The question of how poetry might be described and defined as a linguistic structure has troubled readers since...well, since we have been able to keep records of what critics have said about literature. Regarding English poetry, this quest can be divided roughly into three stages: the classical sources (Aristotle, Plato, Longinus, etc.); the sixteenth-nineteenth centuries, in which critics both drew upon classical precedent and developed theories to account for the types, methods and objectives of modern English poetry; and the twentieth century, in which literary criticism has become an academic discipline and has found itself encountering, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes not, the non-literary practices of historicism, semiotics, sociology, politics and, most significantly, linguistics.
Apart from sharing the objective of defining poetry, the critics of these periods have one other, more paradoxical, thing in common. They already know what in purely abstract terms poetry is, but they remain uncertain about what exactly it does to and for the reader, precisely how these effects are achieved and to what extent such effects can be identified as purely poetic, rather than as elements drawn from the signifying procedures of other linguistic discourses. I can tell you in crude but accurate terms how to recognise a poem: it is a structure whose formal common denominator—that which separates it from non-poetic discourse— is its division into lines. The title of that rare and briefly fashionable phenomenon, the prose poem, testifies to the validity of my definition—the text calls itself a prose poem in order to warn the reader of its claims to be something that in basic empirical and formal terms it is not. The problem, or the paradox, faces us when we attempt to state how, apart from being divided into lines, the poem employs linguistic structures and exhibits effects that are essentially different from those found in other discourses.
The most widely debated literary device is the metaphor, or, in a more general sense, the trope. We use metaphors—comparing or contrasting two or more linguistic elements in relation to a prelinguistic impression or fact—in all forms of speech and writing. How do we identify the essentially poetic qualities of metaphor? We could argue that by submitting this commonplace device to the compositional and interpretive restraints of metre, rhyme and lineation we change its effects.
Consider the following line from Wordsworth's Resolution and Independence:
The sky rejoices in the morning's birth
The metaphor is fairly easy to decode. The vehicle, to rejoice in birth, and the tenor, the sky and the morning, draw upon shared contextual correspondences—beginnings, optimism, new starts, and so on. The question we have to ask is how the copresence of metaphor and the structure of the iambic pentameter make this effect uniquely poetic? Consider the difference in effect between Wordsworth's line and the same metaphor transplanted into a form that might open a novel:
The sky seems to rejoice in the birth of the morning.
We could argue that in Wordsworth's line the unstress-stress pattern of the pentameter succeeds in foregrounding those words which effectively govern the metaphoric correspondences: sky, rejoices, morning's, birth. But this argument could be countered by pointing out that although the prose version is not metrically regular, the same words maintain their rhythmic and thematic priority in the sentence. Does the fact that we hear a regular iambic undertow in Wordsworth's line affect the way that we perceive the metaphor? If so, how can we claim that metre—which does not in itself create meaning—can influence meaning? Even if we could make such a claim, it would bring us up against even more troubling questions about the form of poetry that has effectively dominated twentieth-century poetic writing, free verse. If we succeed in identifying the essentially poetic qualities of Wordsworth's line, then by implication the prose line is unpoetic. Yet it bears a close formal resemblance to lines that we will come across in the 'poetry' of Eliot, Pound and Williams for example. We will consider the problematic relation between regular and free verse later in this chapter and in Chapter 6, but for the moment let us return to the question of whether elements such as metre can influence, perhaps even create, meaning.
It would be useful to specify the terminology and the limitations of our enquiry. Linguistics can provide us with the tools and the methodology to analyse syntactic structures, semantics and patterns of sound, but what is lacking is a single term or method which allows us to fully consider the interrelationship between the structures of language as a whole and the specific details of what is variously known as metre, prosody or, in its broader sense, versification. I shall call this area of interaction the double pattern. A brief definition is required: in all forms of linguistic discourse some kind of pattern emerges. At its most basic it is the pattern of comprehensibility, which is a function of grammar, syntax, semantics, and the interlocking of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic chains. We understand and create linguistic statements because we know that some words should and some words should not follow one another in order to create intelligible meaning. To use a term made famous by Noam Chomsky, it is the deep structure, the abstract framework of rules and conventions, that allows us to create and decode the specific and complex meanings of a chain of individual words. Occasionally, and often by accident, this referential, syntactic pattern of discourse will create surface patterns of rhythm and sound which draw upon the materiality of language but which do not relate directly to its conventions of meaning and signification. The double pattern occurs when this secondary, surface pattern is deliberately deployed as a regular and persistent feature of the text. The unit by which we measure and classify this secondary pattern is the poetic line. The key issues in our use of the double pattern as an analytical framework are first, the means by which we classify and interpret the relation between individual lines and second, the relation between lines and the pattern of syntax. The first task can be dealt with and addressed from within the sphere of versification.
