Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Poetry as Word and Act

Literary theory that is focused on poetic debates, among other things, the relative importance of different ways of viewing poems: a poem is both a structure made of words and an event. For the poem conceived as verbal construction, a major question is the relation between meaning and the non-semantic features of language, such as sound and rhythm.

For the poem as act, a key question has been the relation between the act of the author who writes the poem and that of the speaker or voice that speaks there. The author does not speak the poem; to write it, the author imagines him or herself or another voice speaking it. To read a poem is to say the words. The poem seems to be an utterance, but it is the utterance of a voice of saying them or else to imagine another voice saying them—the voice of a narrator or speaker constructed by the author. Thus we have the historical figure (writer) and the voice of this particular utterance (reader). Intermediary between those two figures is another figure: the image of poetic voices that emerges from the study of a range of poems by a single poet (persona). The importance of these figures varies form one poet to another and from one sort of critical study to another. But in thinking about lyric, it is crucial to begin with a distinction between the voice that speaks and the poet who made the poem, thus creating this figure of voice.
Lyric poetry, according to John Stuart Mill, is utterance overheard. When we overhear an utterance that engages our attention, we characteristically do is imagine or reconstruct a speaker and a context: identifying a tone of voice, we infer the posture, situations, concerns, and attitudes of a speaker. This has been the dominant approach to the lyric in the twentieth century, and a succinct justification might be that literary works are fictional imitations or real world utterances. Lyrics are fictional imitations of personal utterance. Interpreting the poem, then, is a matter of working out from indications of the text and from our general knowledge about speakers and common situations, the nature of the speaker’s attitude. What might lead someone to speak thus? The dominant mode of appreciation of poetry in schools and universities has been to focus on the complexities of the speaker’s attitude, on the poem as the dramatization of thoughts and feelings of a speaker whom one reconstructs.
This is a productive approach to the lyrics, for many poems do present a speaker who is performing recognizable speech acts: meditating on the significance of the experience, chiding a friend or lover, expressing admiration or devotion, for example. But if we turn to the beginnings of some of the most famous lyrics:
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
-Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley (excerpt)
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
-The Tyger by William Blake (excerpt)
It is hard to imagine what sort of situation would lead someone to speak in this way or what non-poetic act they would be performing. The answer we are likely to come up with is hat these speakers are getting carried away and waxing poetical, extravagantly posturing. If we try to understand these poems as fictional imitations of speech acts, the act seems to be that of imitating poetry itself.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford U Press: New York, 1997.

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