Sunday, November 14, 2021

Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric: A Short Summary

Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric, which investigates the western lyric tradition as a whole- “from From the Greeks to the moderns”(vii), seems to be occasioned by his dissatisfaction with the current definition of lyric poetry, which he expresses at the start of the introduction: “Lyric poetry has a long history in the West but an uncertain generic status” (1). He thinks that the current study and position of lyric poetry both inside and outside the classroom has deteriorated. To him once the lyric was central to the literary study, which “has been eclipsed by the novel, perhaps in part because we lack an adequate theory of the lyric” (2). Moreover, he thinks that the current theories of lyric poetry give false models to students and encourage them to “think about lyrics in ways that neglect some of the central features of lyric poetry, both present and past” (3). With this back in his mind, Jonathan Culler has tried to theorize lyric poetry in the subsequent chapters. 

Chapter Three (Theories of Lyrics), which traces some dominant western theories of lyrics, questions the paradoxical nature of the western theory of lyrics. In a sense, this chapter also questions Jonathan Culler’s own theory of lyric that lyric is not an imitation. Drawing the references from Aristotle, Culler says that lyric is not imitative poetry because unlike narrative poetry it does not imitate human events. Culler finds a similar voice in the Hegelian theory of lyrics, “lyric is the subjective genre of poetry, as opposed to epic, which is objective, and drama, which is mixed” (92). But Hegel’s own idealistic interpretation of lyrics as well as the popular western pedagogical techniques of teaching lyric poetry contradict the view that lyrics are absolutely subjective poems, because if we accept that the speaker in a lyric poem “is a persona, then interpretation of the poem becomes a matter of reconstructing the characteristics of this persona, especially the motives and circumstances of this act of speech—as if the speaker were a character in a novel” (109). Analysis of Austin’s performative theory is another important discussion of this chapter. I think what Culler says about the illocutionary and perlocutionary nature of poetry that “the most important acts a poem performs are likely to be those not entailed by it” (130) is truly the essence of all lyric poems.

Chapter Five (Lyric Address), which is a kind of the extension of Culler’s 1975 essay on “Apostrophe”, analyzes the varieties of lyric addresses. I have found his theory of “triangulated address” (186) very interesting from a pedagogically perspective. He argues that the use of apostrophes, which directly address another while indirectly addressing the reader help give the poem its feeling of eventfulness. To him, the less ordinary the addressee, “the more the poem seems to become a ritualistic invocation” in which the reader participates (188). To discuss the pedagogical values of Culler’s chapters, I think the subjective-objective debate and the triangulated address are my two key takeaways from this week’s selections. I could personally relate these two things to my teaching of poetry in the classroom.