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Some Cognitive and Aesthetic Principles
This article investigates the way in which devices of foregrounding play a role at the typographical level of a text's organisation. In poetry, such devices are very old and are regularly used in a bold way, thereby creating specific effects. However, a historical overview reveals that such bold typographic experiments are not distributed evenly over time. It also emerges that some of these texts survive in the literary canon, while others are forgotten. On the basis of an analysis of some test cases in literary history, hypotheses are proposed which may explain this uneven distribution.
The subtlety of van Peer's analysis can readily be seen in his discussion of George Herbert's famous picture poem, "Easter Wings":
(Hutchinson, 1978, p. 43)
[T]his is an unmistakably religious poem, one of the best-known texts from Herbert's The Temple, and one of the most authentic expressions of devotion in the Anglican church. [...] [T]he title explicitly refers to a subject matter corresponding to the typographical form. The wings symbolise man's elevation resulting from his belief in Revelation: note also the reference to the divine wings ('imp my wing on Thine') and to the lark, yet another explicit topicalisation of the motif of the wing ('With Thee/ O let me rise/ As larks'). More important still is the fact that each stanza displays a typographical form which closely mirrors the development of the theme. This can be seen quite clearly from the verbs and their distribution across verse lines. Each time the length of the line shrinks, verbs occur which refer to a process of diminution: 'lost' (line 2), 'decaying' (line 3), 'became poore' (lines 4-5), 'became ... thinne' (lines 14-15). When the width of the verse line increases, verbs belonging to a semantic field indicating increase and growth are used: 'rise' (line 7), 'further' (line 10), 'combine' (line 17), 'imp' (line 19), 'advance' (line 20). This pattern is reinforced by the change of tense occurring in each stanza: past tense in the first half of each stanza, when the lines start to grow shorter: 'createdst' (line 1), 'lost' (line 2), 'became' (line 4), 'did' (line 11), 'didst (line 13), 'became' (line 14); via present tense when the lines begin to increase in length: 'let' (line 7), 'sing' (line 9), 'let' (line 17), 'feel' (line 18), 'imp' (line 19); to the future in the final line of each stanza: 'shall further' (line 10), 'shall advance' (line 20) (55-57).I find Willie van Peer's paper illuminating and mind-expanding. But I also find some significant gaps in his argument, which I propose to fill in in the present paper - this, in turn, may change, eventually, the emerging picture. In the first place, I believe, the term "foregrounding" as a wholesale key-term is insufficient for his purpose. One should distinguish degrees of unnaturalness in foregrounding. In poetry, language is foregrounded relative to the non-poetic use of language; and in some poetic styles, it is more foregrounded than in others. In the second place, I find his explanation based on the arbitrariness of the graphemic sign unsatisfactory. One must realise that the string of phonological signifiants is no less arbitrary with reference to the semantic signifiés than the string of graphemic signifiants is with reference to the phonological signifiés. So we have a whole hierarchy of sign-relationships, characterised, throughout, by arbitrariness. It is just that the arbitrariness of the graphemic sign is somehow different from the arbitrariness of, e.g., the phonological sign. Consequently, one should be careful with the argument: "The founding principle of alphabetic writing is the arbitrary character of the signs used, as a result of which they are more or less void of mimetic meaning, unlike the partial or rudimentary mimesis of ideographic and logographic script" (53). My point is that in Western poetry we compare the effects of "typographic foregrounding" in alphabetic script not to its effects in "ideographic and logographic script", but rather to the effects of phonetic or syntactic or semantic foregrounding. Thus, the explanation becomes the explicandum: we must explain why "typographic foregrounding" displays a more arbitrary character of the signs used, than phonetic or syntactic or semantic foregrounding. In the third place, I am very sympathetic with van Peer's observation "that such 'concrete' poems become popular in periods of great social, political and ideological upheaval" (58). However, it should be noticed that such "typographic foregrounding" of poems is, typically, part of poetic styles usually called "manneristic" or "metaphysical", and it has been frequently suggested that "manneristic" or "metaphysical" styles tend to occur in periods of great social, political and ideological upheaval, when more than one scale of values prevail. This does not imply that van Peer's suggestion is wrong; only that wider issues are involved. My point is that in terms of relationships between signifiants and signifiés, a great variety of mannerist devices are perceived as more unnatural than their non-manneristic counterparts; and that in this respect, "typographic foregrounding" appears to be only one particular instance of a wider manneristic principle. As for the possible relationship between mannerism and "periods of great social, political and ideological upheaval, when more than one scale of values prevail", I have elsewhere suggested a cognitive explanation, to which I shall briefly refer later.
I suggest that my three above points may best be accounted for by a set of homogeneous principles derived from the assumption that man is a sign-using animal. Human culture consists of long series and hierarchies of signifiants and signifiés. There is some experimental evidence which, according to my interpretation, suggests that man is programmed to reach as fast as possible the last link of the chain of signifiants and signifiés. Such a programming has considerable survival value. If a certain noise is "a sign of" some predator, a knowledge of the predator has greater survival value than a knowledge of the noise. In a complex cultural situation of human society, however, in which, e.g., verbal magic may be the source of maladaptive behaviour, the signifiants and signifiés must properly be kept apart. It is here where poetry comes in.
