BONNA BOETTCHER: Good afternoon. I'm Bonna Boettcher, Director of Olin and Uris libraries, and I'm glad to welcome you to our second book talk of the semester. Before I introduce our guest speaker, I would like to share some information about other upcoming events. Next Thursday, October 15 at 4:30 PM, the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections will host a book talk in Kroch Library with renowned Norse scholar Nancy Marie Brown, author of the new book Ivory Vikings, the mystery of the most famous Chessmen in the world and the women who made them. Please join us to hear more about medieval Icelandic history in the 12th century Lewis chessmen, which served as models for the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
At the same time, Meredith Martin, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University, will be giving a presentation in this room entitled "Counting the Counters-- Prosody and Computation as Part of the Conversations in Digital Humanities Series." This event is co-sponsored by the media and materialisms lecture series. Sam from Buffalo Street Books has copies of today's featured book on the back table. I'm sure Professor Culler will be happy to sign purchased copies. Help yourself to refreshments any time. And if you would like to receive email announcements about library sponsored events, please add your name to the clipboard.
And now, it is my privilege to introduce today's distinguished speaker, Professor Jonathan Culler. A member of the Cornell University faculty since 1977, Culler became the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature in 1982. Professor Culler's scholarship has been honored with a number of prestigious awards. To name a few of the many he has received, he has been a Guggenheim fellow, an NIH fellow, and an MH Abrams fellow of the National Humanities Center. Professor Culler is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.
A past president of the American Semiotics Society and trustee of the English Institute, Culler has also twice been a member of the Modern Language Association's executive council, a member of the board of directors of the American Council of Learned Societies and its current secretary, served on the advisory board of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and has been president of the American Comparative Literature Association. He is a senior fellow of the School of Criticism and Theory and served as a director of the Society for the Humanities for nine years.
To suggest that his scholarly effort is substantial is an understatement at best. Culler's list of monographs and edited volumes is a bibliography unto itself, and I'd like to highlight a few. Structural Poetics, winner of the Modern Language Association's James Russell Lowell prize; On Deconstruction-- Theory and Criticism after Structuralism; and The Literary in Theory. These are so valued by scholars that each have been translated into many languages and at least one in a pirated edition.
His four editions of Literary Theory-- a Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, have been translated into 28 languages and a recording for the blind. Professor Culler has been or is currently an advisory editor are on the editorial board of a number of journals, including PLEA, Diacritics, New Literary history, Poetics Today, Comparative Criticism, Journal of Literary Studies, and the American Journal of Semiotics.
Today, Professor Culler will discuss his latest publication, Theory of the Lyric published by Harvard University Press, in which he explores the Western lyric tradition across millennia, continents, and cultures. Culler challenges us to reexamine what we think we know about the lyric poem and expands our concept of the lyric as a genre. Exploring lyric poetry from Saphho and Horace, Petrarch and Goethe to Baudelaire, Lorca, and Ashbury, as well as nursery rhymes- Blake, AA Milne, William Carlos Williams, and limericks, he ponders how the lyric exists socially, how we acknowledge and respond to its enduring powers of enchantment. Please welcome Professor Culler.
JONATHAN CULLER: Thank you very much, Bonna. And thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here. And thank all of you. Thanks for coming on this beautiful afternoon. We never know how many of these we're going to have left in Ithaca, so I appreciate your willingness to turn out this afternoon. This is a table of contents, not the structure of my talk, I should say. It's actually an abbreviated table of contents because there's subheadings, but I didn't think they would fit on the slide, but I'll be happy to talk about them or expand any category that you're very interested in.
So the plan is for me to talk for about half an hour and then have questions, discussion, so I will try to keep to that. This project originates in my curiosity about strange lyric poems, strange ways of addressing time, the winds, trees, the dead, et cetera, and asking them to do something or to refrain from doing what they usually do. From the Greeks to the modern poets, poets call upon a universe that they hope will be responsive, and sometimes, of course, their demands do prove seductive.
So my question is really, what's going on here? What do these strange ways of speaking tell us about the investments and the ambitions of lyric poetry? And how should we approach it? So back in 40 years ago, in 1975, I guess, I wrote an essay on the figure called apostrophe, in which the figure of addressing absent entities or, basically, anything that is not a regular interlocutor, whether the dead, or urns, or nightingales, or sofas, or something.
And in that article, I argued that this strange habit of address was central to the lyric tradition, the epitome of everything that's sort of embarrassing and most daring in the lyric. And that essay is really the seed from which this project grew, though it took 40 years to grow, as it were.
