Temporal Poetics: Rhythmic Process as Truth
Cureton, Richard D., The Antioch Review
Over the years, many have lamented the weaknesses in prosody (in the sense of our theories of poetic rhythm) and poetics (in the sense of our theories of poetry), but to my knowledge none have claimed that these two weaknesses are closely related. Over the past twenty years or so, I have been working with a strong version of the opposite assumption: that these two weaknesses are the same. I call this approach to our understanding of poetic rhythm and poetry temporal poetics, because rhythm creates our experience of subjective time, and this approach to prosody and poetics uses an explicit, detailed theory of rhythm in order to develop an explicit, detailed theory of poetry.
Temporal poetics has a considerable history. It took on a substantially finished shape about ten years ago; I have been teaching and writing about it ever since; and it has already been used by others (in one case, used as a book-length argument). Whether it will significantly influence the future of prosody and poetics, only time will tell. At this point, I can report only that it seems promising.
The prosodic tradition has always been primarily interested in the voice, how it moves rhythmically from syllable to syllable, stress to stress. But for whatever reason, this tradition has always given vocal movement a very regular, one-dimensional, and minimal representation (e.g., poetic feet, with foot substitution, etc.), while claiming that all more regular movement is just an abstract norm of this vocal movement and all less regular movement is not rhythmic at all.
This conception of rhythm can be useful for certain basic critical tasks, but is much too narrow and misleading to be of further theoretical or practical use. Actually, the movement of the voice (what linguists and music theorists call rhythmic grouping) is not at all one-dimensional, regular, and minimal but multi-levelled, variable, and complex. Similarly, the simpler and more regular movement that often accompanies the poetic voice (what music theorists would call meter) is not at all abstract and normative of the voice but gestural and cyclical, a felt pulsation that winds down in relatively fixed, alternating patterns that are directly opposed to the normative contours of the voice. All complex rhythms have more volatile linear and non-linear components, too, what music theorists call prolongation and theme, respectively.
This critique of the prosodic tradition leads to a new conceptual framework for the study of poetic rhythm, a new definition of poetic rhythm. In the prosodic tradition, rhythm is a simplified tracking of the regular motion of the voice, and everything else is collapsed into this one thing (or neglected entirely). The implicit claim is that rhythm has some sort of unified temporal logic (i.e., isochronous repetition, iambic feet, or whatever) and everything else is a kind of significant/negligible variation from this temporal norm. Therefore, a poem's rhythm can be fully described by specifying (or assuming) this temporal norm and then cataloguing the deviations from it, whenever and wherever they might occur.
In temporal poetics, however, rhythm (and therefore subjective time) is not homogeneous and logically unified but multiple, divided, and dialectically conflicted. Rhythm is not one thing but four very different things in inherently tense, complementary interaction. I like to call these four different things the major components of rhythm. Each of these major rhythmic components creates a different sort of subjective time. Meter creates cyclical time, which is associated with sensation, perception, and physical ecstasy. Rhythmic grouping creates centroidal time, which is associated with the centered self and emotional expression. Prolongation creates linear time, which is associated with volition and action. And theme creates relative time, which is associated with thought, imagination, and memory.
In this approach to prosody, rhythm is not just the regular movement of the voice but the concerted and conflicted movements of our major psychological faculties--sensation, emotion, volition, and thought; body, soul, will, and mind.
For the most part, this theory of poetic rhythm, which provides the foundation for my temporal poetics, is both borrowed from music theory and long since finished and published; therefore, it need not be discussed in detail here. If you are unfamiliar with this theory, see my 1992 book, Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse, and its major source in music theory, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, published by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff in 1981.
The four rhythmic components in this theory of poetic rhythm that I have developed are elegantly oppositional and/or complementary, so much so that their rhythmic qualities form a tight paradigmatic system. Exactly which qualities of the four rhythmic components should be included in an explication of this paradigmatic system is open to debate, and I'm not sure this matters very much. I like to work with eleven considerations: preferred position of prominent events, curve of energy, relational scope, structural volatility, event-event relation, subject-subject relation, subject-event relation, semiotic relation, temporal figure, clock-time orientation, and cognitive process.
