The Clashing Of Codes A Definition Of Modernism

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To trace all the points of intersection between modernist poetics and contemporary literary and interpretive theory would require another book. Instead, I shall propose a basic formula which might help readers to organise their own investigations, and which can be tested against poems already discussed, those listed in the Exercise section, and texts of your own choice. Modernist poetry involves what I shall term the clashing of codes.

The isolation of distinct categories of the structural and functional condition of a text is the common feature of practically all forms of literary/linguistic method. The classic example is Barthes's identification of five codes in S/Z, but in most instances of localised close reading or broader interpretive debate we encounter a bipolar opposition. In this study the double pattern has functioned as our keynote, and in every other element of linguistic and critical practice binary doubling is endemic: speech and writing, signifier and signified, deep and surface structure, noun phrase and verb phrase, langue and parole, poetry and prose, text and context, metonym and metaphor, linguistic and non-linguistic, literary and non-literary.. .The list could continue. Identifying these binary relations and tensions is not too difficult but problems arise when we attempt to construct homologies (persistent and verifiable relations between one opposition and another) and hierarchies (the identification of the dominant and the subsidiary code). Is poetry always metaphoric and prose metonymic? Does literary writing always subordinate context to text? With regular verse form we are provided with a relatively stable model against which we might test homologous relations. It is the continuous and intensive interplay between the two parts of the double pattern that enables Jakobson to construct a minutely detailed plan of what the sonnet is and how it discharges meaning. But in modern poetry the fundamental opposition between the two elements of the double pattern is discernable but persistently resistant to broader homologous correspondences. Is a particular free verse line a component of syntax (thus shifting the text toward the referential, non-poetic realm of signification) or does it subvert and effectively dominate the progress of syntax (thus shifting the text toward the enclosed specificity of the poetic function)? Is the use of irregular correspondences between metre and syntax (Eliot and Thomas) an attempt to sustain the cultural eminence of the poetic or an admission that twentieth-century poetry invokes the binary code that underpins our analyses of poetry from the sixteenth to the twentieth century (syntax and line) but thereafter sends our familiar system of homologous relations into a bewildering cycle of disappointments, missed connections and revisions? Try out the following experiment.

Literary theorists often draw up two columns of binary oppositions to illustrate the structural and functional relations of a particular text (see the metaphor-metonymy columns in Chapter 5, pp. 134-5). Choose a modern poem and first identify the structural tension that to you seems to be its most prominent feature. For 'Whispers of Immortality' you might identify metrical regularity versus referential incoherence; for 'Spring and All' you might isolate speech (the unstructured progress of the syntagm) versus writing (the static presence of the line). Then go on to identify other oppositions that are within or at least addressed by the text. You will, I believe, find that it is difficult to maintain a regular and stable distinction between the horizontal and vertical axes of the columns. For example, with 'Whispers of Immortality' you might identify:

tradition metre the past poet textual langue innovation syntax the present persona referential parole

Such a diagram is useful in so far as it documents those elements of the text that normally enable us to naturalise it; to describe how it works and what its effects are intended to achieve. But in this case difficulties arise in the shift from documentation to naturalisation. Does metrical regularity (tradition) guarantee the commanding presence of the poet? Or does the bizarre referential collage (innovation) compromise and decentre this presence and turn the poet into an element of the text?

So how do we make sense of modernist poetry? Roland Barthes in S/Z provides a useful distinction between modernist and traditional writing by associating the former with the scriptible (writerly) and the latter with the lisible (readerly) text, and this opposition could be claimed as the archetype for later manifestations of reader-response theory—particularly in Fish's and Culler's discussions of free verse. Roughly summarised, a scriptible text is that which demands the participation of the reader in the production of meaning while its lisible counterpart involves a straightforward transference of effects to a more passive reader. One could argue that Wordsworth's 'The Idiot Boy' is far more lisible than scriptible in the sense that we are fully informed of who the characters are, what they do and of the emotional effects of these activities. Eliot's 'Prufrock' is scriptible in that we remain constantly uncertain about the spatio-temporal circumstances of the speech act, and we are consequently obliged to speculate on how the text works and what it means—in Barthes's terms we become the co-writers of the text.

