A Temporal Theory of Poetic Syntax:

book in progress by Richard Cureton,
University of Michigan

This book presents and illustrates a new theory of poetic syntax--that is, a theory of how poets use syntax and how this syntax contributes to our experience of poetry and therefore our judgments of poetic value. The distinctiveness of this new theory is the claim that syntactic form, like the lyric itself, is rhythmically ordered and therefore essentially temporal rather than spatial. This temporal theory of poetic syntax is a part a new temporal poetics (Cureton 1992, 1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1997c, 1997d) that includes other aspects of poetic language as well--visual form, meter and rhythm, versification, sound, intonation, trope, archetypal imagery, etc.

Syntax (i.e., the structure of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences) is one of the major determinants of poetic experience. Much more so than in prose fiction and drama, syntactic choices in poetry are thematized and therefore participate centrally in articulating a poem's defining metaphysical, psychological, and historical commitments.

There have been many approaches to the description and evaluation of poetic syntax, including my own of two decades ago (e.g., Cureton 1980a and its supporting essays: Cureton 1979, 1980b, 1981a, 1981b, 1985). Brogan (1981: 417-43), the bibliographer of versification and related issues, cites several hundred studies of poetic syntax for English poetry alone.

Perhaps the most well-known approach is Jakobson's "projection principle," which treats poetic syntax primarily as an instrument of parallelism and therefore of textual divisioning and semantic "coupling" (Jakobson 1987: 117-266, Levin 1962, Lotman 1977). If similar syntactic forms are limited to certain parts of a text, they help define that part of the text; and if related meanings occur in similar syntactic forms, they are implicitly held up for comparison and contrast. We might also include here the many studies of how syntax helps constitute the poetic line (e.g., Tarlinskaja 1984, Mitchell 1970).

Related to Jakobson's approach, albeit as an inverse, are the many studies of enjambment, the lack of fit between the metrical/visual line and what it fails to contain (intonation, syntax, etc.) and therefore divides (e.g., Golomb 1979, Hollander 1985). Several scholars have expanded this concern for the "scissoring" of meter by syntax (and vice versa) into a more general theory of poetic dynamism (tension, discontinuity, surprise, etc.), what they call grammetrics (e.g., Wesling 1985, 1996; Berry 1982).

Given the centrality of linear dependencies in syntax, another important approach to poetic syntax focuses on real-time processing and related effects: anticipation, extension, ambiguity, garden-path effects, etc. The classical concern for "periodic" vs. "loose" syntax, while more often applied to prose, is also relevant to poetry and many scholars have shown why (e.g., Sinclair 1972, Smith 1968). Included here are also the many studies of poetic inversions and deletions, which often upset linear processing (e.g., Dillon 1975, 1978; Banfield 1973).

With its complex constraints on well-formedness, syntax is also a major locus of linguistic creativity/deviance in poetry, and many have approached poetic syntax from this viewpoint (Fairley 1975, Peters 1948, Baker 1967, Brooke-Rose 1958). While the effect is more important than the cause, most metaphor begins with some type of syntactic deviance, and because of the close relation between syntax and semantics, almost all creative uses of syntactic deviance have strong semantic effects (e.g., Cureton 1980b, Halliday 1985).

Syntax can also be used as a powerful icon, and many have argued for the significance of these effects in poetry (e.g., Cureton 1980a, 1981b, Austin 1984, Freeman 1976). Syntactic structures can be extended, deepened, thickened, repeated, broken, inverted, interlaced, merged, truncated, and so forth. All of these formal arrangements then can serve as analogues of experience in some other mode (emotional, perceptual, volitional, etc.). We might include here those who have been interested in the role of syntax in articulating the standard catalogue of classical syntactic "schemes" (anaphora, epizeuzis, ploce, epistrophe, symploce, anadiplosis, etc.) and their respective poetic values, whatever these might be (e.g., Leech 1969).