"The function of poetry" wrote Jakobson in 1933, "is to point out that sign is not identical with its referent": why do we need this reminder? "Because", continued Jakobson, "along with the awareness of the identity of the sign and the referent (A is A1), we need the consciousness of the inadequacy of this identity (A is not A1)".
This antinomy is essential since without it the connection between the sign and the object becomes automatical and perception of reality withers away (Erlich, 1965: 181).
In ordinary, nonpoetic language, we typically "attend
away" from the signifiants to the signifiés:
sometimes we remember the information, but not the
exact words in which it was conveyed; sometimes we
can't even tell in what language we received some information,
or whether it was in the verbal medium at all. Poetic
language, by contrast, compels us "to attend back"
to the signifiant or, rather, to ever higher signifiants
in a great chain of signs: from the extra-linguistic
referent to the verbal (semantic) signifiant; from
the semantic unit to the string of phonological signifiers
and eventually, perhaps, to the graphic signifier of
the phonological unit. The phonetic patterning of poetry
(rhyme, metre, alliteration) typically directs attention
away from the semantic to the phonological component
of language; whereas figurative language (and many
other semantic devices) direct attention from the extra-linguistic
referent to the verbal sign. In this perspective, it
would be but natural to expect to find some patterning
of the typographic signifier as well. Such patterning,
however, is relatively rare in poetry.
This process can be most readily appreciated when it
breaks down, as in riddles. Consider the following
riddle, common among children: "Which cheese is
made backward?" "Edam". Our linguistic
competence requires us to run through the hierarchy
of signifiers, from the string of graphemes, through
the string of phonemes, the semantic units, right down
to extra-linguistic reality, and look for some odd
production processes in the dairy. The riddle is, precisely,
a riddle, because the understander is forced to exit
this chain of signifiers and at some theoretically
unspecifiable point, at that. In the present instance,
the exit occurs at the graphemic level: "edam"
is the string of letters that constitute "made",
in a reverse order. If we contrive an admittedly less
elegant riddle, "What matronly woman is made backward?",
the exit will be at the phonological level of the same
chain, the solution being "dame". In poetic
language no exit is forced on the understander: the
whole chain of signifiers is realised, but the understander
must linger at some of its earlier stages.
So far there should be little disagreement between Willie
van Peer and myself. But here a further step seems
to be required. Granted that poetic language draws
attention to itself more than nonpoetic language, one
must make a stylistic distinction between poetic styles
in which this is more, and those in which this is less
conspicuous. In non-manneristic styles, classic or
romantic for example, the transition from the signifiant
to the signifié is relatively smooth, in spite
of all. The phonetic patterns in these styles are perceived
as some pleasant fusion of sounds in the back of one's
mind. In manneristic styles, such as metaphysical or
modernistic poetry, language tends to direct attention
back to the signifiers more conspicuously. To put my
argument briefly, in poetic language we are more aware
of the separateness of the signs than in nonpoetic
language; and within poetic language, we are more aware
of their separateness in manneristic than in, e.g.,
In classic or romantic poetry, the incongruity of the sign vehicle and what it signifies is eventually resolved, and in a rather smooth manner. Not so in metaphysical or modernistic poetry. Sypher (1955: 122) speaks of "Donne's false and verbal (perhaps false? perhaps verbal?) resolutionshis incapacity to commit himself wholly to any one world or view". "The resolution is gained, if at all, only rhetorically, not [through] reason" (123). What we have in a metaphysical pun or conceit is one single sign function, in which each the tenor and the vehicle are so consistently developed that one is compelled to be aware of both their identity and incongruity. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, of, e.g., the verse lines on the page which convey the string of phonemes that carry the verbal message, and the visual design of, say, a pair of wings, or an altar, or a wounded dove and a fountain, at one and the same time: both are so consistently developed that one is compelled to be aware of both their identity and incongruity. But such rival organisations of typography need not involve some visual design. Much manneristic poetry is distinguished by a device of alternative patterning that became a solid convention: acrostic. When you read the "Envoi" section in some of Villon's ballades, for example, you may read the lines from left to right for the poetic message; but if you read the first letter of each line top-down, you receive the word "Villon". The word "Villon" exists only as part of the typographic design of the poem, but not of its words. 1
Vous portastes, digne Vierge, princesse,
Iesus regnant qui n'a ne fin ne cesse,
Le Tout Puissant, prenant nostre foiblesse,
Laissa les cieulx et nous vint secourir,
Offrit a mort sa tres chiere jeunesse;
Nostre Seigneur tel est, tel le confesse:
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.