I didn't realize it at the time, but that essay was actually a break from my new training in new criticism. I was no longer oriented by the new critical assumption that poems exist to be interpreted and that our goal is to produce a more complex and intricate interpretation than anyone has done before. But I didn't realize that I was going off in a different direction. But certainly, that essay sought to explore the most unsettling and, really, intriguing aspects of these poems and not end of lyric language, rather than to produce interpretations of the poems.
So that work on lyric address provided the foundation for this broader project that materialized in the book published in June by Harvard. There I'm trying to-- investigating the Western lyric tradition as a whole, an overweening ambition and attempting to work out, really, a general framework, a theory of the lyric, I will say, in which attention to those features of lyrics that have been neglected by more current modern models will be-- is encouraged and not restricted by these earlier models.
So basically, here, I don't aim to-- I mean, I'm taking up poems that are the most salient, most famous poems of the Western lyric tradition, and which have all been written about extensively and not trying to produce more complicated, more brilliant interpretations, but try to register the sorts of pleasures they offer, or the strangeness of their linguistic acts, or to identify, really, their distinctive rhetorical strategies and offer some account of the range of historical possibilities for this lyric genre.
So lyric poetry has a long history in the West but rather an odd and uncertain generic status. Earl Miner, a great Princeton comparatist, concludes that only Western poetics differs from all the others, which have made lyric the foundation of their systematic poetics. He goes on to say that the first thing to be said about lyric poetic systems is that they are not mimetic. So that's a central point for me, that I can argue that Aristotle wrote a treatise on-- because he was writing a treatise on mimetic poetry, poetry has imitation of action and character, he did not write about lyric poetry in the poetic, even though he was very familiar with current lyric poetry and wrote poems himself, at least one of which got him into trouble at the time.
And as a result of the exclusion of those important Greek lyric forms from the poetics, the genre was not really theorized in Western theory for a very long time. It was really neglected, even though, in both Greece, Rome and Renaissance, et cetera, the lyric was a very important form. It was only in the romantic period, or at the end of the 18th century, that Western literary thought or literary theory really took cognizance of the lyric.
I think my explanation is that a more robust conception of the individual subject made it possible to think of lyric as mimetic, finally. So bring back Aristotle by the back door-- but mimetic of the experience of the individual subject. So it became an expressive model. The lyric is where the subject expresses his or her intense experience.
Well, that conception of lyric, the model of lyric as representation of subjective experience, was certainly widely disseminated, very influential. but it doesn't have great currency in the academic world today, at least in the Anglo-American Academy, it's been more or less replaced by a model of lyric not as mimetic of the experience of the poet, shall we say, but as a representation of the action of a fictional speaker, a persona, as we say, whose situation readers are supposed to attempt to reconstruct.
Who is the speaker here? What is the speaker doing, et cetera? That was certainly the way I studied poetry as a renegade new critic at Harvard when the other alternative was literary history, and that's a conception of lyric that still informs important textbooks like Helen Vendler's Poems Poets Poetry, et cetera. Students are asked when confronting a poem to work this out. I should have gone to a slide earlier.
Dissatisfaction with both romantic expressive model and the fictional imitation of speech act model. Of course, many great points in the Western tradition are dramatic monologues, especially in the English tradition, not so much in the French-- I mean, the French tradition of dramatic monologue is very different. It's not a mimesis of speech. It's discourse based on the model of French classical drama-- so highly ornate speeches by things like serpents or [FRENCH] or [NON-ENGLISH] et cetera, things of that sort, not at all the Browning tradition, which gives rise to the possibility of thinking of lyric as, essentially, an imitation of speech.
So this model, of course, fictionalizes lyric, directs our attention to character and situation and distracts us from all those elements that are the responsibility of a poet and not of a character, shall we say, created by the poet and puts us on a novelizing track. I cite John Crown Ransom because it's really a rather remarkable statement from the new criticism about the notion that what is-- that the critical understanding and enjoyment requires that we assume that the speaker is a character and ask what this character and what are the situation that is being assumed.
He goes on to say that, in fact, every point is a dramatic monologue. And finally, Browning really created the dramatic monologue and made it possible for us, finally, to understand what poems really were-- literalized the poem's lawful form. So that's really pretty extreme. You know, all people who had written poems that didn't have a speaker were really being unlawful because they had not realized what the lawful form of lyric was.
So that's sort of, I take the-- my enemy here, as it were, the thing that I'm arguing against and attempting-- the basic impetus of this project is to investigate the inadequacies of these two current models of the lyric and to explore alternatives, especially-- oh, sorry. I'm sort of not coordinated. The trouble with talking, sort of not coordinated with my slides here.
