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This article is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

Burden of Proof: On Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric
(Harvard, 2015)
Paul Franz
‘Theory’ in the title of Jonathan Culler’s new book is disarmingly without article, definite or indefinite; not so ‘the lyric’, and it is for us to weigh the difference. Like his earlier Structuralist Poetics (1979), The Pursuit of Signs (1981), and On Deconstruction (1982), which explicate and assess broad developments in criticism for an academic and wider readership, this book spends much of its time surveying the arguments of others. It is lucid and ranging. It is also, however, much more than a critical survey. Though it does not call itself such, Theory of the Lyric is, in an important way, a defense of the lyric – which here means its defense as a category worth having a theory about.

This polemical intent bears emphasizing, since Culler, currently Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, might otherwise seem to remain above the fray. As he writes in his preface, ‘This project originated in my fascination with lyrics’ strange way of addressing time, winds, urns, trees, or the dead and asking them to do something or stop doing what they are doing.’ Culler’s interest in this device goes back at least as far as his early essay on ‘Apostrophe’, first published in 1977 in the journal Diacritics, and modified to stand as a chapter in 1981’s The Pursuit of Signs. It would scarcely be an exaggeration to call his new book an extended inference from this single device in rhetoric, found in Blake’s ‘O Rose thou art ...


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