Neoclassical poetic theory detested mannerism, but was well aware of this hierarchy of patterned signs, and derived a normative principle from it: the lower the item in the hierarchy, upon which the poetic patterns were founded, the more perfect it was; the higher, the more objectionable. Consequently, picture poems were worst of all. Consider the following passage from No. 62 of Joseph Addison's Spectator Papers:
As true Wit generally consists in this Resemblance and Congruity of Ideas, false Wit chiefly consists in the Resemblance and Congruity of single Letters, as in Anagrams, Chronograms, Lipograms, and Acrosticks: Sometimes of Syllable, as in Ecchos and Doggerel Rhymes: Sometimes of Words, as in Punns and Quibbles; and sometimes of whole Sentences or Poems, cast into Figures of Eggs, Axes or Altars ... As true Wit consists in the Resemblance of Ideas, and false Wit in the Resemblance of Words, according to the foregoing Instances; there is another kind of Wit which consists Partly in the resemblance of Ideas, and partly in the Resemblance of Words; which for Distinction Sake I shall call mixt Wit. This Kind of Wit abounds in Cowley, more than in any Author that ever wrote.
Mixt Wit is therefore a Composition of Punn and true Wit, and is more or less perfect as the Resemblance lies in the Ideas or in the Words.
Now I believe that bad classicism can make excellent
mannerism, and that these evaluative terms can be translated
into descriptive terms with great profit. Instead of
"and is more or less perfect" we could read
"and its focus is more or less integrated",
or "conforms with neoclassical or mannerist taste
as the Resemblance lies in the Ideas or in the Words",
so as to make the above quote fit perfectly into our
scheme. In this way, one can make illuminating generalisations
on Mannerism at its best, based on the theoretical
writings of the Classicists.
Coming back now to the issue of metaphysical puns and alliteration proper, how can we tell the difference between them? Roughly, by the relationship between the sound pattern and its referent(s). I shall illustrate this by two examples taken from my criticism of Keyser and Prince's discussion of some Wallace Stevens poems in terms of "folk etymology" (cf. Tsur, 1992a: 511-525). The way Keyser and Prince treat repeated sound clusters in Wallace Stevens' poems raises a fundamental question: are we to attribute additional referential meaning to the superimposed sound clusters, and thus turn them into puns, or are we to regard them as a euphonic sound texture in its own right, with no extra meaning assigned? In other words, are we to regard, e.g., the repetition of the sound sequence /yu/ in
(3) You are that white Eulalia of the name
as a musical effect or as a pun? Does the sound sequence
/yu/ confer the referent "you" to "Eulalia"?
In pun, each of the two sign functions is "striving"
to reassert itself in the reader's perception, to preserve,
as it were, the two functions' "warring identity";
the result being a perceptual quality of wit. In alliteration,
the alternative sound patterns do not vie in rivalry
for the reader's attention; they are peacefully arranged
in a hierarchic order, the arbitrary referential sign
being in the foreground, with the non-referential expressive
sound clusters constituting a more or less "thick"
musical background texture. Psychologically, then,
the two conceptions of sound repetition are incompatible.
This incompatibility is curiously similar to that obtaining
between the elements which constitute the grotesque.
That is to say, if the strict separation of the respective
arrangements could somehow be interfered with, one
might expect a resulting "high tension" effect,
not unlike the strange sensation of confusion and disorientation
associated with the grotesque.
When the mariners came to the land of the lemon trees,
At last, in the blond atmosphere, bronzed hard,
They said, "We are back once more in the land of the elm trees,
But folded over, turned around". It was the same,
Except for the adjectives, an alteration
Of words that was a change of nature, more
Than the difference that clouds make over a town.
The countrymen were changed and each constant thing.
Their dark-colored words had redescribed the citrons.
Keyser and Prince (1979: 76) comment: "The shift
of letters in the first syllable of lemon, lem, produces
elm, and, as Stevens says, this change of language,
in itself, produces a change of nature". Here,
the term "folk etymology" has picked out
those elements to which it was tuned, and molded Stevens'
poetic technique in its own image, with little regard
for the possibility that the phoneme sequence /lem/
repeated as /elm/ may or may not be a case of plain
alliteration. But notice that this repeated sound cluster
is actually embedded here in a rich texture of alliteration,
about which Keyser and Prince say nothing. Thus, the
phonological sequence /blond/ is repeated in the same
order (with the liquid replaced by another liquid and
with the addition of a voiced sibilant) in /bronzd/.
Both phoneme sequences, /l-n-d/ and /r-n-d/ are repeated,
in the same order, in land (twice), and in turned around.
These sound clusters have further ramifications in
the quoted passage, on which I shall not dwell here.
It is interesting to observe the two consecutive phrases
"in that blond atmosphere, bronzed hard".