So critique of these two models, less the expressive model than the dramatic monologue model of lyric and trying to identify alternatives. I mean, the claim is that these models falsify the long tradition of the lyric and encourage students to think about lyrics in ways that neglect some of their most important, most seductive, most characteristic features. So I'm aiming at a more capacious and accurate account of lyric.
I'm not trying to survey all theories of the lyric, but only those that seem particularly promising. And the main alternative is this lyric as epideictic discourse. The argument about Aristotle is that Aristotle didn't include lyric because he thought of it as, essentially, a form of oratory, the discourse of praise, praise of heroes, praise of the gods or blame is possible, too. And therefore, it was not mimetic. He thought it was not mimetic.
And there are a great many poems in the tradition that explicitly are telling us things about the world, rather than creating a fictional character. And so that's more my default model. There's some other interesting models. There's one called, let me think of lyrics as thought writing, just as speechwriters write speeches for other people to read so poets engage in thought writing, setting down things for other people to recite, as it were, to perform, again another interesting model, not involving fictional characters, but involving a discourse to be ritualistic discourse, in some sense, to be repeated.
So the major goal of the project, then, is to develop a conception of lyric that would be more adequate to the description of lyrics of various-- a whole range of periods and to make possible a better, more richer experience of lyric poems-- so preventing many poems from becoming just failed examples of dramatic monologue, poems that didn't realize what the lawful form of lyric really should be.
And a second goal is really to combat what I take to be kind of the unnecessary presumption of much literary lyric theory and pedagogy, that the goal of literary study is to give rise to new interpretations. I mean, that's, really, a very recent development in the history of literary pedagogy. It used to be that, before the 20th century, students were-- they couldn't imitate poems. They would translate poems. They would memorize, evaluate, et cetera, to describe the rhetorical figures or the prosadic strategies, but they didn't.
I was always struck as a student when I was reading 19th century criticism or something. Nobody was actually interpreting. Of course, in those days, it just seemed-- these were the Dark Ages. Nobody realized that what you had to do was show how all the parts go here, and it gave rise to a complex paradoxical interpretation.
Anyway, so I think one of the-- for me, an alternative model is that of music or especially of song, that we can develop great connoisseurship-- people, students, develop great connoisseruship about music. They know what they like and what they don't like. They know about traditions within the genres that interest them without spending time trying to interpret individual poems-- or the individual songs. That's not seen as the goal of listening to musical-- even study of music is to produce interpretation of individual songs.
I think of that as the kind of model for the engagement with lyric that I'm proposing. I should say that I'm not trying to tell people what is a lyric or how to decide whether something is a lyric or not. I don't have particularly strong views about how-- which modern poets have succeeded in avoiding writing lyrics. Many don't want to write lyrics. And I'm happy to be your latitudinarian in that area and say, OK, if you really say this is-- I mean, Kenny Goldsmith does not write lyrics, I will say. But where the line should be drawn, I don't have strong views about.
So I begin with the nine poems from half a dozen languages and periods and look at the ultra-famous poems from Sappho I, the opening poem of Petrarch's Canzoniere, Baudelaire's A un Passante things of that sort, and ask, what are some of the distinctive features of these poems? What are the parameters within which they seem to be operating?
And in the book, I'd forgotten that I had narrowed it down. I started out with seven main parameters or features. But I then, in the final revisions for the book, as I discovered as I was checking, I narrowed it down to four. So because seven seemed like the wrong kind of number. And they're all sort of interconnected as you will see.
So the first is what I'm calling complexity of the enunciative apparatus. That's not a surprise since the point of departure was apostrophe, this addressing readers by pretending to address someone else. But I speak often of triangulated address.
But I mean, it's striking that even when a poem-- there are many poems, of course, that do not address birds, urns, or even absent lovers, et cetera, but if a poem does actually address the reader, seem to say "you" to the reader, that's somewhat unusual and striking. Clearly, that is not the norm for lyric poems. So clearly, there's always an indirection. We know that we are being addressed but, most of the time, by not being addressed, shall we say, hence a complex structure of indirect address of which apostrophe is only the most blatant version, sort of flaunting it for the whole world.
So I'm happy to go back and talk about any of these four parameters. Second, for me, important, again, in my anti-mimetic, hobbyhorse, as it were, the poem is trying to be an event rather than to be a representation of an event. So various aspects here, interesting how lyrics often, even though lyrics do contain fictional elements and narration of events, they have many ways of disrupting that narrative dimension. Ballads are always doing it by refrain.
So in case you think this is really a sequential story, we'll keep coming back to the same-- repeating the same refrain over and over again-- or a strange present tense as they come to dominate the past. You have a little past narrative, but then you get pulled into the present at the end of the poem, for instance. And in general, the whole epideictic function of offering praise, or blame, or articulating value not by a character or speaker who's being represented.
