Monday, November 15, 2004

A couple of people have written in the past week about the cryptic comments I made with regard to Ruth Altmann, to wit:


I pointed out to Kasey Mohammad in my response to his comment re the Brainard review on Thursday that a form like this is really the horizontal axis of language – to borrow Jakobson’s orientation for a moment – putting all of the writing on the vertical axis, the selection of words, phrases, etc. Yet Altman also shows here how important the dexterity of combination can be in making this work. So, yes, the mode here is the horizontal axis at one level, yet in addition to her absolute deftness with the vertical, Altmann is demonstrating a second superimposed horizontal axis. Is one of them the image, the other the ghost? It’s an interesting problem and suggests some limitation about Jakobson’s model I’d not noticed before.


I need to remind myself that I can be so comfortable with my own shorthand that I become unnecessarily inscrutable. What exactly do I mean by horizontal & vertical? What axis?


Good questions, actually. One of the ways in which the moniker “language poet” does apply to me, I guess, is that I’m comfortable with linguistics, or at least moderately comfortable. And while I can point to dozens, even hundreds, of excellent poets who think that linguistics is to poetry what ornithology is to birds, I’ve always wondered about people who didn’t show some curiosity about the tools that they’re using in their art, day in & day out. Imagine a painter ignorant of color.


I was lucky, of course. My one college linguistics teacher was Edward van Aelstyn, also a poet (tho more of a theater person, ultimately) and co-editor for awhile of Coyote’s Journal, which in the early 1960s was the best poetry journal in the U.S. It was van Aelstyn who talked me into starting a little magazine, which after a few false starts turned into Tottel’s.


Just 21, I had recently started at SF State & had already been attempting to wade through the linguistics texts of Noam Chomsky on my own, which is rather like swimming in syrup with no land in sight. So coming to van Aelstyn, who in one classroom exercise began reading aloud a section of Moby Dick aloud (“The Grand Armada” chapter if I remember correctly) and – to see if we could recognize the shift in discursive cues – switched mid-passage into Wichita Vortex Sutra, added some serious grounding, but most especially the sort of grounding that a young poet would find pertinent. Alas, our collective student projects – to construct a language in teams of three or four – dissolved in the chaos of the 1968 SF State strike.


But afterwards, I concluded a variety of things. One, I wasn’t interested necessarily in ever becoming a linguist as such. What I wanted instead was to find those threads within the linguistic tradition that related directly to what I was thinking about as a poet. Thirty six years hence, that still seems like a pretty good guide.


Over time, I came up with a sense of a basic poet’s curriculum on linguistics – or at least those texts that I found had proven the most meaningful to me. So let me offer this rough sketch as to how I would proceed, were I young poet & “knowing what I know now.” Then I’ll come back & address that question of axes & orientations.


I would start by reading two different texts simultaneously – one a classic in the history of linguistics, the other, literally, any good current undergraduate introduction to linguistics textbook (the one I had, Dwight Bolinger’s Aspects of Language, has probably been superceded in the undergraduate curriculum, tho it was in use for several decades on college campuses). The classic is Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, a fabulous & problematic text, fabulous in fact precisely because it is problematic. Saussure himself never lived to write a book on the topic, so a number of his students, who attended his course by this title during the three times he taught it between 1906 & 1911 compiled their notes and published that under his name. This of course makes two presumptions – first that the students equally understood what the professor was saying and second that the course (& Saussure’s thinking) was the same during each of the three classes. There is considerable evidence that neither of these presumptions is true. The result is a text that is not only the origin of contemporary linguistics, but a mystery as well, one open to a great deal of interpretation.


There is another text I would read alongside my basic textbook – tho one I wouldn’t start until I’d completed the Saussure – Roman Jakobson’s Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning. This is easier said than done – tho published by MIT, and a volume of seminal importance in the history of ideas in the 20th century, Six Lectures is listed by its publisher as being out of print. lists just six copies – two of them in the U.K. – available from used book dealers. The lectures are a series of talks given by Jakobson at the New School. One of the attendees was a young French sociologist who had been doing anthropological fieldwork in Brazil & found himself stranded by the Second World War, Claude Levi-Strauss. According to the latter, this was the Aha Experience that led him into organizing myths as tho they were part of a structural system. The whole history of structuralism (of which post-structuralism is but a part) was to evolve out of that initial encounter.


