To consider the semantic accretions possible in ‘syn/tax’, one could begin to think of the root, syn- in some multiplicity of ways to help exemplify, but not necessarily prescribe, what a healthy piece of poem should look like. ‘Syntax’, of course, is naturally visible in ‘syn/tax’, and this implies sentence construction within the poem in relation to each other, to the whole poem and as a unit- word order, in short. Someone described “finding the right syntax for a poem” as being “like finding the right light before you take a photograph.” The idea of a photograph is important, as we shall see. Furthermore, the syntax of poetry should not be like the syntax of prose as is now more and more the contemporary poetic ‘habit’ – which needs curbing. We could also consider the synchronic as juxtaposed against the diachronic in syntactic poetic construction. In that light, one needs to look at what the history of syntactical practices was like (i.e. diachronic) and what is it like today (i.e. synchronic). This brings us to a consideration of the question of traditional and modern predilections.
Traditional English poetry explored the full range of English prosody - metre and rhyme in all its variation, sometimes stilted, especially in the light of the changes that have overtaken language and expression with the onset of time: hence the natural arrival of the modernist impulse, which moves closer to the tonalities of contemporary speech and shuns what has become, in diction and syntax, an archaism of the distant past. One would not expect to read a poem beginning ‘thou’, today, certainly, nor a line carrying the whole fusillade of traditional prosody. Sometimes, though, there is a marrying of tradition and modernity. So we could have a modernist free verse in 21st century diction, but garlanded with the heroic couplet of the restoration period (as practiced by, for example, Dryden in Absalom and Achitophel or Macflecknoe) or with the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearian sonnet from the Elizabethan period. Some contemporary poets still retain past forms, such as the sonnet, today.
After historical upheavals like colonialism and decolonization and the contemporary postcolonial moment, the equation becomes more complex. We have postcolonial poets from the former English colonies who have inherited the linguistics burden of English and work in that language. Traumatic enough as that history is, the reality is that the postcolonial poet who dips richly into English and his own native literary store - be it written or oral - is very rich indeed in the range of the sources and examples to borrow from. Oral literature in Africa for example - not to talk of India, with its ancient verdic tradition - has the verbal equivalencies of what we call prosody within poetry in English; or other poetic conceits. As such the postcolonial is richer in his or her hybridity. Of course, it is not a simple, problem-free hybridity but this is not a place to delve into the cultural politics of acquired language.
The extents to which such postcolonial poets scour the archives of native and English traditions are varied depending on the poet. Usually, linguistic appropriation results in the use of English diction with the tonality of the native tongue overlaid upon it to a greater or lesser degree, and to multifarious rhythmical effects, depending on which poet is in question. We have examples in the earlier work of Derek Walcott up till Omeros, in Niyi Osundare’s homespun tonal ranges or Tanure Ojaide’s ululating Urhobo accent, in Pius Adesanmi’s incantatory chant in the Wayfarer and other Poems. There are those African poets like Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka, whose tonalities are more steeped in the rhythms of classical English prosody, although shorn of its usual cumbersome metre; that is, they are modernist in the usual sense of the word. The moral, as insinuated in T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, is that the ‘individual poet’ has to find a metrical, and syntactical - even lyrical - niche compatible with, and useful to, his own talents within the provisions of tradition and then progress from there. The reluctance to look back upon tradition is where the contemporary avant-garde stumbles. The ‘newness’ that it seeks to propose is not real and suffers from a refusal to borrow enough as prop before discarding the scaffoldings of tradition. According to Eliot:
"One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet's difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity."
This approximation of rhythm and syntax in verse is not idle, and ultimately these two are closely related to each other. And thus we come to ‘synaesthesia’ – sensory images as empowered by diction and as these, in turn, inform rhythm and syntax or vice-versa. Sensory images would be inherent in words appealing to the senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing, feeling of action and of general sense impression. Diction that has more of such evocative appeals, and which are arranged in the ‘right order’, help to achieve the aforementioned ‘lighting’, that is, the right syntax, needed to ‘photograph’ the healthy poem. A keen ear or a good musical sense aids in arranging evocative diction to arrive at the right metre - even though it is that of free verse - and thus the right syntax. Of course, ‘wit’ or the ‘defamiliarized’ expression should be interwoven into syntax. Here is one from Elliot and Okigbo respectively both fine modernist poets: “I will show you fear in a fistful of dust” and “how does one say No in thunder…” The first quote is from Eliot's "The Wastelands" and the second from Okigbo’s “Silences 1: Lament of the Silent Sisters” in Collected poems. The best way to learn to do this is to read other poets who have done it successfully (was it Dryden who opines that ‘imitation is the spur of wit’?) from the ancients to the moderns: Dryden, Pope, Hopkins, Elliot, Coleridge, Walcott, Okigbo, Soyinka, Tati-Loutard and uncountable others. In short, the poet’s recourse can only be to tradition.