This is a saying of formulation of Alice Fulton's that I've transformed a bit. This narrative is about what happens. I think she says poetry. But narrative is about what happens next. Poetry is about what happens now. Actually, non-lyric poetry may be about what happens next.
Third, lyric is a rhythmic, ritualistic event, something to be repeated. Yes, memorable discourse, that's certainly important. Lyrics often like to try to-- Baudelaire says that the genius is to create a cliché. I must create a cliché, he says. And that's certainly, to a considerable extent, you measure the success of poems by the extent to which they have succeeded in producing memorable language that sticks in the minds of readers and comes back unbidden, even if you don't know, don't remember who did it.
Important for me is the fact that readers temporarily occupy the place of annunciation in lyrics, that we-- the presence of various kinds of rhymes and other sorts of phonetic patterning, rely on a subvocalization of the reader. You have to at least implicitly give voice to the poem in order to see the words that are not spelled the same actually rhyme or connect with one another, things of that sort.
So speaker voices the poem. I'm calling this the ritualistic domain. Basically, it's everything that is not representational in the poem-- so refrains, rhythms, sound patterning, et cetera, everything that could be seen as instructions for performance. And then, fourth, again, an unusual quality, seems to me not stressed properly in accounts of poetry is the hyperbolic quality of lyric.
Once again, Baudelaire tells us that apostrophe-- and this is probably where I got my start on apostrophe-- but hyperbole and apostrophe are the forms of language not only most agreeable but most necessary to lyric. And hyperbole, you could think-- I mean, for me, this is not really a scalar quality. It's not that there's hyperbole at one end and down here is the laconic lyric. For me, the laconic lyric is actually as hyperbolic as the hyperbolic lyric.
She is all states and all princes I at the one end and, at the other end you have, I mean, I don't know, the apparition of those faces in the crowd, pedals on a wet black bough, which is not saying anything hyperbolic, but because it's a poem, we know this is supposed to be some kind of epiphany, and we've got to work at it to see why is this striking, why is this important? Haiku depends on that entirely, really. The sunlight filters the trees on the path, a leaf falls. Wow, a leaf falls! My god. It's hyperbolic.
Anyway, so for me, it's not scalar. It's all hyperbole, and that's the defining quality of the genre in some ways or at least an underlying structure of the genre. A few more minutes left. OK, well, I'm not attempting to determine what is or is not a lyric, but I'm asking what's the best model for encouraging capacious appreciation of these poems.
My general predictive epideictic model as a sort of default category seems to be a good one. I certainly admit that not all-- there's not a simple model that fits all lyrics, nor I think-- I want to insist on this, nor can we imagine that the lyric was once one thing and then became something else.
One of the curious aspects of lyric poetry is that things that you see lyrics doing in one period you will find lyrics doing in another period, whether it's praising the world, bemoaning unhappy love, staging an epiphany, urging the universe to comply with your desires, things of that sort. Those happen all the time. And it's also striking that lyric forms can be revived. Who would have imagined the villanelle to come back in the 20th century as a significant poetic form?
We think of historical social and political history as irreversible, but lyric history is not so irreversible. It's very, very uneven. Things can pop up again, et cetera. So I've been concerned, basically, to show that each of these two most widespread models is inadequate and, generally, to take as my guiding-- really a guiding notions-- an opposition that I take from Roland Green's work on the lyric sequence, a tension between the fictional and the ritualistic.
It's especially striking in a lyric sequence. If you're reading something like Shakespeare's sonnets, you're searching for-- as readers, we want characters and plot. We want to know what's happening. We're looking for the fictional there, but we keep getting frustrated because we keep getting all these quatrains, and these rhymes, the imagery, and we can't figure who's speaking here, who is this poem about, and what's happening? Is there a plot? Or are they just miscellaneous?
So very true of the lyric sequence, but I think it's also true for the lyric in general. Individual lyrics incorporate fictional elements, whether identifiable speakers, as in dramatic monologues, or rudimentary plots, as ballads for example, or incidents, most often, of course, just incidents made notable by their insertion in the fundamentally hyperbolic space of the lyric poem.
Emphasize as I have apostrophic address, sort of put that at the center in some ways, which presupposes an animated world that might be-- or at least a potentially animated world that might be asked to act or to refrain from acting, often poets ask. And when they're very clever, they go on to-- they not only ask, [FRENCH], which is one of the most apostolic forms around, he starts out by asking time to stop or quoting his beloved as asking time to stop. And we are told that the lake listens, but time doesn't. Time doesn't pay any attention to that. And by the end, he's succeeding in formulating commands that nature can comply with. Let our love be in the repeated action of the waves on the shore and things of that sort.