For instance, on these parameters, meter is subjective, iconic, and local; favors similar events and repetitive patterns; places its most prominent events initially; is fixed and falling, passive and retrospective, and encourages participation (and therefore builds social community). On the other hand, rhythmic grouping is more objective, global, and volatile; favors local emblematic differences (against a strong background of similarity); is strongly hierarchical and proportional; centers its prominences and therefore rises and falls; focusses on present time; and encourages analogical correspondences and reciprocal obligation. The other rhythmic components extend and complete these paradigmatic relations in similar ways. These oppositional/ complementary rhythmic qualities can be gathered together and organized into a table, what I like to call the temporal paradigm.
The temporal paradigm is especially productive as a detailed key to formal correspondences among the diverse linguistic materials of the poem--grammatical, rhetorical, semantic, thematic, generic, etc. As Northrop Frye suggested long ago, there are really four major literary genres (song/epos, lyric, prose fiction, and drama) and these might be best characterized in rhythmic terms. As Hayden White has suggested, these generic textures also correlate closely with the four master tropes (metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, and irony) and the four major modes of emplotment (romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire). Linguists with a strong analogical bent, such as Kenneth Pike, have argued that grammatical form falls into homologously quadratic paradigms. And many, including Frye, have noticed the quadratic organization of major complexes of archetypal images in poetry--the four seasons of the year, the four major directions of the compass, the four elements, and so forth. Indeed, these insights into the quadratic organization of our sensibilities, the world, and their interaction go back to Pythagorus and, as Jung explored so thoroughly, might have been most highly developed in medieval alchemy.
The correlations between the temporal paradigm, poetic language, and poetic contexts of use are enormous. I have been gathering them together for over a decade. I call the result of this labor the poetic paradigm. The poetic paradigm is too big to print here, but it is also long since worked out and published. It appears in several places in my recent articles and can be viewed in full there.
As Charles Bernstein and others have lamented, the great lacunae in poetics have been (1) a table of possible poetic forms and (2) a combinatorial logic that can specify how these poetic forms are selected and combined by poets into novel, yet coherent, complexes. In most poetic theory and criticism, form imitates meaning, is some sort of implied meaning, or is some sort of organizer of meaning. But as Bernstein and others have rightly argued, the very nature of the poem is to reverse these form-meaning relations. In the poem, meaning serves form.
The problem of poetic form is a very difficult one, however, and has never really been solved--and for good reason. While we know quite a bit about various individual aspects of poetic form, up to this point at least, we have known next to nothing about (1) the internal organization of any given system of forms, or (2) how a form from one formal system relates to a form from some other formal system. That is, confronted with a poem, we have had almost no idea of what goes with what.
Questions that probe our knowledge of these formal correspondences have always seemed wildly mysterious, if not totally unanswerable, even though such gestures are the very stuff from which all poetry is made. What type of sentence goes with images of spring and the earth? What sound-scheme goes with the past tense? What intonation goes with nouns? What trope goes with deductive argument? What word class goes with questions? And so forth.
The most significant claim of my temporal poetics is that the temporal and poetic paradigms now fill these lacunae in poetics. These paradigms give us both a table of possible forms used in poetry (the poetic paradigm) and the logic that motivates how these forms are selected and combined by poets in their writing of poems (the temporal paradigm). This combinatorial logic tells us both the (relevant) internal organization of each separate system of forms and what goes with what, when forms from different systems are combined.
With the temporal and poetic paradigms in hand, our seemingly mysterious, or even unanswerable, questions about formal correspondences are now easily answered. Simple sentences go with images of spring and the earth. Alliteration goes with the past tense. Falling intonation goes with nouns. Synecdoche goes with deductive argument. And adverbs go with questions.
Consider a brief example.
