22 January 2010

Structuralist Poetics (4)

To make a start, then, on chapter 8, "Poetics of the Lyric". I think this is a difficult chapter, not because the ideas are hard to understand, but, as I've suggested earlier, they don't seem to me to add up to a thought-out poetics, and certainly not a structuralist one.

What I would have expected, in outline, is something that classifies the formal, rhetorical effects used in poetry, and assigns them each a function in creating an effect in the reader's understanding. But even as I type that, it sounds pretty dreadful, if not impossible. Maybe the point is that the aim is unachievable: poetry can't be understood as a semantic superstructure. Throughout the chapter, Culler refers to 'traditional' critics such as Cleanth Brooks and William Empson, and to classical rhetorical theory and terms.

The chapter starts with a dodgy bit of translation. Taking from Genette a piece of journalism set out as if poetry, Culler shows that presentation as a poem alters the way we approach it (there's a quotation from Robert Graves to the same effect).

(The bad translation? The journalism refers to an accident on the 'Nationale 7', which becomes the A7. I know, I know, I shouldn't let things like this bother me.)

Culler then identifies three features of poetry: 'distance and deixis', 'organic wholes' and 'theme and epiphany'

I had to look up deixis. In poetry it brings a lack of immediate explanation of what is going on. I particularly enjoyed finding out about deictic articles. The example is from Yeats:
A sudden blow; the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, the thighs caressed
By the dark webs ...
It's in the nature of poetry to have that suspension of understanding. And here comes John Ashbery!
They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
'This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.'
Here 'they' is a deictic pronoun (we don't know who they are), and I suppose you could call the quotation marks deictic too (we don't know who's talking).

'Organic wholes' heads the section that says we expect totality or coherence in the lyric. A fairly simple, but unresolved issue, in that fragments (real or pretend) may make us "assume a totality and then to make sense of gaps".

The third 'convention or expectation governing the lyric' is 'theme and epiphany'. Again, the brief discussion suggests that this may be achieved in various ways.

The final part of the chapter is headed 'Resistance and recuperation', and looks at the techniques reader can use to overcome Wallace Stevens' observation that "The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully". So, recuperation here is similar in meaning to vraisemblance - but here it's likely to involve playing with various metaphorical understandings to achieve a meaning that is coherent with itself and the poem. This is where Empson makes a significant appearance.

In the end, this chapter is not a poetics of the lyric; it's a sketch of the factors such a poetic would have to take into account.
It indicates what problems require further work if we are to reach an understanding of the conventions of poetry. (p 188)

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