So the clever poet finds ways to formulate commands that nature can actually comply with without egregious misbehavior, shall we say. To stress this aspect of lyric is to link lyric to magic, to the enchantment of the world, something that [INAUDIBLE] is finishing a dissertation on-- and a world inhabited by sentient forces, a world before the flight of the gods, shall we say.
But it's important that, I think, that it was poets who made this world. I mean, the Greeks don't have a foundational scripture as Christianity does or as Mohammedanism does. And it's the poets who basically gave the Greeks their gods. And society is always confronted with the question of how to imbue matter with-- how matter can become sentient, how to imbue matter with spirit and meaning, and poetry is one way, one of the several forces that makes that sort of thing happen, and it explicates it.
Our sciences do the same, of course, explain how a matter can be sentient, how a spirit can arise from an organism of flesh, and blood, and bone, et cetera. So we have different ways of imbuing a world of forces and magnitudes with meaning, direction, action. And lyric is the bolder, more abrupt, more disjunctive way of doing this than many other forms in lieu of argumentation and demonstration, shall we say.
So to stress, as I have done, the fundamentally hyperbolic character of lyric is to underlie sort of the flagrancy of lyric operations that makes them both always vulnerable to dismissal but also makes the poems themselves acutely attentive to their own vulnerability. And poems that boldly demand action, as I have suggested, often are skeptical about their powers to achieve that. Keats, was it a vision or a waking dream, at the end.
After this bold, bold poem, you draw back and ask, did anything happen? What's going on here? And so as they evoke possible relations to the universe, they explore what kinds of demands might succeed. They take risks, but they court embarrassment with figures that can always be dismissed as ridiculous or overweening, et cetera. But it's a risk they acknowledge and often make their most intimate theme. So let's see, one last point.
As I mentioned music before as a possible model for thinking about-- trying to think not so much about the poems themselves, but about our possible potential relations to a body of work. We should be able to attend to our pleasure while also gaining confidence in our ability to appreciate what the things that secured our attention, which is certainly the way we work with music. Poets don't demand interpretation of readers, but they expect what Coleridge called, "poetic faith," that their statements require no supplementation, at least for the duration of a reading. So the duration of a reading is a lyric event.
And I think that's something one needs to keep in view, especially in an academic context. Susan Stewart writes, in a quotation I'm fond of, "I propose that the sound of poetry is heard in the way a promise is heard, that a promise is an action made in speech, something that happens, that occurs as an event, and can be continually called upon, a call to mind in the unfolding present." So the point is that poems is not recalled as a 'fact is recalled, say.
As she says, they're registered as able to be recalled, as able to be uttered or experienced, experienced again, even if you only remember a few of the words or sometimes, quite maddeningly, only some poetic rhythm that you can't get out of your head. So notion of the lyric sound, as promised, I think points to the value to which lyric especially ministers, which is the love of the sonorous phrases, the memorable formulation. You know, whether it's the expression of an attitude-- I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed. Or whether it's just an elegant piece of sonority that I've always found particularly useless, like the moan of doves in immemorial elms, for example, famous Tennyson example.
Paul Valery says that such phrases create the need to be heard again. And that's part of my ritualistic aspect of lyric, the formulations that create the need to be heard again. So at one point in this book-- in the last chapter of the book, I said, a little bit jokingly, I guess, that lyrics really speak of people's tendency to use lyrics as sort of smorgasbords of truth, that they pick out what they want and repeat those things. That's partly true. But they're not buffets of truths only. Poems are all sorts of phrases, especially the unimaginable ones that stretch the imagination, offering us experiences of pleasure and a puzzlement as we speak them to ourselves and, occasionally, to others as well. So thank you very much.
I completely forgot my slides. Poetics rather than hermeneutics-- other things we can talk about-- notions of lyric as a defense against historicist critiques. Anyway, there are other possibly other things to talk about or I can go back to the table of contents. What do I have up here, first? Questions? Yeah, Ernesto?
AUDIENCE: Jonathan, thanks for your talk. So with the notion that lyric is the fictional imitation of speech, you can also say that lyric is a fictional imitation of thought. With that in mind, what would the epic lyric, what would that address? What would the epic lyric's function would be taking the invitation, the fictional imitation of speech or thought, keeping that in mind?
JONATHAN CULLER: Epic lyric. Well, epics are characteristically narrative poems. So for me, they really don't-- I don't have a category of the epic lyric, but they would be-- if you want to attempt to-- I mean, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, whom I didn't give you a slide, she's one of the few people who's actually tried to theorize this notion of lyric as an imitation speech about-- fictional imitation of a real world speech act. And she says that novels are imitation, biographies, and that lyric is an imitation of, what she calls, personal utterance.