To Women, As Far as I'm Concerned The feelings I don't have, I don't have. The feelings I don't have, I won't say I have. The feelings you say you have, you don't have. The feelings you would like us both to have, we neither of us have. The feelings people ought to have, they never have. If people say they've got feelings, you may be pretty sure they haven't got them. So if you want either of us to feel anything at all you'd better abandon all idea of feelings altogether. --D.H. Lawrence
In the dramatic materials of D.H. Lawrence's "To Women, As Far as I'm Concerned," a male speaker, responding to women in general ("you"), rejects the social pressure he experiences to think and speak about his feelings in conventional ways, which he regards as both false and damaging to actual feelings and actual emotional expression. The texture of the speaker's language is strong, smart, and domineering; and both what he says and what his listener(s) (and we as readers) infer about him from what he says is bathed in irony.
What women ought to feel and therefore say they feel, he says, they don't feel. To actually feel, he says, women must stop thinking and talking about feelings. And to try to convince women of these things, and therefore free them up to feel truly, he confronts them bluntly and sternly (i.e., unfeelingly).
At this level (and others), these many ironic conflicts are not resolved (or meant to be resolved) but just articulate an age-old problem: How can the very different intellectual, social, and emotional sides of our nature be reconciled? In particular, how can natural feeling (harmonious reciprocality?) be restored to modern sensibilities and relationships, which, given the times, must often meld an insightful but combative individuality with a more selfless but falsifying sociality? The prognosis is not promising.
The peculiarly poetic burden of expressing this psychological dilemma is how to formalize its qualitative textures--directly, densely, and simultaneously--in rhythm, rhetoric, and language.
Perhaps the most striking texture in the poem is its relative lack of formalized feeling. Even though the poem is a lyric, the text's rhythms and language are scrupulously non-lyrical (factual, conversational, etc.). The speaker holds forth in the first person and in the present tense and the subject discussed is feeling, but in terms of the temporal and poetic paradigms, almost all centroidal qualities and forms are absent--adjectives, complex subordination, exclamation, rhyme, rise-fall intonation, careful measuring, proportioning, and modulation of the voice, and so forth. Lyrical images (sun, flower, water, noon, brook, valley, summer, etc.) are absent, too; in fact, the poem lacks all such emblematic symbolism, of whatever sort. The only subtle touch of lyricism in the poem is its proportioning into seven sentences, each broken in two, which yields fourteen prominent points of syntactic onset--metrically, a faint echo of the sonnet. The visual isolation and breaking of the last sentence further confirms this echo. The last two of these fourteen syntactic onsets are presented as an isolated block of two lines--a concluding couplet.
Displacing this expected lyricism/emotional expression is a fairly thick texture of cyclical and linear forms, which, psychologically, express an emphatic directedness, strength of will. The cyclical strength comes primarily from (1) the consistently inverted, topicalized sentences (e.g., "The feelings I don't have, I don't have" rather than "I don't have the feelings I don't have"), (2) the dense anaphora (e.g., the first five lines begin with "The feelings"; the last two sentences begin with "if'-clauses), (3) the consistent molding of lines and sentences into a duple patterning (e.g., "The feelings I don't have,//I don't have," etc.), and the paratactic/listing logic of most of the discourse as a whole ("The feelings ... The feelings ... The feelings ..."). The topicalizations and anaphora highlight lineal and syntactic onsets, a major quality of cyclical time. The duple patterning is symmetrical. The anaphora is strongly repetitive. The parataxis is juxtapositional and equivalencing.
The linear directedness (and therefore psychological willfulness) of the text comes from other sources--(1) the strong presence of the second person ("you say," "you would want," "you like us both to have," "you'd better abandon," etc.), (2) the consistently anticipatory/ periodic syntax, especially when heightened by correlatives (If ... then), (3) the consistently fall-rise intonation that accompanies this periodicity,
v v The feelings I don't have, I don't have
(4) the consistently rising rhythmic grouping (or vocal emphasis) within and across lines,
The feelings I don't HAVE, I don't HAVE
and the strong emphasis on modality and future time ("won't say," "ought to have," "may be pretty sure," and "had better abandon"; "I won't say," "you would like us both to have," and "If you want ... to feel"). All of these structures emphasize the ends of forms and therefore build anticipatory energies that drive the text forward. The generally expanding and consequential logic of the text as a whole ("I," "you," "we," "people"; Given X, "so" Y) is also linearly finalizing/culminating.
