Realizing the Turn in Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric

27 06 2022

I’ve recently just (finally!) read Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric. I’m blown away by it. It’s a fantastic book, both ambitious–it sets about redefining lyric poetry–well argued, and exciting. It’s filled with keen insights, teeming with ideas that are relevant to anyone thinking about poetry today. I can’t recommend it highly enough–truly.

That said, the book has at least one major blindspot: though obviously interested in the structural turning of lyric poetry, Culler never fully acknowledges this interest and so does not include turning in his redefinition of lyric poetry, though I believe he really could and should have. 

Here, I want to say a few words about what I think Culler gets so importantly right in his provocative book. But I also want to zero in on and investigate a crucial lacuna: the omission of serious discussion of the turn as one of lyric’s constitutive elements. 

Redefining and Defamiliarizing the Lyric

In Theory of the Lyric, Culler sets about nothing short of a new–a more fine-tuned–description of lyric. To establish a baseline understanding of lyric, Culler cites the work of theorist Eva Müller-Zettelmann, who notes “several ‘tendencies’” that set lyric apart from other genres: “(1) brevity, (2) a reduction in the fictional element, (3) more intense formal structuring, (4) greater aesthetic self-reference, (5) greater linguistic deviance, and (6) greater epistemological subjectivity” (33). Culler works to revise this list, mainly by offering “some more specific and salient parameters of variation” (34). These are: 

  1. That the “enunciative apparatus of lyric” centrally involves the indirect address to readers (34-5);
  2. That the lyric endeavors “to be itself an event rather than the representation of an event” (35);
  3. That the lyric is more “ritualistic” than is typically thought (37); and
  4. That lyrics tend to have “an explicitly hyperbolic quality, which is especially striking because they are brief” (37).

What’s most interesting here is Culler’s effort to make the lyric as odd as it really is. He is defamiliarizing it to make it more real, more present. We can, Culler suggests, see lyric more clearly when we see it in its fuller strangeness. Acknowledging this strangeness–which I’ll describe more fully in a bit–is vital because it is a corrective to the more limited way that Culler believes lyric is often approached–and taught–today.

Culler wants to use his ideas about lyric to challenge the current dominant understanding of lyric, a “variant” of “the romantic theory of lyric”–the “distinguishing feature” of this theory “is the centrality of subjectivity coming into consciousness of itself through experience and reflection”–“which treats the lyric not as mimesis of the experience of the poet but as a representation of the action of a fictional speaker: in this account, the lyric is spoken by a persona, whose situation and motivation one needs to reconstruct” (2). This variant theory “has become the dominant model in the pedagogy of the lyric in the Anglo-American world, if not elsewhere,” and in this system, “[s]tudents are asked, when confronting a poem, to work out who is speaking, in what circumstances, to what end, and to chart the drama of attitudes that the poem captures” (2). One result of this state of affairs is that “the dramatic monologue…has been made the model for lyric” (2).

The reasons for the rise of this model are many, including “the increasing priority of prose fiction in literary education”–an approach under which “[s]tudents are accustomed to the idea that every narrative has a narrator”; the way “the cultural weight of claims (first by modernists and then New Critics) about the impersonality of art objects leads to emphasis on the poem as artifact rather than effusion of the poet”; and its ideological seductiveness, which allows readers “to believe that our subjectivity is free and independent of contexts to which we might belong, and imagining the language of a poem as coming from a fictive, nearly contextless speaker, [which] reflects back to us an image of the subject we imagine ourselves to be” (115-16). 

However, though popular, this understanding comes at a price. It ends up distorting engagements with poetry and diminishing the lyric’s strange magic. As Culler repeatedly makes clear, approaching lyric poems as dramatic monologues is simply inappropriate for many lyrics. It leaves out a crucial tradition: epideictic poetry. Culler works to bring closer to the center of lyric poetry “epideixis–public discourse about meaning and value,” though, he adds, “made distinctive by its ritualistic elements” (350). (More on ritual further on.) He states, “Possibilities for an alternative model that treats lyric as fundamentally nonmimetic, nonfictional, a distinctive linguistic event,can [sic] be drawn from classical conceptions of lyric as encomiastic or epideictic discourse–discourse of praise of blame [sic], articulating values, not a species of fiction” (7). A host of particular lyric poems–such as Shakespeare’s “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” Dickinson’s “The Heart asks Pleasure–first–,” Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”–just don’t seem to have identifiable speakers and are better thought of as offering, as Culler puts it, “not a voice but a voicing” (31). For Culler, having a way to think about and value such poems will be a boon.

