Friday, 21 December 2012

Choosing between sound and sense

When readers engage with a poem, they pump in effort and attention. Where does that energy go? Usually it seeps out as paraphrasable meaning and emotion, having soaked up through the words. Sometimes the words are less permeable, so the reader might need to do some fracking - initiating small, controlled explosions under the surface to release the content.

But suppose that route to the surface is blocked - where does the thwarted energy go? Readers might simply give up, cutting their losses. Alternatively, attention might spread sideways, focusing on the language, so that sound is given the role of generating meaning - not the same type of meaning obtainable through paraphrase, more the effect of a musical phrase (from now on I'll use "meaning" and "music" to distinguish the 2 effects). This "music" is often present as a secondary effect in paraphrasable poetry. Take for example the following from Eliot's "Prufrock"

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells

This has a clear enough prosaic meaning. Sonically it's dense too. As well as being a rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter, the interplay of the S sounds against the T sounds creates a rich texture. This isn't mimetic - the S sound isn't the wind, or sadness. As in music, the rhythmic variation of 2 contrasting tones generates an effect which is abstract, ready in this case to be infused by what's nearby.

Suppose meaning were partly suppressed - trivialised perhaps? Suppose Eliot had written

The restless knight's old mum might ask the belles
"will sawdust restore ants and destroy smells?"

Where would the reader look for meaning then? I suspect the music might encourage them work harder to find an obscure meaning, though I don't expect them to feel compensated. The sonic texture adds intensity and memorability, but if the meaning doesn't live up to its billing, the result can be comic.

Poets can disrupt the reader's search for meaning in other ways. Brian Reed (2007) introduced the term "attenuated hypotaxis" to describe a sequence of "tenuously interconnected" clauses and phrases "possessing some relation of subordination to another element", but with the connections blurred, "inhibit[ing] the formation of clear, neat, larger units". In this type of poem readers are more likely to feel the music - maybe something like Bernstein's

Casts across otherwise unavailable fields.
Makes plain. Ruffled. Is trying to
alleviate his false: invalidate. Yet all is
"to live out" by shut belief, the
various, simply succeeds which.

The suppression might be more radical than this. Here's part of a poem by Susan Howe

amulet     instruction      tribulation
winged      joy      parent      sackcloth      ash
den      sealed      ascent      flee

The next step might be Sound poetry. Severed from representation, the poem has to become more self-sufficient. But what incentive will lead the reader away from meaning, especially since, as the Eliot example shows, words can have both meaning and music. Purist concentration on one aspect has artistic worth as an experiment, but does it work as literature? Perhaps representational vs abstract art's an analogy for this. Perhaps a song's lyrics and music provide another analogy - bland lyrics can become intense given a good melody. Put intense words and music together and you often get less than the sum of its parts.

Some poets assert the primacy of music.

  • "To [Elizabeth Bishop], the images and the music of the lines were primary. If we comprehended the sound, eventually we would understand the sense" (Dana Gioia)
  • "Bunting would say that you should hear the 'meaning' of the poetry purely in the sound ... Word patterns which may at first appear dense and complicated on the page become articulated and clarified, resonating across the poems' structure. The subtleties and echoes of language which hold a poem together are revealed by the process of sounding it" (Richard Caddel)
  • Eliot wrote that "The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him"
  • "Words fall into rhythms before they make sense. It often happens that I discover what a poem is about through a process of listening to what its rhythms are telling me", Anne Stevenson, "Poetry (March 2007)"

Though music and meaning can be closely coupled, there are benefits in assuming independence -

  • "A statistical analysis which shows that sound effects in Pope are likely to coincide with lexical meanings whereas in Donne there is a discordance, probably intentional, between phonetic effects and semantic units (George Steiner)
  • "The remarkable result of ValĂ©ry's treatment of sound and sense as consciously separated variables is that it allows the semantic components of the poem to take on structural value and the structural values of the poem to take part in a semantic or signifying action in turn" (C. Crow)

Should the poet draw attention to the sounds? If they don't, will the reader (even subconsciously) notice them? If the meaning is strong, they might not. Received forms at least alert the reader to attend to sounds. Some forms impinge on meaning, emphasising certain words; others offer opportunities for surprise. In "Reader's Strategies in Comprehending Poetic Discourse", P.Begemann suggests that "Patterns immediately recognised could possibly influence meaning construction from the very start, thus gaining an 'autonomous' semantic function, whereas others may be chronologically and semantically subordinate to lexical meanings". Factors affecting obviousness of a pattern include "distance between equivalent sounds; frequency; degree of similarity; size of repeated segment; stress/unstress; statistical frequency of repeated sound; lexical category (function words vs content words); position (on line); stylistic convergence (parallel patterns on other textual levels"

It's not so much that sound and sense compete for the readers' attention, more that one aspect might (perhaps because it's dominant at the start) eclipse the other. Sometimes sound or sense has to be compromised for the sake of the other, though if one is completely absent, readers might not consider the result a poem. If the reader only notices the flaws without appreciating what has benefitted as a consequence, they're not getting the maximum from the poem.

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