The Lyric in Theory: A Conversation with Jonathan Culler

NOT “WHAT IS the lyric?” — but rather, “How does the lyric work?” That is the question Jonathan Culler poses in his Theory of the Lyric, published by Harvard University Press in 2015. After decades of relative neglect, the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in the theory of the lyric, and Culler’s wide-ranging study is undoubtedly a milestone in this complicated process. The leading critic and theorist — and Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell Universitywill also be one of the keynote speakers at the first biennial conference of the recently founded International Network for the Study of Lyric, to be held at Boston University on June 7–11, 2017. In the following conversation, Culler not only explains the main premises and results of his work, but also suggests potential further directions for the investigation of this apparently ungraspable genre, probably the most continuous in Western literature. The title of this interview references to his 2006 book The Literary in Theory (Stanford University Press), in which he charts the places of literature and the literary in contemporary theory.


FRANCESCO GIUSTI: Theory of the Lyric struck me as a long-awaited authoritative affirmation of an idea that has informed my own critical work for years. I am referring to your view of the Western lyric as an uninterrupted literary genre, which extends, basically undisturbed, from Archaic Greece to the present. Your book can be seen as a demonstration of this general premise, based on the notions of rituality (which involves rhythm, performance, iterability, and discursive indirectness) and event (which is contrasted with mimesis, representation, and narrative).

Literary criticism still seems to be much more interested in tracing boundaries than in pursuing wide-ranging perspectives. Indeed, the idea that post-Romantic lyric poetry cannot be seriously compared with classical, medieval, or even Renaissance poetry, appears to be quite persistent. This is probably because it’s so difficult to look at the inner workings of the lyric text without viewing its “subject” within the context of historical conceptions of subjectivity, and without relating the text to its historical context of production. Would you comment on your proposal of a continuity based on reception and tradition — on the fact that, say, a Romantic poet could read (and thus reenact) an ancient Greek “lyric” poem?

This is related to the nonlinearity and reversibility of literary history; as you maintain, a literary genre can be unexpectedly revived centuries after its first appearance, when it seemed to be definitively gone. I totally agree with your claim, but I am curious to know what major discontinuities, if any, you detect along the almost three-millennia-long tradition of the lyric as a ritual. More specifically, do you think that the cultural and religious transformation that occurred in medieval Europe — from the pagan classical world to Latin Christendom — changed the rite of the lyric in any significant way?

JONATHAN CULLER: For me there are two important points. The first is a logical one: in order to talk about changes in the lyric over the course of history, however massive we might take them to be, we need to posit that there is such a thing as the lyric, or, shall we say, the Western lyric tradition, which has a history. Second, given that there is a history of the Western lyric, I have been inclined to stress continuities, in part because the historicist-contextualist criticism that is currently dominant in the United States is eager to declare discontinuities. At a time when literary studies is dominated by professors who specialize in particular historical periods, it seems to me especially important to identify not just continuities but the parameters within which historical changes may take place; though, as you say, I have wanted to stress that the history of the lyric, unlike many other sorts of history, does seem reversible, in that forms which fall out of favor may be revived and given new life.

You ask about the major discontinuities: one is the change from oral cultures to print cultures, which occurs quite early in the history of the lyric; though Horace in his odes describes himself as a singer to the lyre, there is no evidence that he sang or that his poems were sung. There are, of course, arguments among specialists about when lyrics began to be written down and when this became more than a convenience for performers of lyric. But certainly for many centuries lyric is a written form that represents itself as an oral form, and it is only in the 20th century that the written character of lyric is explicitly affirmed and its dependence on voicing is frequently denied. I might stress, though, as I say in Theory of the Lyric, that I do not have firm views on how regularly or successfully 20th- and 21st-century poets should be said to have escaped the lyric tradition.

A second major change is the relation not just of lyric, but of poetry in general, to the communities that spawned it. In most Western cultures today, poetry is seen as an avocation of a cultural elite or a specialized subculture, rather than as something central to that culture’s self-understanding, as it previously was.

