Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Disciple Revisited and Revived

Having made some remarks about how Lakoff and Turner have commented on “To a Solitary Disciple” in More than Cool Reason, I would now like to offer some further remarks of my own.

Temporal Structure

Let me take a cue from Lakoff and Turner’s consideration of form. They approach it (by observing that the poem begins with a series of instructions of the form “Rather X than Y” (pp. 155 ff.), where X and Y are things to do. The first three strophes begin with “Rather X” and the first two provide the concluding and contrasting “than Y.” The third does not. What is worse, it overflows (their word, and a good one) and careens into the rather different 4th strophe. Thus:
Rather grasp (12)
how the dark
converging lines
of the steeple (16)
meet at the pinnacle--
perceive how 
its little ornament
tries to stop them-- (20)

See how it fails!
See how the converging lines
of the hexagonal spire (23)
escape upward--
receeding, dividing!
--sepals (26)
that guard and contain
the flower!
They obvserve that the transition from 3rd to 4th strophe is the midpoint of the poem (which is 42 lines long). At this point they go on to offer an iconic reading of these lines, which I’ve already commented on in What’s a Global Reading for, Anyhow?.

I see no need to recapitulate those remarks. Rather, I want to start from Lakoff and Turner's observation each occasion “rather” sets up a syntactic expectation from some contrasting item that may or may not be satisfied. The first strophe is six lines long and begins with “rather.” The contrasting item is cued by “than” opening line five. The second strophe is five lines long and, like the first, begins with “rather.” The contrasting “than” begins the third line (9) of this strophe.

At this point the syntatic expectation cued by “rather” has been joined by another expectation, one about how long it takes to complete a “Rather X than Y” pair: roughly five or six lines (where lines are understood as temporal units). We’ve been through two such strophes and now, so I assert, expect that the third strophe, beginning in line 12, will be in the same ball park.

Like the first two strophes, the third begins with “rather.” We know what to expect. But three lines into the strophe (l. 14) and no “than” appears; five lines in (l. 16) and still no “than.” What’s up? Six lines in and still no “than”; but we do get a break. Line 17 provides us with a second verb, “perceive.” That verb does not, of course, give us the contrasting element which is, by now, long overdue. But it does serve, in a way, to acknowledge that expectation by giving us another syntactic unit. This unit however, only prolongs the expectation rather than satisfying it: Rather grasp X [and] perceive Y.

So, by the time we get to the end of this strophe (l. 19) we are well toward the upper end for strophic length in this poem–which is 8 lines. The 4th strophe is also 8 lines long; all the rest are shorter. And still the syntactic expectation set up by “rather” has not been fullfilled. Nor will it be. With the beginning of the 4th strophe the mood of the poem shifts radically, which Lakoff and Turner understand. The first three strophes are rather detached and laconic. The fourth is active (count all the verbs) and imperative. “See how it fails” is rather different from “Rather notice, mon cher,/ that the moon..” (ll. 1-2). What seems to be going on is that the (failed) expectation “built up” in the third strophe is “released” in this 4th strophe in a burst of energy. The remaining strophes are in the more detached a laconic mode of the first 3 strophes (though perhaps we get a little hit of energy at the begining of the final strophe).

Note that it's one thing for expectancy to be natural to language, it's another deliberately to establish an expectancy and then fail to satisfy it. That's what is going on in “To a Solitary Disciple”. Lakoff and Turner have identified one mechanism for doing that, syntactic cues. I identified another, but closely related, mechanism. The mechanism I’m discussing is operating at a higher level of organization.

Those syntactic cues operate at the level of individual sentences. “Rather” begins the sentence and “than” appears later in that same sentence. The device I’ve just discussed takes such sentences as its objects and asks us to believe that, as we’ve already had two cases of that construction, the third appearance of line-initial “rather” cues a third case of that construction. But it doesn’t. Williams could have, after all, satisfied the syntactic expectation but done it so late that the effect I described is still in operative. If fact it seems to me that what he's doing is tricking the reader into accepting that fourth strophe as the “filler” for the second “slot” establised by the “rather” at the beginning of line 12.

