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  Philologica 1 (1994)  


1. Analysis of the Concept of “Verse”

Edited, and preparation of the text by S. Iu. Mazur and M. I. Shapir
Notes and introduction by M. I. Shapir


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Maksim Maksimovich Kenigsberg (1900—1924) was one of the most gifted philologists of his generation; had it not been for his sudden death at the age of 24 he would have come to occupy a prominent place among the great figures of our discipline. Many eminent contemporaries appreciated his talent, among them Shpet and Vinokur, who both dedicated books to the memory of this young scholar. Unfortunately he was unable to fulfil his potential but the best of what he wrote set the tone for succeeding decades and even today has not lost its significance.

Although Kenigsberg strongly influenced a great many of his colleagues his name was soon forgotten and today he is virtually unknown. Until recently his most important works were thought to have been lost and were discovered only in 1990. The present article is one of these. It offers one of the best examples of differentiation of verse from prose from a phenomenological viewpoint. Kenigsberg begins from the following principle: “The analysis of art is the analysis of forms of expression, of verbal forms”; in this he was close to other Russian “Formalists”. However, unlike many other representatives of the “Formal School” Kenigsberg’s primary opposition was not between form and material but between form and content, since he maintained that “‘material’ only applies to <...> a work of art when it comprises an unstable system of forms <...> when this ‘material’ itself is the expression of some artistic <...> consciousness”. In consequence, Kenigsberg perceived the essential problem not in terms of an oppositon between verse and language (= form and material), but between verse and prose, that is in terms of a relation between different verbal (artistic) forms.

The search for a formal distinction between poetry and prose gave rise to the phenomenology of verse. Using a privative opposition, with prose as the unmarked term, Kenigsberg sought to discover “the necessary property, the characterising feature responsible for the sharp division between verse and non-verse”. This search was hindered by literary convention itself: such forms as vers libre represent a shift in the direction of “prose”; while verset and rhythmic prose represent a shift from prose towards “verse”. But, to use his words, Kenigsberg wished to present verse in its “phenomenal unity”: “If”, he reasoned, “verse is something irrefutably specific, and if the language of verse exhibits objective formal properties, then it must be susceptible to the potent effect of the law of the excluded middle”. Kenigsberg was convinced that the specific distinction from prose must inevitably be manifested in each concrete instance of verse; if indeed there were instances of verse which did not possess this specificum, then this would imply its absence from verse as a whole. For this reason Kenigsberg did not construct his theory of verse on the basis of frequency of occurrence, and he correctly assumed that it was the marginal forms that most clearly expressed the true nature of the phenomenon.

If we can locate the frontier beyond which verse becomes indistinguishable from prose we will have simultaneously located the border which separates them: “In the struggle against classical verse the vers-librists went rather too far. Some <...> poets even began to print their poetry in one continuous line like prose <...> This step”, contended Kenigsberg, “effectively abolished the boundaries of verse”. Verse written in continuo ceases to be itself. Consequently, to say that verse is verse is no tautology because the word “verse” is used here in two opposite senses, a wide and a narrow: “verse” is a name applied 1) to poetic diction in general; 2) to the basic unit of such diction. However verse in the first sense can only be validly applied where there is also verse in the second sense. Verse in the continuous linear form of prose “can under no circumstances properly be called verse. It defies a fundamental versificational principle — ‘the principle of the poetic line’ as a discrete <...> unit, which in written form is marked out by its graphic independence”.

It is understandable that Kenigsberg should have more confidence in the graphic form given his mistrust of “acoustic, psychological or modo novissimo phonological observation and experiment”: “the subtle nuances of the acoustic material are thrust into the background by graphic representation and become wholly superfluous, and only the presentation of formal linguistic categories is of any importance <...> the advantage of graphic form is that it <...> abolishes that subjectivity and contingency inherent in a formal or ideal language system existing outside a specific materialization <...> The graphic form is always more clearly intelligible than sound; the grapheme is less susceptible to occlusion by individual variations than is the corresponding morpheme by individual sonic deviations”. Evidently the same kind of reasoning gave rise to the phonological critique of traditional phonetics: according to Saussure (we here quote Kenigsberg’s own reading of him) “social fact originates at the point where the listener picks out from <...> the capricious multitude of speech facts a specific sound-image, associated with a specific concept <...> In this <...> de Saussure shows a clear affinity with Baudouin de Courtenay’s thought, inasmuch as the image acoustique corresponds to the notion of the phoneme put forward by the Russian theorist”. Thus, however paradoxical it might appear, Kenigsberg found himself attacking phonology from the point of view of phonology itself: he sought to isolate the significant invariable behind the plurality of concrete phonations, a certain “ideal form”, not, however, a “phoneme” but rather a “grapheme” or “sticheme”. This anti-phonological phonologism becomes more understandable in the light of the common philosophical origins of both Kenigsberg’s poetology and Jakobson’s phonology, namely Husserl’s reine Phaenomenologie.

According to Kenigsberg’s theory, “poetic diction” is “speech fractured into a number of self-subsistent units which are not necessarily connected with any logical or syntactical articulation, but are united graphically by a homogeneous system of division, and acoustically by the homogeneous intonation of endings (melody <...>)”. Apart from a certain awkwardness of expression this definition seems to work quite successfully; the only approach with which it has some affinities is Tynianov’s interpretation of verse in The Problem of Verse Language, especially in relation to the central concept of “verse unity” which was arrived at independently by both scholars. Probably the most important aspect of this “unity” is that “it is not necessarily connected with any logical or syntactical articulation”. Kenigsberg was the first to declare categorically that “the essential difference between the rhythm of verse and that of non-verse is inseparable from the notion of verse as an autonomous glosseme”. This “autonomy” lies in verse’s “independence from grammatical constructions” and indeed “from the basic sense of language”, as well as vice versa. In prose, if grammatical segmentation is non-congruent with rhythm, the former takes precedence; in verse, by contrast, it is the latter. This manifests itself in enjambement and its manifold variants, which were analysed by both Kenigsberg and Tynianov, following Ejxenbaum. In essence they show a strong probability of non-coincidence between rhythmic and syntactic semantic articulations: most significantly verse can be fundamentally at odds “with the syntagmatic, morphematic and the lexeme structure of language”. An extreme consequence of this are intra-verbal, intra-morphemic and intra-syllabic displacements. Of course, autonomous rhythmic articulations are not confined to line-endings; they can span larger linguistic units (stanzas, for instance) as well as smaller (such as hemistichs). However, all articulations, the linear excepted, may be described as facultative and derivative.

The conclusions Kenigsberg reached conform in many ways to those of Tynianov. However, Kenigsberg was not infrequently more rigorous and consistent than Tynianov: the former created a “logic” of verse, the latter an “ontology” of verse. In other cases than this even a considerably smaller number of coincidences might seem to furnish sufficient grounds to broach the question of “appropriation and influence”. Here, though, the originality of both thinkers is beyond peradventure: it is a clear case of the convergence of philological ideas. Also, the similarity between Kenigsberg and Tynianov is principally in the sphere of formal analysis. For Kenigsberg, only that form which “has meaning” and “represents sense” can be legitimately acknowledged as linguistic form, and his entire phenomenology of verse was directed towards a single end: how to properly formulate the concept of verse as a specific “sign”. However, the key problem of the relationship between verse and sense (verse and meaning) was no more than sketched out by Kenigsberg and the preliminary “first drafts” suggesting approaches to its solution were made by other philologists, particularly Tynianov (rhythm and sense) and, most importantly, by Vinokur (metre and meaning).


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