1 Some poems will consist of lines that do not vary in their syllabic length or metrical pattern, the most widely used in sixteenth-twentieth-century poetry being the iambic pentameter. Thus the framework of the secondary pattern is regular and repetitive. If the poem uses rhyme this will create a counterpattern of relationships between individual lines. The most basic rhyme-metre formula will be found in the couplet, the smallest and simplest example of the stanza. Rhyme is important in regular verse because it allows poets to vary the length and metrical structure of their lines while maintaining their distinct identity. The most important and widely used form of unrhymed regular poetry is blank verse, in which the regular metrical structure of each pentameter is the single factor which distinguishes the line from interlineal movement of syntax. Free verse is a phenomenon that, unlike its counterparts in regular poetry, avoids abstract definition. The free verse poem might deploy an irregular and unpredictable rhyme scheme, the lines themselves might exhibit a variable pattern of rhythmic and metrical sequences. Or they might not. The only definitive component of the free verse poem is its division into lines which do not necessarily correspond with the patterns of syntax—the double pattern is thus preserved, but the means by which the reader distinguishes between these two formal structures (perhaps only by seeing the poem on the page) is, a century after the arrival of free verse, still a matter of conjecture and opinion. This problem brings us to the second point, the relation between the two components of the double pattern, and this, as we shall see, will feature as the point of departure for the more varied and complex issues of signification, interpretive conflict and literary history that will concern us in this study.
2 In purely technical, descriptive terms the relationship between the two components of the double pattern is easy to document. For instance, the most obvious case of conflict or interaction between the two can be categorised as enjambment. This occurs when the fundamental unit of versification, the line, literally cuts into the structure and movement of syntax. A line might divide adjective from noun, verb from subject or object. The degree of tension between the two components depends partly upon the type of verse and partly upon questions of interpretation and vocal performance. If the dangling adjective also incorporates a rhyme-word then a sense of what we can term poetic counterpoint will be evident no matter how the verse is interpreted or read aloud. But if the poem does not rhyme (blank or free verse) it would be possible in oral performance to close the gap between the lines, maintain the timing and rhetorical structure of the syntax and effectively marginalise the prosodic component of the double pattern. What we see on the page might not correspond with what we hear.
Such questions might seem to limit themselves to the now dated spheres of metrical pedantry and localised close reading, but they actually provide us with a productive axis between our mastery of the technical jargon of poetic form and the far more problematic issues of how our technical definition of poetry corresponds with the essentially poetic generation of effect and meaning.
Let us return to enjambment. If the performer or the critical interpreter chooses to acknowledge the break between an adjective and a noun, what does this tell us about the intentions of the poet and the textual patterns of signification? We could argue that the poet exploits the double pattern as means of foregrounding a contextual issue, a particular mimetic effect: hesitation or uncertainty on the part of the speaking presence. In written prose discourse this would be impossible without the use of a stage direction ('speaker pauses') or in a novel the interpolation of ellipses or the interjection of the narrator ('John paused, before proceeding with his account^. In the poem such an effect can be achieved by, to use a term made familiar by the Russian Formalists, 'the baring of the device'. In this case the device is the poetic line, which, instead of maintaining a parallel correspondence with the structure of syntax, effectively interferes with it. Thus the material, non-signifying component of the double pattern succeeds in becoming part of the means of signification. But having reached this conclusion we have hardly begun to answer the questions it engenders.
The formula that underpins the methods and assumptions of structuralism, semiotics and linguistics is the distinction and relation between system and event, or in the terms used by Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structuralism, langue and parole. These might refer to the structure, conventions and rules of a particular language in relation to an individual statement or text, or they might encompass a broader network of linguistic and non-linguistic sign systems—colours, cars, buildings, clothes, food, and so on. One of the most contentious issues to emerge from the various uses and investigations of the structure-event formula is in the threat it presents to the notion of originality, individuality, or in current phraseology, the autonomy of the subject. If, when using language, we need to draw upon the vast impersonal structure of the system in order to be understood, then it would seem that what we say or write is by no means unique to our personal, prelinguistic experiences or perceptions; rather it is something made available from a shared system of enabling conventions which constitute and delimit the varieties of discourse. If we accept that a sentence in English can have meaning only by virtue of its relations to other sentences and abstract deep structures within the conventions of the language, then when we supplement syntactic structure by imposing upon it the arbitrary code of rhythm, metre, rhyme and lineation, we are imposing even more limitations upon the identity and individuality of the subject represented within or speaking through poetic language. So when we praise poetic discourse for allowing us to represent hesitation and uncertainty within the text, without contextual interjections, we also face the contention that this imagined speaker who pauses and hestitates becomes more a function of the text itself and less an individual who inhabits the world outside the text.
