FORM OF POETRY
Section 001 / Fall 2004 / Susan Tichy / Tuesday 7:20-10:00 / Thompson Hall 106
DISCOURSE, SUBJECTIVITY, & THE ROAMANTIC SPEAKER, WEEKS 6-7
READING FOR WEEK 6: Annotations for Poetry as Discourse
& Notes on the Traditional Ballad
Easthope Chapter 1 Discourse as Language / Chap 2 Discourse as Ideology /
Chap 3 Discourse as Subjectivity / Chap 4 Iambic Pentameter / Chap 5 Feudal Ballad
a note on the predominance of fours
Easthope & the Ballad / What is a Ballad / Ballad Structure & Aesthetic / Ballad World /
Easthope Chap 6 Shakespeare & Pope
20th Century Preview: Lorine Niedecker & Ballad
Antony Easthope: Poetry as Discourse
Depending on your reading background, this book may represent wholly new territory in the reading of poems. As a work of literary and cultural theory it is rare in its focus on poetic form. As a book on poetic form it is rare in its use of discourse theory to illuminate poetic composition and affect. If you have not previously read linguistic or cultural theory, you may find Part I hard going. (I certainly do.) Once the conceptual framework is grasped, however, Part II provides valuable readings of the ways poetic form & the conventions of poetic discourse work to create meaning.
These notes come in three parts: 1) notes to help you find and focus on the principle definitions and concepts in Part I; 2) notes on the ballad and other 4x4 forms, tied to Easthope's chapter on the ballad as well as to his contrast between pentameter and 4-beat forms in his chapter on iambic; 3) brief notes on chapters 6 & 7, Shakespeare and Pope. Notes on chapters 8 & 9 appear in the weeks we'll read them..
The quantity of material on ballad is out of proportion to the time we will probably have to devote to it. I offer it because you are unlikely to get it anywhere else.
Oddly, Easthope does not include a discussion of blank verse per se, the pentameter form which goes farthest toward the illusion of a freely speaking voice. You could argue that in blank verse the pentameter line claims to finally supersede all other claims of the signifier, at least at the level of poetic form. Historically, too, the great age of blank verse (Shakespeare's drama followed by Milton) precedes the Augustan closed couplet, making the latter seem a retrenchment back toward consciousness of the enunciation of form. Augustan claims for transparency and clarity take on a different meaning in this context. Easthope appears to allude to this in the opening sentences of his chapter on Pope -- one wonders if a chapter on Milton's blank verse was written but later omitted. In any case, instead of taking these forms in order of their historical ascendancy, Easthope addresses blank verse after the couplet, as part of his discussion of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," in your reading for the next two weeks.
Since blank verse is also a precursor to free verse (Milton was criticized by contemporaries for writing a verse that was only verse to the eye), it is possible that we will contrive an extra class meeting this week in order to discuss blank verse in a bit more detail.Part I: Chapter 1: Discourse as Language
In this chapter Easthope lays out the linguistic foundation of his argument. The terms may be unfamiliar to you, but the basic concepts are relatively simple. This discussion is more or less a rehearsal in the terminology of linguistics of the old argument between poets and all other users of language.
Chapter Two: Discourse as Ideology
Here Easthope lays out the philosophical basis of his reading of poetry and poetic discourse as historical and therefore ideological phenomena. While we are not interested in Marxist economic and sociological terminology per se, we will be discussing all semester the paradoxical nature of poems as historical objects – produced in the context of one time, place, and human writer, then reproduced by readers in wholly new contexts. We will also be interested throughout the semester in subject position -- how poems both model and create forms of subjectivity.
Chapter 3: Discourse as Subjectivity
This chapter begins by reiterating the idea that subjectivity is created as an effect of discourse and is not its pre-existing point of origin. Easthope’s arguments depend on this, as on other fundamental principles he has explicated. But even if we wish to disagree philosophically, we can see that as a practical matter, subjectivity as an effect of discourse is something available to us, while a theoretical subjectivity preceding the text is not. Therefore, the following discussions can be useful even to a philosophically resisting reader.