Culler also is wary of the flattening effect that approaching lyrics as dramatic monologues tends to have. He states, “[T]his model deflects attention from what is most singular, most mind-blowing even, in those lyrics, and puts readers on a prosaic, novelizing track: the reader looks for a speaker who can be treated as a character in a novel, whose situation and motives one must reconstruct” (2). This “novelizing account of the lyric…fails to respond to what is most extravagant and most distinctive” about lyric (3). Indeed, this flattening is so powerful that “[c]urrent models falsify the long tradition of lyric and encourage students to think about lyrics in ways that neglect some of the central features of lyric poetry, both present and past” (3). 

For Culler, the central features of lyric are not the, as he–following the work of Roland Greene–more routinely calls them, fictive but rather the ritualistic. The fictive “involves a plot and circumstances that suggest a fictional world”; it “is what we produce when we attempt to imagine a fictional speaker and a situation of utterance, as in the dramatic monologue, but also the past events that are evoked in the act of lyric enunciation and subordinated in various ways to present meaning” (123). Ritual is something else altogether. Citing Greene, Culler states, the ritualistic element is “everything that can be construed as ‘directions for a performance,” all the aspects of a poem, from “‘prosodic elements’” to “‘rhetorical, semantic, and symbolic features’” that make lyric “‘utterance uniquely disposed to be re-uttered,’” offering “‘a performative unity into which readers and auditors may enter at will’” (123).

According to Culler, Greene “maintains that ‘lyric discourse is defined by the dialectical play of ritual and fictional phenomena, or correlative modes of apprehension that are nearly always available in every lyric, though particular specimens, collections, and schools may try to protect one at the expense of the other’” (123). Culler works to draw attention to the ritualistic, and away from the overly attended-to fictive, which “involves a plot and circumstances that suggest a fictional world” (123). Though Culler states, “Lyric, I conclude, involves a tension between ritualistic and fictional elements–between formal elements that provide meaning and structure and serve as instructions for performance and those that work to represent character or event” (7), he also can be more emphatic, calling lyric “a ritualistic form with occasional fictional elements” (336). Elsewhere, Culler states that “we need a model that allows for [the dramatic monologue] by acknowledging the tension in lyric between story and character, on the one hand, and song on the other, but the ultimate dominance of song is distinctive of lyric” (122). Whether the relationship between fictive and ritualistic is that of “dialectical play” or “tension,” it’s clear what part of the binary Culler privileges.

Culler works to present the lyric as much more fundamentally itself an event and not the representation of other events. He investigates many of the ways that poems do this. This includes examining a number of strategies used to make lyric performance present at a variety of levels. Grandly and obviously this occurs through rhythm, to which Culler devotes a chapter (chapter 4, “Rhythm and Repetition”). Much more subtly, Culler examines lyric’s strange use of the English language’s “special nonprogressive present with verbs of action to incorporate events while reducing their fictional, narrative character and increasing their ritualistic feel” (287)–that is, hearing the difference between, say, “I wander through each chartered street” and “I am wandering through…” 

Most significantly, though, Culler links the lyric with the performative. At one level, this means that “lyrics are constructed for iterability” (123). But it also means the close linking of lyric to performative speech acts–which “perform the acts to which they refer” (125), that is, with “language which accomplishes the act to which it refers, as in ‘I hereby call this meeting to order,’” which “transforms the linguistic terrain: literature becomes no longer a marginal and derivative linguistic practice, a set of pseudo-assertions, but can claim a place among creative and world-changing modes of language that bring into being that to which they refer or accomplish that of which they speak” (15). 

Key among lyric’s performatives, among its most fundamental but also extravagant and mind-blowing aspects, is apostrophe. Citing Barbara Johnson, Culler offers “the modern usage of the term”: “‘Apostrophe in the sense in which I will be using it involves the direct address to an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first-person speaker….’” (213).   For Culler, apostrophe is “inherently performative” (15). As a result, “Address to someone or something gives the poem a character of event, and the less ordinary the addressee, the more the poem seems to become a ritualistic invocation” (188).

To be clear, for Culler, apostrophe is not just one of lyric poetry’s many tactics; rather, he wants it to be understood as a fundamental condition of lyric. For Culler, lyric’s mode of address is “usually indirect” (191). Nearly foundational to lyric is “characteristic indirection,” which Culler refers to as “‘triangulated address’: addressing the audience of readers by addressing or pretending to address someone or something else, a lover, a god, natural forces, or personified abstractions” (8). This may now be a bit less like John Stuart Mills’s notion of “overhearing” the lyric address and more like the poet occasionally “winking at the reader,” but still the core indirection is the same (206). And the reader the poem posits is most typically an anonymous reader so that within poems “[a]ddress to a ‘you’ construable as the reader is rare…and the authoritative Handbook of Literary Rhetoric claims that such address has the effect of an apostrophe since it is an unusual turning away from the anonymity of readership” (192). Culler offers a brief but compelling reading of the changing value of the “you” in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”–from “any observer” to the sense that the reader themself is being addressed–in order to help account for that poem’s power (196).