A non-literary analogy could be found in what happens when we encounter the utterance of a child or a non-English speaker. Our linguistic competence enables us to invoke a deep structure for what might be an ungrammatical statement and provide a 'correct' surface structure. Substitute literary for linguistic competence and in most instances a very similar process occurs in our response to the scriptible or difficult modernist poem (think back to Gross's naturalisation of Pound). Just as we draw upon our awareness of the conventions of the langue in order to comprehend an incorrect non-literary utterance, so with a modernist poem that fails to satisfy the usual expectations of formal or referential coherence we draw upon our experience of how lisible, traditional texts work. But is this the proper way to deal with modernist texts? When we correct or make sense of non-literary statements we make two implicit assumptions: first that there is an abstract norm against which we might judge deviant statements; second, that the act of deviation from this norm is unwitting, the result of incompetence. The problem with modernism is that the poet consciously and deliberately violates the norm of literary conventions: the indefinable nature of the free verse line and discontinuities of reference and syntax are purposive strategies. So if we impose a 'correct', normative structure upon modernist poems, make sense of or demystify them in accordance with our familiarity with traditional texts, we are doing a grave injustice to the purpose and intended effect of the artefact. An equivalent process in the visual arts would be the retouching of a picture by Picasso or Dali to make the figures and objects more recognisably 'real' and comprehensibly connected. Is it possible to find an alternative to the usual methods and objectives of naturalisation (usually termed 'closure') that in some way respects the modernist text's deliberate and purposive act of removal from the norms and conventions of tradition?

I have only half explained Barthes's concept of scriptible texts. These, he argues, demand the active participation of the reader in the production of meaning but this cooperative enterprise is, in conventional terms, an inconclusive, interminable process. We make connections between formal features, identify codes and oppositions, locate precedents in other texts. But we do not, in accordance with the usual objectives of naturalisation, bring this process to a conclusion and confidently state that 'Eliot means.'. Instead the activity of reading is interactive rather than interpretive or normative. The binary oppositions that we identify in Eliot's or Williams's texts are verifiably present but they are in a constant and unresolvable state of tension and uncertainty which would be reflected in our critical analysis. The sort of critical writing produced by such an assumption is usually categorised as poststructuralist and has drawn angered responses from critics and theorists who believe that unless criticism 'makes sense' of the text it cannot properly be regarded as criticism. For example in Ferocious Alphabets (1981) Denis Donoghue calls poststructuralists (De Man, Derrida, Bloom, Hartman, Barthes) 'graphireaders', 'From GREEK graphos, writing. Hence the graphireader deals with writing as such and does not think of it as transcribing an event properly construed as vocal or audible'. Traditional naturalisation is practised by 'epireaders', who 'read and interpret—the same act—in the hope of going through the words to something that the words both reveal and hide. Epireaders say to poems: I want to hear you. Graphireaders say: I want to see what I can do, stimulated by your insignia' (151-2).

As the disagreement between Jakobson and Riffaterre demonstrates (see Chapter 3, pp. 85-92) reading and interpreting poems are by no means 'the same act'. When we naturalise or 'epiread' a poem we have to strip the text of its immediate, multidimensional effects, and it could be argued that in criticising poems, particularly modernist poems, we should acknowledge the copresence of epireading and graphireading (a pairing roughly equivalent to Barthes's lisible and scriptible). In short we should balance the element of 'going through the words' or making sense of them—no text is entirely impenetrable—against our admission that some element of the relation between form and substance, effect and meaning is constantly shifting and uncertain. For example Gross could have qualified his imposition of Pound's 'missing grammar' with the admission that he can never be entirely certain of what is missing; in our reading and interpreting of Williams's 'Spring and All' we can make valid claims as to the poem's status as an impressionistic record of a perceptual experience but we should also acknowledge that the tension between the static visual text and its spoken form is persistent and irreconcilable.

I shall close with a definition of modernist poetry which draws together a number of issues already raised.