A key statement on p.32: “…human beings can only become subjects by entering a system of signifiers which relate to each other independently of the subject. So there is no discourse without subjectivity and no subjectivity without discourse.”
The destination of all this argument appears on the last few pages, where Easthope draws together the linguistic and philosophical threads he has been tracing.
Easthope focuses on the implications for human subjectivity. When I read that passage, however, I think of the writing process.“So, for the subject of the enounced: the word is treated as meaning; the signifier is lined up with signified; the syntagmatic chain is carefully sustained in its linearity; discourse appears transparent; subjectivity becomes centred, finding a fixed position where the ego is apparently present to itself. For the subject of enunciation: the word is treated as thing; the signified slides under the signifier; the syntagmatic chain is fissured and broken; discourse is revealed as a material process; subjectivity becomes decentred, as the fixed position of the ego is shown to be a temporary point in the process of the Other. In the Lacanian conception these two positions or ‘states’ are designated as the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Like Blake’s Innocence and Experience they are contraries defined in relation to each other…. The Imaginary and the Symbolic, repetition of identity and difference, are terms of a dialectic, both necessary for the construction of human subjectivity.” 44-45
Likewise in Easthope’s redefinition of histoire / discours (on 45-46) as terms to distinguish an impersonal or personal narrator within the enounced. As makers of poems, not just readers, we must know the difference between a poetic effect and the means for producing it.
Please read the conclusion carefully, in which Easthope spells out three implications of the disjunction between the subject of the enounced and the subject of enunciation. These lead to his succinct final summary:
...and a segue into Part II, in which he will analyse this transcendent position not in its own terms, but as an ideology and an effect of discourse.“Discourse, then, is cohesive and determined simultaneously in three respects: materially, ideologically, subjectively. English poetic discourse is materially determined, having a certain consistent shaping of the signifier inscribed in it. By the same token it is ideologically determined, being a product of history, a relatively autonomous tradition, a bourgeois form of discourse. It is also subjectively determined and is a product of the reader for whom it offers a position as transcendental ego….”
In point #1, beginning at the bottom of p.56, Easthope distinguishes the various ways a syllable of English may achieve prominence and thus count as a ‘stress’ in the metrical scheme: stress itself (narrowly defined), accent, and intonation. He then reaches the conclusion on 58 that for simplicity’s sake it’s best to call them all ‘stress’. Most writers on meter follow this practice, for the same reasons the many levels of stress in any actual line of verse are conventionalized into the binary system of stressed / unstressed.
This leads to the chapter’s principle argument: that unlike other meters iambic pentameter is defined by counterpoint: that is, the way it negotiates between the highly abstract pattern of alternating stress and the highly variable intonation of non-metrical language. Other writers may refer to this as a counterpoint or tension between line and sentence. Easthope’s assertion that this counterpoint IS pentameter may go farther than some other writers on meter, but the essence of this argument can be found in numerous sources.
So too can his argument re: Pentameter and Ideology. In fact, it is not at all difficult to find writers on meter who equate meter in general and pentameter in particular with the continuance Civilization as We Know It. Easthope differs from them only in that he looks at such claims (whether explicit or implicit) from the outside. As Derek Walcott has said, one need only change a pronoun to reveal the interested, non universal position of such assumptions. ‘The End of Civilization as They Knew It’ may be elegiac but it is not tragic.
Where Easthope is most original in this chapter is probably when he connects that rubbery phenomenon, relative stress, to the syntagmatic properties of pentameter verse, and then links both to pentameter’s tendency to enforce certain kinds of tone, diction, subject matter, and even pronunciation. For these effects to be realized, the act of enunciation, the act of production, must be to a great extent denied. In this denial is born our contemporary idea of the Speaker as transcendently equal to the Poet, and the poem as transcendently equal to the Poet’s presence.
Easthope’s contention that English verse consists essentially of iambic pentameter and everything else is not far from the premise put forward by Ronald Wallace as the starting point of discussion in David Baker’s Meter in English: A Critical Engagement. Wallace argues that verse divides into iambic meter and everything else. The book’s other contributors respond to this idea is numerous ways.
