Form in Performance: Song at the English Institute by Tessie Prakas

This year’s English Institute opened with a paper by Ardis Butterfield entitled “Why Medieval Lyric?” This title, a nod to Jonathan Culler’s benchmark essay “Why Lyric?” (2008), was a fittingly ambitious response to the theme of the conference; the Institute brings together a group of established scholars on a yearly basis to address a specific, typically capacious topic, and this year’s was “form.” Butterfield’s large-stakes title, though, was also fully merited by the skilful and wide-ranging turns in her paper: in asking, with particular reference to the verse of medieval England and France, whether lyric is form, the paper also raised crucial questions about genre and performance. Butterfield touched on the longstanding critical tendency to use “lyricism” as a synonym for metrical grace, describing such grace as in fact an “accidental virtue” of the typically short, functional texts that make up most of the medieval lyric corpus. Most memorable, to me, was her emphasis on the idea of performance as central to the experience of reading medieval lyric. This centrality derives in part from the fact that so many of these lyrics were originally set to music; though little of that music survives in recorded form, we have a scholarly responsibility to mark its loss. Butterfield went a little further than that, though, arguing compellingly that the capacity to mark loss is a crucial function of the lyric itself, not only of its reader. Each poetic moment, as she put it, “registers its own moment of performance.”
What precise form this “registering” might take seemed to me a particularly intriguing question with regard to lyric forms beyond the medieval, too, and it was a question that surfaced, in various ways, in subsequent papers at the Institute. Can verse form preserve a specific occasion of oral performance? Is it a script for future performance? Is form in fact constituted by iterability? These questions are especially pertinent in relation to Simon Jarvis’s ongoing scholarly consideration of verse “thinking,” and the connection was foregrounded at the Institute by Jarvis’s attention to intonation during his own paper. “How to Do Things With Tunes”—like Butterfield’s paper referencing a seminal theoretical predecessor, in this case, Austin’s “How to Do Things With Words”—focused on the intonational contours “essential to the speech act.” Jarvis argued that we have personally and publically constituted repertoires of particular intonation contours, and that these are central to the acts of speaking, reading, and thinking alike. Such contours are, moreover, associated with prose as well as with verse, enabling and indeed compelling us to speak not simply of the rhythms of verse but also of prose rhythm.
The attention given by Jarvis and Butterfield to conceptualizing the moment of performance was somewhat at odds with the “histories of form” underpinning Meredith Martin’s description of ballad discourse. While preoccupied with similar questions of temporal transmission, Martin perceived ballad meter, as used by nineteenth-century poets, as a metrical record not of specific performative or intonational instances, but rather of the discursive processes surrounding and generated by them. In moving away from a specific lexical or musical artifact, Martin implied that performance is connected rather with thinking about verse than with verse itself.   
Of the seven papers given at the Institute, these three appeared to me to form a particularly coherent—though by no means uniform—cluster, in that each took “form” as a cue implicitly or explicitly to focus anew on the relationship between verse and music. Such a focus is refreshing and, indeed, necessary, given the still pervasive critical tendency to use the word “musical” as an overly metaphorical descriptor of pleasant auditory effects in verse. While neither the individual papers nor the conference as a whole set out specifically to address this tendency, it is exciting to find that the 2013 English Institute is generating new conversations in poetics and in literary criticism more broadly about the distinctions between literal and metaphorical forms of music.