September 2012

Lightsey Darst

nonfiction

Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets by Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd's new book, Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets, mostly concerns itself with the last two words of its provocative title. Having explored the interrelation of narrative and cognitive science in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Boyd, for his exploration of "the pleasures that verse can offer aside from those of narrative" chooses as his test case Shakespeare's sonnets because, as he says, "after having made his mark in dramatic and narrative verse, Shakespeare sought in the sonnets to stake a third perch on Parnassus by testing what he could do as a writer without stories."

This claim, on which more or less the entire book rests, couldn't be more convenient: Shakespeare's project exactly coincides with Boyd's. The problem-solution model Boyd employs here (derived from Karl Popper via Ernst Gombrich, et al.) also leaves me dubious: his model requires relentless pragmatism on Shakespeare's part. (The artists and writers I know exhibit pragmatism in working out the details of their projects and figuring out how to live while they do their work, but the projects themselves often spin from sheer dream and desire.) It doesn't help that Boyd gives little space to the popularity of the sonnet or the closure of theaters because of plague or any other reason for Shakespeare to write sonnets. Boyd adduces no particular evidence for his claim, either (as of course he cannot). But what really leaves me cold is Boyd's failure to recognize that what he takes to be specific to the sonnets -- fathoming rather than advancing emotional situations in highly patterned language -- is pervasive in Shakespeare's work. Shakespeare was never an accomplished inventor of narrative; all his best plots were borrowed. What he does like no other is imagine what it would be like to be inside a given narrative -- how you might feel if, say, your uncle had murdered your father and married your mother -- and he goes on doing this in the sonnets.

If Boyd cannot claim that Shakespeare set up his sonnets as a specifically narrative-free zone, then the sonnets no longer work as a test case of verse alone. Knowing this, Boyd goes back to his claim again and again, which is itself a bad sign for the argument. Repetition doesn't help -- "Shakespeare, already highly successful as a writer of plays and narrative poems, appears to have set himself as a problem to make the most of the preeminent form of lyric in his time, sonnets in sequence," "Shakespeare avoids story," "Shakespeare does not tell a story, or stories, in his sonnets," "Shakespeare avoids narrative" -- and neither does bullying: "...we can only conclude that here he sought to frustrate narrative in order to demonstrate the power that his verse could have when free of story," "Such lack of concern for sequence in the work of a great storyteller can only indicate his wanting not to tell a story."

As some poet or other might have said, he protests too much, methinks.            

Minus the storyless singularity of the sonnets, we're left with a mostly forgettable essay about the sonnets in which the chief interest is borrowed: for example, Helen Vendler's observation that in Sonnet 30, in the line "I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought," sought sounds on the ear like the past tense of sigh. Boyd turns up precious little that sheds light on the particular pleasure of poetry. Exploring rhythm, he notes that the opening line of Sonnet 30, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought," "strikes us as an arresting variation on the iambic pentameter norm. Why? We do not really know."

Well, thanks for that! (Perhaps it's that the line seems to promise some other meter instead -- as if things work differently in the past, our past that Shakespeare has now strangely enchanted.) Later on, we get the helpful note that "I expect neurocognitive research to help work out why" verse rhythm works on us the way it does.

One might be excused for turning back to the cover and wondering what became of the book promised by the title. The tidbits of science digest are inside, though, in throwaways like this:

All verse depends on line length, on lines that usually take two to three seconds to utter -- according to one explanation, the length of the human auditory present, our capacity to hold a sequence of sounds in our head at once; according to another, the size of working memory, which can cope with five to seven different chunks of information.

And we get the story you may already know about the adaptive value of art, how art offers us safe cognitive practice, with a poetry spin:

Just as dogs perform play bows to solicit others to play fights or play chase, poets use the verse line and cues like rhythm, timing, rhyme, and unexpected images to solicit a play attitude to language.

Tempting as it may be to make off with these little gems for one's own purposes (cocktail chatter with the dean, perhaps), to do so would be to ignore that, though these references to science don't add much to Boyd's interrogation of Shakespeare's sonnets, they're not neutral; they do in fact cohere to form a vision of poetry, albeit a vision that Boyd does not directly present to the reader. Take, for example, his assertion that

The poems that keep readers returning offer a perfection of design, an assurance of control, a guarantee of endurance that seem the converse of the disintegration and the oblivion of death.

But much modern poetry actually offers something quite different: a safe zone in which to practice controlled loss of control and lack of sure meaning -- an experience which is certainly, in the modern world, adaptive. Is the possibility and the poetry that performs it beyond Boyd's radar, or is he consciously excluding it and them?

At the end of Why Lyrics Last, Boyd examines a sonnet by the contemporary British poet Carol Ann Duffy. He praises this clever, conventionally well-crafted poem for its mastery and then concludes, "As long as lyrics can offer so much, they look like lasting." But what if they offer something entirely different?

Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets by Brian Boyd
Harvard University Press
ISBN: 978-0674065642
240 pages