In: Education, Lyrics

Daily Thoughts – Teachers: Emotional poetry

The emotive function (set toward the addresser), as Jakobson describes it, could be seen as the least intrinsically “linguistic” of all the linguistic functions. That is, whereas the referential function (set toward the context) is about language’s power to communicate, and the poetic function (set toward the message) is about language in its formal dimensions, and the conative function (set toward the addressee) is about language as efficient cause of material events, and the phatic function (set toward the contact) is about language’s maintenance of itself as a working system, and the metalingual function is—well—just plain about language, the emotive function in contrast is about language only in the sense that language plays a role which, structurally speaking, could just as well be (and often is) played by grunts or shrieks or musical notes. That is, it is not language per se that alerts us to the attitude or feelings of the speaker (or if it is, then we are really talking about that aspect of the utterance, however emotive it is in other respects, which engages the referential function, where the context in question concerns emotion); it is the tone or timbre or inflection of the language, its incidental utility as an index of affect quite apart from whatever specific semantic content might attend the words being used (if, indeed, they have any content). One might say that the conative and phatic functions are similar to it in this sense, and this may be partly true: but the conative still depends on certain motivated configurations that exhibit a certain degree of consistency in order to work, and the phatic at least requires that the speaker’s attention be directed toward the conscious formation of utterances, regardless of how “empty” the utterances might be. It is as though the emotive function falls within the category of the linguistic largely by accident, because it can involve the use of words in addition to sighs, trills, and bleats. Emotion and the inarticulate are intimately interrelated.

When we talk about poetry being emotional or not, then, it may be helpful to think about what we mean by this in terms of Jakobson’s categories. Do we mean that it is (referentially) concerned with emotion? Sometimes, certainly. But not all poetry that we perceive as emotional has emotion as its theme. In addition, there might be poems about emotion that we nevertheless read as themselves very “cold” and “unemotional.” Do we mean then, that it (conatively) causes the reader or hearer to experience certain emotions? Again, sometimes: even perhaps a great deal of the time. But if we rest on this definition, the poem’s emotional force is limited to a manipulative sentimentality. Or, conversely, a poem which aggressively solicited certain negative emotions from us would be perceived as unfeeling, even sadistic. It would be pretty difficult to think of applications here for the phatic and the metalinguistic functions, so that leaves us with the poetic and emotive.

If we were to define “emotional” poetry as poetry that most directly engages the emotive function in language, we would be left primarily with poetry of instinctive animal sounds, mournful keening and elated whoops, grumpy mumbles and aroused panting. Nothing wrong with that, but only that, all the time? Anyway, that’s not what James is calling for, I’m pretty sure. So what would it mean to talk about emotion in its relation to the poetic function? Jakobson’s account is firmly situated in a formal context of equivalences and repetitions, verbal effects whose semantic and emotional qualities are not directly implicated in his definition of “poetic”; we have to extrapolate outward to a consideration of the reasons for such verbal pattern-making. What connotations, resonances, moods do the patterns evoke? We are veering, or threatening to veer, back to the realm of the referential and the conative (and maybe the emotive itself), but the added element here is something like a belief in, or a wish for, a kind of magic: for the transformation of mere phonemes and syllables into transcendental conveying devices, Cloudy Symbols of a High Romance. It is this romantic valuation that is anathema to the theory behind much Language Poetry, and that is still a beguiling beacon for James, with his New Brutalist’s heart pumping pure Keatsian nectar instead of blood.

So maybe when it is objected that Language Poetry is unemotional, what is really meant is that it forecloses the possibility of using emotions as a portal to a privileged perspective outside materiality. A poetics that wants to take issue with such a foreclosure, moreover, has its work cut out it for it (if it proposes to take issue in a public forum among which there are Language Poets and other materialists, at any rate). Or, coming at the same problem from another angle, how does the New Brutalism propose to answer the inevitable charges of escapism, mystification, naive romanticism, etc.? Or will it ignore these charges and their attending sociopolitical imperatives entirely, content to pursue a pastoral ideal of sweet mad hedonist piping in the polluted garden of contemporary life? The world watches and waits.

Comment Form

You must be logged in to post a comment.