Of course, lyrics also tend to deploy specific apostrophes–addresses to, say, the sun, the moon, the dead, Justice–that are used to various effects, and Culler offers a number of insights into these phenomena, as well. For example, he notes that apostrophes are often thought to be “intensifiers, images of invested passion” (213). While many are so, Culler notes that apostrophe–“a distinct poetic operation, a linguistic artifice” (213)–has a much wider range of usage. For Culler, apostrophe can offer “an intimate restructuring of affective space” (214). It can be used to create a “a displacement of great delicacy” (215). Or else it can be deployed–as in the initial turning from lover to flower in Edmund Waller’s “Song”–as “gracious and witty indirection” (221). Culler states, “[W]ith apostrophic address a range of effects are possible” (217), and among these effects are the “ceremonial-ritualistic”; the “socially adept”; and the “prophetic” (223). Culler even notes that “[t]he figure of apostrophe, which seems above all to seek to establish relations between self and other, can also on occasion be read as an act of radical interiorization and solipsism,” an effect, Culler suggests, that “comes out with special clarity in poems that multiply apostrophes to different figures,” as in Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, in which the various apostrophes “function as nodes or concretizations of moments of poetic reflection” (225). For Culler, “This internalization is important because it works against narrative and its accompaniments: sequentiality, causality, linear time, teleological meaning” (225). Whatever the specific effect, for Culler, “The key is not passionate intensity, but rather the ritual invocation of elements of the universe, the attempt, even to evoke the possibility of a magical transformation. This is manifestly central to the tradition of song…” (216). The key, in short, is ritualistic engagement with the world. 

Apostrophe is so strange, so extravagant, it is a risk,and sometimes even an embarrassment. Culler states, “Such blatant apostrophes have been central to the lyric tradition and mark the vatic aspect of that tradition: invoking all manner of things, and thus presuming the potential responsiveness of the universe, in what is the acme of poetic presumption. The vatic stance is a potential embarrassment to poets…: they frequently revolt against it, mock it, or retreat from it, while still relying on it at some fundamental level. It is also an embarrassment to critics, who are inclined to ignore it or transform apostrophic address into description” (190). He adds, “Apostrophe is a palpable embarrassment, because it is a figure of all that is most radical, pretentious, and mystificatory in the lyric…” (190)

Still, despite all of this, for Culler, apostrophe is crucial to lyric:

As a figure endemic to poetry that finds little place in other discourses, apostrophe works as a mark of poetic vocation. Asking winds to blow or seasons to stay their coming or mountains to hear one’s cries is a ritual action, whereby voice calls in order to be calling, and seeks to manifest its calling, to establish its identity as poetical voice. A maker of poems constitutes him or herself as poet, by presuming to address various “you”s, weather in love poems or odes, or elegies, or just poetic observations, with address to leaves, or weeds. In an operation that sounds tautological, the vocative of apostrophe is a device which the poetic subject uses to establish with the object a relationship that helps to constitute the subject itself as poetic, even vatic. Apostrophic address works to establish a relation to the poetic tradition (critics who dismissed apostrophe as merely an inherited classical convention admit this much), as if each address to wind, flowers, mountains, gods, beloveds, were a repetition of earlier poetic calls.” (216-17)

And the vocation of the lyric poet is to create the sense of the lyric present:  

The fundamental characteristic of lyric, I am arguing, is not the description and interpretation of a past event but the iterative and iterable performance of an event in the lyric present, in the special “now,” of lyric articulation. The bold wager of poetic apostrophe is that the lyric can displace a time of narrative, of past events reported, and place us in the continuing present of apostrophic address, the “now” in which, for readers, a poetic event can repeatedly occur. (226)

This is thrilling. It is so deeply informing for me, on a variety of fronts. I can already tell that this will affect my teaching in many ways. I can imagine lessons on the ritualistic aspects of poetry for my introduction to poetry course and for my writing poetry course. I admit that in my introduction to poetry course I use Sound and Sense, one of the textbooks Culler singles out for the ways that it foregrounds the dramatic monologue approach to lyric (110). I can fine tune my students’ readings and the kinds of questions we ask about the poems we read. For my student poets, these ideas will undoubtedly further attune them to the traditions of the lyric, make them closer readers, offer them a wider range of maneuvers they might make in their own work. Heck, all of this is so inspiringly provocative, I now want to teach a course on the lyric–! We shall see.

