Brian Boyd


On his book Why Lyrics Last

Cover Interview of April 03, 2012

In a nutshell

Why do all cultures have verse?  Why nevertheless, is poetry a minority taste, unlike stories, even among keen readers of literature?  And why, all the same, does some verse succeed in touching hearts and minds across the centuries?

What distinguishes poetry from prose, anyway, and why does that make a difference to its demands and delights?  What is special about lyric verse, verse without stories?  How can what we know of the mind explain the particular challenges and rewards of lyrics?

After I raise these questions in general terms, and try to answer them from evolutionary and cognitive viewpoints—more of this in a moment—I move on to Shakespeare.  His Sonnets rate as the most successful of lyric collections, and ten or perhaps twenty of the poems are dear to lovers of English literature.  Yet very few people read the sequence right through.  What do both the sonnets’ appeal at their best, and the resistance they offer to sustained reading, tell us about lyrics in general and about Shakespeare’s aims in this extraordinary collection?

Here’s the start of my answer: We can understand the abundant information in the world rapidly, in real time, only if it falls into patterns.

Narrative seems highly likely to be the default task orientation of the human mind: that is, if our minds can process information patterns in narrative terms, if they can interpret as events what they experience, they automatically will.  Narrative organizes experience as naturally as a magnet organizes iron filings.  Stories appeal so widely partly because their principal patterns usually converge so effortlessly.  They also hook attention by providing their own internal sense of relevance: Hamlet’s or Elizabeth Bennet’s aims, for a time, become ours.

Lyric poetry can turn the absence of story to advantage.  Precisely because it resists the automatic convergence of patterns that we normally meet in narrative, it can explore patterns of its own, patterns of experience and emotion, of image and idea, of word and structure, of set forms and found freedoms.  Because lyric poetry lacks the internal relevance a story supplies, it allows us the illusion of access to another’s thought at its least constrained by circumstance, appealing to others regardless of their circumstances.  And since a lyric forfeits the supplied circumstances of a story, it invites an expansively resonating response, appealing to our imaginations to intuit the relevance, whatever our circumstances might be.

The freedom and intensity of high lyric verse tend to offer greater challenges than stories, and different kinds of reward.  That’s why I try to show how thoroughly Shakespeare’s purposes in his Sonnets—which suggest but strongly resist narrative—differ from those of his plays and his once wildly successful narrative poems.