Representing the Kosmos: The "Lyric Turn" in Whitman

Onno Oerlemans
1995 Walt Whitman quarterly review  
AN IMPORTANT TREND in the criticism of the past several decades concerns the changing status of the major modes. Since the New Criticism, lyric-by which I mean not the form but the mode, a desire for and in writing I-has steadily yielded its position of importance to narrative, and threatens to disappear as a distinct concept altogether. Structuralism converted the New Criticism's ideal of lyric freedom and the ambiguity or even inscrutability of its meaning into the determinisms of narrative.
more » ... ith the deconstruction of narrative closure, the field has been more or less cleared of competing modes; the literary impulse, the urge to write, is seen to begin as a plotting, a construction, an engagement with the multiple and expanding strictures of narrative form. Moreover, the recent trend toward a materially and historically based criticism, while revealing the contingencies of the literary moment, has at the same time tended to evaluate all texts on their ability to reveal the truths of history, ideology, and economics. That is, writing of all kinds is judged by its ability to display either heteroglossic multiplicity, or what Jameson calls the "single great collective story" of the "struggle to arrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity," which is an "uninterrupted narrative [of] fundamental history."2 Following Bakhtin, such criticism has identified lyric as the solipsistic and doomed desire for a mode of pure subjectivity, an exploration of the literary or creative moment which demonstrates only the illusion of an autonomous consciousness. In a . recent book on Wordsworth, for instance, Alan Liu argues that lyric is a kind of theft, enabling the poet to peddle the stories of other people as mere images, and vaguely pointing to the profundity of the poet rather than the tragic histories he fails to represent. For readers like Liu, lyric marks the artifice of high literary culture. On the other hand, narrative delivers all that lyric cannot, since it attempts to order and to reveal, to make connections that lie beyond the confines of private awareness. It is impersonal, even when it is used for autobiography, because it aims for transparency. Crucially, as Liu argues, narrative is the mode of history. 3 We only know history when we tell stories about it, when we see the plots that operate over time in our lives, our families, our cultures. Narrative theory has become pervasive too because it allows for no other beginnings, and perhaps because as a kind of conspiracy theory (of the determinism of narrative structure), it is a description of the practice of Whereto answering, the s. ea, Delaying not, hurrying not, Whisper'd me through the night, and very plainly before day break, Lisp'd to me the low and delicious word death, And again death, death, death, death, Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous'd child's heart, But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet, Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over, Death, death, death, death,
doi:10.13008/2153-3695.1448 fatcat:bhkiw6dhdjcbjlfj6i6z2gru6m