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week 5

Section 001 / Fall 2004 / Susan Tichy / Tuesday 7:20-10:00 / Thompson Hall 106


READING FOR WEEK 5: Annotations for
Poetic Closure

Herrnstein-Smith's Poetic Closure

Important terms:

  • closure
  • formal vs. thematic elements/structure (6)
  • poetic structure (6, 24)
  • formal structure (6)
  • framing (24-25, 148)
  • saturation (75)
  • paratactic structure (99>)
  • sequential structure (109>) including temporal structure (129), logical & pseudo-logical structure, syntactic structure, temporal punctuation
  • associational & dialectic structure (139>), simultaneous composition (129)
Closural devices related to structure: 
  • terminal modification 44, 53, 76 (end of sonnet, couplet in blank verse, etc.
  • return to norm after deviation 44, 148
  • heightened tension just before close 77
  • increased density of sound effects, etc. at close
  • delayed coincidence of formal structure with syntactic or thematic structure: i.e. Milton's counterpointed blank verse 82-83
Non-structural closural devices: (chapter 4)
  • a sense of truth-telling or authority, usually achieved by a combination of formal and thematic elements; may include unqualified assertion, summing up;
  • nonstructural repetition of formal devices, including: metrical regularity w/ monosyllabic diction, which asserts a sense of control, authority, and a strongly articulated norm; alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme; balanced antithesis, repetition of whole words; terminal recurrence of key words or dominant sounds; 160-161
  • puns, parallelism, antithesis or other linguistic structures contributing to epigrammatic effects; 171
  • closural allusion, i.e. reference to endings, death, fall, night, etc.
  • reflexive reference, i.e. to the act of writing or telling, or other framing or "coda" device to mark the end of "what is told" and a return to awareness of the speaker's intervention between reader and poem;
The complexity of closure has everything to do with the double nature of language.
  • "Formal elements are defined as those which arise from the physical nature of words, and would include such features as rhyme, alliteration, and syllabic meter.  The thematic elements of a poem are those which arise from the symbolic or conventional nature of words, and to which only someone familiar with the language could respond; they would include everything from reference to syntax to tone." (6)
Poem as Speech:
  • On 17-18 Smith describes the poem as comprising not merely the words of an utterance, but a "total speech act."  In other words, all that we learn from a live speaker's facial expression, intonation, pauses, emphases, gestures, and so forth must be expressed in the words of the poem. 
  • The poem as a possible utterance, the representation of a possible utterance, on which Smith builds her arguments, is one of poetry's most stable conventions, but not, of course, unchallenged. The challenge lurks in all formalist theories which treat the poem as a linguistic structure. It surfaces explicitly in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets' critique of the discrete, autonomous self.
  • Relevant to recent non-avant garde poetry is Smith's distinction between the narrative lyric and the narrative poem proper -- the former being related to the personal anecdote, the latter to the tale. Current "free verse narrative lyric" poetry still falls into these two types.
Closural problems for poems with dialectic structure: 
  • p.142: notes that Shakespeare's sonnets and soliloquies prefigure the later (Romantic) introduction of dialectical poems which do not end in firm resolution

  • p.144: and that the increasing demand on readers to construct the poem's context is historically progressive, and leads to Modernism
  • p.145: similarly, notes the historical progression from the dramatic soliloquy to internal monologue & dramatic monologue to the unresolved or interrupted monologue, the monologue as process
  • p.147: and that it is possible to leave the poem's speaker in instability while allowing the poem to exert sufficient closure (by other means) that the reader reaches stability. See Marjorie Perloff's "Unreal Cities" in The Poetics of Indeterminacy on a related point: that one may allude to or describe indeterminate ideas or conditions without constructing an indeterminate poetics; or Nathaniel Mackey's discussion of poems using the open associative processes of jazz vs. those that just talk about such processes.
  • p. 150: points out that reflexive reference to the act of writing the poem is rare in Romantic and post-Romantic poetries where preservation of the illusion of utterance is important.  In our time both conventions flourish: the unified, ontologically secure speaker on whose authenticity the entire poem turns, and the self-reference of an ironic, bardic, or fragmented speaker, on whose self-consciousness the entire poem turns.
The paradoxical truth that inconclusiveness can be more stable than conclusiveness -- when the process is reliable, the product suspect.  Smith relates this to our suspicion of language,  which lures us into saying other than what we thought we were saying. Yes, I'd say; but also, in the  huge, compounded, on-going culture shock of a society (now a world) where change is so rapid and constant that to cling to any fixity is to doom yourself to loss, to commit only to the flux itself -- in this case, the discourse of poetry rather than the poem as object -- is to achieve a certain predictability.  Like floating instead of swimming for a receding or simply illusional shore. (240)

Ways to avoid unwanted finality:

  • p. 244: terminal suspension, "a whimper, a question, a dying fall," stated contradiction, withheld comment, irrelevant comment, refusal to make assertions -- and every other kind of anti-climax. 
  • p. 258: points out that a nonassertive conclusion "heightens the apparent significance of everything else in the poem."  In other words, it tends to equalize, to direct our attention over the entire surface of the poem -- like a painting without a focal point.