The major temporal texture in the poem, however, is relativistic/ reflective, which formalizes the speaker's modernist wit, individuality, cultural skepticism, and therefore psychological distancing from the emotional issues he is trying to work out. These reflective/relativistic structures are formalized in many ways, some of which have already been mentioned (e.g., the varying line lengths, the dramatic scenery, and the pervasive irony). Included here would be things such as the use of generic person (e.g., "people," "you"), the peripheral placement of key words and phrases within lines (e.g., "the feelings" and "have" in the first five lines), and the many shifts in person ("I," "you," "us both," "neither of us," "people," "either of us," "anything," etc.).
The most pervasive relativistic quality in the text, however, is its multidimentional, radially arrayed, theme-and-variation syntax and diction, which is so characteristic of the probing intellect and domineering mind. The text does not just repeat words and phrases emphatically (although it does that as well), it repeats with slight variations that fan out in all directions to the limits of formal domains. The word feelings is repeated seven times and becomes a still center for this whirling and expanding variation. The text doesn't just invoke modality and polarity, it exhausts the possibilities in these domains (e.g., "have," don't have"; "had better," "ought," "won't," "may," etc.). The text doesn't just shift person; it exhausts the possibilities of person, and in a rising, crescendoing series ("I," "you," "us both," "people"). All of this variational patterning is then set to motion in vocal time and reading space in a meticulously theme-and-variational syntax:
The feelings I don't have, I don't have. The feelings I don't have, I won't say I have. The feelings you say you have, you don't have. The feelings you would like us both to have, we neither of us have. The feelings people ought to have, they never have. If people say they've got feelings, you may be pretty sure they haven't got them.
The major mystery that surrounds the formal correspondences in the temporal and poetic paradigms might be why they have resisted discovery for so long; and this mystery brings us back to the beginning of this talk--the explicit linking of rhythm and poetic form within temporal poetics.
In most cases, formal correspondences across diverse domains are straightforwardly metaphoric or iconic. Two different types of forms share some quality/feature (e.g., a sentence is structurally free, free verse is metrically free, and an adverb is positionally free). However, the logic behind the poetic paradigm is synecdochic/emblematic. Each rhythmic component provides a complex whole that can be represented emblematically/synecdochically by one or more of its constitutive qualities/parts.
For instance, within this synecdochic logic, a form that is free in one system of forms is not just related poetically to forms that are free in another system of forms. Because of the nature of thematic rhythms, forms that are free are also related to forms that are peripheral, or simultaneous, or global, or rising, through all of the qualities of relative time.
Only an explicit analysis of the qualities of the rhythmic components clears away the fog that obscures the synecdochic/emblematic logic of these formal correspondences.
The Temporal Paradigm Temporal Features Cyclical Centroidal event-event similarity difference- relation in-similarity temporal occurrence correspondence figure repetition prominence succession proportion subject-subject participation obligation relation subject-event subjective subjective-in relation subjective semiotic icon emblem relation cognitive reaction affection process passive reciprocal clock time: past present orientation relationship scope proximate local event position initial medial curve of energy fall rise-fall structural volatility fixed constrained Temporal Features Linear Relative event-event similarity- difference relation in-difference temporal transition connection figure direction distinction implication simultaneity subject-subject cooperation individuality relation subject-event subjective-in objective relation subjective semiotic index symbol relation cognitive exploration creation process active improvisatory clock time: future relative orientation relationship scope regional global event position final peripheral curve of energy fall-rise rise structural volatility volatile free
Richard Cureton has published Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse (Longman, 1992). His articles on poetic syntax, prosody, stylistics, syntax, linguistic and literary pedagogy have appeared in numerous journals, including Style, Language and Literature, Language and Style, Journal of English Linguistics. He is currently at work on a book-length project, "A Temporal Theory of Poetic Rhythm."…
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Publication information: Article title: Temporal Poetics: Rhythmic Process as Truth. Contributors: Cureton, Richard D. - Author. Magazine title: The Antioch Review. Volume: 62. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2004. Page number: 113+. © 1999 Antioch Review, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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