Brian Boyd


On his book Why Lyrics Last

Cover Interview of April 03, 2012


I hope Why Lyrics Last might encourage those who have resisted poetry to recognize that they are not alone, that they already like a great deal of what goes into poetry, and that they can learn to like even tricky lyrics.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets offer a great place to start: some obviously, immediately, compellingly appealing; others puzzling in themselves and their relations to those before and after. If you don’t read them with the wrong expectations—that they are narrative, a narrative you’re just not getting—you can find different kinds of surprises and pleasures, some immediate, others delayed until you reread and re-savor.

Like many a lyric poet, Shakespeare can make his sonnets a series of hide-and-seek games.  Accept the invitation to discovery and you have a chance to explore intimately, even across centuries, the recesses of an extraordinary mind.

I began On the Origin of Stories with evolution and cognition. In Why Lyrics Last my strategy shifts. I focus on literary problems here not to construct a comprehensive biocultural model, but simply to draw on evolutionary and cognitive insights as they illuminate this or that, often in unexpected ways. For instance: the imbalance in number and size between sperm and eggs underlies—not that they knew it—the structure of the sonnets sequences that Shakespeare and his contemporaries inherited from Petrarch, and the problems inherent in the form, and the boldness of Shakespeare’s solutions in refreshing the form.

And this in turns leads into a wider issue: the role of problems and solutions, and costs and benefits, in literary studies—and indeed wherever we try to understand what people do.

Problems emerged with life, and evolution tracks successions of accumulated solutions. Each individual too faces a partly common, partly unique set of problems: for a writer, what to write next, for instance, how to hold an audience’s attention, and how to keep down the invention costs of a new composition while amplifying the benefits.

Shakespeare was in a unique position when he began writing his sonnets.  He had already set new standards in comedy, tragedy, and history, and in comic and tragic narrative verse, when he turned to lyrics to show what he, and poetry, could do without narrative.

Shakespeare had also recognized that sonnet sequences’ very mode of earning attention also threatened their lasting hold on readers.  He alone among his contemporaries found ways of writing a sonnet sequence bold enough and sly enough to earn readers’ attention—and puzzlement—for centuries.

As readers too we face problems when choosing what to read next, what’s worth our attention in the face of competing demands, how to maximize the benefit to us of what we read while keeping the costs acceptably low.  Understanding the problems facing particular writers at particular moments can help reduce the cost and raise the benefit of reading their work.

I’ve tried to make it more possible for readers of lyrics and readers of Shakespeare’s sonnets to see what lyrics in general, and the Sonnets in particular, do, and why.  What are the problems good lyric writers and readers set themselves?  How does understanding the special problems Shakespeare posed himself in his one lyric collection allow us to keep finding richer solutions to both the most admired and the most neglected of his sonnets?