And then, finally, as you suggest, Christianity seems to bring major changes to the lyric, especially with the introduction of the distinction between sacred and profane love, which is so central to lyric practice for many centuries, and with the importance of hymns and hymn meters to secular poetic practice. I must confess, though, that I have little understanding of the vast period between the death of Horace and the rise of the Troubadours, or of the importance of Arabic influences on the medieval European lyric tradition. So while I would say that Christianity definitely brings changes to the lyric, I cannot give an assured or detailed response.

In order to pursue your “project in poetics,” you seemingly dismiss the lyric’s implied subjectivity, or the effect of subjectivity, as a not really productive starting point. I wonder if it could instead be relevant, in slightly different terms, for the epideictic function that you notice in the lyric. I am thinking especially of early medieval Christian hymns and the exemplarity of the poetry of praise developed in Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nova. I mean that the choices and judgments that the lyric presents to its readers involve a sort of individual partiality — a shareable partiality. The attention paid by the poem to some object or event appears to spring from a “personal” viewpoint, which tries to negotiate its own position toward that object or event and within a broader tradition. To put it the other way round, the potential social value of those objects or events must be individually proved, not just generically affirmed.

Of course, I do not mean that lyric poetry merely represents preexisting objects or previously experienced events, let alone that it is a fictional imitation of some real-world utterance, in Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s terms. It rather seems to present those objects and events while attributing some kind of value to them. This is as evident in Pindar’s victory ode as it is in Petrarch’s love poems — even when the object of judgment is his own poetry, as in the opening sonnet of the Canzoniere — or in William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter if an I is expressed in the text or not. In “Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare” (Vita Nova XXVI), the I’s withdrawal from the text is meant to leave space for the lady’s self-manifestation — but even in that case we cannot help considering that her effects are individually experienced by attentive bystanders, the I and the reader among them. 

In Theory of the Lyric, I am opposing two models, each of which has been abusively taken as the model for lyrics in general: the model of lyric as the expression of the subjective experience of the poet, and the model of lyric as the representation of the discourse of a fictional speaker who is not to be identified with the poet. I think it is important to resist both these models, and prefer the notion of lyric as epideictic discourse; but, as you say, very often the assertions of lyrics are based on the preferences of an individual, even when presented as general truths. I am certainly not trying to eliminate the notion of subjectivity entirely from the domain of lyric. On the other hand, I do think that it would be wrong to assume that the claims of lyric poems must always be treated as relative to the experience of an individual. “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which you mention, is making a claim about the importance of this object, and we shouldn’t either presume that there is some fictional speaker who is offering this opinion or that William Carlos Williams himself has some peculiar reason for thinking that a red wheelbarrow is especially important. 

As you write in Theory of the Lyric, “Nothing need happen in the poem because the poem is to be itself the happening.” I would like to focus now on the “performative temporality of the lyric” and the “effects of presentness of lyric utterance.” You connect this peculiar temporality to the ritualistic iterability of the poem, which strives to make something happen in the world in the “now” of poetic discourse. Moreover, you distinguish between performative utterance, as J. L. Austin calls it, which “applies especially to fictional discourse,” and performance as the best translation of the term epideixis, that is to say, “the lyric action or lyric event, the poem’s functioning in the world.” The iterability of the poetic ritual relies on a kind of memorability, which, as you maintain, is not the memory of understanding. Lyric memorability is sustained by rhythm, a repetition of sound, and by the triangulated address that you explore in the fifth chapter. Would you like to comment on the fundamental difference between lyric temporality and narrative temporality? How does the eventness of lyric combine with the long tradition of the lyric as a recollection? In William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” the repetition of “once again” and the apostrophe to the “sylvan Wye” lead to the claim: 

The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.

How does the reader respond to the repeatability of the lyric, to the fact that the event happening now has already repeatedly happened?

There are several different aspects to your question. Let me first explain that it would be misleading to say that the notion of performative utterances in Austin’s sense applies especially to fictional discourse. Austin explicitly requires “seriousness” as a condition for successful performatives. I was exploring the various ways in which literary works could be said to be performative and noted that, if we say literary utterances are performative, in that they bring into being the characters and worlds to which they purport to refer, then this way of being performative would, in my view, apply to fiction and not to lyric, which I consider not to be fiction (most lyrics make claims about our world, not about some fictional world), though lyric poems may certainly contain fictional elements.