Chapter 5: The Feudal Ballad
In addition to its primary subject, this chapter also provides us with an opportunity to revisit Attridge's discussion of verse structure in the 4-beat line and to see how many of Easthope's claims for the ballad can be extended to other 4x4 forms. Attridge, of course, takes an opposite position to that of Easthope and Wallace, claiming that an accurate description of meter in English would not be "iambic pentameter and everything else," but "four-beat verse and everything else," a claim that is impossible to refute if you widen your definition of poetry beyond the canonizing anthologies. But like Easthope, Attridge draws connections between the advance of printing and reading and the advance of the pentameter line. That line, with its longer, more modulated rhythm seems both to require and to reward writing as a precondition: a reader can explore nuance of meter and syntax more thoroughly and at more leisure than a listener, and the longer more modulated line can reward repeated readings in ways shorter lines can’t.
Notice I said “in ways shorter lines can’t.” I did not say “to a greater degree than shorter lines can,” though this is often the unspoken assumption of those who champion iambic pentameter.
I asked you a few weeks ago to spend a few minutes reading 4-beat verse aloud, then spend a few minutes reading pentameter verse aloud. Do more of that this week, as you are reading Easthope. The differences you hear arise from two simple facts. First, there’s more room in a longer line. This affects syntax and grammar, because it makes room for modifiers, dependent clauses, and a more leisurely development of the sentence. Second, the two lines are governed by different mathematics: a four-beat line tends to divide in two. If a line is built on antithesis or repetition, it will balance at the center, form and sense thus reinforcing each other. A five-beat line can’t divide in two. If a line is built on antithesis or repetition, that two-part structure of sense will always be in counterpoint with the line structure. This asymmetry has a profound affect on rhythm of course, but it also alters the sense or at least the tone of whatever symmetry is asserted at the level of content. The asymmetrical line also favors enjambment, as the ear wants to push over the line break seeking stability and rest.
Both these features of the pentameter line have been exploited for centuries by poets who wish to mimic the speaking voice. We’ll return to this issue of voice and speech several times during the semester. For now, it suffices to reiterate what Easthope has emphasized, that both historically and formally the pentameter line has been an important tool for allowing the apparent affect of speech to pull away from the apparent affect of form.
Turn that statement around and we can say that the four-beat line generally hovers at a greater distance from an affect of natural speech. Poems in 4s are for the most part more clearly and avowedly poemlike (or songlike), less speechlike. Much of what Easthope says about the ballad can be generalized to 4-beat poems as a group. They announce themselves as verbal artefacts more consistently and persistently than poems in 5s. Remember the discussion of Crashaw's Epitaph on a Yong Married Couple from week 2?
Historically, four-stress lines are more common in high literary verse in Scotland than in England. Though Scots of a certain economic and educational background may adopt an English (or at lest neutrally British) intonation, the notion of a single, consistent speaking voice, even a single educated voice, is foreign to Scotland's multilingual history and experience. A speechlike pentameter, then, will always have a different and peculiar status in the north. The long demotic tradition, dating to the 15th century, has tended not to split as emphatically as the English into high and low verse forms. The close interaction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ literature in Scotland may also contribute to the flourishing 4-beat, which represents speech in a quicker and wittier tempo than is normal to pentameter and shows a greater willingness to let a cleverly constructed argument or narrative foreground its construction and remain emphatically ‘poemlike.’ See notes on Burns and the Burns stanza in next week's reading, e.g.
Please read, in the Norton & on line:
• Sir Patrick Spens (87) the ballad most widely included in literary anthologies.The 'Feudal Ballad'
To call the English and Scottish ballad a feudal form is accurate in the same sense as calling iambic pentameter a Renaissance form: both are thus named for their era of origin. Both, however, have continued as living forms down to the present day. Easthope attempts to place both modes in the context of their historical emergence. In this he differs from most literary readers, who tend to read their own forms ahistorically and to place the ballad in a quasi historical past.