The two phrases are related on three levels: First,
they constitute a syntagmatic sequence; second, their
sound clusters are related by a paradigmatic pattern;
and third, they are contrasted by such semantic components
as [+/-dark] and [+/-hard]. These contrasting components
form semantic patterns that are redundant from the
syntagmatic point of view, and it would appear that
they are absorbed in the background texture, together
with the phonological clusters. Prima facie, the repeated
cluster /lem/ /elm/ is just one more thread in this
network of sound texture, which appears to be non-referential,
superimposed upon the syntagmatic sequence of arbitrary
In the second tercet of the quotation, however, the
tables are turned on the reader. "It was the same,
/ Except for the adjectives, an alteration / Of words
that was a change of nature". One wonders what
could be substituted for "was", in the last
clause, of more specific verbs, such as "produced"
or "reflected". Keyser and Prince paraphrase
"was" as "produced", without any
reservation. From the context of the poem, I gather
that "reflected" might be no less appropriate.
What the poem says is quite sophisticated, and could
be, I think, paraphrased as follows: "When they
came to the land, they found there was a change of
nature: elm trees were replaced by lemon trees; in
the language of the poem that describes this change
of nature, the shift is rather slight: only the word
lemon has been replaced by elm (the letters of which
are already contained in the replaced word). The reader
who has access to this real-world state of affairs
only through the language of the poem (description
first, landscape last), may think that it is the slight
change of language that produced the change of nature".
That is why the copula was is so much more appropriate
here than either of the content verbs "reflected"
or "produced"; it fits into both orders of
The reader is shocked out of his complacent indulgence
in poetic language in three different ways at one and
the same time. First, there is a shift of the chain
of causation: the thing experienced first (language)
produces, as it were, the thing experienced later (landscape),
irrespective of the logical sequence of events. Second,
there is a shift from language to metalanguage ("adjectives").
Third, if Keyser and Prince are right, a referential
sign function is assigned to a non-referential pattern
of potential sign vehicles (the "shift of letters"
signifies a "change of nature"). Thus, the
alliteration is turned into a pun after the event.
The non-referential sound pattern becomes the sign
vehicle of a sign function, emerges from the background
texture, and "strives" to establish its "warring
identity", to establish itself in the reader's
perception. In other words, both the sign vehicle and
the signified are so literally developed that they
both assume independent existences of their own.
When we consider the instances of typographic foregrounding
in picture poems, those considered by Willie van Peer
and many many more, it may become pretty clear that
all these instances are in the focus of our attention,
rather than constitute some harmonious fusion in the
back of our mind, as in alliteration. We are not likely
to discover an instance in which the graphic design
of the typography and the thematic element of a poem
tend to blend smoothly. Critics who are inclined to
regard conditioned reflex as the basis of artistic
taste would suggest that such picture poems are rare,
therefore they appear to us strange. In what follows
I shall argue that the obverse is the case: such picture
poems are strange, and therefore rare.
My first argument will draw upon an analogy with verbal
synaesthesia; my second argument upon the conception
of Al Liberman and his colleagues at the Haskins Laboratories,
of "Why speech is so special?".
The term synaesthesia suggests the joining of different
sensory domains. One must distinguish between the joining
of sense impressions derived from the various sensory
domains (as, e.g., in "genuine coloured hearing"),
and the joining of terms derived from the vocabularies
of the various sensory domains. The former concerns
synaesthesia as a psychological phenomenon; the latter
is Verbal Synaesthesia. Literary Synaesthesia is the
exploitation of verbal synaesthesia for specific literary
effects. These specific literary effects do not presuppose
the co-occurrence of sense impressions from two different
sensory domains; they can be accounted for, rather,
by semantic manipulations of meaning-components of
terms derived from the vocabularies of the various
sensory domains. For our purpose, synaesthesia is a
kind of metaphor, in which the logical contradiction
is stronger than usual. In my various writings I have
claimed that a strong emotional effect is achieved
when the conflicting terms are perceived as smoothly
fused, and a strong witty effect is achieved when attention
is attracted to the contradiction. 2
kind of synaesthetic metaphor usually (but not exclusively)
occurs in various kinds of mannerism. In Romantic poetry
and in 19th century Symbolism, Literary Synaesthesia
typically contributes to some undifferentiated emotional
quality, some "vague, dreamy, or uncanny hallucinatory
moods", or some strange, magical experience or
heightened mystery. In some varieties of mannerist
poetry, as in some modernist and 17th century Metaphysical
poetry, this typically makes for a witty quality. I
have attempted to follow the strategies by which attention
is manipulated by the text. Some of my tools were derived
from Ullmann's findings in synaesthesia.
Ullmann examined the intersense transfers in the poetry
of twelve nineteenth-century poets in three languages,
English, French and Hungarian. The direction of the
transfers was checked. According to his findings, "transfers
tend to mount from the lower to the higher reaches
of the sensorium, from the less differentiated sensations
to the more differentiated ones, and not vice versa"
(Ullmann, 1957: 280). It is in strict conformity with
the first tendency that the touch, the lowest level
of the sensorium, should be the main purveyor of transfers.
Though it is only one of six possible sources, it looms
large in all twelve poets analysed (ibid., 282). The
predominant destination, however, turned out, surprisingly,
to be not the sense of sight, but the sense of sound,
the second highest in the hierarchy.
I have translated these statistical findings into analytical
tools. Speaking of the higher in terms of a lower sense
may generate that intense emotional atmosphere, those
"vague, dreamy, or uncanny hallucinatory moods".
