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Poetry Machines (5)

"O black black black black black"

Cohesion Machines

While it is easy to see the significance of poetry machines at the level of linguistics or at the level of literary theory, to relate the two things together so as to fully understand the impact of Koch’s work one needs an interim discipline such as stylistics. Stylistics has a number of terms for the modes of repetition in literary texts but they fail in some respects as they are, on the whole, concerned only with cohesion while Koch’s use of repetition is always deviant. Still, they are essential tools for understanding repetition in Koch’s work and I have already mentioned anaphora, which is an example of the RD part of my grammar. In addition, we must consider Geoffrey Leech’s foundational terms free verbal repetition and verbal parallelism, along with more general stylistic terms such as parallelism, cohesion and deviance.

Leech chooses a quotation from the bible to present his idea of free verbal repetition, a passage that resembles very much Koch’s repetition of “black” five times: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”[i] The tension between linguistic superfluity and grammatical significance which such free verbal repetitions show has always been a part of poetry, becoming most formalised in English poetry during the renaissance with the controlled use of rhyme and metre. David’s lament for the death of his son, in fact, is an ancient piece of tribal art, going back to the earliest origins of poetic expression: the repetition of the names of the dead over their graves to give them a brief, extra life in language.

In relation to this, Leech’s comments on free verbal repetition are illuminating and misguided at one and the same time. He suggests that such “superfluity of expression…runs counter to one strongly held tenet of poetic composition: that to compress, to say much in little, is the means to poetic intensity, and the mark of great poetry,”[ii] but adds that it is okay in this instance for the expression not to be “great” because the “repetition is almost involuntary to a person in a state of extreme emotional excitation.”[iii] As excitement has always been an important part of Koch’s aesthetic we can assume that he was similarly excited when he wrote “Parallel excursion. O black black black black black.”

However, Koch’s line also illustrates another facet of free verbal repetition, not that the poet can’t do any better, but rather that language can’t, as Leech begrudgingly notes: “In a way, saying the same thing over and over is a reflection on the inadequacy of language to express what you have to express ‘in one go.’”[iv]

Clearly, linguistically, there are two types of poetic repetition and Koch’s line hints at, maybe even mocks, Leech’s classic differentiation between free verbal repetition and parallelism. Koch starts with a “parallel” excursion yet what follows is not an example of parallelism. Parallelism is the result of deviation from ordinary speech, with poetry being a set of rules which provide the so-called “warranty for a deviation.”[v] Deviation for linguistics is a break in the normal flow of the processes of communication, opening a gap in comprehension. The gap is, in the first instance, at the semantic level that in linguistics does not suggest a gap in the meaning of the text but a gap in the grammaticality of the text.

Deviation foregrounds certain elements of difference; repetition, on the other hand, foregrounds the very opposite elements in a poem, emphasising extra regularities within the text, rather than extra irregularities, so that when a poet is offered a number of options they always choose the same one. Parallelism differs from free verbal repetition because it is a repetition of rules or a poetic “deep structure,” not the material repetition we poeticians call semiotics, and in this sense, poetically, it is “better” as there is more tension in parallelism between grammar and semiotics than in free verbal repetition.

Parallelism foregrounds semiotics to such an extent that it goes deep, becomes a rule that allows one to segment the language in a way that differs from grammar. In effect, it competes with grammar, coming close to Koch’s dream of a “poetry language,” but it remains grammatical in every sense of the word as it copies grammar’s deepest structure, which is the desire to structure in accordance with certain rules of division and concatenation.

Koch’s repetition, along with that of David, would seem on the surface not to be a parallel excursion but an excursion from the parallel. In a sense both texts foreground a poetic/repetitious deviation and so they both suffer from a semantic deficit. Free verbal repetition, then, is subject to a powerful rule: linguistic superfluity results in semantic deficiency. Replace the term “superfluity” with “excess” and one can see that free verbal repetition is tantamount to poetic deconstruction.

Such a form of repetition is the exception that proves the rule of parallelism, the ungrammatical aspect that justifies parallelism as a form of poetic grammar. However, Koch talks of a parallel excursion and, in repeating “black” five times, he hints at how free verbal repetition can become parallelism. If free verbal repetition becomes the norm, then it becomes a law of repetitious parallelism which Leech names verbal parallelism, so that when the poet is confronted with a new option to repeat, and in poetry that is basically when the poet is given the option to write poetry, they choose in each case to repeat the same thing rather than another thing encased in the same rule.

In terms of “Sleeping with Women,” for example, we have a perfect example of the median or liminal mode of repetition so carefully exploited in Koch’s work. The exact repetition of the phrase is free verbal repetition while the repetition of the two phrases linked/separated by the colon would be an example of parallelism. However, what is most common is the way in which the unit of repetition is used structurally to generate various meanings stemming from differentiation, so that the same words are repeated as a kind of rhythm to make the confusing deviations cohere.

Leech expresses well the substance of this kind of repetition when he notes, “Verbal parallelism resembles free verbal repetition in that it is physically sensible—i.e. audible to the listener, and visible to the reader,”[vi] however he manifestly fails to see the implications of such a method of cohesion. Verbal parallelism undermines the basic unit of repetition, RS, through its use of difference, yet it also questions the most general unit of repetition, RC, by always introducing a very basic repetition into the larger parallelism of the text as a whole.

Again I may note how deconstructive this is, for if the many linguists and philosophers who have noticed the tension in poetry between the material cohesion and the overall coherent meaning of the text are right, then the reasoning behind Koch’s favouring of verbal parallelism is clear. Verbal parallelism brings together repetition and difference at the sensible level, in a way that undermines both ideas at the conceptual level represented by such a poem as “Collected Poems”, an attack which goes to the very heart of the basic assumptions of cohesion and coherence in language.

Stylistics is too simplistic conceptually to understand the implications of many of the effects it notes in literature, and yet without its analysis literary criticism’s view of literature seems amateurish and incomplete. However, place the two disciplines together in this instance and we can see that the very devices which would seem to be designed for cohesion in Koch’s work, which is otherwise very deviant in terms of poetic expectation, allow for an even greater deviance. Free verbal repetition, the RS of machine grammar, undermines the semantic level of poetry by an excess of sensible material, which also reminds the reader that this is, basically, what characterises all poetry.

Poetic language emphasises materiality through repetitious patternings and deviation from the ordinary patterns of speech; Koch merely pushes this to its logical extreme. In contrast, parallelism, RC, suggests that such excessive patterning exists even at the most differential levels of poetry not in the area of the material of poetic language, but at the very heart of the existence of poetry as such.

Yet, most important is the mid-way verbal parallelism that combines material excess with conceptual cohesion. In doing so it indicates that repetition as such must always be differential, each “black” each “sleeping with women” is not the same. However, it also shows that even at the level of greatest differentiation, say between one poem and another in a poet’s “Collected Poems,” there is a very basic repetition. To put it simply, when Koch is repeating in the most simple way he is deviating from the standard ideas of poetry. What one finds, then, in Koch’s machine grammar, RS RD RC, is in fact an act of deviation as cohesion that is truly radical and might be called the typical pattern of avant-garde poetics.

[i] Geoffrey Leech, A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry (London: Longman, 1969) 78.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid., 78.
[iv] Ibid., 79.
[v] Ibid., 61.
[vi] Ibid., 85.


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