Thursday, July 28, 2005

Beyond Acuity

Meanwhile: The parsers published by the Stanford Natural Language Processing Group (here) go a good distance toward providing the automated parsing needed to calculate "acuity" programmatically. Not all the way, since they can be confused by complicated sentences, and especially ones whose syntax is colloquial -- just the kind of sentences poems tend to be full of.

The more I experiment with this, however, the more I realize it's only a partial approach to specifying an enjambment's force in a poem. It still doesn't, and possibly can't, determine what I called "potential acuity." The Stanford parsers insist, all too successfuly, on treating whatever string-of-words they're given as a grammatical sentence. The question of whether a line could end a sentence -- which I still think is a vital component of how we read the line-break -- turns out to be more difficult than I realized. The second line of Wordsworth's Westminster Bridge sonnet, for example: "Dull would he be of soul who could pass by". You know and I know that "pass by" is going to be transitive, and putting a period after it would feel unnatural. But "pass by" can work like its synonym in the song-title "Walk On By"; nothing in the syntax seems to support the instinct that the line must be incomplete.

Furthermore, syntax is only part of the story. (See Ray Jackendoff's Foundations of Language for a related argument against "syntactocentrism" in linguistics.) For example, we would also want to know whether an enjambment occurs at the end of, or in the midst of, units that are prosodic in linguistics' sense of the word, such as the Phonological Phrase, Intonational Phrase, and Phonological Utterance. Those appear to be more fungible than syntactic units, raising the additional possibility that a line-break will create a break between prosodic units.

Enjambment begins to look like an arena in which many kinds of linguistic processes and structures are brought into play, or in which the play within and among them is brought into prominence and the reader's attention. On the bright side, this might make enjambment a good, rich test-bed for the study of multiple "interface modules" of the kind Jackendoff describes.

Sigh. Such as it is, my public career as a literary critic began back in 1981 with a book (Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody) that concentrated on line-breaks as "prosodic" (in the literary sense: devices for governing rhythm). Now I'm back to the same topic about 137 years later. I'm even re-fascinated by one of the main examples I studied back then, Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." Now supplemented, I'm glad to say, with other examples to turn over and over in the mind, such as Phil Levine's delightful poem "A Theory of Prosody."


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