Bad lighting or opaque diction does not, naturally, improve syntax since it is bound to remove something from wit, probably restrict the field of signification and distort overall musicality. The idea is that the poet should strive for “a fine balance”, which allows for an appeal to the rhythm of contemporary speech, without sounding pedestrian, while simultaneously achieving syntactical grace and escaping a feeling in the reader of the contrived. To take an example, here is Olu Oguibe in his collection, A gathering Fear: “I am bound to this land by blood/That is why my vision is blurred/I am rooted in its soil/ And its streams flood my veins...”! It is simple, everyday diction, strengthened in its emotional reach through its imagistic appeal as in ‘bound’ (i.e. being tied and constrained, imprisoned) and in the metaphorical resonance of the same ‘bound’ heightened by the alliteration and assonance in ‘blood’, ‘blurred’ and ‘flood’. The lexical displacement of ‘blood’ for streams in “and its streams flood my veins” is powerfully effective as ‘and its blood flood my veins’ will never ever be! Besides, the word stream, read through the lenses of M. Freeman’s cognitive linguistics and prototypical semantics (1997: 4) as refracted through Belekova’s “Cognitive Models of Verbal Poetic Images”, immediately and clearly suggests to the reader, in its archetypical coding, that the poet is in a big city and misses a small town or village; it is a cry from the metropolis to the town; “a song from exile”. The “poetic image space” of the work is very evocative and moves under a lyrical tug that is the syntactical construction, fusing sound and sense, wit and meter. That is a poet working in true modernist mode, borrowing from tradition and finding his own individual voice in a very resonant manner. Image and diction mesh with rhythm and syntax in the utterance to arrive at meaning and poignancy.
This example shows how important image/diction is to rhythm/syntax and wit/sense. A further reading of the poem simply confirms and emphasizes this probing. There are numerous examples of powerful poetry like this one, but sadly, there are also even more numerous examples of bad poems out there, chief of which are the so-called prose poems, slam poetry, dub poetry, sound poetry and so on. They coalesce within the ambience of the contemporary avant-garde. Of course, such forms of counter-culture are useful and necessary but fall short of what one would refer to as poetry, whatever other form of art they might be called. Luckily there is still good poetry for the careful seeker: the temptation is strong not to exclude example such as “the night is dark/the waters are deep/ and the lost child flounders/ between the dark and the deep” from Harry Garuba’s “Fragments” in the BBC anthology, The Fate of Vulture. Another example is Chiedu Ezeanah’s lines “go to water, go rivering/where the eye that looks becomes a brook” from “Song of the Musician of Waters” in The Twilight Trilogy.
It is not a clear-cut matter to decide when the syntax overshoots the mark or stays within or behind the limits of proportion. The result is usually immediately apparent though – especially when the poem is read out loud or in contemplation. It is remarkable that, mostly these days, a poet, in straining for the cadence of common speech within a syntax that is, at the same time poetic, vacillates between sheer prose and contrived inversion or versified or rhymed prose, opaque diction and sometimes bombast – disguised, perhaps, as a sentimental unrestrained political harangue. One good bad example is “Someone Bombed America” by Amiri Baraka.
The matter of opacity as it subtracts from a healthy poetic syntax steeped in the rhythm of everyday speech is important because there is, indeed, a symbiotic relationship between diction, rhythm and syntax, with the last being the framework around which the previous two cohere; all improve or diminish each other. That is of course debatable because it is easy to argue that all items are so inter-meshed that there is a simultaneous chemical reaction taking place at the creative moment. So closely allied to each other are diction, rhythm and syntax that opaque diction, that excludes the reader or hearer’s senses, kills the light in the ‘photograph’ of the poem; such that the impact on the emotional and spiritual or subliminal level is absent. There is no resonance but dead words, dead, since language is supposed to be a breathing, living thing. But that kind of language would not speak to us.
