Brian Boyd


On his book Why Lyrics Last

Cover Interview of April 04, 2012

The wide angle

In On the Origin of Stories (see this Rorotoko interview) I asked why we are storytelling and especially fiction-making animals.  It’s a fat book, a fairly comprehensive book.  But to be truly comprehensive about literature you also have to take in verse, not just fiction.  Verse forms the other main strand of literature, sometimes connected with fiction, sometimes not.  In Why Lyrics Last—a much leaner book, this time—I turn evolutionary and cognitive lenses on verse, and especially on verse without narrative.

In On the Origin of Stories I suggested that storytelling, like art in general, is adaptive: that is, that we have evolved to be storytelling and art-making animals because stories and art offer us benefits, even in the hard currency of survival and reproduction.

I proposed that we can find the common features of all the arts if we understand art as cognitive play with pattern.  Art, I suggest, derives from animal play, but it reflects the unique importance of cognitive rather than physical skills to humans, and the importance of pattern in understanding information. Just as other animals have evolved to engage in physical play, we have evolved to engage in the open-ended cognitive play with pattern that we call art, in our key information modes: sight, in the visual arts; sound, in music; movement, in dance; sociality, in fiction; and language, in verse.

Just as animals move better through physical space thanks to the simulation of play, we move better through mental spaces thanks to the simulations of art.

I didn’t know what I’d find when I asked myself what an evolutionary perspective might bring to verse, or how different the answers might be to those I found when I asked about fiction.  Since inquiry feeds off examples, I also wondered how might an evolutionary perspective make a difference to the most successful of large-scale lyric projects.  Or, perhaps, to the most problematic of lyric projects.

Curiously, Shakespeare’s Sonnets fits both bills.  The Sonnets sell more copies than any other Shakespeare work, and they also attract more criticism than any other except the notoriously enigmatic Hamlet—and more crackpot theories than perhaps any other literary work whatsoever.

I had no idea what I would discover about lyric, and about the Sonnets, except that the idea of pattern would probably play a key role.  As it happened, Shakespeare’s purposes wonderfully clarify the distinction between narrative and lyric—a boundary the poet seems to play on and probe throughout—and the singular achievement of the Sonnets.