Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The poetic function

When we encounter a text, we recognize it as of a particular and familiar kind, as belonging to a particular genre, for example a newspaper article, a blurb, a menu, or an insurance policy. We have an idea of what to expect, and we adjust our reading accordingly.
... becoming familiar with the functions and stylistic conventions of the numerous text types, or genres which we encounter in day-to-day life, is very much part of our socialization in the culture we belong to. principle this learning process also applies to our getting acquainted with text types which are recognized as literary, such as poems. So if you have become familiar with the stylistic conventions of this genre of texts, you will know that the language of poetry has the following characteristics: its meaning is often ambiguous and elusive; it may flout the conventional rules of grammar; it has a peculiar sound structure; it is spatially arranged in metrical lines and stanzas; it often reveals foregrounded patterns in its sounds, vocabulary, grammar, or syntax; and last but not least, it frequently contains indirect references to other texts.
Most texts that we are confronted with have a social function...a headline encourages us to read a news story, a blurb encourages us to buy a book, and an advertisement is designed to promote a product.  ...what then is the function of a genre like poetry?

The first thing we might note is that whatever the function of poetry may be, it bears no relation to our socially established needs and conventions, because unlike non-literary texts, poetry is detached from the ordinary contexts of social life. To put it differently, poetry does not make direct reference to the world of phenomena but provides a representation of it through its peculiar and unconventional uses of language which invite and motivate, sometimes even provoke, readers to create an imaginary alternative world. Perhaps it is this potential of a literary text which is its essential function, namely that it enables us to satisfy our needs as individuals, to escape, be it ever so briefly, from our humdrum socialized existence, to feel reassured about the disorder and confusion in our minds, and to find a reflection of our conflicting emotions. If this is the case, we might conclude that the function of literature is not socializing but individualizing.

[from Verdonk, Peter. Stylistics. OUP: Oxford, 2002. ]

(Recall Widdowson's views here: How do we explain the fact that  literary writing deviates from grammatical rules as text but is interpretable as discourse? Literary communication is to be viewed as self-contained units independent of a social context, expressive of a reality other than that sanctioned by convention. Literary discourse skews the communication schema - addresser/addressee/context.  )