So epic would be what? A verse imitation of storytelling, or something of that sort? I'm not quite sure. I'm not very fond of it, as I indicated. I want to resist that notion of lyric as an-- I mean, for very many lyrics, if you ask what is the-- Helen Vendler asks-- one of the things she asks students to do, and I don't like want to criticize Helen Vendler. She has many very good things to say and is one of our best critics of poetry. But at one point she says that for students, that you should think about in what situation you would say this and what you would be meaning if you said this.
But of course, for very many lyrics, the only answer to a question like that, what would you be doing if you were saying this? You would be waxing poetical or something. You would be saying something outrageous that no one would ever say. Cloud puff ball, torn tufts, tossed pillows, flaunt forth. And what? [INAUDIBLE]. What circumstance would I say that? Never. Only if I'm reciting a poem, right?
There are very many lyrics like that. So I resist the imitation speech act model. There are lyrics where poets obviously do set out to imitate speech. I mean, Frost is quite good at that, for example, but there are many, many that don't, that the speech act is really a poetic speech act rather than an imitation of a discourse in a particular nonfictional situation. Yeah, [INAUDIBLE]?
AUDIENCE: I my question-- I'm excited by your working against--
JONATHAN CULLER: Sorry, we have to-- is it for recording? Is it for hearing people or is it for the recording?
JONATHAN CULLER: OK, so if you want posterity to hear your question. Wait for the microphone.
AUDIENCE: No, I'm excited by your easing poetry out of this box, this narrative fiction dramatic speaker box. But I wonder about the reasons, perhaps the reasons that-- well, it seemed to me, a reason to introduce a poem as a kind of dramatic monologue is to encourage readers or students not to judge and dismiss the poem. As you're saying, it's vulnerable. It's hyperbolic. So it's like, I feel, I've fallen, the thorns of life, I bleed. Blake's a dork, you know? It's like, so how do you encourage people to see that?
AUDIENCE: How do you encourage people to have more distance, critical distance? [INAUDIBLE] do that?
JONATHAN CULLER: Well, I mean, I think critical distance is a special particular academic virtue, that there are circumstances in which you want to encourage that, but not always. I think, after all, one of the things that the Saudi audience is obviously an exceptional group, but one of the things we do battle against is students, the assumption of many students that they don't like poetry and they don't want to study poetry.
And that may be because they've been asked both to take a distance from it, rather than treat it as rap lyrics that they're going speak for themselves while they go around campus or something. And also, because they've been asked to-- they've been told that the goal is to interpret. And that often seems like guessing what the teacher has in mind. What's this poem really about, as we say in English classes, right? And it's fine, yes, obviously, if you're a critic writing a book on something that's good to have a-- good to have a certain distance on it that's just getting carried away.
And also, of course, people often write books about things that they think are interesting topics, even though they're not deeply enamored of this particular body of verse or fiction. So in those academic circumstances, that can be important. You're right. I mean, obviously, one reason for adopting that model is to just break the link between the I of a poem, or the discourse of a poem, and the biographical author.
But you can do that in other ways. I'm interested in [INAUDIBLE], the German critic, has a model, which is the only one I really found that very explicitly says, there's fiction over here, and then there's lyric over here, that it's different, and that the relation between the lyric I and the biographical I is indeterminate [INAUDIBLE]. I mean, it can be close, can not be close. But that then makes it a sort of matter for individual decision from one moment to another.
And I'm perfectly content with that. I used to be a purist about, we had to say that the narrative, the speaker or something, instead of saying "Wordsworth" or "Baudelaire" or something like that says this. But we know when we say Baudelaire says such and such, that's already a figure of kind of metonymy for him.
I mean, that's one of the great big motives for the dramatic monologue model in the Anglo-American tradition, to not lead us down the biographical-- not to assume that if you're studying poetry, you should go off and read the life of the author to try to find out what it really means. But you can do that by just focusing on the reader and say that the crucial thing is, how does this work for us today, as opposed to what might have led the author to say this, as it were. But a lot of poems do say things about the world. George. I'm sorry. You want to keep track of who's-- because I forget who's been raising their hand.
AUDIENCE: Thank you very much, Jonathan. A question about hyperbole and embarrassment. So you mentioned hyperbole as one of your four parameters. I guess you would agree with me that some lyrical poems are hyperbolic to the point of impossibility, sometimes absurdity. [FRENCH], you mentioned, [FRENCH]. It always struck me as a completely illogical poem for how much time, how long is the time going to stop, given that the poem itself operates in time. And even to enjoy the best memories, you need time, et cetera.