How many levels of temporal order is Williams manipulating in this poem? Let’s say that the level at which “rather” cues the expectation of “than” is the first level, which operates within the individual strophe. The succession of strophes is a second level; it’s at this level that the third strophe fails to operate like the first two. If we further accept that there is a radical break in the poem between the third and fourth strophes, that implies a third level of temporal organization, dividing the poem into two halves, before and after that point.

From the Beginning

Let us work our way through the poem, strophe by strophe, from the beginning.

Rather notice, mon cher, (1)
that the moon is
tilted above
the point of the steeple (4)
than that its color
is shell pink.
First, notice that the mood is relaxed and intimate. We are witness to a conversation which seems to have gotten started before, perhaps just before, we arrived... Unless of course we are the dear disciple to whom the poem is addressed.

This strophe lays out a basic scene. We are looking at the sky in which we see the crescent moon and steeple. While Williams doesn’t directly assert that the moon is crescent, the adjective “tilted” makes no sense unless it is. There is no way to judge the tilt of a circle. The steeple, of course, implies a complete building of a particular functional type, a church; but we see nothing of that building here. We are told of the moon, the steeple, and the color of the moon. This is the basic framework in and from which the rest of the scene will be developed in the poem. We’ve also got a contrast between color and form (tilted moon).

Rather observe (7)
that it is early morning
than that the sky
is smooth (10)
as a turquoise.
Now both the moon and the steeple drop out and we see only the sky, learning that it is turquoise in color and smooth. The turquoise, of course, contrasts with the moon’s pink. As Lakoff and Turner note, smoothness is a tactile quality that is being (metaphorically) projected into the visual domain.

Williams also draws our attention is drawn to the time of day. We are at the transition between the night and the day. And that explains the color of the moon. For at night the moon is ordinarily white, light grey, light blue. But in early morning it may catch the sun’s rays from over the horizon and so take on a pinkish hue, “shell pink” – the final words of the first strophe.

Rather grasp (12)
how the dark
converging lines
of the steeple (15)
meet at the pinnacle--
perceive how 
its little ornament (18)
tries to stop them--
At this point our attention shifts radically. We are now directed toward the steeple. We follow the steeple’s outline from bottom to top where we they meet and are stopped by the pinnacle. Except that they are not. For the next strophe opens by asserting that the pinnacle fails. This is where Lakoff and Turner invoke the FORM IS MOTION metaphor mapping to account for the apparent motion of the lines outlining the steeple. They also offer a somewhat more ambitious and more probelamatic argument about iconic form, which, as I’ve indicated above, I will set aside as I’ve already addressed it.

However, in explicating FORM IS MOTION, Lakoff and Turner mention the fact that our eyes scan the visual scene, suggesting that it is the motion of the eyes that supplies the motion in FORM IS MOTION, a suggestion that I like. As I’m sure they know, there is a considerable body of research about visual scanning. So let us imagine that, even as our real eyes scan Williams’ text, our mental eyes are scanning steeple and that the motion which is not stopped by the pinnacle IS the motion of our scanning eyes.

Normally, however, pay no attention whatsoever to eye motion. It is utterly automatic and unconsious. Rather we pay attention to the visual scene itself. By explicitly attending to that motion, but (mistakenly) attributing it to the lines themselves, Williams tricks us into entering ourselves into the scene we’ve been observing under his guidance.

See how it fails! (20)
See how the converging lines
of the hexagonal spire
escape upward– (23)
receeding, dividing!
that guard and contain (26)
the flower!
And so our eyes continue their motion beyond the pinnacle point into nothing. At the same time, as I pointed out above, our syntactically cued expectations have, by this time, thoroughly failed. We are in the situation of the cartoon figure who has run off the edge of a cliff without falling down. He looks down, realizes what has happened, and only then does gravity claim its due of him. It is at this point that Williams inserts another image into the poem, that of a flower in the process of blooming, the flower itself only just now becoming visible as the sepals receed. At the same time, the mood of the poem changes abruptly.

