PREFACE TO A
LYRIC HISTORY
T
o imagine the relation between poetry and history is to bring
forth immediately the problem of genre as fixed form and the
problem of history as a discourse of reference. Genre is a problematic
term because it implies fixed categories of the literary that, if they do
not transcend, at least endure temporal change. It is quite easy to call
into question all of the essentialism, or nominalism, or idealism that
such a stance implies about cultural forms.l And history, as we com-
monly use the term to refer to a narrative of event or events, raises
questions of rhetorical convention and, ultimately, ideology as condi-
I
See, for example, /':ncyclopedia of Poetry and Poetirs, ed. Alex Preminger (Prince-
ton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1965), s.v. "lyric," 460-70. The authors begin
by saying that lyric is not narrative or dramatic; then they speak of the "musical"
quality of lyric, qualitying it as a criterion and adding brevity, expression, and other
defining features. "Most of the confusion in the modern (i.e., 1550 to the present)
critical use of the term 'l[yric],' is due to an overextension of the phrase to cover a
body of poetic writing that has drastically altered its nature in the centuries of its
development" (460). One argument for the usefulness of generic categories and
against the frequent materialist assumption that the only alternative to local modes
of explanation is a transcendent model can be found in Norman Bryson, Looking at
the Overlooked:
Four
Essays
on
Still Life Painting (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1990),
12:
"I strongly sympathise with this materialist objection [to a higher
Platonic realm] .... But the objection brings with it an exceedingly drastic conse-
quence, if the only way forward would seem to be to abandon and disown the con-
cept of generic series even though such series exist objectively and historically.
Whenever a series is discontinuous, and jumps from one specific cultural milieu to
another, it would seem that materialist analysis must close its eyes, or issue an auto-
matic accusation of idealism to anyone who thinks it is still a series. But it may be that
the analysis is not being materialist enough."
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