our work in lyric pronouns, especially "Your Name Here." And the opening poem, "This Room," concludes with a formulation that might be taken to sum up the history of the lyric. Not the macaroni part-- "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 are not even here." That's the lyric. "Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here."
His paradox as an oxymoron illustrates, perhaps even better, the functioning of this lyric "you" which interlaces the "you" addressee with the "you" one. It's quite a line. Only gave you a few lines of-- oh I don't have it. There we go. This is the paradox as an oxymoron. This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
"Look at it talking to you. You look out the window, or pretend to fidget. You have it, but you don't have it." Eventually concludes the poem is you. But I don't want to put too much emphasis on a special lyric use of pronoun, though I think one could make claims for the distinctive pronominal play in lyric, and especially the English lyric. One could also argue that lyric only exploits more extensively, on occasion, possibilities that are very much present in other kinds of discourse and pronominal play.
So for me it's really rather the underlying structure of indirection, the triangulated address, that is crucial. Lyric tropes on the usual structure of address with a distinctive mode of indirection. And as Fry's remarks that I quoted a few minutes ago indicate, there is also the fact, once again distinctive, I think, that in lyric, the reader may be the "you," as it were, but the reader also occupies the position of enunciation-- speaks the point as agent of the poetic event in a way he or she does not with a novel. And novels' readers, we may view things from the perspective of a focalizer or narrator, but we don't repeat his or her words as we read, whereas in lyrics, we do. And lyric effects depend upon at least a sub-vocalization of those words and those forms.
Though, we don't necessarily identify with the sentiments, shall we say, of the poem. The deictic center, the I, here, and now, shall we say, is also that of the reader, who says, "I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed." Or, [SPEAKING FRENCH] Or, "you must change your life." "All these force through the green fuse drives the flower, drives my green age."
Linguistic accounts of deixis do note that sometimes what is called the deictic center can be shifted to the time and place of the addressee, of the "you," that the I, here, now will be shifted to the place of the "you" than the "I" of the speaker. So in an advertisement, "Don't delay, call today," today is the moment in which you read this ad, not when somebody wrote it. And similarly, if I pen a letter to my son, I say, write your grandmother now, he can't plead that it's too late, the possibility is gone, because the now when I wrote the letter is already well past. The now refers to the time of receipt, not the time of writing. So with that possibility, which is usually treated as exceptional in grammatical accounts, help us to think about the lyric. So to explore that, we need to think not just about persons, but specifically about the time of lyric.
So if the pronouns I and you and structures of address have a more endemically ambiguous function in lyric than elsewhere, I think their real distinctiveness becomes clearer still if we look at the present tense. This tense is important for lyric in general, and certainly French lyric, German lyric. But in English, there's an especially distinctive lyric use of the present tense, the simple present.
Generally in English, to note occurrences in the present, we use the present progressive. I am walking, right? When we encounter an unmarked non-progressive tense with occurrences, we know immediately that we're dealing with a poem. As, "I walked through the long school room questioning, a kind old nun in a white hood replies, The children's eyes in momentary wonder stare upon a 60-year-old smiling public man." Or, "Out on the lawn, I lie in bed, Vega conspicuous overhead." There are lots of these examples, of course.
There we go, a very well-known one. "I wander through each chartered street near where the chartered Thames does flow, and mark in every face I meet marks of weakness, marks of woe." Well this lyric present, shall we say, this simple present that is not temporally located or adverbially qualified, will be the focus of the rest of my talk this afternoon as I try to think about its distinctive effects, especially the way in which it presents an unlocated present of articulation and of iteration. It presents, for the reader, this one unlocated present as the reader repeats these words.
Let me say parenthetically that there are other tenses that can contribute significantly to this effect of presentness in the lyric. So for example, the present perfect in English is a non-narrative tense that sort of sets up expectations that we will learn something about what is the case now. So for example, Robert Frost, "I Have Been One Acquainted With The Night," declares, "I have walked out in rain and back in rain. I have out-walked the furthest city light. I have looked down the saddest city lane." That's sort of ominously pointing us towards the present to which these past actions lead, though here in this case, this present will in fact remain a mystery. But that present perfect does point us towards the present.
