On Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society”

In their introductory remarks to a volume dedicated to a re-assessment of the work of Theodor Adorno and “the American dimensions of his thought” (Telos 149, Winter 2009), Russell A. Berman, Ulrich Plass, and Joshua Rayman point out that “since its beginnings in 1968, Telos has repeatedly turned to the work of Theodor Adorno, asking how his version of critical theory could cross the Atlantic and make sense in the United States.”

Indeed, Telos first published what would become one of Adorno’s most influential pieces of literary criticism in the American academy. I am speaking, of course, of the essay “Lyric Poetry and Society” [“Reder über Lyric und Gesellschaft], the English version of which first appeared in the pages of Telos in 1974, appended by a helpful introduction by its translator, Bruce Mayo.

As Mayo observes, Adorno’s lecture was originally delivered as a radio address in 1957. With the Cold War in full swing, and in a Germany still reeling from its Nazi past, Adorno threads lightly as he elaborates an argument which seems almost obvious to us as contemporary readers. Namely that the ‘universality’ of lyrical content is essentially social. Yet this is obvious only in retrospect, since as Mayo points out, the field of literary studies in post-war Europe and North America was allergic to ideological interpretations, emphasizing instead the self-containment of works of literature. Adorno’s tactic, therefore, is not to deny this interpretative framework, but to argue that close readings should also lead to larger historical, linguistic, and cultural claims.

“An important claim of Adorno’s argument,” Mayo writes, “is that New Critical methods—careful, sensitive readings of words on the page, attention to irony diction, shifts of tone and perspective implicit in the words—must lead ultimately to a full appreciation of a poem’s social, historical and economic being if applied with sufficient rigor” (Telos 20, Summer 1974). It is a move which brings to mind Adorno’s negative dialectical method, insofar as he claims that even the intuition that poetry is a refuge from the alienating homogeneity of modern society is itself social.

The breakthrough of Adorno’s argument, and the reason for the essay’s continuing relevance, is that his interpretive framework manages to advocate close readings of lyrical poetry even as he argues for a social interpretation of lyric poetry. Put another way, while the process of interpretation must be extracted from an immanent examination of the poem, and not merely imposed from the outside, in the depths of lyric poetry one finds a collective subterranean current.

Beyond this astute critical move, one which opens the floodgates to political interpretations of lyric poetry, Adorno also reinterprets the intentional fallacy by arguing that whether intended or not, the success of a work of art overcomes false consciousness. This Marxian reading of intention recalls Engels’s claim that Balzác was a bourgeois author who nonetheless wrote against his class interests. Offering crisp readings of a reactionary poet like Stefan George Adorno offers us a way out of the vexed problem of the relation between an author’s life, his beliefs, and his works. In this sense, a poem serves as an indexical referent to larger socio-political forces; it is a philosophico-historical solar clock, and in great poetry one not only hears an individual’s voice, but the voice of language and society making sense of their own contradictions.