Culler’s work also sheds light on details and aspects of my work with the turn. The turn at the end of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (mentioned above) has been the subject of discussion in two venues. In Structure & Surprise, it’s one of the poems with the shocking kind of turn that Rachel Zucker describes in her writing on the epiphanic turn. At the Voltage Poetry site, the dynamics of the poem’s turning are considered by James Pollock (here). Culler’s thinking on the poem contributes additionally to my understanding and appreciation of how that great poem operates. More largely, though, Culler’s thinking is directly applicable to a kind of turn I’ve been thinking about and gathering instances of: the turn-to-another structure. I’ve sensed intuitively how compelling such turning can be; however, I’ve not yet systematically tried to account for its power. Culler provides me with the understanding to see how this works.

As we’ll see, in the next section the fact that Culler attunes me to the turn is not at all coincidental. 

Culler’s Turns

Culler, of course, knows about turns and many of the structures of which they are a part. He also regularly recognizes turning in poems and quite often explicitly appreciates the dynamic of turning. Turns are mentioned by some of the theorists and critics Culler cites. For example, Hegel’s high esteem for Pindar centers on turning: “Pindar…is extravagantly praised (‘attains the summit of perfection’) as one who, while celebrating, on commission, a victor in games, ‘easily turns from the external stimuli given him to profound utterances on the general nature of mortality and religion, and then, along with this theme, on heroes, heroic deeds, the foundations of states, etc….’” (99). After citing the second stanza of Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist,” where a dynamic turning of the poem is initiated and in which, in fact, the speaker reports, he “turned,” Culler cites critic Mutlu Konuk Blasing who, among other things, recognizes the significant turning, as well, stating, “‘The birth of a poet is at once a relearning of language, a reliving of what infantile amnesia forgets, and a “turning” away from it again, now into poetic language’” (175-6). 

Culler also partakes in this critical attentiveness to turns. He acknowledges the strong turning toward the end of Baudelaire’s “The Carcass.” In this poem, Culler reports, “a speaker reminds his mistress, going into considerable detail, of a rotting carcass they encountered this morning, and end ends [sic] by telling her, ‘–And yet you will be like this excrement, / This horrible infection, / O star of my eyes, sun of my being, / You, my angel, my passion’” (267). The surprise here is that “[t]his poem…turns out, strangely, not to be a carpe diem poem,” and in fact it “turns out to be, implausibly, a poem about the achievements of poetic form” (268). Culler also characterizes Dickinson’s “The Heart asks Pleasure–first–” as “a poetic reflection on the propensities of the human heart, with a real kicker in the tail” (112).

Perhaps we should not be surprised by this interest in the turn. It largely follows from Culler’s interest in apostrophe. The origins of apostrophe, as the etymology of the word indicates (literally, “to turn away”), is in turning:

Quintillian, speaking of oratory, defines apostrophe as “a diversion of our words to address someone other than the judge”; and though he cautions against it, “since it would certainly seem more natural that we should specifically address ourselves to those whose favor we desire to win,” he allows that occasionally “some striking expression of thought is necessary,…which can be given greater point and vehemence when addressed to some person other than the judge.” In forensic rhetoric, apostrophe is a turning from the actual audience to address someone or something else (the opponent, the fatherland, justice), and the etymology of the term emphasizes the turning rather than the anomalous address… (212). 

Culler argues that apostrophe in lyric is more thoroughgoing than just this kind of turning. That’s understandable, and he makes a good case for why this should be the case. Among other things, he notes (concluding the above quotation) that “but outside the courtroom, apostrophe has long denoted address to someone or something other than the actual audience; it includes address to individuals, but it especially denotes address to what is not an actual listener: abstractions, inanimate objects, or persons absent or dead” (212). 