There's also a predictive future tense which has an effect similar to the lyric present in projecting an iteration, I think. So as in, here's a little beginning of a poem by Denise Riley-- well, this also gives us the perfect too. "A clean, historical wind has cut the forest, torn it to streaming ribbons. Now under its snapped branches, I'll listen for silence. I will listen for silence."
So there's complete considerable interplay between various present-oriented verb forms. But here, I'm going to concentrate on this distinctive poetic present tense. And starting by looking heuristically at the uses of this tense that are attested by grammars, or ordinary regular speech, so as to see whether those uses help illuminate some of its effects and show how distinctive it is, and how far they indicate the need for a fuller theory of a distinctive lyric language. So too, grammar.
Well Huddleston and Pullum's authoritative Cambridge Grammar of the English Language treats the English present tense as simply non-passed. And it notes that the unmarked non-progressive version of the present tense takes an external view. There is no explicit reference to any internal phase or any feature of the temporal flow, such as whether the situation is conceived as instantaneous or having a duration through time. So this unmarked, non-progressive present tense, or the simple present, combines freely, as they go on to write, yes, "combines freely with states, but not with occurrences."
So it's used both for states that are temporary like, she has a headache, and for states that last, or are outside of time like, she is Austrian. Those are their examples. But the use of the simple present for dynamic situations is thus very restricted. But it's precisely the use of the simple present for dynamic situations that occurs very often in lyric.
So Huddleston cites six cases where the simple present does get used for occurrences in ordinary life, as it were. And some of which are certainly relevant to the present. And the real question for the moment and for the good part of the remainder of my talk is, how far are these different uses relevant, and how far not relevant?
A rather common use of the present with occurrences that seems to me not very pertinent is the historic present, which is fundamentally a narrative tense. In narrative it allows a shift into the present for vividness, we say. So in Jane Eyre, for example, when Jane returns to Thornfield Grange and is going to see Mr Rochester again, we have a narration in the past. "I propose to walk the distance quietly by myself. And very quietly did I slip away from the George Inn about 6 o'clock of a June evening and take the old road to Thornfield."
And then she shifts into the present. "They are making hay, too, in Thornfield meadows, or rather the laborers are just quitting their work and returning home with their rakes on their shoulders now, at the hour I arrive." So the shift into the present in the midst of a narrative, sort of thing that Dickens does in a way I find very annoying, time to time. But I think of it primarily as a narrative effect.
Vividness may also be an effect of the lyric present also, but it's not primarily a narrative tense, as is the historic present. And often of course, the historic present is temporally localized or qualified, as in, 2009, Barack Obama becomes president. But again, that feels like a narrative tense there. We're telling a story, and this is something that happens then in the historic present.
More pertinent perhaps-- I think, actually rather more pertinent-- is the so-called gnomic present of truths, like, a rolling stone gathers no moss, or, water boils at 100 degrees centigrade. Now this is a distinct use, definitional. Some grammarians consider it to be a form of aspect, which I don't quite understand.
But this is actually, I think, a lot more frequent than we imagine in lyrics which, ever since Pindar, have sought to tell truths about this world and not [INAUDIBLE] Sir Philip Sidney, to deliver a golden world. So you know, "Water is best. And gold, like blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all for lordly wealth," in "The First Olympian." Or for a contrasting example, shall we say, Philip Larkin's, "This be the verse. They fuck you up, your mom and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra just for you."
So this, I submit, is not a statement relativized to a fictional speaker. We don't have to ask, well who is speaking here, and in what situation? Those Helen Vendler questions are not very pertinent to this particular poem. It's a straightforward, shall we say, declaration and it's a gnomic utterance.
Other lyric present tenses that have gnomic overtones can be assimilated to their third case of the present with her occurrences that are habitual, and so in effect become a serial state rather than an occurrence. As in, you say, I do the Times crossword, it's because I do it every day, or I do it regularly. I do it every Sunday, or something. Or, I walk to work. I walk to work regularly. It's habitual, rather than occurrence.
And one can then ask how far one wants to extend that model. If you say, for example, in Byron's, "She walks in beauty like the night," is that like walking to work? I walk to work? She walks in beauty like the night? Perhaps we're moving in that direction.