Now, to come to the question about lyric temporality and narrative temporality. A major difference is the importance of a present of discourse for the lyric: the lyric “now” or moment of utterance. Though some novels do allude to a present moment when the story is being told, this is generally incidental to the story itself and to the linear temporality of events that it presupposes. (Novels with many flashbacks or anticipations of future events still presuppose a time scheme that is being reorganized.) While many lyrics do have minimal narratives or events in some sort of causal sequence, the stanzas of a lyric are often not arranged in a narrative temporality; they may be different takes on a situation, or utterances that are not temporally situated in relation to one another. (Think of the case of refrains as the most obvious.) Memory and recollection are certainly important themes in the lyric, and they provide the fundamental structure for many poems of the tradition, but I take the focus to be nonetheless on the nontemporal lyric present, in which the memory is evoked, evaluated, repeated.

Of course, what matters is that the piece of memory is being reactivated in the present: the very act of recollection is much more relevant to the lyric than the remembered past experience. I was just wondering if recollection — a form of repetition embedded as a theme in the poem — could also have structural functions. In the internal temporalities of the poem, it seems to enact what the text is meant to be: the repetition of the event in the present of articulation, and not just the representation of something that happened in the past. In this repetition, which in turn could help make iteration viable for the reader, certain recurrent (and shareable) habits of mind seem to emerge. Beyond any particular fictional elements (some fictional speaker and situation), iterability would thus be inscribed in the artifact itself at a thematic level as well, as it is the case with verse, sound patterning, and intertextual references at other levels.

Yes, I think that is well stated. Recollection is both a major theme of lyric and a fundamental structure, but what is particularly important in the lyric is not the representation of a past event but its evocation in the lyric present, and this involves a fundamental iterability, which, as you say, is already manifested in various aspects of lyric form, such as sound patterning and rhythm.

I find the suggestion that concludes the fifth chapter of your book, in which you discuss apostrophe, extremely intriguing and fruitful: “The testing of ideological limits through the multiplication of the figures who are urged to act, to listen, or to respond is part of the work of lyric.” In classical judicial rhetoric, the apostrophe also referred to the orator turning away from the jury in order to directly face the accused — the motive of the orator’s speech. Thinking of Giacomo Leopardi’s “La Ginestra” and John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I was wondering if this rhetorical model could be applied to lyric apostrophes. Could the lyric be characterized as a discursive mode that renounces address to the intended audience in order to directly face (and thus bring to the fore) the motive of its own speech? Could it, in this way, escape its presupposed (and often criticized) monologism?

Yes, direct address to the audience of listeners or readers is relatively rare in lyric, but this does not make it a solipsistic or monological mode. Even poems that do address the reader, such as the poems by Walt Whitman that I discuss, often project an addressee too distinctive or too particularly situated for the actual audience that encounters the poem to identify with them, so that there is already a doubling of addressees. I speak of triangulated address — address to an audience via address to a third party — as a fundamental underlying structure of the lyric, which is made manifest at moments when entities that are not the intended audience are apostrophically addressed. Of course, it is important to stress that there are many lyrics that do not explicitly address anyone or anything, that make claims about the world, but I think there are good reasons for people to take apostrophic lyrics, such as Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” or the many love poems that claim to address an absent mistress, as emblematic of lyric and its inclination to involve the universe in its affects and concerns. And where there is the address to absent or inanimate entities, this certainly has the effect of focusing attention on the moment of address, the lyric present, and thus on the lyric discourse itself, especially since many apostrophes are at some level gratuitous: asking winds to blow or time to stop or rocks to remember is an act of display rather than a substantive request. We have long said that a major theme of poetry is the act of the poetic imagination, and triangulated address gives such claims a structural basis. 

To conclude our conversation, I would like to refer to the last chapter of Theory of the Lyric, where you discuss the role of the lyric in society. This problematic issue, of course, brings us back to epideixis, the statement of truths about this world and the affirmation of particular values. You take into account a variety of cases, from Horace’s Ode 1.6 to W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and assert that the social efficacy of a lyric poem is unpredictable, and can change over time according to its contexts of reception. A poem which “seems radical or resistant at one level can be seen as complicitous or reactionary at another”; it depends on “the particular social or political theories with which we approach the work of lyrics.” In order to be memorable and effective, moreover, poems have to be, to a certain extent, “entangled with the ideologies that they both help to produce and seek to resist.”