This question does not arise only from the special instance of enjambment. Most poems, whatever their immediate provenance or concern, will at some point engage with issues of perception, truth and identity that we would usually associate the non-literary spheres of philosophy, psychology, theology and sociology. Within these discourses it is permissible to use devices that are more selfconsciously foregrounded in poetry: metaphor, allegory, analogy, symbolism, irony, parody. But the one feature of poetry that will not be found in the philosophic theorum or the essay on psychology is the use of metre, rhyme and lineation. So when in the 'Immortality Ode' Wordsworth states that,
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth, we can accept that he is making a profound statement about his own existential vision. But had Kant or Wittgenstein made such a statement in rhyme and metre we would assume that they had taken a day off from their more serious philosophic conjectures. Why? There are several interrelated responses to this. We could claim that if Wordsworth's single objective was to communicate his model of mortality and existence, then there are surely better ways of clarifying such issues than dressing them up in metre and rhyme. Why then did he choose poetic form? It might be that the 'music' of metre and rhyme have some almost subliminal, persuasive effect upon the addressee. If so, this is not so much a statement, but more an exercise in deception. To complicate matters, we find that in adopting this traditional perception of what poetic form is and does, we have further compromised the equally traditional notion of the poet as the source, the originator of a thought or an image. If his message registers as an impressive vision of life and reality, particular to Wordsworth, it does so at least partly because of its ability to draw upon the same system of conventions and techniques shared by other poets and other poems. Northrop Frye observed that 'Poems are made out of other poems', and if we accept that the prosodic material of construction plays some part in the generation of specifically poetic meaning we would also have to concede that the poetic identity of William Wordsworth is similarly 'made out of other poems'.
Before testing these issues and questions against the work of a number of eminant linguists and critics, we should remind ourselves of what they actually are.
1 The double pattern All poems consist of two linguistic patterns, one which corresponds with and organises the structure of the poetic line, and one which poetry shares with other linguistic discourses, the structural keystone of which is the sentence, and the broader signifying functions of which (the generation of metaphor, the use of irony, the employment of grammatical deviation, etc.) are unlimited.
2 The relation between the two patterns This problem can be approached in two ways: first, we can, using linguistic and prosodic terminology, classify the points at which the metrical or even the visual identity of the line, interacts with, controls, submits to, the structures of syntax; second, we can consider the extent to which each dimension of the double pattern influences the other in the production of meaning: to introduce another currently problematic term, we can examine how the tensions created by the double pattern play some part in the way that we naturalise poems or extracts from poems.
3 Text and system All linguistic statements must draw upon a system of rules and conventions. The double pattern means that poetry must draw upon two of these at the same time: first, the structural terms and conditions of syntax, metaphor and, in a broader sense, literary stylistics; second, the conventions of metricality and unmetricality, rhyme and non-rhyme, that constitute the fluctuating identity of the poetic line.
Clearly, none of these three categories of analysis is entirely immune from the others, but it is the third that will effectively dominate this study. After this chapter our emphasis will be determined by the chronology of literary history, from the sixteenth century to the present day. Literary history provides us with an index to our late-twentieth-century understanding of the two codes or systems of the third category. For instance, the decentred narrative and unstructured rhetorical play of Eliot's The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock' represents an extension, even a violation, of the metaphoric and narrative codes that governed earlier examples of the dramatic monologue by Browning. However, its use of a variable metrical structure and an irregular rhyme scheme would find a precedent in the Romantic ode or in short narratives such as Coleridge's 'Christabel'. Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey' bears no thematic resemblance to Milton's Paradise Lost, yet its form and, consequently, its effect upon the reader pay allegiance to Milton's success in establishing the unrhymed pentameter as a vehicle for non-dramatic poetry.
The two elements of the double pattern certainly do not follow parallel lines of change and development through literary history. What we will do in Chapters 2-6 is to examine the changing and unpredictable relation between these two codes as a basic framework for the examination of much broader questions about poetry, its relation to other literary and non-literary discourses and its position within different cultural, social and political contexts. Before relating these and other questions to individual texts we shall, for the rest of this chapter, examine a number of ways in which the double pattern, the relation between the formal identity and the broader signifying function of the poem, have been dealt with by different individuals and interpretive schools.
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