"Like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes." I think there's a difference from I walk to work. But certainly one effect of a lyric present is to imply that what is reported is something more than a singular event.
So in Auden's, "I sit in one of the dives at 52nd Street, uncertain and afraid, as the clever hopes expire of a low dishonest decade," this comes across as more than a report of what I did once, on one particular occasion, or what I am doing at a particular moment. It's often hard to, without more of the context of the poem, decide the interest of that lyric present, what connotations it has. But again, different from, I walk to work, or, I do the Times crossword.
A fourth use of the simple present with occurrences in performative verbs, of course. I call the meeting to order. I promise to pay you back. Lyrics and epics, of course, you frequently do use actual performative verbs. [SPEAKING LATIN] So the question is, can one go further in talking about performative verbs and simple present verbs in lyric. Despite JL Austin's stipulation that performative language only works if, as he says, "I am not joking or writing a poem," I think there is some potential relevance here. Or, at least that the example of the performative verb makes us reflect.
In ordinary English, one can't say, "I hereby wander through each chartered street," which, hereby, the possibility of adding hereby by is the simple test for performativity, shall we say. But in Blake's, "I wander through each chartered street," it seems to me that there is something of the implication that I hereby wander, sort of by means of this poem. Or, perhaps more pertinently in Gerard Manley Hopkins, "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day," inserting "I hereby" might actually capture something of the effect.
What about, "O rose, thou art hereby sick"? That's not totally irrelevant to say that the rose is sick by virtue of this prophetic declaration, shall we say, at this point. But in any case, possible, but not compelling as a model for the lyric present.
The fifth attested usage seems more remote. It's running commentaries, as in sports casts. Like, Smith takes the pass, [INAUDIBLE]. Sorry, that was a soccer example, rather than American football. You have to catch it. Smith catches the pass, for example.
But anyway, reporting in the present tense what action as it's happening, as that sportscaster telling what's happening. And I do think there is some plausible relevance to lyric here, especially in the third person present lyrics, as if an observer were reporting on an ongoing process. "She walks in beauty as the night," like Smith catches the pass and goes to the left. It's a model that works much less well for first person lyrics, because of the presumption of separation between reporter and participant, which doesn't capture the effect of most forms. Though, it could be argued that it would add an interesting dimension. If we think, "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day," as if one were a sportscaster observing one's own waking and noting that one feels the fell of dark.
I think more promising, though, is the last case, which Huddleston and Pullums account, which includes some diverse examples. They call it stage directions and synopses, their number six, which by convention, as they say, use the present tense, and to which they assimilate descriptions of works of art. So 6A as stage directions, or B as in synopses, if you can see that.
The stage direction like, Smith turns, shakes his head, then pounds the table, certainly resembles the running commentary. But since it prescribes the action rather than reports action, it could also be assimilated in a way to performative present. It stipulates something that happens each time the play is performed.
The synopsis, Marie, daughter of the Prince, meets George at her cousin's house and they have a brief affair, on the other hand, describes events that are in a sense already in place, just by definition. And like synopses-- which is why the grammarians then add this further writer case, case C-- descriptions of written works, or works of art, take the present tense when focus is on the present existence of these works. So three examples you can use-- for writers, for works, or for characters. Of course, Shakespeare writes about historical figures, Pride and Prejudice describes Austen's society, or Othello kills Desdemona.
Now of author's works and characters, the Cambridge Grammar notes, "we talk about them from the perspective of their present and potentially permanent existence, rather than that of their past creation." So whereas C1 and C2, the Shakespeare and Pride and Prejudice examples seem sort of eternally true, or just seem permanently true, C3-- which grammars tend to treat just as a special convention for talking about authors, and works, and characters-- does seem to be one that's potentially relevant to the lyric use. Othello kills Desdemona seems rather more timeless than, "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day."
But it's also an instance of an action that is implicitly iterated. I mean the present is appropriate for it, because it happens again and again, as well as always and whenever it's read, whenever the play is in active form. This is the model, this is the example, that seems to me might be most relevant to the lyric present. But even so, it does seem to me that there is a distant distinct difference in the sense that Othello kills Desdemona is presented as very much in the model of the synopsis, the summary of something that already happens and something that exists prior to whatever moment of articulation or utterance we are imagining for it.