But it also remains the case that apostrophe and turning are connected. Culler makes note of the specifically apostrophic turning in Sappho’s fragment 16: “Sappho cites the example of Helen, who left everything for the one she loved, but the poem suddenly turns at the end to Anactoria, who is now gone” (308). He states, as well, “The turn to Anactoria at the end is unexpected but links the individual thought and situation to the general theme in a way that comes to be characteristic of lyric” (309). The same with W. B. Yeats’s “Among School Children,” in which, Culler notes, “reiterated contrasts between age and youth from a structure from which the poem suddenly turns in the penultimate stanza with an apostrophe” (228). Commenting on J.D. McClatchy’s “Weeds”, Culler notes that the emergence of a “you”–“That sudden ‘you’”–is “a very effective touch–one we don’t expect” (189). The great effect is that it turns the poem into a successful lyric: “It moves the poem from poetic reflection to invocation, event, and makes it more than a musing on the resilience of some plants: a celebration of their overcoming of adversity, as the address to a ‘you’ brings speaker and plant together in the hope of dissemination” (189). But the emergence of this sudden you is prepared for by the poem’s turn: after talking about weeds in general in the first stanza, the poem turns in its second stanza to convert weed-like persistence into a symbol of “small / Unlooked for joy,” and then becomes a question: “Where did it come from, / With these pale shoots / And drooping lavender bell?” and all of this makes way for the lyricizing apostrophe. 

As with the above poems by Dickinson, Yeats, and McClatchy, so many of the poems cited by Culler contain clear, decisive, often thrilling turns. However, more generally their turns are not commented upon. Significant turns (just to cite some poems not mentioned elsewhere) occur in Sappho’s fragment 31 (“He seems to me equal to the gods that man”) (63); Baudelaire’s “Obsession” (79-80); George Herbert’s “Virtue” (112-13); Keats’s “This Living Hand” (197); “Western Wind” (216); the end of the ninth elegy in Rilke’s Duino Elegies (224); A. R. Ammons’s “Dominion” (230); Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” (324) and “Tintern Abbey” (327-30); Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (337-8). All of these poems feature turns, as do so many others mentioned by Culler, including, of course, many sonnets, which bring with them their voltas.

The presence of the turn is important here. Theory of the Lyric begins with what Culler refers to as “an inductive approach”–the title of his book’s first chapter–to lyric, examining nine poems Culler believes are exemplary and then he investigates them to begin to make out the elements of lyric–the ritualistic, apostrophic, and minimalist fiction–that emerge inductively from this process. These poems include:

Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite”

Horace’s Ode 1.5

The first poem in Petrarch’s Canzoniere

Goethe’s “Heath Rose”

Leopardi’s “The Infinite”

Baudelaire’s “To a Woman Passing By”

Lorca’s “The Moon Comes Out”

Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”

Ashbery’s “This Room”

Each and every one of these poems contains turning. Though its power may be turned down in the Lorca and Williams, the power is on very high in, at least, the Horace and the Baudelaire. Culler also uses a version of this inductive approach in an attempt to give evidence for his sense that the lyric favors the present tense: scanning The Norton Anthology of Poetry, he finds that “only 123 of 1,266 poems are in the past tense, 21 of which are ballads” (277). An endnote reveals another similar count: “Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry provides an anthology with 194 poems in the present against 43 in past tenses, with another 11 moving from past to present” (379; n. 25). I’ve yet to do my own accounting, but it’s hard to imagine that the ratio of poems with turns to poems without would be at least as compelling as the numbers that sway Culler’s beliefs about lyric. 

I’ll think about this oversight in the section “Lyric Present and the Turn” (below). For now, I turn to a consideration of how Culler is not only interested in turns, but structures, as well.

Very Common Moves: Culler’s Lyric Structures

“Lyric Structures,” the sixth chapter of Theory of the Lyric, begins with these questions: “What different sorts of lyrics should we distinguish? What structures or modes of organization, in addition to rhythm and sound patterning, are particularly important and distinctive?” (244) Culler follows these questions with a brief survey of some idiosyncratic efforts to categorize lyric subgenres–including Alastair Fowler’s in Kinds of Literature; those found in Companion to Poetic Genre, edited by Erik Martiny; and Helen Vendler’s in Poems, Poets, Poetry–and an overview of the “recognized” categories: form–or “verse and stanza structure” (245)–occasion, “a combination of formal qualities and thematic orientation” (245). Ultimately, though, such efforts, in Culler’s view, end up “haphazard” and non-comprehensive (245). 

Still, Culler notes, they “are pedagogically useful, alerting readers to the sorts of things poems may be doing” (245). He notes, as well, that they “capture a salient fact about the lyric tradition,” which is the degree to which lyric poems tend to refer to one another (245). Culler makes clear: “Contributions to the study of lyric often take the form of identifying a particular sort of poem–a tradition not previously recognized but which seems significant once it is identified…” (245). He notes, “Grouping poems as instances of a type both singles out something notable that poets have done and makes salient the variations within this type” (246). He continues, “Such categories are valuable as a way of indicating the sorts of things that lyrics do and identifying different possibilities of lyric structure,” to then ask this question: “What sorts of distinctive lyric structures can we discover?” (246)

And then Culler clarifies that he himself wishes to differentiate between form and structure: “I speak of ‘lyric structures’ both because the term lyric form is best reserved for types defined by formal structure, such as the sonnet, villanelle, or sestina, and because my interest in the possibilities of lyric focuses as much on aspects of lyric and particular strategies and configurations within lyrics as on recognized types of lyric” (246). 

