The Sliding Scale

Jakobson cites free verse as an exception to his model of the double pattern, but he takes the case no further: 'Except in the varieties of the so-called "vers libre"...any meter uses the syllable as a unit of measure at least in certain sections of the verse'. The question of what free verse actually is will be considered in more detail in Chapter 6, but for the moment it would be useful to examine the way in which free verse has been used by critics as a means of validating their thesis that the methods by which we naturalise poems are not, as Jakobson argues, entirely responsive to intrinsic textual and linguistic structure but are, at least to some degree, a consequence of our ability to construct or impose meanings from within a shared interpretive framework.

Reader-centred criticism is a complex and varied phenomenon, but it would not be an overgeneralisation to claim that it involves a shifting of the system-instance, langue-parole relationship away from the author and the techniques and conventions of composition toward the reader, who will draw upon a similar formula as a means of classifying and interpreting texts. Jonathan Culler (1975) demonstrates how this shift in emphasis operates, by changing the context within which we would usually interpret the opening sentence from W.V.O.Quine's philosophic essay 'From a logical point of view'.

From a Logical Point of View

A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity.

The typographical arrangement produces a different kind of attention and releases some of the potential verbal energy of 'thing', 'is' and 'simplicity'. We are dealing less with a property of language (intrinsic irony or paradox) than with a strategy of reading, whose major operations are applied to verbal objects set as poems even when their metrical and phonetic patterns are not obvious.

(Structuralist Poetics, 163)

This type of exercise became something of a habit with the new generation of structuralist/reader-response critics of the 1970s and 1980s, and holds a number of implications for the way we perceive and analyse the double pattern. Clearly with free verse the relation between the metrical and syntactic structure of the text is infinitely flexible, and as a consequence it becomes the duty of the reader to impose an accepted framework of interpretive conventions—such as the possibility that typographic spacing is a signal to the reader to foreground elements of the syntactic structure—that in the interpretive context of prose would not be invoked. Culler concedes that where formal patterns are a regular and intrinsic feature of the text the notion of a strategy of reading is balanced against our perception of linguistic phenomena that are verifiably there, but he maintains that these operate as sequence of interpretive signals: 'the essence of poetry lies not in the verbal artifice itself, though that serves as a catalyst, but more simply and profoundly in the type of reading. which the poem imposes on its readers' (164). Thus, he shifts the critical model of the double pattern away from Jakobson's notion of both elements as a cooperative and intrinsic feature of signification toward a reader-centred model in which elements such as metre, sound pattern and line endings motivate a particular attitude to the poetic as opposed to the prosaic use of, for example, metaphor.

I would argue that this thesis contains a number of flaws. If a poet chooses to write within the regular rules and conventions of the pentameter or the sonnet—and before the twentieth century, poets, with a few rare exceptions, had no choice—then it becomes difficult to distinguish between what Samuel Levin in 'The Conventions of Poetry' (1971) has called the 'cognitive' and the 'conventional' dimensions of the double pattern. Consider again the closing couplet of Shakespeare's sonnet,

All this the world well knows yet none knows well, To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The cognitive features of this couplet are determined essentially by its correspondence with the rules of grammar, while its conventions are determined by the abstract formula of two rhyming iambic pentameters. In this instance the cognitive rules are not violated, but in the second line there is a case of what is known as stress reversal. In the iambic pentameter the seventh syllable should receive a lower stress value than the sixth and the eighth. Clearly to grant the word 'to' a higher stress position than 'men' would be inconsistent with the rhetorical pattern of the sentence. A form of tension has been created between the cognitive and the conventional patterns, and as a consequence we are invited to respond to the foregrounding of 'men' at this point of interaction, and to follow this perhaps by noting that the sonnet concludes by re-emphasising the active, predatory and dangerous function of lust as part of the male condition ('men' rather than the collective, asexual noun 'man'). The positioning of 'men' at the point of interaction between the cognitive and the conventional dimensions of the text seems to produce the same 'release of verbal energy' as Culler identifies in the typographical positioning of 'thing', 'is' and 'simplicity'. But there is a difference. Consider Levin's definition of poetic conventions:

the essential fact about the conventions [rhyme, meter, etc.] is that even though they comprise patterns or structures of language elements, the patterns or structures so constituted have no linguistic significance. Another way to put this is to say that a structure has linguistic significance if it figures in a grammatical or phonological rule, and that the structures entered into by the conventional features figure in no such rule.

In the abstract, Levin has a case, since neither an iambic pentameter nor a rhyme scheme can be regarded as grammatical formula, but the actuality of the sonnet makes his distinction more uncertain and problematic. The sonnet demands the most disciplined and intense coordination of the cognitive and the conventional dimensions of language, to the extent that in reading the text the two become effectively inseparable. Following Levin's formula we could claim that the foregrounding of 'men' causes no violation of a grammatical rule. But we might also claim that in the sonnet the metrical rule is the grammatical rule: the syntactic structure of the text is determined by its abstract conventional structure to a degree that any disjunction of this parallelism becomes just as apparent and has the same effect upon signification as an instance of grammatical deviation.

With Culler's 'rewritten' piece of free verse Levin's formula transfers more easily from the abstract to the particular, in the sense that the free verse line effectively follows the rules of grammar and operates only as a secondary pattern of conventions which foreground elements already present in the grammatical pattern.

We should now pause to consider how the problems raised by Jakobson, Culler and Levin affect our understanding of the double pattern.

Jakobson holds that poetic form or convention plays an active, purposive role in the creation of meaning, but Levin and Culler argue that it provides a framework which prompts and accommodates specific interpretive strategies through which the reader imposes, rather than discloses, meaning. The disagreement is complicated by the examples of the sonnet and free verse, because the Jakobson model appears to be more valid in the case of the former and the Levin-Culler model in the latter. If we accept that the conventions that constitute poetic form operate as a langue which governs and effectively defines each poetic parole, how is it that the relation between the two can change radically with two different texts?

In order to address, if not to entirely resolve, this question I shall propose an analytic framework which will allow us to compare, and indeed judge, interpretive models against individual texts. I shall call this the sliding scale. This is a comparative index against which we can consider the interactive relation between the two dimensions of the double pattern, to adopt Levin's terms, the cognitive and the conventional. Interaction is the key term because to qualify for inclusion the text must create a distinction and consequently an interpretive tension between the cognitive and the conventional. The two basic phenomena that will allow us to identify and then to judge the relation between the two are the sentence (cognitive) and the line (conventional). At one end of the scale we will find forms such as the sonnet which involve a thickening and a foregrounding of the purely conventional features of poetry to the extent that form can never remain immune from meaning. At the other we will encounter forms such as free verse where in some cases the lines of the poem correspond neither to an abstract metrical formula nor to a particular pattern of conventions operating within the poem itself. In such cases the line is no longer entirely a function of an abstract metrical code, but more the point at which the readers' perceptions of what the structure of free verse is plays some part in the way that the poem is naturalised. To see how the sliding scale might assist us in judging and understanding the questions raised in the conflict between Jakobson and Culler/Levin we should consider the relation between poetic form and the protocols of naturalisation (see Appendix for a brief guide on how to use the double pattern and the sliding scale).

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