I am especially impressed by two ideas developed in the last part of your book: the “hyperbolic character” of the lyric — its presumption of significance — which exposes it to the risk of failure and, at the same time, implies a certain awareness of this risk; and the contribution of the lyric to structures of feeling or perception (from Wordsworth’s habits of mind to Jacques Rancière’s partage du sensible), which form communities of readers. The lyric often presents itself as the discourse of a minority uttered against the dominant ideology and values (traditionally, love and beauty against politics and utility). Could lyric discourse actually gain power from this rhetorical self-definition as a minor, ineffective, and fallible genre? And could its efficacy be connected to the ritualistic performance of its public discourse by discrete individuals, as if each iteration were unique? Discussing “September 1, 1939,” you write: “It was language to be repeated, whose independence from the event itself [the 9/11 terrorist attacks] yet pertinence to it was a source of power and pleasure”; would you like to expand a bit on that?

It is hard to speak in general terms about the power or efficacy of lyric. Students of lyric are often eager to attempt to show that the contemporary lyric is politically radical and disruptive — usually because of its parody of dominant discourses or because of its linguistic deformations of ordinary ways of making sense — but it is hard to demonstrate that the presence of such strategies in poems has the desired effects. In my view, such demonstrations would require evidence about readers: Who reads these poems? What sorts of effects do these poems have on the thoughts, attitudes, and habits of those readers, and do those effects translate into some sort of social and political efficacy? It is likely that they contribute to the formation of some sort of community that shares an interest in such poetry — a minority community, certainly — as Beat Poetry enhanced the self-awareness of groups we came to call Beatniks in the 1950s and 1960s. This poetry was resistant both in its deviation from the norms of poetic discourse — both in form and diction (often obscene) — and in its themes of revolt and resistance. Most other cases are less clear cut, less easy to associate with a particular identifiable community or social movement.

One case that I do not explicitly study in Theory of the Lyric is love poetry, which through the ages has certainly functioned by enabling readers to imagine themselves as participants in the community of lovers. It offers a range of formulas about the beauty and desirability of the beloved, her inaccessibility, the misery of the lover who is ignored or treated cruelly by the beloved, which readers can repeat and which help them feel part of a long chain of sufferers who are often disdained or misunderstood by those who are not in love. Such poetry can promote a feeling of solidarity with what is presented as a timeless experience: an interesting ideological effect.

And such poetry is often a source of clichés and mockery — predictable rhymes, such as moon/June; love/dove; and hyperbolic sentiments (I am dying for a kiss …) — but the creation of such discourse seems to be a source of social efficacy. Charles Baudelaire writes that the poet’s highest ambition should be to create a cliché: “je dois créer un poncif.” One measure of William Shakespeare’s greatness as an English poet is the number of expressions from his verse that have entered the language and thus come to shape people’s thought.

In my concluding chapter on “Lyric and Society,” where I discuss the sort of claims made for the social importance and efficacy of lyric, I was drawn to cases where there has obviously been a broad public uptake of lyric discourse — poems that are frequently repeated, cited, and disseminated by readers. These include poems by Joachim du Bellay, W. H. Auden, and Robert Frost, for instance. But, as I show, these poems that are quoted, learned by heart, and passed around, are frequently treated as making claims about the world that the poems themselves can easily be shown to contradict, or at least undermine. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is a blatant example: it was seen as very apposite to the attack on the World Trade Center (“the unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night”), as if it anticipated this tragedy, but the poem explicitly makes a claim that the people citing it certainly resisted: “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” The moral I draw is that poems offer memorable language, but this language can be put to quite different purposes, enlisted in different ideological projects, so that it is extremely difficult to make claims about the particular political import of a given poem, if it is to be more than a claim about potential significance. That is not a conclusion welcomed by many students of poetry these days, but it seems to me that the history of the Western lyric and of its reception bears that out.


Francesco Giusti is currently a fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. After completing his PhD in Comparative Literature at Sapienza University of Rome and the Italian Institute of Human Sciences (SUM), he pursued his research on the history and theory of the lyric at the University of York (United Kingdom) and Goethe-Universität Frankfurt (Germany).