In this superimposition the sepals of the flower are mapped on to the six (triangular) facets of the steeple roof and the flower petals are (collectively) mapped onto the moon. A scene composed of two elements, sky, steeple and moon, is mapped onto a single element, the flower. And, recall that it is early morning; this is the time of day when the sepals would part and th–flowers would begin blooming for the day.

But what do we make of the way the subjective has been mapped onto the objective, and how does that play out in the rest of the poem?

Observe (28)
how motionless
the eaten moon
lies in the protecting lines. (31)
It is true:
in the light colors
of morning (34)


brown-stone and slate
shine orange and dark blue. (36)
The most striking thing about these two strophes is that the sixth strophe is the completion of a sentence which began in the fifth. And that, in turn, suggests that, for the moment, we look back over the poem at the relationship between sentences and trophes. The first two strophes consist of a single sentence with no internal punctuation. The third strophe consists of two clauses (separeated by a dash) which do not, however, find sentential completion. The fourth strophe consists of two sentances; a short one line sentence and then with the second spnning seven lines and being divided into three parts by dashes. Note also that these two sentences are exclamatory in mood, rather than declarative like those constituting the first two strophes. The seventh strophe consists of two sentences, each three lines long, each of roughly the same construction, one exclamatory, one declarative. Obviously, one of the things a temporal account of the poem must deal with is this pattern of relationships between strophes and sentences.

FIVE: As strophe three focused on the steeple, so strophe five focuses on the moon. That the moon is described as eaten implies both that it is edible and, perhaps more importantly that there is an eater. But who or what could possibly eat the moon? I don’t think any specific answer to that questions is either required or even implied. What is implied is that we are in a living world. The life that was introduced into the poem via the flower metaphor in the fourth strophe and is now being carried forward. That the lines – and just what lines? the steeple, the sepals? – are protecting the moon forgrounds intentionality, but also isolation and distance.

Then in line 32 we get a flat assertion of a new type: It is true. It is as if the noticings and observings we have been doing were leading to something and here it is, a truth. Lines 33 and 34 then return us to the contrast introduced in the second strophe, the colors of morning. Only here the fact of morning and the fact of color are not contrasted, they are simply conjoined.

We now continue our journey back to the beginning of the poem.

SIX: We get the first mention of substance (brown-stone, implying the “body” of the church and slate, implying the roof) in line 35. This is explicitly contrasted to color in line 36. In the first strophe color is contrasted with form. That is to say, something has somehow been gained. Note that the substance, stone, has been introduced by appending it to a color, brown, and that “slate” names both a substance and the color of that substance.
But observe (37)
the oppressive weight
of the squat edifice!
Observe (40)
the jasmine lightness
of the moon.
The substance introduced in strophe six now comes to rest in “the oppresive weight” highlighted in line 39. Note, furthermore, that weight is abstracted from substance. And, of course, thus abstracted the reader is now free to read it as inhering to the the institution of religion as opposed to the substance. But how does it do that?

In this strophe the squat edifice is explicitly contrasted with the moon and weight is explicitly contrasted lightness.

Ring Form?

Let me end with a question, an exercise for the reader. Is “To a Solitary Disciple” a ring-form poem? By ring-form I mean a text that has a structural center such the the material before and after that center is symmetrically arrayed about it, thus: A, B, C…X…C’, B’, A’. Chiasmus on whatever scale is a ring form. The rhyme scheme of Dylan Thomas’ “Author’s Prologue” is a ring-form and the eleventh line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 contains a chiasmus (ticked out in italics): “All this the world well knows yet none knows well…” Much of the work Peterson surveyed in Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature (PMLA 91, 3, May 1976: 367-375) is about ring form. More recently, the late Mary Douglas spend the last years of her career examing ring forms in various texts mostly the Old Testament. Her last scholarly book, Thinking in Circles: An Essay in Ring Composition (2007), surveys much of that work. She’s the one who got me interested in the subject.