Jakobson I’m told isn’t read much by undergraduates any more – which is a shame, if true. All of his books are interesting and some of the works on Jakobson, such as Linda Waugh’s piece in the 1980 issue of Poetics Today devoted to his work, are themselves exceptionally useful syntheses of his positions. Indeed, it is Waugh’s essay that I still think of as the clearest summary on the six functions of language, which I in turn have adapted and modified somewhat because of how I think of it when I consider language and its relationship to poetry.


Jakobson, it’s worth noting, started out as a poet & critic around the Russian Futurists & their allies the Russian Formalists – he literally knew Mayakovsky & Shklovsky. Later, as the Soviet revolution was starting to consolidate into Stalinism, Jakobson taught at the Prague School of Linguistics where one of his student turned out to be René Wellek. Thus ideas that began with the Russian Formalists echo in a bastardized form through the fog of the New Critics, who can been as applying an attenuated version of formalist thinking as a strategy for advancing a conservative – even reactionary – aesthetic.*


The two linguistic concepts that I use most often, and which turn up here in the blog with some regularity, the six functions of language and two axes (one vertical, the other horizontal) in any statement, can be traced directly to Jakobson. The six functions of language – not just poetic language, but any language – can be viewed as a trio of opposing pairs: addresser & addressee, signifier & signified, contact & code. Jakobson argues that the poetic function is that which turns everyone’s attention to the signifier. That’s true enough as far as it goes, although there is so much more to say beyond this initial claim that it’s easy to imagine this as a pure endorsement for sound poetry and/or vizpo, which isn’t quite the case (if anything, it points up the impoverished intellectual conditions that characterize much of both tendencies – but that’s another blog for another day). I like to think of these functions as facets of a three-dimensional circumstance – a visual analog would be a die. One face always points up – the signifier, let’s say – which means that it’s opposite (the signified) must lie face down. Further, if we approach this three-dimensional figure at any sort of angle, we will then discover two secondary facets as being visible. In each instance, their opposite is hidden or at least muted. If you want to know how I think about language, theoretically, that metaphor of the six-sided die is something you need to deal with. I do think about it a lot.


All of these six functions have to do with the nature of speech & speaking. The two axes have to do with the grammatic integration of any statement – let’s use Chomsky’s example of a “meaningless” sentence, Colorless green ideas sleep furiously (tho it could just as easily be The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog). The horizontal axis is the domain of syntax, the gears of noun & verb, adjective & adverb, meshing into place. The vertical axis is the domain of word selection – the choice of green over mauve or tope, for example, the choice of sleep versus snooze.


When I wrote about Ruth Altmann that a list poem puts “all of the writing on the vertical axis,” I was thinking of the list poem as being as extreme in its own domain as Chomsky’s nonce sample is in its own. Chomsky intends here to prove that sentences can be grammatical without being meaningful, but accomplishes this only using an impoverished concept of “meaning” (i.e. “happens in the ‘real’ world”). List poems, when (but only when) they use completely parallel syntactic forms, would thrust almost all of the choices about “what to write” into the process of word selection. Altmann, tho, varies her phrases without giving up her list. Her principle commitment to the list lies in the absence of verbs – this is a series of noun phrases, ranging from a single word (Soap) to something far more complex (green paper money, / rough and torn from use). The order of elements in this Altmann’s is both temporal & narrative, but what really struck me most of all was how she varies the phrase structures and uses line breaks to gently control the poem’s sense of forward movement. Thus the form of the poem is not the strict parallelism of many list poems – noun phrase, noun phrase, noun phrase – but something far more complex. Even representing each noun phrase by the number of words used wouldn’t do just to the complexity of each or how so many interact with line enjambments. That’s what I meant when I suggest that Altmann was able to demonstrate two simultaneous horizontal axes – the strict grammatical one & a second characterized by length, internal pauses & the like. A week later, it still excites me to think about all that she’s doing in that poem.





* One of the reasons language poetry, as a critical project, was sometimes caricatured as a kind of neo-New Criticism could be traced to the fact that these poets in the 1970s, like the agrarians who called themselves New Critics, were utilizing terms & strategies that had their origins in the same place, tho to radically different ends. Thus when Habermas called for a new modernity, one that when back to modernism’s roots & proceeded without the deviations that had so crippled the first generation modernist critics, this return to Russian Futurism on the part of langpo struck me as being the closest approximation in practice to what Habermas was after.