Transfer in the opposite direction would generate a
witty quality. At some variance with Ullmann's explanation,
I suggested that the predominant destination turned
out to be not the sense of sight, but the sense of
sound, because stable characteristic visual shapes
tend to disrupt the smooth fusion of the senses. Indeed,
Erzsébet Dombi (1974), who applied Ullmann's
methods to Hungarian symbolist poetry, found that in
this corpus the predominant destination was sight;
but it was only colours, not shapes.3
(5) And taste the music of that vision pale.
(Keats, Isabella: XLIX)
(6) The same bright face I tasted in my sleep
(Keats, Endymion, I: 895)
Some evasive mood, some uncanny atmosphere, is suggested
in (5). It is generated with the help of the double
intersense transfer, both in the expected direction,
upward, that is, it speaks of vision in terms of music;
and of music, in turn, in terms of taste. It should
be noticed that though vision belongs to the visual
vocabulary, it is a thing-free quality, detached from
any stable, characteristic visual shape. Music connotes
a pleasant fusion of sounds, expanding toward the perceiving
self; the transfer from a lower sense, taste, enhances
the indistinctness of the fused sensations. The powerful
fusion of the discordant senses heightens the discharge
of emotions, eliminating the contradictory sensuous
ingredients, leaving the reader with the feel of a
supersensuous, mysterious atmosphere.
As for (6), Ullmann finds that it is a strange phrase
(1957: 287). My suggestion is that intersense transfer
is more capable of splitting the focus of perception
than ordinary metaphor. To elicit an emotional rather
than witty response requires fusion of the sensory
information into a 'soft focus'. Well-defined shapes
tend to resist this fusion, whereas thing-free qualities
promote it. In the foregoing two examples, "The
same bright face I tasted" and "And taste
the music of that vision pale" there is an "upward"
transfer, from tasting to seeing, and as such, both
ought to be perceived as "smooth" and "natural".
The characteristic shape of face, however, appears
to be an obstacle to fusion with tasting. That seems
the source of the "strangeness" of the expression.
As a downward transfer, I would mention here Donne's
notorious "loud perfume" with its witty effect.
Let us return now to the patterning of signifiers in
poetry. The phonetic signifier is derived from the
auditory domain. Its patterning into alliteration and
rhyme may achieve a fusion of an emotional or musical
character, if there is nothing else to resist it. One
such resisting factor we have already encountered:
the assignment of a referent to the additional, reference-free,
sound pattern. Another prominent factor that may affect
this fusion is the organisation of the verse into stronger
or weaker gestalts. Typographic patterning of the verse
lines appeals to the visual sense. What is more, a
pair of wings, or an altar, or a wounded dove and a
fountain, involve stable characteristic visual shapes
and, as such, they resist fusion, and generate a witty
effect. That is why such patterning would typically
occur in poetry of mannerist character.
Repp (1984: 287) found that this ability to tell the relative pitch of the two fricatives lies in the cognitive strategy of isolating them from their vocalic context. And conversely, Rakerd found that "vowels in consonantal context are more linguistically perceived than are isolated vowels". In plain English this means that the perception of vowels in consonantal context is more categorial, whereas in isolated vowels more pre-categorial information can be perceived; alternatively, the underlying sensory information, by virtue of which a vowel is typically associated with certain perceptual qualities, varies from one consonantal context to another, owing to "parallel transmission", that is, owing to "the fact that a talker often co-articulates the neighboring segments of an utterance (that is, overlaps their respective productions) such that the acoustic signal is jointly influenced by those segments" (Rakerd, 1984: 123). In my work on speech sounds in poetry I have argued that there is a third, poetic mode of aural perception, in which some of the rich precategorial sensory information becomes accessible "behind" the phonetic categories and subtlely interplays with certain semantic components (Tsur, 1992 b; 1992 a: chapter 7).
Figure 2. Sonograms of S and s, indicating why s is somehow "higher"
In some of his recent articles, Al Liberman tells us
dramatic details about how the great breakthrough in
speech research occurred in the late forties. He and
his colleagues were engaged in developing a reading
machine for the blind. The simple idea was this: just
as there is an alphabetic correspondence between speech
sounds and letters, one might establish a similar correspondence
between the letters of the alphabet and a series of
musical tones, which the blind might acquire with some
practice. Now speech sounds are produced and perceived
at a rate of 40 bits per second. When the nonspeech
sounds were played at a much lower rate, they exceeded
the resolving power of the human ear and were perceived
as one fused tone. After long research it was discovered
that speech sounds at that rate do not exceed the resolving
power of the human ear owing to the fact that one piece
of acoustic information gives information about several
phonemes at one and the same time.
What conclusion can we draw from this excursus on speech
perception with reference to the perceived difference
between phonetic and typographic patterning in poetry?
