I may have mentioned in my last post that I am reading Jonathan Culler’s book on the theory of the lyric with the intention of getting back to my own work, revision at very least, writing if at all possible. So I have begun.

Lyric continues to be my main poetry mode, though I do pursue narrative and non-lyrical haiku forms occasionally. I haven’t spent too much time dwelling on how to define lyric as a genre; I just accept it as a sort of catch-all term for a continuum of many kinds of poems that in general are brief, “you” or “I” directed, subjective as to observation, and often patterned rhythmically or patterned using rhyme.

Here are some quotes from the book that I found useful, thought-provoking, or relevant.


“Fiction is about what happened next; lyric is about what happens now.”

“Many twentieth-century poems…require sounding or voicing and may juxtapose phrases that evoke various voices…[asking] to be read in relation to the lyric tradition…”

“Poems provide formulations that may explain for you a situation you found incomprehensible.”

“The lyric, by its formal patterning and mode of response, asks to be learned by heart, even if that seldom happens…” (This concept is one he takes from Derrida).

“The lyric aims to be an event, not a representation of an event, and sound is what happens in lyric.”

“Lyric address is usually indirect.” (This, despite the frequent use of apostrophe in lyrical poetry, which Cullers argues is used indirectly most of the time.)

Lyrical apostrophe “posits a third realm, neither human nor natural, that can act and determine our world.”

“If one were to treat lyric as a domain to be mapped, one would need a multidimensional space.”

Jonathan Cullers


I especially like that last one. Lyric as Kosmos, as universe (and possibly universal). It jives with Whitman in some ways–resonates, at very least, with his idea of poetry as vast and of himself (as poet) containing multitudes.

Something to aspire to be, to write, to wrap my mind around.

5 comments on “Lyrical

  1. I really like this book, although I didn’t agree with all of it. He’s good on lyric and sound; I have some bit of that quoted in my essay collection!

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  2. marmcc says:

    I’ll be interested to hear what you took away from it; what you’ve brought back to your writing practice.


    • I agree with Lesley that I don’t feel all of Culler’s claims for the lyric are right or true; but just the work of thinking about the ‘genre’ as a continuum, through time and cultures, forced me to reconsider what it is I’m doing when I write a poem.

      I have since rounded up some poems that have, I hope, some merit but that were basically not getting anywhere. That I felt stuck on revising. I posed the questions: Who here is the audience, who the speaker, who the subject, who the object? Rather than “What was I trying to say?”

      In the poems, I looked at pronouns. And verb tense. Looked for surprise or twist or revelation: absent? (usually). Would a change in pronouns or verb tense shake up the poem? Would a change in the ‘speaker’s’ expected audience give the reader a resonance or a jolt?

      I experimented with assigning myself to write an intentionally ‘triangulated’ poem. For more on indirect address, here’s a podcast by Culler:

      By the way, the poem I drafted was a surprise to ME! And weirdly fun to compose.


      • marmcc says:

        Wow, sounds like it ended up being a revelatory read. That’s great. Useful revision process, those questions. Thanks for the insight.


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