Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 1 March 2006

"Language and Linguistic Structure" by Nigel Fabb

The author thinks that

  • "literary form holds of a text in ways which are inherently complex, and that this complexity is experienced as aesthetic" (p.47).
  • "The complexity of the text comes partly from its generic uncertainty" (i.e. what genre it belongs to) (p.76).
  • "Contradictions and complexity are not always experienced as aesthetic; sometimes they are experienced as annoying or upsetting, and sometimes as problems which must be solved... Perhaps an 'aesthetic set' or willingness to entertain complexity without attempting to resolve it is the reader's contribution to his or her own aesthetic experience" (p.69)

He then proceeds to show that line-breaks, stanza-breaks and form are harder to identify than might first appear. I was most interested in his discussion of how readers might try to identify a poem as a sonnet, and how metre and form identification interact - only once a piece is identified as a sonnet can one apply the expectation of iambic pentameter to the lines (some of which may several irregularities, so are poor clues in themselves of whether the poem is a sonnet).

He mentions "Optimality Theory" (which takes a holistic approach rather than using an ordered sequence of unbreakable rules) but suggests that "there is no unified prosodic theory ... the best account of metre is modular and non-holistic" (p.135). The book begins with "Generative Metrics", showing how various rules can be applied to a sonnet to make it conform to the sonnet template. Some of these rules are carried out by readers - sometimes because the text gives instructions. For example, the word "heaven" may be contracted to 1 syllable by the reader; if it's spelt "heav'n" then it should be contracted. Poets also use accents or even line-breaks to indicate how/whether syllables should be sounded.

In p.48 he writes that "This theory claims that in all kinds of metrical verse counting is fundamental and other characteristics of the line are secondary". This claim leads to the predication that "metrical texts should always be verse texts: that is, divided into lines". He looks at "Paradise Lost" in this light, pointing out that even rewritten as prose, it contains tell-tale 10-syllable markers. Some theories where rhythm (rather than counting) is taken to be at the heart of metre "have no explanation of why there is no rhythmic prose, and must also treat syllable counting metres as fundamentally different from rhythmic metres".

On p.51 he wonders how poets manage to count up to 10 as they compose. "Most linguistic structure is binary, some possibly ternary, but nothing higher than this" ... "because metrical lines apparently involve large numbers they are therefore processed by a cognitive system which is able to count above three and is therefore unlike linguistic cognition" though in this section he suggests that in poetry "counting of large numbers is reduced to repeated counting in small numbers".

Chapter 3 brings in Sperber and Wilson's Relevance Theory. "thoughts can be deliberately communicated, in which case they are called implicatures". These carry a degree of strength ("the degree to which it is held to be true by the thinker"). He looks at how readers decide whether (or by how much) a poem is a sonnet. Sometimes a poem contains contradictory clues - it may look sonnet-shaped on the page, but have the wrong number of lines, erratic rhyme etc. Because it's like a sonnet, readers are likely to read it like they read sonnets (which, the pragmatist might say, is all that matters).

On p.63 he says that "literary form is a kind of meaning... Just as the text implies certain meanings, so it implies certain forms". Form and meaning can interact because they "exist in the same cognitive space". On p.85 he brings in the idea of "mutuality" - how communicators might say things in an indirect way (but a way they think the audience will understand) to foster a sense of shared understandings. Forms are not often announced (though sometimes a sonnet is entitled "Sonnet").

Chapter 5 does for lines what earlier chapters did for sonnets - "there are many kinds of evidence for the division into lines", some stronger than others. When we listen to poetry, we may treat pauses as line-breaks. "Lineation, perhaps more than any other formal characteristic of a text, feels like a fact about a text, not an inference or interpretation of the text ... It is mainly in the past century that ways have been found of overcoming the strength of visual evidence for lineation" (p.138). He presents a challenging fragment by Mallarmé, and later (p.167) points out that "For us, layout is likely to be strong evidence for lineation, but it would probably have been taken as weaker evidence by sixteenth-century readers". Later he looks at stanza breaks in the same kind of way.

He makes a lot of Sperber and Wilson's idea that "poetic effect [is] the peculiar effect of an utterance which achieves most of its relevance through a wide array of weak implicatures". He discusses a wide array of weak effects, though they're nearly all form-based. This makes the book of little interest to the non-theoretical poet - there's too little meaning and emotion, too many conclusions that are "common sense" or easily by-passed by common-sense - and Fabb's viewpoint in this book, that "formal complexity has a function irrespective of whether it is mirrored in the concept of the poem" will leave the common reader cold

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