There is a substantial difference between the phonetic
signifiers in the auditory mode, which are inborn,
and the graphemic signifiers in the visual mode, acquired
at a relatively late age. This difference is also affected
by the peculiarities of visual shapes. But there is
also an enormous difference within the auditory mode
itself, between the speech mode and the nonspeech mode,
both inborn, or acquired at a very early age. The former
appears to be of a far higher psychic economy than
the latter, handled by a specialised inborn mechanism.
The nature of this psychic economy can be understood
with reference to two of its characteristics: parallel
transmission, and the modular nature of the phonetic
information. This requires some elaboration. We listen
to a stream of abstract phonetic categories, made amenable
to the resolving power of the human ear by parallel
transmission. At the same time, at a lower level, and
subliminally, we may attend to the rich, precategorial
acoustic information, which may affect the perceived
quality of poetic language in a variety of ways. For
our present business, one thing is important: there
is a subtle interplay in the background, on a very
minute scale, between this rich, precategorial acoustic
information and the fine-grained semantic components.
Obviously, owing to the differences propounded above,
such interplay cannot take place between the visual
design superimposed upon the line arrangement and the
patterns of signs at the phonetic, semantic, syntactic
and thematic levels.
The existence of verse lines and stanzas illustrates this. Neither of these can be understood without an appeal to typographical deviations and parallelisms, which have themselves been turned into literary custom. This means that these forms must belong to readers' stock expectations concerning poetry (50).
The earlier auditory device thus becomes transformed into a visual game, in which the delineation of the white space on the page around verse lines and stanzas fulfils a signalling function ('This is poetry!') and gives cause to forms of semiotic play (51).
Though I consider this account to be adequate, such
a conception has been a source of innumerable misunderstandings.
Some contemporary critics hold, following Dr. Johnson,
that blank verse and vers libre are "often only
verse for the eye". This is a misconception. Just
as the graphic arrangement on the page presents the
lines as perceptual units to the eye, the intonation
contours heard in the reading of poetry present the
lines as perceptual units to the ear. Such contours
are the result of the interaction of the intonation
contours required by prose rhythm with those that articulate
the line. It is assumed that the listener decodes these
contours in terms of the intonation contours from whose
interplay they arise. In fact, the main function of
the graphic arrangement on the page is to give the
reader instructions concerning the intonation contours
appropriate to the lines. In this respect, the verse
lines with the white space around become rather transparent
graphic signs of phonological entities: just as the
letters on the page signal phonemes, the verse lines
surrounded by white space signal intonation contours
(cf. Tsur, 1977: 119; 1992 a: 174-175). They only begin
to compete for the reader's attention and reassert
their warring identity, when they are foregrounded
by some "mannerist" device: acrostic, or
some mimetic arrangement.
[I]t is hard to see how a theory along the lines of Tynjanov, i.e. a constant relief of new devices, would be able to provide a clarification of this discontinuity. Yet the observation that the distribution of typographic forms of foregrounding over different historical eras is not random requires an explanation (57).
I propose to offer a model alternative to Tynjanov's,
drawn from Sypher (1955: 6), who speaks of four stages
of Renaissance style, the first two of which are relevant
to our present business: A provisional formulation
(Renaissance), and a disintegration (Mannerism). We
might suggest that in the first stage, that of the
"provisional formulation", the art-consumer
(reader, listener, spectator) tends to attend away
from the individual devices to the architecture of
the whole, whereas in the second stage he is forced
to attend back to the isolated devices, with possible
serious damage to the architectural structure of the
whole. In Melchiori's phrasing (1966: 138), "the
total effect is frequently lost sight of, or is reached
through accumulation rather than through a harmonious
disposition of structural parts", whereas "details
are worked out with a goldsmith's care". A similar
disintegration has been observed by Curtius (1973:
274) toward the end of the Latin Middle Ages: "A
danger of the system lies in the fact that, in manneristic
epochs, the ornatus is piled on indiscriminately and
meaninglessly. In rhetoric itself, then, lies concealed
one of the seeds of Mannerism. It produces a luxuriant
growth in Latin Middle Ages". A similar story
can be told, mutatis mutandis, about the disintegration
of romanticism, after a provisional formulation, into
the ensuing various types of mannerism.
The discontinuity of manneristic devices in general,
and of picture poems in particular, throughout the
history of literature, can be accounted for, then,
by a model suggesting an internal dynamics of alternating
periods of provisional formulation and of disintegration,
in which "the centre cannot hold".
In order to avoid misunderstandings, one more word should be said about the meanings of the term "mannerism". In art history and criticism it has three different but related meanings. All three meanings refer to artistic and literary phenomena which compel the reader (or the audience) to focus attention on the individual figures rather than on the composition of the whole. Many critics use the term Mannerism in a pejorative sense, to refer to a style marked by an excess of ornaments and frequent repetition of a limited number of stylistic devices, whether functionally required or not. This is the meaning in which Willie van Peer uses the term when he says of a 17th century specimen of "wing poems" that "to a modern reader, the text is little more than a manneristic game". On the other hand, at least one important theoretician uses it very differently, referring in a positive sense to the cultural period in the 16th and 17th century, between the Renaissance and the Baroque:
Thus, mannerism has two modes, technical and psychological. Behind the technical ingenuities of mannerist style there usually is a personal unrest, a complex psychology that agitates the form and the phrase (Sypher, 1955: 116).
