Month: October 2017

Why we shouldn’t worry about who is speaking – The Theory of the Lyric with Jonathan Culler

On Thursday, September 21, UConn’s English department, in conjunction with the department of Literatures, Cultures & Languages, hosted Jonathan Culler, a renowned literary theorist and Class of 1916 Professor of Literature at Cornell University. In his lecture, Dr. Culler discussed his book Theory of the Lyric originally published in 2015, but released in paperback in October of this year. Theory of the Lyric focuses on the lyric tradition in Western poetry from ancient Greece to the twentieth century. In less than an hour Culler discussed not only the conventions of lyric poetry, but the challenges associated with analyzing it.
As Culler put it, lyric poets “produce poems that make claims about the world”. To make these broad claims, lyric poetry employs features that are not found in ordinary speech acts. In other words, “lyric poetry does not imitate a person’s voice, but rather, voices something [that is of lyric poetry…] itself.” For this reason in lyric poetry, the simple present tense works in contexts that would never work in day-to-day speech. In ordinary speech, Culler says, we use the progressive present tense, such as, “I’m walking to school” as opposed to the simple present tense declaration, “I sit in the pub, I drink the liquor,” the latter being examples of speech that we would only hear from a foreign speaker or in poetry, Culler says. This use of the simple present tense “lifts us into a special poetic register” of descriptive subjectivity, a distinctive trait of lyric poetry.
Despite the importance of the modes of subjective description that inform and are even constitutive of the genre, Culler raises a problem that affects students and educators alike when it comes to the reading of lyric poetry: Does trying to answer the question of who is speaking actually help our understanding or experience of the poem? Culler argues that “No, in fact, we must experience the progression. Working out who is speaking actually obscures the experience rather than clarifying it.” In an academic context, we are tempted to worry about who is narrating the poem and in uncovering the narrator’s motive. However, “a hypothesis of an imagined speaker is useless,” Culler concluded, “it would be a diversion” in terms of trying to understand the poem, its themes, temporalities, and the point of view it expresses. He added that good “critics focus on what the poem is doing rather than on the perspective of an alleged speaker.” Meaning, Culler wants us to shift our attention from the singer of Whitman’s Song of Myself to the agency of the lyrics themselves.