Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The poetic function

When we encounter a text, we recognize it as of a particular and familiar kind, as belonging to a particular genre, for example a newspaper article, a blurb, a menu, or an insurance policy. We have an idea of what to expect, and we adjust our reading accordingly.
... becoming familiar with the functions and stylistic conventions of the numerous text types, or genres which we encounter in day-to-day life, is very much part of our socialization in the culture we belong to. principle this learning process also applies to our getting acquainted with text types which are recognized as literary, such as poems. So if you have become familiar with the stylistic conventions of this genre of texts, you will know that the language of poetry has the following characteristics: its meaning is often ambiguous and elusive; it may flout the conventional rules of grammar; it has a peculiar sound structure; it is spatially arranged in metrical lines and stanzas; it often reveals foregrounded patterns in its sounds, vocabulary, grammar, or syntax; and last but not least, it frequently contains indirect references to other texts.
Most texts that we are confronted with have a social function...a headline encourages us to read a news story, a blurb encourages us to buy a book, and an advertisement is designed to promote a product.  ...what then is the function of a genre like poetry?

The first thing we might note is that whatever the function of poetry may be, it bears no relation to our socially established needs and conventions, because unlike non-literary texts, poetry is detached from the ordinary contexts of social life. To put it differently, poetry does not make direct reference to the world of phenomena but provides a representation of it through its peculiar and unconventional uses of language which invite and motivate, sometimes even provoke, readers to create an imaginary alternative world. Perhaps it is this potential of a literary text which is its essential function, namely that it enables us to satisfy our needs as individuals, to escape, be it ever so briefly, from our humdrum socialized existence, to feel reassured about the disorder and confusion in our minds, and to find a reflection of our conflicting emotions. If this is the case, we might conclude that the function of literature is not socializing but individualizing.

[from Verdonk, Peter. Stylistics. OUP: Oxford, 2002. ]

(Recall Widdowson's views here: How do we explain the fact that  literary writing deviates from grammatical rules as text but is interpretable as discourse? Literary communication is to be viewed as self-contained units independent of a social context, expressive of a reality other than that sanctioned by convention. Literary discourse skews the communication schema - addresser/addressee/context.  )


  1. towards the end of this article we encounter a question that whether the function of poetry is socialising or individualising.

    the answer can be both.

    here we can say that there some poems which have direct reference to society such as the poems of John Dryden,Alexander Pope,T.S.Eliot the poems of these writers question the established or deviation from the established social norms.

    there are also some poems which create a utopian world and persuade readers to suspend the faculty of reason and enjoy, such as the poems John Keats,Wiliam Wordsworth and other romantic poets.

  2. Hara Mohan,

    Glad to see you drop in here and voice your view.

    You are talking perhaps of the theme(s), message(s) that a poem conveys. Of course any communication can be read as conveying a particular message, and is usually interpreted against a particular context - cultural/political/historical/personal. But the view held by Widdowson, Verdonk et al. is not about the message that a poem may convey. Compare a poem with a conversation. A conversation has a particular context to it (some event/information) and often results in a particular course of action. A poem is devoid of both. That is why one can read and interpret a poem without any requirement of context; nor is any action incumbent. Of course one speaks of the 'influence' a poem has on us and of the particular context that may have triggered the poem, but these are not essential for a poem in the sense that they are for a conversation. All context for a poem lies within a poem; one can derive the context from its words. (And a poem may even have no real-world context at all!) At least that's the view some people take to argue for an 'intrinsic' interpretation of poetry. The evidence being that you can read and understand a poem without any knowledge of context and can remain unaffected by its message.

    1. It is said poetry "bears no relation to our socially established needs and conventions, because unlike non-literary texts, poetry is detached from the ordinary contexts of social life." Here I would like to differ; in the way that poetry is something which makes people to express there emotions which they can not do in regular conversational speech. Often many people write poems, though they are not poets to convey there messages to others. In some places, like Odisha, writing poems in letters(either in the beginning or at the end; it may contain 2 lines to 15-20 lines) is a convention. In marriages or in some festivals it is the custom to sing songs(though not previously composed). Even in the occasions like death also they sing sad song to mourn. So it is a kind of social need which connects people in the society.

    2. Usha:

      Consider Tennyson's long poem In Memoriam. It is supposed to be an elegy, a requiem for his friend Arthur Hallam. But you do not need this information to read and understand the poem. Anyone who reads it will understand, and perhaps identify with, the sense of grief, loss and mourning that runs through it.

      Remember these famous lines from the poem:
      I hold it true, whate'er befall;
      I feel it when I sorrow most;
      'Tis better to have loved and lost
      Than never to have loved at all.

      Generations of people have resonated to those lines without knowing anything about Tennyson's relationship with Hallam.

      So, long after a poem is wrtten, the actual context (incident, event) that triggered the poem may not be required to understand the poem. That's what makes a poem interpretable across time and cultures. Similarly, I might be able to understand that an Oriya wedding song is a song about marriage if I understood the words, or read it in translation, even without knowing that it is a song sung in a wedding. And that is because we 'interpet' the words and meanings. So yes, a poem may be written under particular conditions, contexts, purposes, but it is interpretable beyond and without those. This is not to say that one should not pay attention to the particular context or event that triggered a poem. That line of enquiry also yields rich interpretations. And like I said at the beginning of the course, Stylistics does not seek to replace other modes of interpretations. It serves as a starting point, to which other approaches may be added.

      I'd like you to think carefully about the words 'context' and 'message'.

  3. Here what I wanted to comment is, one can easily understand that the function of poetry is to individualizing rather than socializing the readers. But the poetic world is not constructed only by foregrounding the language or by linguistics deviance. It is the phenomena occurred in the minds of a poet. The words are the vehicle to reach the poetical world. The pleasure of the poem may be differed by person to person depends on their mental devotion in to the poem. It no need to be socialized but the poetic pleasure is pleasure that a reader can attain by reading. Stylist tries to search the sole in the human body by operating it in to pieces, is it possible? Can anyone find out the reason of fragrance in the flower by doing scientific reach, if so it is possible to answer the question of 'what' but not 'why', similarly poetry cannot be understood completely by the society in a same way. it is better to conclude that human brain is not completely analyzed by the scientists, fore-coming inventions may have re altered the views of modern linguistics, until the readers have to have deep look in the Indian Aesthetics. I hope there is an answer.

  4. Poetry is very far removed from the ordinary--though it represents life.It helps to escape into the imaginary , fantastic and alternative world.It is primarily individualistic--which goes deep into one's self.Because it is the individual who lonely feels the pulse of the poetry.Even if one is among a gathering ,hearing a poem or any literary text for that matter,in the midst of collective conscious,it is the individualistic feelings and ideas and imagination that binds them as a whole.

  5. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

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