Monday, December 25, 2017

Jakobson’s Poetic Function and Textual Closure

Note: This consolidates several older posts and, in the last section, adds a bit of detail.
Roman Jakobson’s poetic function[1] is one of the best-known and most obscure ideas in modern poetics. I believe that it extends beyond the kinds of examples Jakobson himself gave, to include, for example, ring-form narratives. It may as well be considered a computational principle applying to texts considered as strings of word forms.

Literary Form

Two years ago Sandra MacPherson wrote[2] that she's looking for “for a genuinely formalist critical practice, a little formalism that would turn one away from history without shame or apology” (p. 385). What does she mean by form? She means “nothing more—and nothing less—than the shape matter (whether a poem or a tree) takes” (p. 390).

The basic shape that literary matter takes is simple, a string. When spoken the string is an acoustic wave. When written the string is a collection of written symbols that generally take rectangular form on the page but that are read as though they were one long string – which they are. The rectangular arrangement is but a convenient way of fitting the string onto sheets of paper.

Music takes the form of a string. That’s one example for us, and poetry is often likened to music. Beads on a wire is another example – a metaphor sometimes used to characterize DNA. I suggest that Roman Jakobson’s poetic function is an abstract statement of a formal principle for things strung together in linear order, such as words.

Jakobson’s formulation of this principle is one of the most enigmatic statements in the critical literature (p. 358):
The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence.
What does that mean? The sequence, of course, is our string. A bit later he says (p. 358):
Measure of sequences is a device that, outside of the poetic function, finds no application in language. Only in poetry with its regular reiteration of equivalent units is the time of the speech flow experienced, as it is — to cite another semiotic pattern — with musical time.
Almost all of his examples are from poetry. Take rhyme. Line endings occur at regular measured intervals. When similar syllables occur at specific fixed intervals, that is projection from the axis of selection (one syllable or another, one word or another) to the axis of combination. That is rhyme. Rhyme is a simple and obvious example of the poetic function. Jakobson goes on to give other, more sophisticated, examples.

But I want to move out of the domain entirely. Let me suggest that ring-composition also exemplifies the poetic function. You may recall that ring-composition involves linear arrangements of this form:
A, B, C...X...C’, B, A’.
The letters indicate ‘slots’ in the sequence while the identity of the letters indicates the pattern of symmetrical matching that is characteristic of ring composition. Matching pairs are equivalent in some semantic sense and the form requires that they be deployed in a certain sequence.

That, I realize is a highly abstract paragraph. As I intend this as only a short note, I have no intention of filling that out [3]. My object is simply to point out that ring-composition can be seen as exemplifying Jakobson’s poetic function, thereby extending its applicable range beyond the kinds of examples Jakobson himself gave and that others typically give. The poetic function isn’t specifically about poetry. It operates in non-poetic narrative forms as well.

I have no reason to believe that the poetic function will account for all aspects of literary form. Just how many aspects it accounts for, I wouldn’t hazard a guess. That will require more work.

The poetic function as a computational principle

Not only can Jakobson’s poetic function be extended beyond the examples he gave, which came from poetry, to other formal features, such as ring composition. I now want to suggest that it is a computational principle as well. What do I mean by computation [4]? That’s always a question in these discussions, isn’t it?

When Alan Turing formalized the idea of computation he did so with the notion of a so-called Turing Machine: “The machine operates on an infinite memory tape divided into discrete cells. The machine positions its head over a cell and ‘reads’ (scans) the symbol there.”[5] There’s more to it than that, but that’s all we need here. It’s that tape that interests me, the one with discrete cells, each containing a symbol. Turing defined computation as an operation on the contents of those cells. Just what kind of symbols we’re dealing with is irrelevant as long as the basic rules governing their use are well-specified. The symbols might be numerals and mathematical operators, but they might also be the words and punctuation marks of a written language.

Linguists frequently refer to strings; an utterance is a string of phonemes, or morphemes, or words, depending on what you’re interested in. Of course it doesn’t have to be an utterance; the string can consist of a written text. What’s important is that it’s a string.

Well, Jakobson’s poetic function places restrictions on the arrangement of words on the string, restrictions independent of those made by ordinary syntax. Let us recall his definition:
The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence.
The sequence, of course, is our string. As for the rest of it, that’s a bit obscure. But it’s easy to see how things like meter and rhyme impose restrictions on the composition of strings. And we have just seen, if only briefly, that ring composition may be seen as restrictions of the composition of a string. In a working paper on ring composition, I have already pointed out how the seven rules Mary Douglas gave for characterizing ring composition[6] can be given a computational interpretation (pp. 39-42).

Textual closure and literary form

I propose these as central to a computational account of literary form:
1. The process whereby word forms, whether spoken, written, or gestured (signed), are linked to meaning/semantics is irreducibly computational.
2. A complete text is well-formed if and only if its meaning is resolved once the last word form has been taken up.
3. It is in this context that Roman Jakobson’s poetic function may be considered a principle of literary form.
1 and 2 are about language in general.

It is not clear to me whether 1 is a matter of definition or a statement empirical fact subject to investigation. If it is to be construed as fact, what would the investigation be like? What counts as evidence? If it is a matter of definition, what is the more general definition of computation of which this would be a particular instance? Would Alan Turing’s defintion, via the Turing Machine, be sufficient?

On 2, I rather imagine there is relevant literature, though I don’t know. Obviously there is a huge literature about computational completion, and 2 would fall within the scope of that literature. Whether or not a computation will complete is one thing. This is much more specific. It says that we are
1. computing the value of a string by
2. moving through the string from left to right (though I suppose we can allow some back-tracking and some looking ahead) and that
3. the value of the string will have been completed shortly after the rightmost character has been read.
“Shortly after” means, say, less than 1/1000 to 1/100 of the time it takes to read the string from beginning to end–something like that; it needs to be adjusted to allow for both haiku and driple decker Victorian novels.

On 3, I note that Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney takes the form of a sermon, but it exhibits ring-composition and thus falls within the scope of Jakobson’s poetic function [7]. I note as well that Alan Liu’s essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities”, exhibits ring-composition, but is expository and argumentative prose [8]. It is possible, but by no means obvious, that all literary texts are governed by the poetic function (whatever “govern” means), but that non-literary texts exhibit it as well. It is also possible that some literary texts exhibit it and some do not. Finally, we might ask whether or not, and if so, in what way, the use of the poetic function in a text contributes to its closure, as defined in 2.


[1] Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Thomas Sebeok, ed., Style in Language (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press,1960), 350-77.

[2] Sandra Macpherson, A Little Formalism, ELH, Volume 82, Number 2, Summer 2015, pp. 385-405.

[3] For that, see, e.g., Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, Yale University Press, 2007. I have numerous posts on ring form at New Savanna, and a number of working papers at

[4] I have argued at some length that literary form is computational: Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2006, Article 060608.

[5] Turing machine, Wikipedia, accessed Sept. 19, 2017:

[6] Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology, Working Paper, September 28, 2014, 70 pp.

[7] Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney: Technics of Power and Grace, Working Paper, July 2015, 37 pp.,

[8] Remarks on Alan Liu and the Digital Humanities, a Working Paper, April 2014, 24 pp.,

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