Monday, May 31, 2010

Eurovision syntax, the persistence of hymns, and the ungooglable

After watching the Eurovision final, I awoke the following morning with an earworm, which I soon realized was a few bars of Romania's entry "Playing with Fire" ... in particular the line with the syntactic inversion: "Spend with me the night". And it seemed that it might be the slightly odd syntax that helped the line stick in the memory.

When I think back to the hymns we sang every morning as schoolboys, it is often the unusual phrases, the inversions, or the enjambments that my young brain never quite decoded, that seem to have lodged most securely.

A rhythmically definitive phrase such as Henry Francis Lyte's "To his feet thy tribute bring" has a sculptural permanence, and a small child doesn't notice the inversion, and similarly will sing William Chatterton Dix's phrase "As with gladness men of old" without realizing that it is part of a subordinate clause, whose relevance is only to be revealed four lines later.

And of course the sonorities of music can add greatly to emotive power. I always liked how John Greenleaf Whittier's "O brother man" resounded when sung to Hubert Parry's setting. (If anyone knows of a recording of this please let me know). I always sang the last verse with gusto:

Then shall all shackles fall: the stormy clangor
Of wild war music o'er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.

The enjambment of the second line is an important element of the effect, as is the line-slowing juxtaposition of "wild war" and its immediate echo in the elision of "o'er".

Language is pulled at, stretched, compressed to accommodate form. Berryman's Sonnets are an extreme example: take #21 which starts with:

Whom undone David upto the dire van sent
I'd see as far. I can't dislike that man,
Grievously and intensely like him even,
Envy nor jealousy admit, consent
Neither to the night of rustlers I frequent
Nor to this illness dreams them; but I can,
Only, that which we must: bright as a pan
Our love gleams, empty almost empty—lent.

Convoluted thought and the urgency of the form render the language unfamiliar, and 'difficult'. But Berryman can also hit an originality of word combination without syntactic contortion, as in the line from #13 "The spruce barkeep sports a toupee alas". This form of verbal originality, a determined and fierce avoidance of cliché, a quest for the ungooglable combination, leads in a sort of reductio to the work of J. H. Prynne where phrases appear stripped of immediate semantic support from a normal sentence structure, and rather the connotations of words and short combinations interact and interfere creating a sort of moiré effect, as in a verbal quantum double-slit experiment. Ashbery's poems at times operate in a similar fashion constructing content from accumulated connotations and resonances, but his material is longer phrases, and sometimes deliberately familiar formulations, so nothing ungooglable there, and his structures are coherent in the way much music coheres. Prynne is subatomic.

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