(An antidote to this is the commentary of ballad singers themselves, or repertoire studies, in which scholars analyze the work of a particular singer, including how she learned her songs and how she shaped them to her own uses. For another contrast to the "primitive" or "natural" image of the pre-modern verse & song forms, consider that as late as the 16th century the most prestigious Gaelic bards of Scotland and Ireland received seven years of formal training, while the less fortunate spent a similar time as apprentices to older poets.)
On page 81 Easthope says that Harvard scholar Francis James Child saved many ballads by writing them down. In fact, Child compiled his five-volume collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads strictly from written sources. In other words, he collected and collated manuscripts and published collections. He personally recorded not a single ballad directly from oral tradition. The notes in his collection are quite clear on this point. Many scholars think Child may have never heard a ballad sung.
Since feudal times, when the predecessors of the ballad were composed and sung by minstrels employed by aristocratic families, the ballad and related genres of popular song have descended the social ladder just about as far as they can go. In Scotland they withstood the onslaught of Victorian sentimental song, music hall, cinema, and pop, surviving as an oral tradition into the mid-20th century primarily in the hands of Travelers and a few other rural singers. (Travelers are also called "Tinkers," after one of their original trades, the making and mending of metal implements, though this term eventually became derogatory and is no longer used by Travelers themselves. They are a Scottish parallel of gypsies, though not ethnically related to European Romany people.) Ballads believed to be extinct in oral tradition were discovered in the thriving song culture of Scottish Travelers in the 1950s. Jeannie Robertson's "Son David" (on the Ballads page) is a famous example.
Fused with the political vigor of American folk music, the field collection of songs from Traveler singers fueled the Folk Revival of the 1950s through 70s, giving it a distinctly Scottish character — which in turn inspired folk revivals in Germany and elsewhere. Easthope’s contrast of ballad structure and semantics to voice-based, bourgeois forms can be paralleled within the contemporary folk scene, as musicians juggle the conflicting musical, linguistic and political tendencies of traditional and (more personal) modern modes of composition and performance.
note: What is a ballad, anyway?
The term ballad causes confusion because of its similarity to the French ballade, a verse form derived from dance songs. This has fostered the idea that long narrative songs, sung without accompaniment by single singers, are in some mysterious way descended from songs composed for dancing and sung communally. Other theories regarding this nomenclature abound. In my opinion, the best logic and the best surviving evidence indicate that early printed broadsides included so many ballades that the name transferred to the broadsides themselves, and from there to any song distributed by broadside. Of course, ballad in this sense has nothing to do with use of the same word by the pop music industry to categorize any slow romantic song.
In Scotland, traditional singers call a wide range of story songs “ballads”, including some now current in oral transmission but derived from 19th c. music hall productions or other non "folk" sources. The genre our texts call “ballad,” however, is distinguished by singers under the term “muckle sangs,” roughly translated as the Great Songs, or Big Songs. The ability and even the right to sing these songs was perceived in some communities as something distinct from ordinary singing, and in singing families the ‘ownership’ of certain songs was passed down selectively from one generation to the next.
Ballad Structure & Aesthetic
Easthope connects the linguistic concept of “vertical substitution along the syntagmatic chain” with several features of ballad structure. Here is the late Scottish scholar David Buchan on the ballad's formulaic language and paratactic structure:
In poems built up line by line [e.g. Homeric epics] this shows most clearly in the parataxis of grammar, but in poems built up stanza by stanza [e.g. Scottish ballads] it shows most clearly in a parataxis of narrative image, a stylistic trait that in the ballads has been compared to cinematic montage and the technique of the strip-cartoon. The phrase “adding style” implies a narrative looseness which does not in fact exist, because binding rhythms unify the poems, and produce highly patterned artefacts. In addition to their sometimes intricate aural patterns of assonance and alliteration, oral poems frequently possess quite complex architectonic patterns. These latter patterns manifest themselves, structurally, and conceptually, in all kinds of balances and parallelisms, contrasts and antitheses, chiastic and framing devices, and in various kinds of triadic groupings. David Buchan, The Ballad and the Folk 52-53Easthope refers to the aural patterns in his discussion of the ballad’s foregrounding of the signifier. He discusses the architectonic patterns of as the process of enunciation.
