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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Event Archive

This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

Some of our public events are recorded and are available as podcasts via our Research English At Durham blog.

The Syntax of Modernism

25th January 2013, 13:00 to 14:00, Seminar Room, Hallgarth House, Jack Baker

An MA lunchtime seminar.

This seminar will examine how syntax operates in three extracts from the poetry of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. It is a critical commonplace that free verse heralded the erosion of “traditional” syntax – the framework of propositional and grammatical sense – in modernist poetry. Meaning is created by vivid juxtaposition rather than by linear accumulation. Eliot learned the force of parataxis from Laforgue. Stevens conflates fragmentary syntax with a private and reciprocal frame of reference, destabilising the subject-verb-object pattern of the traditional English sentence. And Ernest Fenollosa’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry”, which equates linguistic structures with the patterns of natural processes, inspired Pound to an ideogrammic method superseding syntax: “the type of sentence in nature is a flash of lightning” (16). So Donald Davie could equally have been speaking of Eliot or Stevens when he argued that Pound’s Cantos “are articulated . . . by a syntax that is musical, not linguistic” (Articulate Energy 20). But these representations are not the whole truth. Insufficient attention has been trained on particular passages in each poet’s work where the relations of syntax are, pace Davie, of moment – governed by sense as much as by sound. The poetic implications of this alone are worth discussing: for instance, is a recrudescent grammar associable with particular moods or themes? But syntactic variations also raise broader questions about the nature of modernism, which could profitably be discussed in the seminar. Are Eliot, Pound and Stevens pursuing similar techniques to dissimilar ends? Are their techniques elitist, deliberately restricting comprehension to a particular coterie? And are the formal innovations of poetic modernism a conscious reaction, as has often been claimed, to the social and intellectual upheavals of the early twentieth century: does fractured syntax mirror a fractured world?

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