If diction is opaque it does not allow for the central engine of modernist rhythm – imagism coupled with a healthy syntax; it does not help in achieving the necessary target of a natural cadence nor does it improve syntax. There is the anecdote of the king who demanded an original and everlasting wise-saying from a passing sage. The king was replied with: “..and this too shall pass away”. The word order makes that sentence, in and of itself, poetic, aided by its anti-climatic rhythm and its sense of finality, of ineluctable decline and ruin; its ironic humanizing slap at the regal figure of king and kingdom… “And this too shall pass away”. If we were to change the syntax and write instead ‘and this shall pass away too’ there is an immediate jarring note and a departure from the careful lilting solemnity of rhythm, resulting in the run-of-the mill. ‘And this shall pass away too’ becomes pedestrian without being poetic while ‘and this too shall pass away’ is poetic, while avoiding to seem contrived, irrespective of the use of the slightly formal ‘shall’. Actually, ‘shall’ serves for a poeticizing gambit in the sentence. ‘And this too will pass away’, would fall short woefully. Even though that originary sentence is in isolation of any other line and not part of the full body of a poem, it nevertheless sets an emotional wave in motion, and the reader or hearer imaginatively begins to fill out its concentric arcs with the absent body of a full poem. This is helped along by the image, a sensing of something ‘passing’ away. The hearer or reader is in the grip of a poem that is obviously not written out. This is what effective syntax should do; expand the field of signification to emotionally include the unspoken. That sentence is also brief. Shakespeare contends that “brevity is the soul of wit”, and so it is! We hear brevity, wit, emotional and spiritual resonance in that tiny creative moment. The reader can imagine that the sage continued on lugubriously while the king stared after him in awe and bewilderment, humbled.
And now the idea of tax! In most modern democracies, we all pay tax on our yearly earnings towards the smooth running of state and public facilities - such as roads. This is one way to view the idea of taxation as it relates to poetry; that is tax as a giving up of our excess lexicographic earnings within one dictionary-year (consider the dictionary as being equivalent to a constant ‘year’ in the work-life of a poet). Another way of seeing it would be to consider taxation in a symbolic sense and ascribe to it, for our purpose, all situations where the individual has to discipline self, give things or habits - like smoking - up. Such self-deprivations can be equated to fasting for the general well-being of the organism (the organism in this case being poetry); what has become known in chic circles as de-toxication or ‘detox’.
Another similar analogy between tax and poetry can be that of curbing over-indulgence, which, again, would be close to fasting – in the sense of eating only what is necessary; sweets, snacks and other munchies being jettisoned just as the common dessert would be. In other words nothing but a well-balanced, sufficient but non-superfluous repast should be the goal; especially so for the poet, who, like a priest with higher callings, should be a frugal eater and not gluttonous. It is sensible eating in short, prevention being proverbially better than cure. It would be difficult to break a habit of long-winded syntactical constructions, accruing from word-drunkenness. No amount of exercise would ever deflate a mountain of belly with already fixed digestive borders!; same with poetic eating habits, words being the food items in the poetic belly and the sentence or line being the whole meal in combination and a judicious and sparing use of words being a way of assuring a lean healthy poem throughout its life. As such, the poet has to eat words sensibly – not over-indulge himself; that is, use words sensibly, not over-use them otherwise the poem becomes fat or obese.
Finally, in ‘syntagma’ we will merge all the train of thought so far. The paradigmatic axis of poetic composition is the poem itself and the syntagmatic axis is the words as they occur in the line or syntax. The syntax is enhanced by diction and by the image they both resonate together. Should there be faults in the syntagamatic axis, the paradigm itself becomes fractured. Diction is important in its self-relation within the poem as the cumulativeness of individual words results either in an effective, natural or defective rhythm, which then takes away from the overall impact of the poem, supposedly propelled forward or held back in as much as the images aid in expanding or contracting the field of signification. Choice of words becomes important and the poet’s lexicon has to allow for such a lexical variation as enables the right combination of the right words. A guide is usually that if a word can be replaced in a line with the rhythm and sense remaining much the same then the right word was not chosen in the first place. It should be difficult or impossible to replace a word in a line of verse. As for wit and a uniqueness of expression, brevity, according to Shakespeare, should be a guiding principle. So all those prose poems out there are mostly fat and overweight! Besides, certain syntactic constructions are also archaic or trite and tired in contemporary poetry. One such is the prepositional phrase (i.e. the + noun + of + noun: the mother of all battles, the river of life etc.). Even if, sometimes, they functional well when deployed sparingly in the hands of a very experienced poet, it is much better to avoid them. They are very lazy craft-worn constructions. Sometimes language insinuates itself to the poet, who becomes word-drunk and falls into a vomit of words, unrestrained and undisciplined. For the careful poet the guide should be tradition. In the words of Eliot once more:
"Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order."
A word is enough for the poet!
July 04, 2008
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