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The relationship between language and content in poetry

Before the twentieth century, most literary theorists tended to view the relation between text and meaning through the prism of history, psychology, symbolism, and literary biography.

It was not until after the Russian Revolution in 1917 that there emerged widespread academic disagreement with such views. This disagreement was the rationale for the existence of a group of post-Revolution intellectuals who became known collectively as adherents of Russian Formalism.

There were of course others who contributed to the ongoing debate but these four were instrumental in founding three separate movements each of which was created to settle how and to what extent the forms of literary texts interacted with the contents of these texts.

Their chosen name suggested that their focus on texts would be based on a careful study of a text's use of linguistics. Within less than a decade, their relentless efforts to separate a text from any enveloping political ideology drew them into conflict with an emerging Marxist regime headed first by Lenin, then later by Stalin, both of whom insisted that all art and literature had to reflect an acceptable allegiance and adherence to Marxist dogma.

Society for the Study of Poetic Languagewhich was founded in 1916 in St. The remaining members were literary historians, folklorists, and poets all of whom believed that literature must be based on close textual analysis and clearly delineated descriptions of a text's contents.

Members were distressed over what they saw as a the relationship between language and content in poetry close link between text and author and between text and cultural background. Therefore, they sought whenever possible to sever such links. Though Shklovsky argued that the use of poetic language was a significant linguistic device, he was quick to add that not all devices in all texts could be used to defamiliarize those texts by using unorthodox language to render the familiar as unfamiliar.

The latter represented the ordinary language usage of daily life where meaning clustered around the literal. The former forced language to assume values and resonances not normally associated with in its non-poetic state. It was these values and resonances which comprised the defamiliarization that caused readers to see and to appreciate how "old" scenes of worn-out non-dramatic non-urgency could unexpectedly morph into "new" scenes of throbbing vitality.

The third was the Prague school. When the Moscow Linguistic Circle was itself disbanded in the mid 1920s, its members moved to Prague, where it had a varied agenda: All three aforementioned schools were in general agreement that the then prevailing accepted theories concerning the need to relate the meaning of literature to extra-literary elements like authorial biographical facts or the historical milieu had to be discarded.

Such an emphasis on delinking text to author or text to society became the trademark of what was soon to be called Russian Formalism, all of whose adherents argued that all extra-literary elements were of no value in ascertaining meaning. This led to the revolutionary concept that only form could affect meaning.

The resulting amalgam was then the "meaning" of that text. Adherents of Russian Formalism insisted that it was the form of a text that shaped the content of a text. Thus the "how" of a text's physical structure forced readers to interpret that text in predictable ways.

This emphasis on form was based on viewing a text as a constantly evolving and dynamic process. Viktor Shklovsky's theory on how a text evolved became known as defamiliarization. Formalists like Shklovsky and Jakobson held that texts lacked precise aesthetic values which in turn required equally precise techniques to supply those values.

Jakobson had a word to indicate that the proper object of study as far as theory was concerned was not literature per se but rather what he called literaturnost, which translates into English as "literariness. The rationale for its existence was to eschew the vagaries of previous theories like symbolism in favor of a more scientific empirical description of language.

Form & Meaning in Poetry

Whether any one device functions as its author intended hinges on the latency of all the other devices residing in the linguistic system that is the text. Just as human beings function in a hierarchy with dominancy at the apex and subordination at the plinth, so do devices work likewise.

Whatever the dominant device may be, it sets the interpretive tone for all other subordinate devices with their totality at work in tandem to produce a self-contained system that passes through evolutionary phases such that each phase stands in clear demarcation from the others, thereby making it possible for theorists to compare one to the other.

This comparative process is far more likely to be diachronic in nature, often encompassing many decades. One can infer from this dynamic process of change and a concomitant awareness of change that the form and hence the content cannot remain constant long enough to become effete. Thus, there is an ongoing need to see and to sublimate these changes via defamiliarization to maintain the illusion of novelty. If the philosophical vision of human beings changes over time, it follows that the background milieu of these human beings must change as well, thus implying that within that milieu there is a continuing struggle for dominance that reflects the view that at the base of this conflict--the devices within the system--lies a the relationship between language and content in poetry need to engage literature in a dynamic manner that matches the dynamism of society itself.

Russian formalists focused on how literary devices related form to content and how such devices impacted on texts. A typical question that a Russian formalist might ask would be "How does this text disrupt a reader's expectation? Later formalists no longer sought to determine whether any changes in the system were at hand. Rather, the key to relating literature to meaning lay more in looking outward at a dynamic society than in looking inward at the hoped for looming of an appearance of meaning.

One aspect of defamiliarization is that it calls attention to the very artifice of its own devices, thus making a determined display of a text's techniques. The novel Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne is an early example of a novel that draws the reader into an artificial vortex of technique, thereby rendering this novel formalistic through its use and overuse of baring a myriad of novelistic devices, most of which distort temporality using foreshadowing and flashbacking.

Both schools emphasized that literature is in essence merely an irrevocable function of how language must work. They noted that all texts are irreducible, a term which implies that these texts can only be what they are; they cannot therefore be reduced or expanded into allied disciplines such as history or psychology. Members of these schools mandated that prior to any attempt to explicate a text, one must first delink that text from any and all mention of extra-literary references.

Once one completes the required the relationship between language and content in poetry, the next step is to employ empirically verifiable means of literary criticism such as a text's physical structure, its multi-faceted texture, and its diversity of language. Russian Formalism distinguishes between syuzhet plot and fibula story. Story is a chronological sequencing of events while plot can be expressed non-chronologically via repetition, parallelism, and deferral. The fact that there were two separate schools of Russian Formalism co-existing simultaneously suggests that despite their similarities there were sufficient divergences of thought that guaranteed there could not be a single unified nor agreed upon doctrine.

It marked itself as a continually evolving interpreter of language theory. What united even the most diverse of the many members was a set of shared basic assumptions that each member may have thought of in divergent ways. A typical meeting of one school or the other often involved discussing, critiquing, assimilating, and discarding a myriad of concepts and hypotheses.

And since there is always an ongoing evolution of human culture which in turn produces a renewal of literature, it follows that any literary system must eternally renew itself. Because the underlying premise of Russian Formalism was to establish an empirically objective method to link texts to devices, it followed that this could happen only if there were carefully delineated means to ascertain the nature of these changes. These means make it sound as if the entire process of analysis would go off flawlessly.

Alas, this flawlessness rarely if ever occurred. The far more common result was a touch and go procedure that did not pass the first level of inquiry.

Yet, even failures had their use in that one failure could open the door to a potential non-failure. And even when a theory became "accepted" within the Russian Formalist community, this acceptance was not etched in stone; it was provisional, always hinging on whether another and disqualifying theory would appear to displace it.

Its members could not agree as to the basic definition of a priem device nor how a device might be used. But they did agree that devices were needed as specific properties to study and to analyze texts. Russian Formalism has elements in common with American New Criticism in that both focus on the words on the page and draw attention to those words.

However, American New Critics see all texts as autotelic self-contained and do not need any reference external to the text to assign meaning.

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Further American New Critics use linguistic structures like paradox, imagery, and metaphor to arrive at what it sees as a text's "organic unity. Further, it clearly demarcated content from form by insisting that form was not an empty vessel into which one poured content. Because of form's structures of rhetoric which influenced how a reader interpreted content, form was content.

Thus to comprehend the meaning of content, one had first to analyze the many types of form. Meaning then is fixed by the way that form gives dramatic contour to text.