To be clear: by “structure” Culler does not mean specifically the pattern of a poem’s turning, as is meant by the word here, at this site. For Culler, structure remains a bit more loosely, more broadly defined. Though Culler in fact does not define it, it clearly means something like “organized in something other than strictly formal ways.” However, the stricter definition of structure as pattern of a poem’s turning certainly fits into Culler’s conception of structure, and turning in fact is featured in this chapter. 

Very interested in the play of tenses in lyric poems, Culler is keenly attuned to and aware of temporal turning in poetry. Culler notes, “A very common structure is the move from past to present: the past anecdote explicitly pulled into the lyric present at the end, with a present-tense reflection on the significance of the incident recounted or other references to a present of enunciation. This is more widespread as a lyric structure than the lyric narrative completely in the past” (285). Culler cites Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as a “classic example,” but also offers his “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as additional example before recognizing specifically that “[i]n Petrarch’s Canzoniere a quarter of the poems are structured by the contrast between then and now, past and present…” (285). Culler ultimately even claims that “[t]he structure is so common that it seems almost pointless to cite examples,” though, to his credit, he acknowledges that two of the nine poems in his first chapter’s inductive approach–Leopardi’s “The Infinite” and Baudelaire’s “To a Woman Passing By”–do in fact deploy this structure (286). 

Turns are particularly crucial, though, it seems, for Culler in one particular way: turns validate the poems which occur fully in the past tense and which Culler admires. Such poems, of course, are challenges to Culler’s system: they challenge his idea that lyric is primarily keyed to the present. So, even though, in a chapter subsection titled “Framing Past Events” Culler notes that there in fact are few canonical poems in the past tense (277), he takes time to endeavor to show how poems in the past tense still resonate. According to Culler, “Poems that remain in the past throughout often acquire an allegorical character. Readers wonder why we are being told about these past events, and if the poem declines explicitly to draw a present moral or conclusion, the implications may be easy to infer from cultural conventions” (279). Culler then shows how this occurs in a handful of poems; however, it also clearly is the case–it even occurs, at moments, to Culler–that turning is crucial for this. About one of his examples, George Herbert’s “Redemption,” Culler notes that it is “a narrative of past events” (279), but he also understands it to be transformed by its turn: “The sudden, chilling turn at the end powerfully jolts the reader out of the narrative of leases and landlords and into the Christian allegory” (280). Here, the turn redeems the narrative, successfully transfiguring it into a lyric poem. 

Though “a less dramatic example from a more modern era,” Walt Whitman’s “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer” relies “on reader’s ability to recognize as self-evident a value-charged opposition between book learning and a more direct encounter with nature…” (280), an opposition clearly marked by the poem’s speaker’s decision to rise and glide out of the lecture–which occurs at the main turn of the poem. Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is one of the “[m]any” “enigmatical past-tense poems” by the poet that “take on this allegorical character…where the sequential narrative becomes an allegory of an experience otherwise impossible to recount, as the ending makes clear…” (280-1). For Culler, turns have the power to shift a poem into the domain of lyric.

Even beyond what is demonstrated in poems such as those above, Culler notes there are “other strategies for evoking significance while remaining in a narrative in the past” (281). They are subtler, but, though Culler doesn’t recognize it, here again the turn features. Examining Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” Culler notes how the poem “offers the rich evocation of a dreamy childhood without giving it a present function,” recognizing that “[t]he past is maintained even in the final stanza, when we might expect an explicit retrospective regret for the lost world” (282). Culler states, “But the claim not to have cared in the past of childhood that the farm would be forever fled and that to be green is to be already dying makes clear the nostalgic cast of this evocative narrative” (282). I appreciate that Culler brings his expectations to his reading, and that his expectations included the anticipation of a turn, and that the subversion of that expectation is significant to him. However, it also is the case that Culler misses a turn to the present at the end of the penultimate stanza: though at all other points in the poem time’s action takes place in the past tense (“Time let me hail and climb”; “Time let me play and be”) in the penultimate stanza it is expressed in the present tense: “And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace…” Though Culler misses it, the announced turn that then, indeed, fades back into the use of the past tense, contributes to his reading: time allowed for the past songs; it allows for even this one here, the one being sung in the recitation of “Fern Hill.”