Modernism and more specifically modernist poetry, represents the terminus of literary history. All subsequent and forthcoming developments—postmodernism included—are extensions, mergers or revivals of established modernist and pre-modernist precedents. In making this claim I do not rule out the possibility that poems to come will possess a sufficient degree of originality, stylistic and thematic brilliance, to earn them the title of classics of their period. What I do claim is that formal experimentation has reached, to borrow a phrase from popular culture, the final frontier. In the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries the poems by Eliot, Thomas, Gomringer and Williams discussed above would not have been accepted as poems—or they would have been treated by the more tolerant as engaging eccentricities. They would have violated the accepted conventions of the poetic langue. The strange and deviant patterns embodied by these texts have now become part of the readjusted poetic langue. Further adjustments cannot and will not occur. How do I know? Consider the premise established at the beginning of this study—the double pattern. Poetry, whatever else it might be or say, can only be accepted as poetry if it supplements the organisational framework shared by all other linguistic genres with a continuous pattern of effects drawn primarily from the material, non-signifying element of language, and we have reached the limits to which this relationship can be pressed. The line can now consist of a single letter (see e. e. cummings); it need not even follow the linear progress of the syntagm (see concrete poetry); it can be organised around patterns of pure sound which defy syntactic or lexical coherence (see the poems of Edith Sitwell or Robert Lax). My point is that in the early decades of this century poets could move beyond precedent and consequently disrupt the conditioned expectations of the competent reader, but today a precedent can be found for any form of modernist innovation and if the reader is interested, an essay, book or thesis can be provided to inform us of the best way to naturalise this phenomenon.

Pure innovation might be a thing of the past but there is one elusive and compelling question that demands the attention of critics and literary historians. The double pattern at once defines poetry and foregrounds the paradoxical nature of poetic writing. It involves limitless tensions and cooperations between the referential function of language—what it does—and the material identity of its sounds and shapes—what it is. The rules and conventions that govern this relationship have, from Shakespeare to e. e. cummings, been extended, amended, revised and abandoned, but the relationship endures. Why? All poems, irrespective of their concessions to or violations of the norms of formal regularity or referential coherence, draw the reader into the poet's experience of two compositional imperatives involving a constant interplay between tangible patterns of phonemes and graphemes and the less tangible and very personal visions that can be disclosed by these signs. Poetry is, and has always been, the form that consciously and deliberately obscures the distinction between language and whatever exists beyond language. The possibility that linguistic and pre-linguistic experience are inseparable and mutually dependent dimensions of the human condition has held centre-ground in recent poststructuralist-deconstructionist controversies, but the tenacious attraction of the double pattern for writers and readers of poetry provides us with a much more engaging perspective on this question. Language is not simply a means of mediating our condition; it is part of our condition and poetry allows us to experience rather than just ponder this relationship: signifier and signified, sign and substance become persistently interchangeable elements of a process. What a poem means can never finally be detached from what a poem is. Auden:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making.

it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

Exercises THE USA

The formal eclecticism of Eliot, Auden and the Movement had its American counterpart, particularly in the work of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Both maintain an allegiance to the parallelism of the double pattern, rarely allowing the disjunctions of categories 14 to disturb the reader's sense of a speaker in control of his linguistic material and mediating pre-linguistic events, images and responses (see Gross, 1964, Chapter 8).

The principal difference between the US and British modernist traditions exists in the continuation in the United States of the innovative techniques and objectives of Imagism (see Gefin's Ideogram, 1982, for a detailed account). Poets such as Zukofsky, Duncan, Creeley and Olson all sought to construct a transparent poetic medium. Charles Olson's essay 'Projective Verse' (1950) is a chaotic yet intriguing reengagement with the ideal of poetry as pure expression, uncontaminated by syntactic and metrical rules: The line comes (I swear it) from the breath...for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing can come to, termination' (p. 19). Test Olson's manifesto against his Maximus Poems, and pay particular attention to how his line divisions disrupt syntactic continuity and open the text to the imposition of normative patterns of coherence. Note also how the poems of Olson, Creeley and Duncan engage with categories 1 and 2 of the line-syntax model.

The following is from Olson's 'Letter 13' of Maximus Poems:

I have this sense that I am one with my skin

Plus this—plus this:

that forever the geography which leans in on me I compell backwards I compell Gloucester to yield, to change

Polis is this.

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