Objective Analysis of Sound in Poetry

Mandelker, Amy 1983. Russian Formalism and the Objective Analysis of Sound in Poetry. The Slavic and East European Journal 27(3): 327-338.

In their first two publications of 1916 and 1917 (Sborniki po teorii poètičkogo jazyka), the Russian Formalists take the position that the phonological structure of poetry has a function beyond the decorative, and should be an object of study in its own right. Their approach is a synthesis of strong traditions in both the philosophy of language and in poetics. (Mandelker 1983: 327)
Is this "function beyond the decorative" related to meaning? E.g. that the sound shape of language in poetry has its own semantic value?
The Formalists sought to rescue the valuable core of Symbolist prosodic studies from its mystical encasement by engaging in an active, if one-sided, debate. The dispute focused on the relationship between sound and sense, a correlation which the Symbolists had established on the basis of philosophical theories. In dissociating themselves from such a view, the Formalists evolved a valuable method for the analysis of sound in poetry, but abandoned the more captivating question of how and what sound in poetry communicates. (Mandelker 1983: 328)
Ah, so, yeah, no.
The lack of objective studies to verify subjective impressions was responsible for this chaotic situation, and the Formalists viewed it as their responsibility to mitigate this circumstance: "We engage in battle with the Symbolists in order to wrest poetics from their hands, and, once having divested poetics of any ties with subjective, aesthetic or philosophical theories, to direct it to the route of the scientific investigation of facts." (Mandelker 1983: 328)
The case is quite similar with the relationship between pseudo-scientific "body language" discourse with its subjective impressions of the significance of handshakes and body postures and whathaveyou, and the objective scientific study of nonverbal behaviour.
The terms inherited by the Formalists may be divided into the following three theoretical categories: (1) aesthetic, with a prescriptive emphasis on the pleasurable sensations of hearing or reciting verse (euphony, sonority); (2) mimetic, ono matopoeia; and (3) synaesthetic, drawing analogies to painting, or especially music (sound-image, sound-painting, audition colorée; melody, harmony, instrumentation/orchestration (slovesnaja instrumentovka), tonality, vowel harmony). Most of the terms were used indiscriminately to refer to quite different types of sound patterns in verse. (Mandelker 1983: 328)
This first category is almost the definition of the poetic function.
Tomaševskij succeeded in further elaborating this distinction. He defines euphony as the poet's organization of verse elements with a bias in favour of sound, and identifies two types of euphony: quantitative (meter0 and qualitative (sound patterns). The latter type of euphony he subdivided into two categories: harmonious speech (blagozvučie reči), or euphony proper; and sound expressiveness (zvukovaja vyrazitel'nost'), or various forms of onomatopoeia. (Mandelker 1983: 329)
Thus when Jakobson claims that the poetic and the emotive function are often confused, what he may have in mind is this very distinction.
Viewing the function of sound patterns in poetry as primarily onomatopoetic further implies that the relationship between the sound structure of the text and its semantic reference is iconic. The Formalists preferred to demonstrate a function of language sounds in poetry which would not be limited to reflecting the "meaning" of the verse, but which the shape would be self-valuable (samecennoe). (Mandelker 1983: 329)
That is, the sound shape of language would have intrinsic value.
Two alternative approaches emerge in the Formalists' treatment of the topic: the "sound gesture" (zvukovoj žest) theory, subscribed to Ejxenbaum, Šklovskij and Tynjanov; and the theory that sound patterns may serve a non-semantic, "focusing" function in poetry, developed in the methods of Kušner and Brik. (Mandelker 1983: 330)
Cf. Eichenbaum 2014a[1919].
Initially, the Russian Formalists were optimistic of a powerful effect to be claimed by the phonic aspect of the word "laid bare" in verbal art. Jakubinski attributed to sound in poetry the ability to evoke emotions directly, without reference to outside reality. Citing poets and theoreticians on the topic, Jakubinskij suggests a natural series of associations to the sounds of language which become emphasized once language is laid bare by the aesthetic function, or is rendered incomprehensible, or estranged from semanticity. To illustarte the latter case, Jakubinskij quotes from William James, who discusses the phenomenon of repeating a word until it becomes senseless, at which point, James suggests, "... having looked on this word from a new point of view, we have denuded it (obnažili) of all but its phonic qualities." This denuding, or laying bare of the word was to become one of the basic principles underlying Formalist aesthetics as well as the rationale for claiming an autonomous function for language sounds in verse. (Mandelker 1983: 330-331)
Thus, it is possible that Jakubinski also contributed to the emotive function. Also, denuding may explain the "laying bare" of functions in Jakobson's 1961 paper.
The "sound gesture" theory suggests that this laying bare occurs during the oral articulation of poetry. In everyday speech, the listener involuntarily and unconsciously moves his speech organs as an aid to the decoding process. In poetry, when this phenomenon moves into the realm of consciousness, sounds are deliberately organized to create what Šklovskij termed, "a dance of the vocal organs." which imitates those shapes, sounds, and movements in nature to which the poem refers. (Mandelker 1983: 331)
Good poetry, in this sense, considers the oral recitation of the poem.


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