My own understanding of another poem Culler discusses–in this case, Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”–diverges from Culler’s understanding in similar ways: I believe Culler misses a turn in the poem. Culler notes, “In the twentieth century, especially…we find lyrics that remain resolutely in the past, without tying themselves to a function in the present of enunciation,” and he ends up reading “My Papa’s Waltz” through Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s assessment that this is one of the “‘pointless anecdotes’ that suffuse modern poetry,” but also in her recognition that one of the effects of the “‘non-assertive conclusion’ of such lyrics…is in fact to heighten the importance of what is presented…” (282). In short, it seems that for Culler, even this lyric in the past tense is transformed by pure lyric hyperbole. That certainly is part of the power of this short poem, but another part of the power is due to the poem’s subtle turn, initiated at the penultimate line’s “Then” and then completed with “still clinging,” a clear acknowledgement that–in addition to the rest of the poem–this memory has stayed with the speaker.

When considering the “many ways of classifying the structures of lyrics deploying the present tense,” Culler builds off of the work of German theoretician Wolfgang Kayser to determine that “[a]nother major group is what might be called poems of naming or definition, which use the simple present for supposedly atemporal truths…” (286). Here is lyric structure not obviously or necessarily tied to turning. However, it also just is the case that the three poems Culler cites as examples of this kind of epideictic poem–“Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame”; “Correspondences”; and “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers–”–all do have some clear turning in them (286). And turning seems to be a part of other structures Culler mentions, as well. About Dickinson’s “The Heart asks Pleasure–first–” he states that ultimately the poem is an “evocation of a present, continuing condition,” and one “cast in a minimal narrative form,” that and yet it is “structured as a narrative, for suspense and surprise” (286-7). Culler also notes that in other poems, such as Hopkins’s “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” “[s]ometimes there is a framework of reasoning, as if the claim needed to be worked out and justified” (287). And finally: “Another possibility is a meditative structure, foregrounding reflections on one’s own thoughts, which,” Culler adds, “may, of course include references to past experiences” (287).

The chapter focused on “Lyrical Structures” does not contain everything Culler has to say about structure. Elsewhere, citing Paul de Man’s writing about Baudelaire’s “Correspondences,” he notes that “‘[t]he canon of romantic and post-romantic lyric poetry…offers innumerable versions and variations of this inside/outside pattern of exchange that founds the metaphor of lyrical voice as subject’” (80). Culler also is interested in 

poems which, in a very common move, substitute a nontemporal opposition for a temporal one, or substitute a temporality of discourse for a referential discourse. In lyrics of this kind a temporal problem is posed: something once present has been lost or attenuated; this loss can be narrated but the temporal sequence is irreversible, like time itself. Apostrophes displace this irreversible structure by removing it from linear time and locating it in a discursive time. The temporal movement from A to B, restructured by apostrophe, becomes a reversible alternation between A1 and B1: a play of presence and absence governed not by time but by poetic ingenuity or power.

The clearest example of this structure is the elege, which replaces an irreversible temporal disjunction, the movement of life to death, with a reversible alternation between mourning and consolation, evocations of absence and presence. (226-7)

Citing Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Culler also acknowledges that “[p]oems that boldly apostrophize often end in questions and withdrawals” (235). 

So much of Culler’s discussion about structure–which he seems to think of broadly as other than merely formal organization–is focused specifically on turn-oriented structure. Culler’s thinking about structure certainly is amenable to, and can be supplemented by, it. The inside/outside structure is embodied in the dream-to-waking structure, as well as others, including the descriptive-meditative structure (which moves from outside to inside to outside). Elegiac structure is among the structures covered in Structure & Surprise. Turning to questions and withdrawals jibes with the ironic structure. The turn from past to present–or future–is captured in the retrospective-prospective structure. What exactly is meant by a “meditative structure”? Attention to turns offers multiple options: emblem structure; descriptive-meditative structure; metaphor-to-meaning structure. It’s hard to imagine that Culler also would not recognize as the kinds of lyric structures in which he is so interested so many of the structures in Structure & Surprise, and the additional structures discussed on the Structure & Surprise website.

Culler asks: What different sorts of lyrics should we distinguish? What structures or modes of organization…are particularly important and distinctive? What sorts of distinctive lyric structures can we discover? Culler, it seems, largely discovers structures organized around turns. In fact, when he states that [s]uch categories are valuable as a way of indicating the sorts of things that lyrics do, one of the very clear takeaways is that one of the things that a vast number of lyrics do is turn. 

So why is this aspect of lyric, the turn, not a more major part of Culler’s thinking?