But before going any further, I realize that I've been giving you first person examples. And it's important to consider a couple of some third person present tenses also to get a fuller sense of this lyric tenses import. So I have already cited Byron's "She walks in beauty as the night," whose effect is somewhat hard to pin down. Definitional, habitual, sort of gnomic. But more difficult still, perhaps, is the descriptive present of Auden's "The Fall of Rome." "Piers are pummeled by the waves. In a lonely field, the rain lashes an abandoned train. Outlaws fill the mountain caves." Goes on in that present mode, in the present tense.
Or Elizabeth Bishop's different mode at the beginning of "At the Fishhouses." "Although it is a cold evening down by one of the fishhouses, an old man sits netting his net in the gloaming, almost invisible, a dark purple brown, and his shuttle worn and polished. The air smells so strong of codfish, it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water." And certainly in the second example, the sense of a now is very palpable. The very lack of first person pronouns intensifies the sense of a scene being presented to the reader, and attenuates the sense of this as language that one performs oneself, even as one reads it.
So the singularity of the scene is stressed more in this case than in, say, "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day," or those first person utterances that one takes up and repeats oneself. But as the singularity of the scene is stressed, it takes on a certain mythic aspect as something that happens, not just something that is happening. "He sits netting," rather than, "He is sitting netting." And the Auden, on the other hand, more clearly gives us a sense of a condition, even though clearly the rain does not always lash an abandoned train. Distinctly, the choice of "lashes" rather than "is lashing" is distinctively poetic.
So in both colloquial and formal English, action verbs of this sort require a progressive form, except in those exceptional cases that the grammars cite-- "I am walking through the long schoolroom questioning," or, "I am sitting, netting"-- without which they would mark a habitual action and lead one to expect a temporal indication. "I walk to work each morning." Or, "I often sit in one of the dives on 52nd Street." Or, "I sometimes fall upon the thorns of life and lead."
It's that lack of temporal specification that makes this a distinctive tense in English poetry. So much so, as I said, that as soon as you hear a sentence with one of these forms, you know you're dealing with a lyric. "I wander through each chartered street." Well, in a fine paper of 1974 which is still by far the best discussion of this topic, a paper called "Lyric Present, The Simple Present Verbs in English Poems," George T. Wright draws attention to this distinctive use of the simple present tense without temporal qualification.
With the Yeats example, "I walked through the long schoolroom questioning," "we admire such a line," he writes, "as simple, ordinary, natural English. It reports an event that has happened, is happening, happens. Such a confusion in our own verbs may show us that the Yeats is not so speech-like as it first seems." And so then Wright explores the possibility that this lyric present borrows from the historical present-- there are hints of pastness, as he says-- and borrows from the present of repeated occurrences, and even borrows from the future. He says, "there is a hint of futurity, as in, 'tomorrow, I go home.'"
I'm not sure about that. But anyway, that he concludes that "in effect, what we find in such verbs is a new aspect of tense neither past nor present, but timeless in its feeling, a lyric tense." Wright does admit that if we do not know when the action is taking place, however, we still feel that it takes time. But, he repeats, it is outside of time but it has duration. A special state, but common to all art.
While I agree with most of Wright's analysis, I think the allure of the timeless leads him to neglect the oddity of this lyric time, especially the lyric time of annunciation, which is both that of a speaker poet and that of a reader who may speak these words also. Wright, I think, is thinking only in terms of representation, which leads him to timelessness. And of course, it's partly that notion that art in general is supposed to be timeless, as people would have thought in 1974.
If we think instead, for example, of the time of annunciation of the lyric attempt to be itself an event, rather than a representation of an event, that changes the perspective on the lyric present, as well as much else. Classicists studying deixis in the Greek lyric have emphasized the way in which Pindar and others create poems that could be performed on more than one occasion. And indeed, the lyric seems constructed for re-performance-- potentially ritualistic, with an always iterable now.