So is this what you find embarrassing? You used that term. That when the poems exceeds its own program, in a sense? Or is there something else? I'm asking also because class-- your student works on embarrassment, and it's still difficult for me to grasp that notion. What do you find embarrassing in typical poems?
JONATHAN CULLER: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, Baudelaire has a poem which puts on stage a poet who goes around complaining to nature. And it's a point that makes fun of the poet who, [FRENCH]. It's a beautiful day, but I was out there-- I'm a poet, so I was complaining to nature and casually sharpening the blade of my dagger against my heart. And so he's a poet. And he then-- some demons start mocking him. Who is this guy who thinks he's Hamlet, et cetera, walking around complaining, et cetera.
That's the poetic posture of complaining to nature, expecting nature to respond to you is one that is embarrassing. It seems foolish, ridiculous. I'm not using "embarrassing" in any particular sense. And it's not so much that I'm embarrassed, though when I wrote the apostrophe essay and was going around giving lectures on apostrophe, I enjoyed what I felt to be the risk of apostrophizing in front of an audience and saying-- now, of course, that's more-- I mean, Barack Obama started, Cleveland, I love you all or something. Or, I love you, started apostrophizing an audience in that way.
But it was a bit awkward. It's not the right academic distance to start declaiming. And you have to say, I'm now going to quote this poem, and sort of just start out apostrophizing. So anyway, there is embarrassment connected with that. Exceeding the bounds of regular, normal acceptable conduct, let's put it that way. The poet who's the one who has his head in the clouds and who doesn't know what he-- he's doing foolish things. Sorry, I don't know if that helps. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Hi, So I was wondering, in defining one of the main traits of the poetical words, a poetic word in-- lyric, lyrical poetry, you used the term, performative at some point, I think, and said that there is not a difference between the world and the words, but the words are the world in a way. The words create events. And in doing that, you seem to exclude that those words are talking about the world. They are not constitutive prepositions.
So I'm wondering, what do you think about those lyrical compositions, thinking about [INAUDIBLE], they make explicit claims of telling the truth. For example, [NON-ENGLISH], like, I want to praise the truth or [INAUDIBLE] when he says that, he is going to give a natural demonstration of what love is in one of his main compositions. There is a dimension in which lyrical composition also want to talk about reality and truth.
JONATHAN CULLER: That's absolutely central to me. And I probably shouldn't put the word "performative" up there on one of the slides. Because I am skeptical. I mean, the ways in which the notion of performative is attractive because it's not representational, shall we say. It's a lyric as event. But certainly, my whole epideictic model of lyric is lyric as making claims about the world, making statements about the world. And I think very many, very large numbers of lyrics do that, even poets like Frost, who do it all the time. You can decide that it's being done in an ironic way or something of that sort.
Make the whole stock exchange your own. If need be, occupy a throne so nobody can call you crone. Better to go down dignified with boughten friendship at your side than none at all-- provide! Provide! That's the end of a Frost poem called "Provide, Provide." So we can say that's ironic. And we can imagine somebody speaking it and try to think, who is speaking it and in what circumstance. But then, no circumstances are given really. It's a sort of a sardonic articulation of a view about the world that you should-- you need to provide, provide.
That's a cynical account of the world. So many there are many forms of that sort that are making explicit world and not recounting what happened to a speaker or something of that sort. For me, there's not a contrast between the poems.
A sentence uttered makes a world appear, where all things happens that says they do. I haven't got it quite right. All things happen as it says they do. And that can be true, too, but I certainly don't-- I think the performative-- the notion of the performative is, really, the name of a problem rather than a solution to thinking about lyric structure because precisely that reason, as you said.
Poems are present-oriented in the sense that they are to be repeated over and over again. And in English, we have this very interesting-- this unusual tense, this a non-progressive present tense for actions, which other languages don't have, which immediately sort of identifies a poem. You know you're in either a poem or you're listening to a foreigner or something. I walk through the long schoolroom questioning. You say that-- that's poetry. Because if we were just talking, we would say, I am walking through the long schoolroom questioning. Or you would say, I walk through the long schoolroom questioning every Thursday. You'd have to have a temporal modifier or something.
So this particular non-progressive present tense with actions is a distinctively lyric tense, I think-- that this is something that happens over and over again at every moment when the lyric says now. So that was my emphasis on the now of the lyric. But that now can be a moment in which a truth about the world is being uttered. Yeah, that's not that the performative dimension does not mean you're not trying to utter truths. But I'll cross out the word "performative," because that can mislead. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, I find this a very attractive theory. I love your emphasis on the ritualistic and so forth, in the magical, enchanting world. I'm wondering if you do anything with the riddle aspect of lyric poetry that's so common.