Presenting the Lyrical Turn

It is fairly common, alas, to prize the turn but not know how to do so adequately, allowing one’s attention to the turn to meander, drift, and ultimately fade. As this website has revealed, this is the case with works by Helen Vendler and Robert Hass (discussed here and here), among others. These other thinkers love the turn, as well, but do not attend to the turn to the degree that their own admiration suggests they might, or should. In some instances, this might be due to the fact that the thinker–be they poet-critic, critic, or theorist–does not know what they’ve stumbled upon. In other instances, it may be that the thinker does realize how significant the turn and its structures are, or might be, and then turns away from that, from the immensity of taking on that new approach–often in addition to whatever other points they planned to make with their writing. Additionally, there’s also always the force of habit: so much discussion about poetry has been about form–it’s difficult to see other possibilities.

While, of course, it’s often not possible to discern the reasons or motivations behind missing the turn. And it may not be too important to do so: much more important is to see that it’s happening, recognize it, and reveal it.

Still, the place of the turn in Culler’s Theory of the Lyric is an incredibly strange one. Culler obviously prizes turns, which don’t simply crop up in his conversation but, in the chapter “Lyrical Structures,” actually accumulate into an understanding that is activated and, to an extent, systematized. My admittedly speculative assessment is that–whether or not he recognized his own great interest in turns–admitting the turn into his revision of the lyric would have been too much, too disruptive. Culler’s central effort in Theory of the Lyric is to demonstrate how poets create a ritualistic present in their poems; as he notes, “Fiction is about what happened next; lyric is about what happens now” (226). Culler’s focus is on that now, which is the possession of lyric, specifically. When Culler notes that “for the lyric…criticism must resist the dominance of the fictional, lest the distinctiveness of lyric be lost” (125), one can sense him giving himself instructions to resist giving too much credence to other elements he spots in the lyric, to maintain his focus. One can often see Culler wrestling with this. Culler states, “Nothing needs to happen in an apostrophic poem….In lyric there is characteristically dominance of the apostrophic and ritualistic. Nothing need happen in the poem because the poem is to be itself the happening” (226). But right after saying this, Culler acknowledges that “[t]he tension between the narrative and the apostrophic can be seen as the generative force behind a whole array of lyrics” (226). 

Two points are vital to make here. First, if it was not obvious before, it is obvious after hearing Culler say that “nothing need happen in a poem”: Culler’s is a book for those who consider poetry ex post facto. While, after the fact, it may seem that shifting a poem from the past to the present is a relatively simple affair, or that creating suspense and surprise in a poem is relatively simple, for anyone teaching a young poet how to do these things, such endeavors are in fact quite complex. Managing the fictional elements to craft a poem that offers the kind of structural development Culler and so many others so greatly prize involves the sophisticated negotiation of elements, and so necessitates close consideration.

Second, while excellent in and of itself, Theory of the Lyric has demonstrated the necessity of and opened the way for a fuller accounting of lyric. At its most basic, this fuller account would include the fact that lyrics turn rhetorically and/or dramatically. Due to this, the theory would need to do more than privilege the ritualistic aspects of lyric but rather think hard about the relationship between the ritualistic and the turn. Is it an interplay? A tension? A dialectical relation? Is the turn, in fact, a part of the lyric’s ritual? Does the turn create the narrative, the sequence, the temporality, that allows ritualistic making present to in fact become significant? For Culler, the lyric is, in a way, a moment’s monument, but that moment nearly always involves a turn and in fact often is centered on that action itself. What does this mean for the theory of the lyric? This should be pursued.

Culler himself notes that “[i]f students are not presented with an adequate model of lyric, they will read according to whatever inadequate models they have previously assimilated, whether from explicit accounts or halting surmise” (4). He continues, “We need to provide students and other readers with a better model of the lyric in order to make possible a richer, more perceptive experience of lyrics” (4-5). Culler’s Theory of the Lyric certainly details just such a better model, and it may even point to an even better one.



2 responses

20 10 2022
Jonathan Culler

I came across this by accident but it is very impressive. I take the point that I am very interested in turns as crucial to the structure of the lyric. Like many folks my age, I have never gotten into blogs, but this is terrific. I believe I have worked out that it is by Michael Theune, but am surprised that his name is not prominently features. In any case. Bravo! and thank you for your very thorough and flattering accpouint of my book. JOnathan Culler

27 10 2022
Mike Theune

Thank you, Jonathan! I’m glad we’ve contacted via email. I admire your work greatly. I’m heartened that you’re intrigued by my ideas– Cheers! –Mike

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