Finally, poetic syntax has also been approached as a type of finely grained semantics, as is standard practice in functional/cognitive linguistics (e.g., Halliday 1985, Hasan 1985). Where consistent contours of meaning are carried down into the fine detail of syntactic choice, larger semiotic intentions (ideological, aesthetic, etc.) are given detailed embodiment, increasing their unity, clarity, and intensity.

All of these established approaches to poetic syntax are substantial and significant. The syntax of poetry does indeed do all of these things--and more. As in many areas of the humanities today, the major difficulty is the diversity, fragmentation, and relative isolation of these theories, both from one another and from the structure and effect of other aspects of poetic language. While each of these approaches does not necessarily exclude the other, their basic presuppositions often conflict and there has been no suggestion as to how these conflicts can be resolved.

The most prominent area of conflict is the dichotomy of form and function mentioned above, a dichotomy that is creating increasing dissonance in linguistics and stylistics more generally (e.g., Newmeyer 1999, Taylor and Toolan 1996). As Helen Vendler has articulated most clearly and repeatedly in recent years (Vendler 1969, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1995a, 1995b, 1997a, 1997b), the subjective orientation of lyric demands a distinctive mode of representation, one that draws primarily upon the subjective values of linguistic forms and only secondarily on their more objective (conceptual, referential, pragmatic) values. By selecting, concentrating, and arranging linguistic forms, the lyric articulates a type of "linguistic algebra" that constructs experience from the inside out, from subjective experience to objective representation, rather than the other way around, as in prose fiction and drama. In the lyric, syntax is always a significant part of this inwardly oriented form.

Given this, it seems reasonable to suggest that linguistic forms have some coherent organization, that they derive from some distinct world/field/ universe of structured relationships that can give each individual form an articulate significance when these forms are used in concert to achieve their larger lyric purposes. However, in both linguistics and stylistics, little has been suggested about the nature of this formal, non-referential universe and therefore, where linguistic forms have been treated closely, as in studies of poetic syntax, by and large, their significance has either been left unarticulated (e.g., Jakobson's textual divisioning) or reduced to referential/conceptual/functional terms-- iconicity, semantic coupling, the fine detailing of meaning, trope, ambiguity, polysemy, semantic focus/surprise/revision, etc. As Taylor and Toolan (1996) point out, stylisticians have consistently failed to articulate a "criterial perspective" from which to observe, describe, and evaluate the subjective, non-referential significance of selectively structured linguistic forms, both in poetry and elsewhere. Our principal approaches to poetic syntax are just instances of this more general theoretical lack.

The solution to these difficulties is to take seriously the claim that the orientation of poetic language is not primarily outward, reinforcing and complicating spatial reference, but inward, creating and elaborating temporal worlds. Being a product of rhythm, these temporal worlds are defined in rhythmic terms. They elaborate the naturally cohesive features of our rhythmic constitution. [For a summary of what this rhythmic constitution entails, see the description of one of my other book projects: A Temporal Poetics.]

In its technical detail, this amounts to a claim that syntax is organized into tiers of quadratic choices motivated by our four rhythmic/temporal capabilities, with each tier being a fractal elaboration of some unitary choice at a higher level. For instance, temporally, syntax itself is a linear (level 3) reflex within the tiered quadratic organization of linguistic form:

4 semantics
3 syntax
2 prosody
1 paralanguage

The clause is a linear (level 3) reflex within the quadratic array of structures that make up syntax.

4 sentence
3 clause
2 phrase
1 word

Complementation is a linear (level 3) reflex within the the quadratic array of elements that make up the clause:

4 adverbial
3 complement
2 verb
1 subject

Transitives are the linear (level 3) reflex within the four basic types of clausal complements. (S=subject; V=verb; O=object; C=complement; A=adverbial).

4 adverbial (SVA)
3 transitive (SVO)
2 copular (SVC)
1 intransitive (SV)

And ditransitives are the linear (level 3) reflex within the four basic types of transitives.

4 complex-transitive with adverbial (SVOA)
3 ditransitive (SVOO)
2 complex-transitive with object complement (SVOC)
1 monotransitive (SVO)

Layerings of this sort occur throughout syntax, creating highly modulated systems of stylistic choice and therefore stylistic effect.