Converting to Easthope's terms, we can say that for those of us more accustomed to horizontal narration and closure on the syntagmatic axis, the ballad's foregrounding of enunciation and the foregrounding of the signifier seem curious or inappropriate to the stories told because they draw our attention to the vertical or paradigmatic qualities of language and therefore seem to hold the story back. This affect of the ballad style creates a position for the reader or listener as subject of the enunciation that differs from either the transcendent subject position of pentameter or the simpler position offered by, say, a lyric song or poem whose 4-beat form is superficially similar to a ballad. This makes the ballad particularly useful for Easthope's argument. It also makes it particularly compelling for those who get hooked on its unique affects.
Features Easthope attributes to a feudal world order or world view are also handled differently by ballad scholars, who trace the form through more complex and numerous historical settings. Since relatively little is known about the precise milieu of the ballad's emergence, emphasis usually falls on more recent ballad singing communities, such as 18th century Scottish "ferm touns" ('farm towns'), 19th century English or Scottish weaving towns, or 20th century Traveler families. Each of these singing communities modified and shaped the narrated world of the ballads in characteristic ways, but generalizations can still be useful.
Yet we sometimes observe a complementary process of localizing, which recasts the exotic in familiar terms. Place names intrude and often shift around as the songs shift around. Lovers arriving at castle gates must “tinkle at the pin” for admittance, and kitchen boys caught making love to king’s daughters are loath to flee without first collecting their wages. A lady goes to bed determined to die for love, yet still wraps up her head against drafts. School boys carry their books, like school boys everywhere, but when the Devil accosts them they somehow know how to outwit him.
Easthope Part II: Chapters Six & Seven: Shakespeare & Pope
These chapters return to the familiar ground of canonical English verse. The argument re: Pope & the closed couplet seems a bit overstated. It seems to me that the ideal of clarity and devotion to the forward force of the syntagmatic chain is always in tension with the syntactical and rhetorical display of each individual couplet. Easthope seems completely correct in stating that the strength of the syntagmatic chain is what allows for local effects of display, strung like beads on a string. Yet failure to acknowledge the elaboration of each bead as a structurally important element of the discourse seems to take 18th century statements about clarity and transparency too much at face value. Without the string you have a handful of beads, not a necklace, but without the beads you just have string.
Be sure to you understand the following:
All these points will continue to be important right up through
20th century free verse.
Of all 20th century American literary poets, Niedecker was perhaps
most firmly engaged with ballad and 'folk base' traditions. A peripheral
member of the the loosely defined Objectivist group of mid-century poets,
she lived nearly all her life in rural Wisconsin, working menial jobs while
living in close community with both the human and natural communities of her
childhood. Like other Objectivists, she valued the acute observation of phenomena,
including phenomena of spoken and written language. Her politically savvy
poems feature rural and working class characters drawn from life, and an
ongoing critique of both family drama and scripted romance. More importantly
perhaps, they feature what Rachel Blau DuPlessis has called the "implacability"
of ballad, "the freezing of divested social agency into fate," -- as in this
poem on the death of her deaf mother.
Old mother turns blue and from us,
"It's a long day since last night.
Formally, Niedecker's short lines play endless variations on the
four-beat rhythmic base. Some, like "The man of law", can be read visually
as free verse, aurally as four-beat.
The man of law
Others establish a similar pattern, then veer off into an extra line
or different rhythmic affect to close a poem or stanza. Her longer poems play
back and forth between free and familiar rhythmic patterns, or push a "syntagmatic
chain" forward across the momentary closures of her rhythmic and visual structures,
as in these lines from "Wintergreen Ridge."
Where the arrows
Life is natural
in creation here
the limestone cliffs
Niedecker also hewed close to a folk-like anonymity in her choice
to live far from literary worlds and not to pursue a literary career. She
rarely titled her poems and disliked reading them aloud, preferring
to let inner ear and inner eye negotiate the forms of her poems.