by Jackie Swift
Children revel in poetry: the ridiculousness of nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss stories, the unexpected fun of wordplay. So why is it, by the time most of us reach college that love of poems has vanished? “Students often say they don’t like poetry partly because it’s been treated as an object of interpretation,” says Jonathan D. Culler, Department of English at Cornell University.
“The experience of trying to guess what their teacher wanted when he or she said, ‘What does this poem mean?’ was off-putting.”
For Whom Is Poetry Written?
Culler, who has spent almost 50 years writing about contemporary literary theory and literary criticism, wants to help restore the magic of literary texts for ordinary readers. In his most recent book, Theory of the Lyric (Harvard University Press, 2015), he argues that literary criticism’s emphasis on hermeneutics, the interpretation of meaning for a text, has wrongly pushed the role of the reader into the background.
“Theory of the Lyric was my attempt to argue for poetics,” Culler says. “Rather than wanting to know what the text means, poetics asks how it is that a text can have the meanings that it does for a reader.”
While working on the book, which looks at the Western tradition of lyric poetry, Culler was struck by a significant insight into his award-winning, 1975 work, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (second edition, Routledge, 2002). “I realized I had approached the topic of poetics of the lyric as if the poems existed to be interpreted by critics, making the critic the ideal reader for lyrics,” he says. “I saw my task back then as explaining how we got from the poem itself to the interpretations of critics. That came to seem like a very partial vision of things. It’s not clear we should think of poems as existing in order to be interpreted by professional literary critics. So in Theory of the Lyric I tried to set up a framework for thinking about poetry not as objects for interpretation but as objects for pleasure and instruction. As Horace says, poems should teach and delight.”
Over his long career, Culler has written a host of books tackling various schools of criticism — from New Criticism and structuralism to deconstructionism and historicism — but Theory of the Lyric represented his return to writing explicitly about literature. Now, as he contemplates retiring in the summer of 2020 after 43 years at Cornell, Culler intends to continue his exploration of literature by pursuing a long-standing project on the nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire.
For the Love of Poetics
“Everyone says you should retire to something,” Culler says. “And for me, it’s this project I’ve been working on periodically for probably 50 years. It’s a bit of a problem because I have file cabinets full of yellow notes, many handwritten, that I don’t even want to look at any more. And then, too, over all those years, as critical fashions changed, my own investigations of Baudelaire changed, too.”
Culler is working on Baudelaire’s masterwork, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). He wants to take on the critical analysis of Walter Benjamin, a German critic writing in the 1930s. “Benjamin’s essays on Baudelaire are symptomatic readings,” Culler explains. “He doesn’t credit Baudelaire with any insights of his own. But instead he finds his work to be a potent reflection of the tensions and social and political forces of nineteenth-century France. Evil and the figure of Satan are very important in these poems, but Benjamin dismisses all that as simply a nonconformist attitude on Baudelaire’s part. And he has little interest in these poems as poetry rather than as symptoms of conditions under capitalism.”
Culler hopes to swing the popular critical interpretation of Baudelaire’s work away from Benjamin’s lens of sociopolitical forces and nascent capitalism toward what Culler sees as the poet’s emphasis on lyrical performances. Baudelaire’s emphasis grapples with the problems of understanding the human condition within the Christian framework of the centrality of sin.
“Benjamin is extremely popular these days, and people are always warning me that even if I have good points to make about his failure to comprehend Baudelaire, I won’t triumph,” Culler says. “They tell me even if I win the battle, I will lose the war. That doubtless is true, but it won’t stop me from continuing.”
The Optional Narrator
Culler’s readiness to take on Benjamin is typical of his eagerness to add to the scholarship of his discipline. Even as he reaches the end of a long career, he’s still finding new ideas to champion. One of them is his interest in a nascent movement in narratological circles called optional narrator theory. This theory challenges the notion that all narratives have a narrator, even if there is no character who narrates. In other words, a novel like Pride and Prejudice, for instance, isn’t narrated by Jane Austin but by Austin’s narrator.
“It seems worth attempting to reverse it in order to think more seriously about authorial choices and also to restore the rights of the ordinary reader against a professional literary criticism.”
“Students do not naturally imagine a narrator but have to be trained to think this way,” Culler says. “Exercises have to be created for them that say, ‘Look at what the novel says; what does the narrator know?’ And then they start characterizing the narrator as if the narrator has knowledge of a particular world when, of course, what the narrator knows is what Austin stipulated would happen in the book. It’s an artificial construction we’ve devised, and it seems worth attempting to reverse it in order to think more seriously about authorial choices and also to restore the rights of the ordinary reader against a professional literary criticism.”
The Rights of the Ordinary Reader
The rights of the ordinary reader inform the social role of lyric poetry, as well, Culler says. He points out that when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, many people turned to W. H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.” They quoted lines that applied particularly well to the situation, for instance: “The unmentionable odor of death/Offends the September night.” But at the same time, the poem has other lines people did not mention and which could even be seen as unacceptable by many, for example: “I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”
“I’m interested in how poems like ‘September 1, 1939’ are taken over and quoted and passed around, but the meaning they are given in the social context may have very little to do with what a sensible person looking at them carefully would see in them,” Culler says. “Which just goes to show that we need to think about how poems function for readers. They aren’t primarily objects of interpretation, since their social resonance may have very little to do with what they actually say.”