Naturalisation is a precise definition of the process of critical exegesis. We naturalise literary texts by first identifying their formal features and classifying their genre (poem, novel or short story, or more specifically regular or free verse) and then by considering how this particular form of linguistic organisation can absorb and restructure meaning. The conventional features of poetry are naturalised when we translate our initial impression of the multi-dimensional effects of a poem—its rhyme scheme or its metrical pattern in conflict with its syntactic structure for instance —into a prose description of how these effects occur and of the variety of meanings generated from them.
One major distinction between poetic and non-poetic writing exists in the relation between the textual object and the metalanguage of criticism and understanding. When we engage with prose either in discursive critical language or by employing the precise descriptive formulae of transformational and generative linguistics, we are closer to the stylistic and referential pattern of the text than we can be with poetic writing. With poetic writing there is an uneasy relationship between (i) the materiality of the poem, (ii) the mental register of our initial response and (iii)
the subsequent process of naturalisation. Criticising and naturalising poetry involves a literal demystification of the text, in the sense that we are obliged to strip its 'meaning' from the interwoven patterns of rhythm, sound and lineation. But there are a number of, mostly tacit, conventions which allow us to effect this procedure without causing us to feel that any serious injustice has been done to our initial impression of the text. Consider the opening lines of Pope's 'Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot',
Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigued I said Tye up the knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead.
Reading those lines we can discern a peculiar tension between the progressive, syntactic movement of the couplet and the extra-syntactic echo of 'said' in 'dead'. Logically there should be no correspondence between Pope's straightforward order to his servant and the potentially disruptive juxtaposition of life (speech) and death. How do we naturalise this phenomenon? W.K.Wimsatt in his seminal article on rhyme 'One Relation of Rhyme to Reason' (1944) offers a formula, preempting Jakobson's sound-meaning thesis:
The words of a rhyme, with their curious harmony of sound and distinction of sense, are an amalgam of the sensory and the logical, or an arrest and precipitation of the logical in sensory form; they are the ikon in which the idea is caught (p. 163).
The key term here is the 'arrest and precipitation of the logical in sensory form'. Following Wimsatt's advice we might comment on how the said/dead amalgam of the phonological and the semantic add an extra dimension of signification to the message of the couplet: the fact that Pope is able to vocalise his own posthumous condition imbues what might otherwise be an unengaging problem of domestic order with a degree of dark comedy. But naturalising the tension between device and meaning in this way necessarily involves the imposition of the linear format of prose criticism upon the simultaneity of the initial impression. In other words when we naturalise—or in more basic terms understand—poetry we effectively translate one form of linguistic organisation into another. When we decode, analyse or interrogate all non poetic forms of signification we participate in a shared condition of composition and understanding. For instance when I state that NP (noun phrase) plus VP (verb phrase) underlies all English sentences, I should be aware that this formulaic concept of deep structure underlies the sentence that I'm using to describe it, all other sentences that I might use to clarify my statement and any sentences that my addressee might use to enquire about my statement. But when I consider the signifying pattern of Pope's couplet I would have to account for relations between words and their consequent meaning in a way that cannot be dealt with through the methodology used to describe all other non-poetic structures.
So, we face a paradox. Poetry, being language, will communicate meaning by employing the enabling conventions of the syntactic deep structure, but its total meaning cannot be accounted for through the techniques of analysis used to describe the relation between structure and text in all non-poetic uses of language. The paradox lies in the fact that, according to linguists such as Chomsky, we communicate with one another through linguistic competence, a shared, perhaps intuitive, awareness of how sentences work. Yet poets seem able to communicate effects to us through techniques that stand outside linguistic competence. This second level of understanding has been described (by Stanley Fish and others) as literary competence: we learn the grammar, the codes, of literature as a supplement to their counterparts in non-literary language. It is this notion of literary competence that enables Culler to claim that we, at least if we are 'educated', carry with us a recipe of interpretive techniques that are activated by such signals as rhyme and metre.
But this contention becomes problematic when we consider the hypothetical reader equipped with linguistic competence yet lacking the interpretive skills of literary competence. It is implausible to claim that such a person would not notice the chiming of rhyme words at every tenth syllable, the rhythmic pattern of unstress-stress or even, reading from the page, the curious typographic format of a free verse text. The disagreements we have considered so far have arisen because critics remain uncertain about how such encounters with poetic phenomena are transformed into understanding. Culler, Levin and Fish would argue that formal conventions are not in themselves linguistic phenomena but that we have constructed an arbitrary aesthetic code which draws upon the methods of linguistics and which will allow us to construct this second level of literary understanding. Jakobson and Wimsatt would argue that this second level of understanding is intrinsic to the structure of the text, and that although metre, rhyme and lineation are not in themselves linguistic elements they react with these elements to cause intensifications and deviations that literary competence enables us to name.
Who is correct? In effect both, and to account for this we should call upon the sliding scale. Consider again the case of the sonnet and free verse. Free verse must be regarded as the final episode in a long running conflict between poets and the prescribed langue of poetic conventions. Most of the early free versifiers offered a challenge both to themselves and their readers by presenting texts which did not correspond with the then accepted definition of poetry. But less than a century later the works of Pound, Williams and Eliot rest easily in the same anthologies and on the same 'Poetry' book-shelves as the works of Pope and Wordsworth. This is possible because readers and critics have developed methods of inscribing the techniques of free verse within an extended version of the interpretive programme of regular verse. They have done so, mostly, though not entirely, by identifying the salient formal features of free verse—at its most basic its division into lines—and adapting the well-established principles of reading regular verse to the new methods of naturalising these more tenuous formal elements.
This does not mean that Culler's contention that we supply meaning to the type of free verse that he cites is comprehensively justified—as we shall see in Chapter 6 free verse can be shown to possess its own intrinsic structure—rather that there is some truth in his attendant argument that poetic structures require the active participation rather than merely the passive reception of the reader. But the degree and method of participation will depend largely upon the position of the text on the sliding scale. Sonnets require us to participate in and to mediate the active, purposive transactions between grammar, metre, rhyme scheme, semantic transference and metaphor (the relation between the formal density of the text and the role of the reader is the subject of a much debated exchange between Jakobson and Michael Riffaterre—see Chapter 3). Free verse requires us to draw more upon our knowledge of the broader poetic langue in order to account for the ways that the formal gaps, discontinuities and improvisations that replace cohesive structure relate to the total signifying purpose of the text. The sonnet and free verse are useful binary poles for formal analysis, but as we shall see the sliding scale can operate as a starting point, or to be more accurate an entry point, for investigations of questions of how the study of literature and language interrelate, and of how the post-sixteenth-century history of English poetry can be charted and analysed both as a progressive and developing langue within which each text reproduces, extends or violates the conventions of others, and as a function of how textual experiment and diversification can be related to broader changes in aesthetic affiliation and judged as reflections or critiques of their social, cultural and political ethos. In the two concluding sections of this chapter we will consider briefly the history of the study of versification and look at how this corresponds with our perceptions of what poetry is and of how it relates to non-poetic writing and pre-linguistic events.
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