• A Parsing-Proof Whole: Susan Howe’s Experimental Syntax and Its Processing Implications

    Davide Castiglione (see profile)
    LLC 20th- and 21st-Century American, LSL Linguistics and Literature
    American literature, Linguistics
    Item Type:
    Conference paper
    Conf. Title:
    131st Annual MLA Convention
    Conf. Org.:
    Modern Language Association
    Permanent URL:
    It has long been acknowledged that syntactic violations in poetry are central to the difficulty of a poetic text (e.g. Fowler 1971, Fois-Kaschel 2002, Burke 2007, Thoms 2008). However, for all its merits, most of the work carried out so far tends either to be more concerned with linguistic theory than with literary effects (i.e. the generativist tradition); or, conversely, it treats syntactic violations as ancillary elements of broader contextual concerns (i.e. literary criticism). It should be the business of stylistics to map the uncharted territory in between these two approaches, explaining syntactic effects at a textual level. Yet, when it comes to syntax, most work in stylistics confines itself to a few canonical authors (notably Dylan Thomas and E.E. Cummings) whilst ignoring later developments of experimental writing (e.g. John Ashbery, Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein). The present paper aims to widen the purview of poetic texts open to stylistic scrutiny as well as to make subtler predictions regarding the relationship between types of syntactic phenomena and resulting literary and processing effects. In particular, I show how different stylistic strategies (e.g. the blurring of constituency, syntactic ambiguity, the avoidance of main verbs) lead to very differentreaderly responses. My main case study is Susan Howe’s experimental poetry, whose ‘incomplete statements’ (Middleton 2010: 637) and ‘asyntactic writing’ (Quartermain 1992: 184) have called for extensive critical commentaries. I analyse the blurring of word classes and functions in a poem from the collection Bed Hangings (2001), leading to multiple garden paths and to a posited reading that de-emphasizes syntactic relations in favour of a coarse semantic processing guided by freestanding nouns and adjectives. I conclude by showing empirically that these parsing difficulties are reflected in reading times that are much longer than those for other poems with more moderate syntactic disruptions.
    Last Updated:
    7 years ago
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