Academic journal article Style

A Reading in Temporal Poetics: Wallace Steven's "Domination of Black"

Academic journal article Style

A Reading in Temporal Poetics: Wallace Steven's "Domination of Black"

Article excerpt

In Theory of the Lyric (2015), Jonathan Culler laments the now long-standing New Critical view of the poem as dramatic monologue, as the representation of the action of a fictional speaker, a persona, whose situation and motivation one needs to reconstruct.

   Students 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 ... Of course, many great
   poems in the English tradition are dramatic monologues, and it is
   possible to read other lyrics in this way, but even in those cases
   this model deflects attention from what is more singular, most
   mind-blowing even, in those lyrics, and puts readers on a prosaic,
   novelizing track ... This model gives students a clear task but it
   is extraordinarily limited and limiting. It leads to neglect of the
   most salient features of many lyrics, which are not to be found in
   ordinary speech acts--from rhythm and sound patterning to
   intertextual relations. (2)

As Culler notes, recent literary theory has done little to redress this situation. In contemporary criticism, lyric, as a major focus of concern, has been supplanted by the novel. "Important theorists," Culler says, "have failed to develop a rich theoretical discourse about lyric, or of poetry in general, for that matter ... We lack an adequate theory of the lyric" (2-3).

Out of respect for the genre and empirical accuracy, Culler's Theory of the Lyric goes on to elaborate on this point, over and over, but without suggesting a solution to the problem, either. Poems are strongly ritualistic/ formal, Culler reminds us, making the most of repetition, rhythm, and other types of distinctive and memorable language (novel words, deviant syntax, puzzling symbolic complexes, odd rhetorical tropes and schemes, etc.). But Culler has little to offer about how we should deal with these forms. So he settles for a minimalist, if not entirely agnostic, theoretical position. Poems, he claims, are like songs. They should not be interpreted/understood at all but only memorized and "reperformed" (37). If the distinctive sounds, rhythms, structures, and meanings in poetry are related in some way, and therefore understandable/interpretable, both among themselves and with each other, those relations are beyond us, and should remain there.

I agree almost entirely with both Culler's view of poetry and the failure of the profession as a whole to come to terms with this view. But, unlike Culler, I do not settle for a minimalist theoretical position on this issue. In fact, just the opposite. For over thirty years now, I have been developing a theory of poetry that accounts in strong ways for just those things like sound, rhythm, syntax, and repetition (and their interrelation) that more novelistic and dramatic views of poetry have omitted. (1) The essence of this theory of poetry is a new conception of poetic rhythm and its relation to poetic form; so I call this theory "temporal poetics," given it is rhythm that creates our feelings of subjective time, and these feelings of subjective time, I claim, are what animate and organize poetic form.

Students of poetry have always been interested in the voice, how it moves rhythmically from syllable to syllable, stress to stress. But for whatever reason, this tradition has always given vocal movement a very regular, one-dimensional, and minimal representation (e.g., poetic feet, with foot substitution, etc.), while claiming that all more regular movement is just an abstract norm of this vocal movement and all less regular movement is not rhythmic at all. This conception of rhythm can be useful for certain basic critical tasks, but is much too narrow and misleading to be of further theoretical or practical use. Actually, the movement of the voice (what linguists and music theorists call rhythmic grouping) is not at all one-dimensional, regular, and minimal but multileveled, variable, and complex. …

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