I think this lyric tense is distinctive enough to deserve separate characterization, especially because of the fusion of enunciation and reception in a moment that is repeated each time a point is read, which gives it a potentially performative effect. Now linguistic accounts of deixis frequently seem to presuppose a perceptually given I, here, and now as deictic center. I is whoever says I, and the place and moment of the utterance are thought to be just sort of empirically given.
And then the possibility of a deictic shift that I mentioned earlier through the perspective of the decoder is countenanced as an exception to the normative deictic structure. But one can argue that, on the contrary, there is in fact no perceptually given here and now. But what counts as here and now is always a function of a situation, a conceptual framework. In some circumstances-- don't press the button now, but press it now-- now might be determined in seconds. In other circumstances, now might mean now as opposed to prehistoric times, or something of that sort.
Here can mean here on Earth, here in this city, here in this room, or here on this spot in my hand. So perhaps, then, the unusual unlocated here and the now of lyric should be seen as a particular literary possibility. Among other constructions, distinctive, certainly, and anomalous, just as address to absent or inanimate others is anomalous. Part of a distinctive literary situation of utterance. It's still very much among the possible effects of the language in which we dwell, and whose limits poems push against. Effects that it's the task of poetics to spell out.
Well, looking at the uses of the non-progressive present tense, the grammarians identify, as I did running through those, to clarify the distinctiveness of this lyric tense in the sense that it doesn't quite fit comfortably into any of those categories. Though, a number of them are certainly suggestive for the effects of the lyric present, or other present-focused tenses can achieve. The usage that seems to me possibly closest to the lyric use is, interestingly, that present that we use to talk about writings and about what happens in them.
But while as grammars suggest, this seems a special convention that we have to explicitly teach students. That, no, when you write about Shakespeare, or this play, or the characters, you don't use the past tense. You use the present. You say, Shakespeare does this, et cetera.
But the lyric present, I think, is broader. And it's not something that, in my experience, one has to teach. Students don't say, wait a second, what's going on? There's a present tense here. It's not something that is puzzling, or has to be taught.
This suggests that it's linguistic import has not yet been properly understood, that there is a model and a structure there that needs to be elucidated. But it's not the same as that of the very conventional use of the present tense to talk about writings. Above all, as I've suggested, I think it's temporal, rather than atemporal. It's not outside of time. It's iterative, but not located anywhere in particular in time, but offering a particularly rich sense of time, of the impossible now's in which, as we read, we repeat these lyric utterances.
It contributes to the sense of lyric as an event. It seems to me that's one of its major functions, not as a fictional representation of an utterance. Now I return to a point I made very briefly at the beginning-- I think it also contributes to the sense that the lyric is not primarily projecting a fictional world. "Ode to a Nightingale" does not give us a fictional world, a sort of world of science fiction in which people talk to birds, but rather gives us an address to a bird in this world, in which language repeats as we read and articulate it.
I've argued that a poetics of the lyric should focus on ways in which the linguistic elements, such as deictics, structures of address, and the present tense, have effects other than those treated by conventional linguistic accounts. But exploration of all the ways in which all those aspects of lyric, especially rhythm for example, that exceed dramatic monologue seem to me crucial to our attempts to promote, pedagogically, the study of lyric, this central strand of the literary tradition that today seems very much threatened. I'm glad to see that one of your seminars this summer, and John [? Brankman's ?] had a lyric component, a section on mood and trope in lyric.
And I hope that engagement may have carried over into some of your other theoretical discussions. Anyway, as the final lecture in what's been an unusually hot and, I'm sure, tiring summer, I leave you with the hope that reflections on the lyrics, testing and illustration of language, shall we say, will form part of your future theoretical explorations. Thanks very much.
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In recent years it has been unfashionable in literary studies to attempt to distinguish poetic language from ordinary language, since poetic language has no monopoly on lively imagery or figurative expressions and poets have been disinclined to adopt anything resembling "poetic diction."
But Professor Culler asks whether nonetheless there are not distinctive uses of language characteristic of lyric poetry and singles out forms of lyric address to absent or impossible addressees and a special use of the present tense. When action verbs are used in a non-progressive present tense - "I wander through each chartered street?." they signal that we are dealing with a lyric poem, which attempts to be an event rather than a representation of a past event.
This lecture was sponsored by the School of Criticism & Theory.