And that has some bearing on my current remarks about “To a Solitary Disciple.” Most of the material in this post is edited from notes I made before Douglas had introduced me to ring form. Thus I wasn’t sensitized to its existence when I made them. But that line – “We now continue our journey back to the beginning of the poem” – was taken from those notes and it seems to point in the direction of ring-form. As that is what rings do; when you’ve passed the center you head back to the beginning.

That line rather shocked me when I re-read it two hours ago.

So I ask the question: Is this a ring-form? Note that the question is about form, not meaning, and is requires a description on which to base the answer. When the form of this poem is properly described, will it be a ring or not?

I don’t intend to drive on through for an answer to that question; a tight argument would be too arduous, even taking into consideration all that’s been said already. The matter is not nearly so straightforward as the case of the rhyme scheme for “Author’s Prologue.” But now that the question is on the table, here are some things to think about.

First of all, we have Lakoff and Turner’s work on the poem. They didn’t argue for ring form, nor mention it in any way. But they ended up offering an argument about form as the capstone of their treatment. And the argument they made said that the poem had a structural middle, which is a requirment of ring form.

I note also that the poem has an odd number of strophes, seven, allowing for the fourth one to be structurally central. Saying that the fourth strophe is the center is not so different from saying that the break between three and four is the center, which is what Lakoff and Turner argued. In what other sense could it be the center? Notice how the flower image gathers the steeple and the moon into a single compact form. Spatially, we are between the moon above, which opens the poem, and the “squat edifice” of the church, which closes it.

Now, look at strophes three and five, that is, before and after our proposed structural center. Strophe three is about the steeple and brings us to its pinacle. Strophe five is about the moon. Is one the answer to the other? Certainly the poem has been counterpointing the moon and the church (building), which it introduced in the first strophe.

Now, what about strophes two and six? Strophe two is concerned with the sky, the turqouise sky. There’s nothing there but the color. Strophe six is about color as well, “orange and dark blue.” But that color is on the physical substance of the building, which was introduced into the poem in this strophe.

What then of the first and last strophes? Both are built on a constrast. The first is built on a contrast between form and color. The last is build on a contrast between the lightness of the moon and the weight of the edifice. Is that a proper counterpoint?

My inclination would be to argue that yes it is. And that argument would pay close attention to color and form and substance and weight and light and their relations in the ontological structure of the physical world. And then there’s the life in that flower.

That argument would not talk about capitalism, commodification and the means of production; nor would it talk about jouissance, repression and the id; nor even institutionalized religion vs. the spirit of religion. For those are categories drawn from bodies of thought external to the poem. No, the argument I’m envisioning has to be constructed “close” to the poem itself. It is an argument about form and rhythm in language, about categories and semantic features of the words in the poem. But it is not an argument about what the poem means in some “global” sense. Those are different kinds of arguments.

* * * * *

Let us imagine that the argument has been made and the point has been won. What then? What do we have? We have a description of the poem, a rich and detailed description of the poem. But we would be a long way from explaining the poem in any intellectually deep way. Why are linguistics objects that have that kind of form so very important to us? What makes them satisfying? That description will not answer those questions.

But we have no chance of answer those questions without that description, and many more like it for other poems, and not just poems, other kinds of texts as well. And it’s not as though we must deny ourselves the pleasure of crafting explanatory theories and models until all the descriptions are done and ordered in neat array – if indeed such ordering turns out to be possible. We can do both. But we need a change in emphasis. Description must be given top priority rather than being something we do on the way to an interpretation or a model.

No, at this stage in the development of a naturalist literary criticism, a criticism comfotable with the newer psychologies (cognitive, neuro- and evolutionary), we must make description a priority. The key to the treasure IS the treasure.

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