JONATHAN CULLER: Yeah. I have some mental Emily Dickinson examples, certainly, that are of interest. But it's true. The notion of riddle mostly comes up in [INAUDIBLE]. In my chapter called "Lyric Structures," I'm interested in the various oppositions that-- I mean, ideally, lyric structures would have ended up in mapping the domain of lyric, but that's too hard. And Frye. Didn't succeed. And he tried harder than I did, and I can't succeed, either.
But there are a lot of oppositions that are at work in past and present, et cetera, things of that sort. And Frye talks about babble and doodle, and he associates doodle with riddle and the riddling lyrics, et cetera. And that's certainly an important dimension of lyric for me, too, but not nearly as important for Frye.
Those are poems that do demand-- they ask you to interpret lots of-- especially, I mean, I'm Emily Dickinson is my-- I don't know enough medieval lyrics to-- where they are said to be lots of these riddles. But with Emily Dickinson, certainly, there are many poems where the goal is to find the solution. What is this about? This is about snow, or this is-- et cetera. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: So Jonathan, back to hyperbole.
JONATHAN CULLER: Hyperbole, OK.
AUDIENCE: So one way of talking about modernist poetry is that it's anti-poetic in a sense that it attempts to flatten, to sound like Frost. When people say to me that my poems sound like prose, that's right. That's just how I want them to sound like. And so there appears to be no difference between lyric speech and prose. Or think of a real, real, real blankly, quiet land like tamed by mill town, [INAUDIBLE] mother's bed and [INAUDIBLE].
Now I'll accept your-- the range of hyperbole from over here to the [INAUDIBLE] for example. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow. That's-- whoa. That's hyperbole. Would you claim that any lyric whatsoever is hyperbolic? Or even the very, very flat language is in a sense [INAUDIBLE] hyperbolic?
JONATHAN CULLER: For all of these dimensions of lyric, I'm really claiming that-- what I'm claiming is that I've got-- here's the underlying structures. And then, obviously, people can defeat these structures in various ways. They can have all kinds of fictional elements in there. You can try to escape the hyperbolic dimension of lyrics.
Often there's a sort of middle ground of the mimesis of speech, which Frost succeeds in very well, which does escape hyperbole. Though if you try too hard, then it becomes this minimalist thing, where you're just quoting a conversation and the question is, so what? And you either say so what or you say, wow, yeah. I guess this is something important about human life, and you invest it with a hyperbolic significance. But there is a sort of middle ground, I agree, where you have a poem of poetry of speech.
But often, Frost, too, there's a lot of intensity. I don't know. I have been one acquainted with the night. Easy flow the numbers, as it were, but that's still gotta-- especially when you repeat-- as soon as you get repetition, you know?
And so Stopping by Woods is a good example. If you didn't have the repetition and miles to go before I sleep, you'd say, this a little anecdote. And so what? But miles to go before I sleep with the repetition you say, wow, what is this? What's going on here? This is important. The sleep must be death, et cetera. You go off in the lyric, those lyric pathways, as it were.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: One more question.
JONATHAN CULLER: Go ahead. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I've been told this is the last one, so I'll try not to make it too disappointing. If you sum through any number of contemporary poetry collections over the last, say, 10 to 20 years, you see sprinkled throughout, sometimes more than sprinkled, quite a few prose poems. And I've gotten to the point just from my own thinking where I've begun to think of the prose poem as a form of a lyric poem. But looking at some of your characteristics, the ritualistic being one of them, the lack of prosadic structure to the prose. So I'm just wondering what place the prose poem has in your cosmology or your thinking there.
JONATHAN CULLER: None at all. None at all.
JONATHAN CULLER: No, I speak as a lover of Baudelaire. But for me, that really is a different thing, the prose poem. And I don't want to include it in the lyric, even though-- there, I just do draw a line, I sense. It's doing something different. It's avoiding aspects of the lyric, trying to do something else and trying to evade before they had invented other ways of evading lyric modes. But that's just a decision. I think it's a motivated decision, but it's not-- that was an easy question.
I could have had a harder one.
BONNA BOETTCHER: Thank you very much. Please join me in thanking Professor Cullen again.
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Lyric poems have a strange way of addressing time, winds, trees, or the dead. What does this tell us about the ambitions of lyric poetry and how we should approach it? In a Chats in the Stacks book talk at Olin Library, Jonathan Culler, Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, discusses his book Theory of the Lyric published by Harvard University Press in June 2015. He examines ancient as well as modern poems and explores the Western lyric tradition.
Professor Culler has been President of the American Comparative Literature Association and chair of the departments of English, Comparative Literature, and Romance Studies at Cornell, as well as Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001 and to the American Philosophical Society in 2006. He currently serves as Secretary of the American Council of Learned Societies.