The organizational power of rhythm, vis-a-vis syntactic structure, comes from the number and diversity of features that define its four component forms. Each syntactic structure/function is usually related to many of the features of its associated temporality, not just one, and which features are involved can vary depending on the syntactic structure/function being considered. For instance, the noun is related to several features of meter and cyclical time: similarity, repetition, fixity, passivity, etc.; just as the phrase is related to many of the features of grouping and centroidal time--difference-in-similiarity, emblematic/part-whole relations, prominence, medial positioning, locality, constrained volatility, etc.

This rhythmically-based approach overcomes many of the weaknesses in our current theories of poetic syntax.

First, this approach overcomes the usual tendency in these theories to reduce formal, subjective values to referential/semantic concerns. Like poetry itself, the temporal values developed in this rhythmic approach are inherently psychological. They do not derive from communication but from the structure and development of one of our major cognitive capacities.

Second, this approach overcomes the usual fragmentation and dissonance within and among these theories. In this approach, syntactic structures are organized by their rhythmic similarities rather than their formal/functional differences. This focus on similar textures rather than different effects helps narrow the gap between linguistic description and literary response that must be bridged by all poetic criticism.

Third, this approach overcomes the usual gulf between poetic syntax and the rest of poetic language--sound, prosody, meaning, rhetoric, etc. In this rhythmically-based syntax, the criterion used to motivate syntactic choice is not some poetically narrow, imposed concern (iconicity, parallelism, tension, ambiguity, etc.) but exactly what motivates poetic form more generally.

Fourth, this approach overcomes the usual gulf between form and content, text and context, mind and world, in our theories of poetic syntax. Because poetic contexts are also significantly rhythmic/temporal, syntactic textures motivated in rhythmic terms can be related easily and naturally to their contexts of use.

Finally, this approach mends the usual lang-lit gap in our theories of poetic syntax. In order to understand and use this rhythmically-based approach, linguists do not have something to learn from literary critics or literary critics from linguists. In this approach, the literary _is_ the linguistic and the linguistic, the literary. The concerns for language and literature not only balance, they merge; and the basic principles that motivate the approach do not derive from either professional domain but from cognition and "human nature" more generally.


The book will have six chapters:

Chapter 1 will explore the significance of syntax in poetic experience. Chapter 2 will survey the scholarly literature. Chapter 3 will detail the major problems in this scholarly literature. Chapter 4 will present a theoretical solution to these problems. Chapter 5 will use this theory to survey the structure and significance of some fifty types of syntactic choice in poetry. Chapter 6 will present several full poetic analyses illustrating the usefulness of this theory in practical criticism.

Works Cited

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Berry, Eleanor. "Syntactical and Metrical Structures in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams." Diss. University of Toronto, 1981.

Brogan, T. V. F. English Versification, 1570-1980. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1981.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. A Grammar of Metaphor. London: Martin, Seeker & Warburg, Lmt., 1958.

Cureton, Richard D. "e.e. Cummings: A Study of the Poetic Use of Deviant Morphology." Poetics Today 1.1-2 (1979): 213-44

Cureton, Richard D. "The Aesthetic Use of Syntax: Studies on the Syntax of the Poetry of e.e. Cummings." Diss. University of Illinois, 1980a.

Cureton, Richard D. "'he danced his did': An Analysis." Journal of Linguistics 16 (1980b): 245-62

Cureton, Richard D. "Poetic Syntax and Aesthetic Form." Style 14 (1981a): 182-215

Cureton, Richard D. "e.e. Cummings: A Case Study of Iconic Syntax." Language and Style 14 (1981b): 182-215.

Cureton, Richard D. "Poetry, Grammar, and Epistemology: The Order of Prenominal Modifers in the Poetry of e.e. Cummings." Language and Style 18 (1985): 64-91

Cureton, Richard D. Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse. London: Longman, 1992.

Cureton, Richard D. "Poetry, Language, and Literary Study: The Unfinished Tasks of Stylistics." Language and Literature 21 (1996): 95-112

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