Sypher's usage links the term Mannerism with Metaphysical.
The third meaning of the term refers to other styles
or cultural periods which resemble in some important
way mannerism in the second sense, including some trends
of modernism (Melchiori (1966) uses the term in this
third sense, when he calls James and Hopkins "Two
had it not been composed in the form of two wings, would presumably lose little of its effect. In the case of George Herbert, however, typography and theme form a symbiotic whole, the aesthetic value of which would be affected if the wing-pattern were disrupted. In this sense, typographic forms of foregrounding may contribute in a specific way to the quality of poems (57).
Beardsley (1958) speaks of "multiple relationship",
Wheelwright (1968) of "multivalence" in relation
to such more traditional poetic devices as metaphor.
Van Peer suggests precisely such a multiple relationship
between the visual arrangement of the lines and the
verbal structure of the verse. He points out that the
wing-shape of the stanza is analogous to several thematic
features of the poem, as well as to the semantic patterns
of the verbs on the one hand, and their syntactic patterns
on the other. In this respect, his analysis supports
the assumption that Herbert's use of the picture poem
is in a sense a rather logical extension of more conservative
aesthetic principles. When there is no such multiple
relationship between the wing-arrangement of lines
and the verbal structure, the two can be contemplated
in isolation, with no attempt to integrate them, and
no emotional shock arises. The emotional shock would
arise only when the multiple relationship serves as
an incentive for the integration of the hard-to-integrate
dimensions of the poem.
Before the publication of this paper I have re-read
some of Al Liberman's papers of the past five years
that recapitulate his "finding that speech is
special". He most vigorously reinstates that "the
units of speech are defined as gestures, not as the
sounds those gestures porduce" (Liberman, 1992b:
123). "Language is neither auditory nor visual.
[...] Optical stimuli will, under some conditions,
evoke equally convincing phonetic percepts, provided
[...] they specify the same articulatory movements
[...] that the sounds of speech evoke. This so-called
'MacGurk' effect works powerfully when the stimuli
are the natural movements of the articulatory apparatus,
but not when they are the arbitrary letters of the
alphabet" (125). Speech is normally transmitted by
a stream of inconstant, rapidly and continuously changing
sounds, which specify the articulatory gestures that produced them,
resulting in invariant and discrete speech categories. This process, says
Liberman, is biological, "precognitive".
He contrasts this conception with the "received
view", according to which the perceived speech
categories "are the end products of a cognitive
translation that converts auditory percepts into a
form appropriate to language. Getting from speech signal
to the primary level of language is, therefore, a two-stage
process: evocation of an auditory percept in the first
stage, followed by conversion to a phonetic representation
in the second" (Liberman, 1992a: 110). In this
important respect, the rival view "implausibly
makes perceiving speech no different in principle from
perceiving Morse code or, for that matter, the letters
of the alphabet" (110). "Unlike a Morse code
operator or writer, a speaker is directly using motor
representations that are inherently linguistic. There
is no need to connect a nonlinguistic act (pressing
a key or writing an alphabetic character) to some linguistic
unit of a cognitive sort" (111).
Early attempts at creating reading machines for the
blind based on an "alphabetic" principle
of nonspeech sounds failed, because even when played
at a much lower rate then normal speech, they fused
into unique chunks of sounds characteristical of each
word. Furthermore, Liberman and his colleagues found
little transfer of training across rates. Letters and
words learned at one rate could not be recognised at
other rates. "Words tended not only to become
hard-to-analyze wholes, but the phenomenal nature of
the whole changed quite drastically from one rate to
another" (Liberman, 1992a: 111). The key to the
difference between the speech mode and nonspeech mode
of hearing was: coarticulation, parallel transmission
and categorial perception.
"Coarticulation must walk a fine line, being constrained
on either side by the special demands of phonological
communication. Thus, coarticulation must produce enough
overlap and merging to permit the high rates of phonetic
segment production that do, in fact, occur, while yet
preserving the details of phonetic structure"
(Liberman, 1992b: 124).
There seems to be general consensus as for the artificiality
of the graphemic patterning of picture poems, as compared
to the relative naturalness of the various kinds of
phonetic patterning prevalent in all kinds of poetry.
But only very few people do ask why graphemic patterning
should be less natural than phonetic patterning; and
even fewer people give an answer to this question based
on Liberman's findings concerning the unique nature
of speech. It should be noticed that Liberman's conception
is tailor-made for explaining this relative unnaturalness.
At the same time, the general consensus as for the
relative unnaturalness of graphemic patterning might
serve as weighty evidence in favour of Liberman's conception
of speech perception, as opposed to the received view.
