Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The structures I care about

I used to write about and teach literature. I read stories and poetry for a living. Why would anyone leave that?

Probably because I'm a fan of New Criticism. That's a problem because the current trends in poststructuralism and New Historicism are boring and they're powerful. So our break-up was mutual.

Where does a marooned formalist go? Why to linguistics of course.

In honor of National Poetry Month I'll revisit one of the old standards and say a tiny bit about that simple and much taught poem by the the good doctor William Carlos Williams.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Freshmen: He's just talking poetically because he thinks it sounds cool.
Sophomores: Each line looks like a wheelbarrow!
Juniors: Each line depends on one final word.
Seniors: He's a doctor and he feels powerless. The rain symbolizes his sadness!

Let's look at the Juniors' claim. Each line does depend on a final word. And each dependency is of a different sort. A quick summary:

First stanza: Once upon is uttered the poem must continue. And not because a preposition can't end a sentence. It's because the preposition doesn't yet have an object complement anywhere. The first line could be a complete sentence if we take "depends" in an absolute form. It's not fully standard in formal use but it is common. It's effective as a flat opening statement making a broad claim about life in general. The first line doesn't depend on the preposition upon but the rest of the poem does. Once we have the preposition the rest of the poem has to provide the noun complement or else it's not a full syntactic constituent.

Stanza two: This is a full constituent either way. The first line is just as grammatical with or without barrow. But once we know the intention of the poem (by reading ahead) we realize that there was a semantic dependency because wheelwheelbarrow. Only by knowing what the speaker means do we understand how the second line of the stanza is necessary because a word is incomplete. We might call this an accuracy dependency.

Stanza three: Again we have no grammatical dependency. We have also lost semantic dependency because rain and rainwater are pretty much synonymous. Williams has established a pattern by writing two stanzas with a similar form but different development in the structure of the two lines. But the structure of the third stanza mimics neither the developing structure of the first stanza nor the semantic rationale of the second. This is a stanza that follows form for the sake of form only. Now we know it's a poem for the sake of being a poem. It is my favourite stanza.

Stanza four: It's possible that white is a noun but it's not likely. It's reasonable to say that this is the only stanza in which the first line is unambiguously dependent on the second line. As the structure of the first line leaves out a necessary NP it is similar to the dependency introduced by the missing NP of the second line of the first stanza. So we have completion through a structural chiasmus: The first line of the last stanza at first sits as a non-constituent just while the last line of the first stanza becomes part of a non-constituent. And just as the first stanza is completed by the rest of the poem, the poem is completed by the rest of the last stanza.

I could say more about this but according to the rules I'm now required to discussed the hegemonic dynamics and the illusion of an original moment and the negotiation of cultural capital and the communities that will interpret these ambiguities and dependencies differently and what's a construct and what isn't.

I have more interesting things to do.

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