Theory into Poetry: New Approaches to the Lyric

Theory into Poetry: New Approaches to the Lyric

Theory into Poetry: New Approaches to the Lyric

Theory into Poetry: New Approaches to the Lyric

Excerpt

"There is no theory of the lyric in the way that there is a theory of the drama or the narrative" (Warning 17f., our translation). This claim, from 1997, demonstrates clearly one of the great paradoxes of modern literary theory. Despite the fact that for the last thirty years we have witnessed a search for well-founded theories, for the lyric (i.e. approximately one third of the entire textual corpus, if one follows Warning in addressing the traditional trio of genres) there is neither a generally accepted and comprehensive definition nor a differentiated toolkit for analysis.

A number of fundamental assumptions, which define the everyday as much as the professional approach to poetry, seem to be responsible for the peculiar position of the genre. In the first place, poetry counts as the epitome of the literary, as a pure artefact and 'quintessential speech'. Nowhere else is the linguistic medium so consistently forced beyond its communicative limits, and nowhere else does form so firmly refuse to be monopolised by reference. Poetry's prevailing "priority of the linguistic form" (Adorno 85, our translation), its particularly high degree of 'poeticity', is the reason why the poetic genre is frequently turned into a prototypical example of a linguistic artefact and (often for the first and last time) extensively discussed in introductory literature courses.

Poetry is also deemed the one genre that most stubbornly defies the cold rationality of scholarly analysis. The 'real' expert tends to approach it carefully, full of respect towards the superior genius of the poet and with the aid of a venerable methodological apparatus that, for the most part, goes back to Roman antiquity. This may be a polemically overdrawn prelude to the investigation of a complex field, yet there is more than a mere kernel of truth in this sketch of a conspicuously emotional engagement of readers with the poetic genre. Anyone who has participated in poetry readings, poetry workshops or scholarly conferences on poetry will confirm this diagnosis. The self-styling of the poet, the readers' cult of genius, the empathetic identification of many lyric critics with the lyric persona as well as the openly displayed disdain of professional colleagues from other disciplines have their causes here.

It is the archaic myth of divine inspiration and the ancient notion of a poet being driven by furor poeticus ('poetic frenzy') which are largely responsible for the intuitive and irrational aura still attached to poetry at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The assumption that both the production and reception of poetry are terrains reserved for the emotions has further roots in the philosophy of German idealism, in the theoretical writings of the Romantic poets and in the closely related genre conceptualisation of literary theorists such as Matthew Arnold, Wilhelm Dilthey, Emil Staiger, A. E. Housman, Northrop Fry or Cecil D. Lewis.

The concept of poetry's formal self-sufficiency and heightened self-referentiality looks back to a similarly long tradition, taking as its starting point the ancient form of an instrument-accompanied lyric and Aristotle's cursory mention of the dithyramb. The remarkable theories of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who in a short 1865 essay anticipates the fundamental statements of structuralist poetry, constitute a further major step in the development of a . . .

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