Poem as Song: The Role of the Lyric Audience

Article excerpt

The article examines the phenomenon of lyric formalism--the view that poems wholly contain their meaning--from cultural and cross-cultural perspectives. It argues that the view presenting lyrics as pure self-contained expressions, not addressed to anyone, is part of a long cultural history that began in Romanticism and that led to the New Critics' formalism. It is culturally specific and must be studied as such. Through a reading of some key Romantic-era statements on the lyric by Wordsworth, Shelley, and Hegel, this article shows the increasingly problematic status of the lyric addressee as a cultural notion. On one hand the addressee was important as the beneficiary of the poet's genius, but on the other hand s/he was neglected as non-essential to the truest form of self-expression. Ultimately the lyric addressee was repressed, though never entirely. Since poems were not regarded as addressing anyone, they were not meant to directly communicate meaning from speaker to listener; meaning was rather generated somehow within the listener. What the listener received, then, was only the form or music of the poem which triggered his own inward responses. Thus thought and music were split off from each other in a way that did not happen in other poetic traditions, like that of Arab poetics. In modern Western culture, poems were divorced from songs in both the popular mind and in high literary theory. Song became regarded as opposed to communication, and the poem as pure thought or text without a performative framework. This segregation of song from poem, music from text, must be acknowledged as culturally specific and belongs to a certain literary period. A glance at poetry within Arabic culture offers other alternatives, where the musical dimension is not contrasted to the textual, but is joined to it.

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Lyrical formalism--the view that poems are complete aesthetic units that wholly contain their meaning, as a vase contains flowers--is sometimes viewed as if it was imposed on poetry by the Russian Formalists and the American New Critics. There is a common impression that critics like Cleanth Brooks ripped poetry arbitrarily out of its personal, cultural, and historical context and stuffed it into their "well-wrought urns," detached and self-complete. (1) But it may be that lyrical formalism in criticism came to reflect an already developing formalist tendency in literature generally, a tendency towards textual self-containment originating with the Romantics and pushed farther by the Modernists. (2) Reader-response theorist Jane P. Tompkins argues that the modern emphasis on the literary meaning of a text (its self-contained "message"), unlike the Classical or Renaissance emphasis on its social effects, implies that the inter-personal relations of author to audience became less important in the modern age. (3)

Similarly, orality theorist Walter J. Ong sees the formalist tendency to regard texts as containing their meanings, rather than delivering the meanings of a writer to a reader, as a result of the turn towards mass literacy and thus to private reading. (4) Ong says that written texts, both literary and not, were increasingly regarded as what he calls independent "closed fields," cut off from an immediate awareness of authors, means of distribution, modes of performance, and audiences. While poetry was the literary genre in which the closed field was most emphasized by New Criticism (perhaps because its short span could be isolated more completely), the closed and decontextualized text according to Ong was the norm across all genres, literary and non-literary. Accordingly, neither Tompkins nor Ong focuses on the lyric genre individually.

But formalism is tied so closely to the lyric genre in both critical and pedagogical contexts that we must look beyond Ong's and Tompkins' theses. Literature professors are more likely to assign close readings of a poem rather than an excerpt of equal length from a novel, and most modern western readers--even those who have never heard of formalist criticism--feel lyric to be more closed-off from its readers. …