Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Poetry, voice, and discourse analysis

"Language and Creativity: the art of common talk" by Ronald Carter (Routledge, 2004) analyses fragments of dialogue from various contexts to show how conversationalists are creative at a linguistic level - one example provided is

A: Yes, he must have a bob or two.
B: Whatever he does he makes money out of it, just like that.
C: Bob's your uncle.
B: He's quite a lot of money erm tied up in property and things. He's got a finger in all kinds of pies and houses and stuff

Carter points out that "the most frequent forms of linguistic creativity include: speaker displacement of fixedness, particularly of idioms and formulaic phrases; metaphor extension; morphological inventiveness; verbal play, punning and parody through overlapping forms and meanings; 'echoing' by repetition, including echoing by means of allusion and phonological echoes" (p.109).

This creativity performs many functions, amongst them "to give pleasure, to establish both harmony and convergence as well as disruption and critique, to express identities and to evoke alternative fictional worlds which are recreational and which recreate the familiar world in new ways" (p.82). It can be performative, competitive, figurative, space-filling, or for fun. Situations which are less concerned with information transfer (e.g. banter) give more scope for creativity. Often on "the surface and to the outsider (though not to the participants) there is much divergence, disconnection and incoherence. Beneath the surface there is, however, much convergence and coherence marked in a distinctive range of pattern-reinforcing linguistic features, especially repetition" (p.101), and that "how what is said is as significant, if not more so, than what is talked about" (p.105).

This "Common talk has continuities with and exists along clines [aka gradients] with forms that are valued by societies as art. The values which are attached to the art of common talk will vary according to context, time and place" (p.210). The author suggests that "Speakers also often wish to give a more affective contour to what they or others are saying. It is hypothesised here that there are three essential expressive options open to them: the expression of intimacy, the expression of intensity and the expression of evaluation" (p.117). All of these features tend to be increased in informal situations. Shifts along these dimensions are significant and often signposted - e.g. "proverbs appear at a discourse boundary, as if functioning to close down a conversation by summarising an attitude or by indicating a particular stance towards what has been said or to allow a smooth transition from one topic to another" (p.134).

I think we're alert (often subconsciously) to these nuances of register change - to how they're signalled and what their purpose is. At an appointment between a GP and a patient for example, a patient will react to the doctor's invitation to informality, seeing it perhaps as an indication that there's nothing seriously wrong. The GP on the other hand might be trying to extract a less inhibited description of the symptoms from the patient. Friends in discussion are also sensitive to the significance of these switches, or at least they sense the undercurrents that these shifts and switches create.

At a 2014 poetry workshop run with Emily Berry, Jack Underwood said he thought that poetry nowadays was more about voice and less about comparisons. He suggested that participants could try suppressing explicit narrative, using juxtaposition (of registers, tone, etc) to create distances for the reader to travel. The sample poems were mostly by Americans. Here are extracts from 2 of them

  • There are about 35,000 elk.

    But I should be studying for my exam.
    I wonder if Dean will celebrate with me tonight,
    assuming I pass. Finnish Literature

    really came alive in the 1860s.
    Here, in Cambridge Massachusetts,
    no one cares that I am a Finn.

    They've never even heard of Frans Eeemil Sillanpää,
    winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature.
    As a Finn, this infuriates me.
    ("I Am a Finn" by James Tate)
  • It's a travesty of hand-stitching, a decapitation.

    Whose cotton limb? It dangles from my thumb
    and forefinger. The universe slackens in its shadow
    ("Ruminations on 25mm of Cotton" by Heather Phillipson)

There are rapid changes of register (changes of intimacy, intensity and evaluation are evident). Both are presented as if from a single persona, but in general the distinction between this and polyphony isn't clear - polyphony can be flattened into monologue. In Eliot's notes for "The Wasteland" he writes "Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character,' is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem". Sections of the Wasteland read as dialogue even if they're not, and vice versa - "Do/ You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember/ Nothing?"/ I remember/ Those are pearls that were his eyes./ "Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?"/ But/ O O O O that Shakesperian Rag—" or

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?

There's little simile and narrative in these extracts. But need the interplay of registers be at the expense of narrative and form? In the past I think there are many type of poetry capable of exhibiting contrasting registers - the cubist idea of fusing different viewpoints and the use of collage are early 20th century discoveries, but the use of a Fool, a mad person or a cacophonous crowd to depict polyphony go back much further. Many have retained some kind of plot. And what about sound? Poets of many types have suggested that the form and sonics of their poems create a constantly changing, parallel effect to the meaning, that an even-handed dialogue is possible between sound and "meaning".

  • "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.", T.S. Eliot
  • "The sounds, acting together with the measure, are a kind of extended onomatopoeia - i.e., they imitate, not the sounds of an experience ... but the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture", Denise Levertov
  • "sound enacts meaning as much as designates something meant", Charles Bernstein
  • "sound in its due place is as much true as knowledge (and all that mere claptrap about information and learning). Rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in the shared place", J.H. Prynne
  • "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
  • "The ear is satisfied when the metre is balanced and the rhyme struck, but the sentence is incomplete and the mind seeks its satisfaction in resolution of the sense... By the counterpoint - a kind of suspense - created between the arrangement of sounds and the construing of sense, a pace builds and a drama develops", Michael Schmidt
  • "The classic prejudice persists, however, that sound is secondary to meaning. The prejudice has been challenged by John Hollander, who, seeking to show the relation between sound and poetic meaning, discovers that sound pattern can play the role of an allegory or metaphor of the poem's content the role of sound in language becomes clear only when expression becomes artistic, so that language exceeds its purely representational function", Anca Rosu

Because discourse-based poems emulate speech, they tend not to use sound effects (regular ones, at least). These new-style poems exploit readers' conversational skills, using their reactions as the pivots that articulate the movement within a poem in preference to using their ear for music. The tasks performed in the past by sound can be simulated by register changes -

  • Particular sounds were thought to be invested with particular meaning (within the context of a particular poem, at least). For example an "oo" sound might signify sadness. In discourse-based poems there's a corresponding way to trigger emotion - for instance the switch to an impersonal standard phrase might denote cold-shouldering or distancing.
  • An earlier phrase can be alluded to by use of rhyme. In discourse-based poems, sudden formality might remind the reader of the previous formality, or use can be made of stand-up comedians' callbacks.

Older poems might be analysed by counting beats and identifying constellations of sounds. W.G. Shepherd for example, quoting "Bellflowers, seldom seen now, stellar, trim. by Peter Dale, remarked "Note the triple statement of the el(l) sound counterpointed against the duple m; the narrowing of el(l)'s vowel to ee and i - boldly interrupted by recapitulation of ow; and the modulation of s through st to t". I've seen descriptions of how discourse-based poems work using terms like "shifting planes", "tectonic plates colliding", "slippery", "tonal juxtapositions", "shimmering surfaces", etc. Narrative is compared to melody, and discourse-based poems to atonality. I think that one can be less impressionistic than this. The poems might be studied by

  • re-casting as a multi-voice poems.
  • identifying the direction and magnitude of each jump.

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