Liberman suggests that "coarticulation produces
a complex and singularly linguistic relation between
acoustic signal and the phonetic message it conveys"
(Liberman, 1992b: 124). Unfortunately, he makes no
suggestions as for the complex and singularly linguistic
relation between the phonetic message and units of
meaning. This latter kind of linguistic relation seems
to have been neglected so far by research, although
this might be one of the most intriguing questions
of the linguistic endeavour. We usually encounter only
such general statements as that "a phonological
representation is assigned to semantic representations",
or the like. The paucity of such statements is revealed
by the rich and elaborate knowledge unearthed by Liberman
and his colleagues concerning the "singularly
linguistic relation between acoustic signal and the
phonetic message it conveys". Had we some more
detailed information about the ways the phonetic and
semantic representations are combined in language and
speech, we could, of course, adduce some more illuminating
explanation of why graphemic patterning is less natural
than phonetic patterning in poetry.
Still, I believe, I can point out some crucial differences
between phonetic and graphemic patterning that may
account for the greater naturalness of the former and
the relative artificiality of the latter. Language,
speech, reading require very complex processing of
linguistic stretches during a very short period of
time. During this period, these stretches are available
for processing in "immediate memory", which
functions in the acoustic mode. Much research is devoted
today in the United States to find out what are the
cognitive deficiencies of poor readers as compared
to good readers. Two such deficiencies have been isolated.
First, poor readers make less efficient use of phonetic
coding than proficient readers (their performance in
certain verbal memory tasks is less influenced, for
better or for worse, by rhyming words); and second,
they have a poorer awareness of phonological units
in the stream of speech (they have greater difficulty
than proficient readers to tap once, twice or three
times in response to such words as "eye, pie,
spy", or once or three times in response to such
words as "dog" and "elephant").
All linguistic processing requires efficient phonetic
coding, so as to make the stretch of speech available
in immediate memory for processing. But it would appear
that illiterate persons or pre-literate societies can
do quite well without the second competence. Now consider
this. Phonetic patterning enhances the memory traces
of speech sounds; consequently, they improve the availability
of stretches of speech for processing. Hence the relative
naturalness of phonetic patterning. Indeed, poetry
is said to have originated in pre-literate societies
by the need to memorise and transmit verbatim texts
of great cultural importance. I shall argue that graphemic
patterning does exactly the opposite: it renders the
linguistic units less available for the processing
In a paper on linguistic awareness and orthographic form, Ignatius Mattingly (a close associate of Liberman) reviews all known major orthographic systems from ancient times to the present day in Europe, Western and Eastern Asia, North Africa and Mayan culture. In this universal context he points out that no purely logogrammatic system has ever been discovered, and that in all systems we find phonograms with or without logograms. Consequently, reading is possible only for people who have an awareness of smaller linguistic units, and can identify the correspondence of orthographic units to linguistic units. Curiously enough, no culture has ever developed a purely phonetic transcription system, except by highly sophisticated professional phoneticians.
The reason must be that shapes of words in such a transcription are context-sensitive and thus difficult to recognise.
"It is suggested that this is
a minimal constraint that all writing systems must
meet, so that words can serve as units of transcription"
(Mattingly, 1992: 134).
All orthographic systems seem to require, then, linguistic
awareness at two levels at least, the word which serves
as a "frame" for interpretation, and some
lower level, the syllable or the phoneme. In Western
orthographic systems words are visually isolated by
blank space, facilitating the perception of the "frame"
units. In Chinese, no such visual isolation occurs,
and the characters (or pairs of characters) on the
page signify syllables. Nonetheless, Mattingly quotes
an experiment by Xu and himself which strongly suggests
that psychologically, in Chinese too, the word is the
transcription unit. In this experiment, respondents
had to answer "yes" or "no", according
to whether two genuine characters can or cannot occur
together in one Chinese syllable. They had to make
their judgments in the context of pseudowords and of
genuine words. The judgments were considerably faster
in the latter.
This short excursus on orthographic form may suggest the following. The difference between phonetic and graphemic processing of language does not consist only in that the former relies on an inborn mechanism whereas the latter reflects a man-made artifice. Language and speech are, indeed, primary in humans, whereas reading and writing are secondary. But reading and writing are possible only if the orthographic units have a good fit to the linguistic units, at two different levels at least. We have seen that phonetic patterning of speech and language enhances the acoustic traces of speech sounds in immediate memory and, consequently, increases the availability of stretches of speech and language to the processing consciousness. Hence its relative naturalness. By contrast, graphemic patterning directs away attention from the correspondence of orthographic units to linguistic units; consequently, they render reading more difficult, less natural.
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1. In Mediaeval Hebrew poetry, acrostic assumes a very specific function. It occurs in liturgical, but not in secular poetry. While secular poems were collected in Diwans of their authors, liturgical poems were collected with poems by other authors in prayer books, intended for the same liturgical occasion. The acrostic was regarded as a "signature", by which authorship of the poem could be recognised.
2. e.g., Tsur, 1987: chapter 12; 1992 b; 1992 a: chapters 7 and 9.
3 Dombi and myself were doing our respective research at the same time, without knowing about each other's work.
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