Poetry : Hannan Hever

Julie Ann Nagle / Mme L.
Julie Ann Nagle / Mme L.

1. What are Lyric Poems and Lyrical Readings?

Almost any poem may be termed political, if we define political poetry as that which problematizes the authority of the government or any other powerful entity that creates meaning. Lyric poems operating in particular social contexts may be considered political too. Yehouda Shenhav suggests defining “political” as:

an anomalous step that by act or omission subverts the formulas of hierarchical power systems, whether governmental, semantic or cultural. The political seeks to undermine authority by exposing the latter’s manifestations of force or violence and demanding that it identify as such, and not as it portrays itself—as a natural or legitimate system of rational power.1

The political qualities of a lyric poem that undermine the system of power relationships in which that poem operates must be viewed within the poem’s historical and social context. The political reading of a poetic text is therefore accompanied by the reading of other texts, not necessarily poems. At the same time, such intertextuality is in fact the cornerstone of the lyric poem form and a method of its interpretation.

Before we discuss the political character of poetry, we will consider what constitutes a lyric poem while recognizing that additional types of poetry may also be political. Paul de Man and other critics begin with the definition of New Criticism, which views the lyric poem as a dramatic monologue, “a fictional imitation of a personal utterance” of a speaker in a particular situation and in a particular tone.2

For Jonathan Culler, however (and Northrop Frye before him), this voice is more complicated than it seems.3 It is the expression of a consciousness speaking distractedly. That is, even when the speaker addresses nature or the beloved directly, it is also deflected away from the addressee. Even when using the pronoun “you,” it only indirectly addresses particular objects. In Frye’s words, “ ‘the poet . . . turns his back on his listeners.’ ”4

Culler developed this idea further when he defined the lyric poem through the medium of the apostrophe, an exclamatory figure of speech. An apostrophe is a direct address to a listener who is nonetheless absent or fictional and therefore present only obliquely. And so, for example, in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” the “O” in the opening line “O wild West Wind” has no semantic referent; instead it is an image. “The poet makes himself a poetic presence through an image of voice,” Culler says.5

The lyric poem has, therefore, an emphatically non-mimetic nature. De Man writes, “Generic terms such as ‘lyric’ (or its various sub-species, ‘ode,’ ‘idyll’ or ‘elegy’) as well as pseudo-historical period terms such as ‘romanticism’ or ‘classicism’ are always terms of resistance and nostalgia, at the furthest remove from the materiality of actual history.”6 The definition of a lyric poem as a collection of signs is a lyrical reading that negates the existence of the object of the reading. In this way it carries out the political act of deviating from the rules of discourse, using signs that have no actual referents and whose understanding by the reader is indirect, and not via the direct confrontation of the addressee and the speaker in the poem.

And so no text is really lyrical; what we do have are nostalgic categories of classifying and decoding texts, because “Genres are ethical and aesthetic defenses against language” (as Culler defines de Man’s position).7 “No lyric can be read lyrically nor can the object of a lyrical reading be itself a lyric,” de Man argues.8 That is, the object of lyric reading cannot be a dramatic monologue directed at someone in particular, but is rather the product of distraction and a circuitous route to understanding. “Whenever we read,” de Man says in a discussion of two poems by Baudelaire, “there is always an infra-text . . .underneath. Stating this relationship in phenomenal, spatial terms or in phenomenal, temporal terms. . . produces at once a hermeneutic, fallacious lyrical reading of the unintelligible.”9 And he holds that the opposite is also the case; what turns a non-lyrical poem into a lyrical one is a lyrical reading.10

This paradox of the lyrical reading of a non-lyrical poem will serve to demonstrate the paradoxical quality of the political act, which is dependent on history, that is, a world where the meaning of signs is clear. Yet, in order to realize a poem’s political subversion, a reading must break out of the bounds of history and distance itself from it.

The sting in de Man’s position is its disclosure of the difficulty in defining a genre of literary discourse on the phenomenological basis of a communicative situation. Instead, he offers a figurative reading of the linguistic signifiers; that is to say, one in which they have no signifieds that are images of reality. Though it is it impossible to distinguish between a figurative reading and the materiality of a text, figurative readings are even able to account for “a random occurrence of syllables” and lay the foundation for a lyric that cannot be read lyrically.11 This type of reading deviates from the rules from the start, and moreover, is disruptive and studded with obstacles. In other words, disruption of the rules of discourse—the basic element of political poetry—is a given and, paradoxically, that which makes it so hard to define the genre of the political lyric poem. This disruptive quality forces us to define the political lyric poem negatively, by what it is not and via paradox.

*I would like to thank Yehuda Shenhav for his helpful reading of this essay.

1. Yehouda Shenhav, “Al ha-autonomiut shel ha-politi,” Teoria veh-bikoret 34 (2009): 181.

2. Jonathan Culler, “Reading Lyric,” Yale French Studies (The Lesson of Paul de Man) 69 (1985): 99.

3. Jonathan Culler, “Apostrophe,” in The Pursuit of Signs (London: Routledge, 2001), 149-171; Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

4. Northrop Frye, quoted in Jonathan Culler, “Apostrophe,” 152.

5. Jonathan Culler, “Apostrophe,” 158.

6. Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 262.

7. Jonathan Culler, “Reading Lyric,” 102.

8. Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 254.

9. Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 262.

10. Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 259 and 261-262.

11. Jonathan Culler, “Reading Lyric,” 104-105.

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