Textual Archaeology: Analyzing Form and Content in Poetry

This past week, literary trolls got the best out of me and somehow forced me to write daily lectures from Death of the Author to theories of form to interpreting the interpreter.  The topic was Formalism in literary criticism.  At first, instead of responding in an essay form, I wrote a parody in a Sapphic stanza complete with syllabic count, spacing, metering, and adonean line, which I turned into a literary negation.

The Imagist

I do not ask what brush or stroke painters use

Or what kind of paint or colors their palettes have, 

Nor do I ask the length of their canvases;

... Formalists are dead.

As usual, I recollected after the long argument and picked few lessons here and there I could synthesize and use in my readings of literary pieces in the future.  I sometimes ask why people have to argue in order to learn or share information.  Is it because of our uneasiness to accept our deficiencies or our selfishness to impart what we know or our arrogance to show off our skills and knowledge?

Unlike in visual arts, Formalism in literature is not really defined well, but it adheres to the idea that form is superior to content, and that form should be studied without taints of sociality, biography, ideology.  In analyzing Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, for example, a formalist can say a lot about the loaf of bread Jean Valjean stole for his sister's children than the social condition that forced him to commit the crime. What a sad dehumanizing exercise! 

Formalist literary critics are very hardworking indeed.  They use linguistics, philosophy of language, logic, and other tedious critical tools in their arsenals and they drop terms and concepts like confetti.  Helen Vendler, a professor at Harvard who has written books on Dickinson, Yeats, and Heany, is currently the biggest name in the world of literary criticism.  She does close-reading, a method used in New Criticism, a formalist school of thought, as far as my understanding is concerned.  New critics reject readers' experience and authors' intent; they are only interested in texts. They don't even expound on the moral or ideological relevance of the texts.  

Although Vendler is very influential, her vague formalist methods that make formalist linguists cringe still cannot surpass the influence of postmodernism and the latter's reliance on subtexts, liberal interpretations, and, yes, politics and ideology.  This is so because the relevance of literature is dependent on its sociality and its social concerns. In my country, nationalist poems have influenced students and unionists to take arms and start revolutions.  The founder of a communist party back home is an exiled poet.       

In poetry, formalist concerns are mostly focused on the use of traditional forms or styles of writing.  Their vocabulary is archaic-sounding to me.  Formalist critics write about couplet, quatrain, anapest, iambic, my ears' favorite, aubade, etc..  A.E Stallings, a winner of Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur's Genius Grant in 2011, belongs to this mold.  Most of her poems rhyme and follow traditional metering.  Although the old is back, it seems free verse and other contemporary styles still reign.

I think the future of literary criticism lies in the new kind of Formalism, where forms are assessed to understand contents and vice-versa.  It is like archaeology, but in the case of poetry, texts are the artifacts.  A field survey, in literary practice, will mean critics have to do comparative reading, intertextuality, and an investigative look at the literary field, theme, or group a certain poem or author belongs.  Excavation will be close-reading by digging and going deep.  A poem is also composed of many layers of emotions and strata of meanings.  Mapping surfaces and other topographies, implied or spelled out, can be done in poetry.  Anne Sexton, an American suicide and poet, might not have written the word "suicide" in her works, but her poems could give hints pregnant of her suicidal tendencies.

Dating methods in this new literary analysis will focus on history of words, meanings, idiomatic expressions; and history of language. Like in archaeometry, poetry, which has beats, syllables, meter, is measurable too.  Principles of association and superimposition will find relevance in the reading of set of words, their depth, and their placement in a poem.  There is always a reason in a poet's mind why he uses the same related words or why he uses one of them first and the other last.  Since a poem is the site, it will be deemed disturbed if words are added or missing due to bad translation, editing, censorship, or any malicious intent.

Textual archaeology, at this stage, is experimental.  I just ordered Shakespeare's sonnets and poems by Spanish writers.  I want to find out if my proposal is doable and worthy of the sixty dollars I spent on five books.  My quest is to tame forms and snare contents and clip their wings-- in common language, to study forms and contents vis-a-vis.  




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Comment by Keith Hart on May 12, 2012 at 2:12pm

I once gave a batch of my (deservedly) unpublished poems to Paul Friedrich who was both a poet and an anthropologist. He was negative, but kind. "The metres are rather obvious for modern taste", he said, "but have you considered presenting them as songs?"

Comment by John McCreery on May 12, 2012 at 9:57am

A rich and marvelous project, indeed. Should you be interested, I address some of the issues you raise in my 1995 paper in american ethnologist, "Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language," in which I examine the text of a Taiwanese Daoist exorcism as (1) setting up a performative act, (2) metaphorically moving healer, client, ghosts and gods around in a multidimensional cultural space, and (3) using formalization to signal claims to authority. The whole exercise begins with a move borrowed from New Criticism, focusing on the text itself, bracketing and putting aside larger clinical, social, historical, and cultural contexts. The point was not to deny that those contexts exist and influence the meaning and effects of the text when seen from other perspectives. It was, instead, to demonstrate the value of close attention to the form and content of the text itself before using it as evidence in larger conversations. If you don't have access to a library where you can find the paper, send me a private message with a postal address to which I will happily send an offprint.


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