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M. I. SHAPIR

ON THE MAXIMUM LENGTH OF A LINE IN VERS LIBRE
(D. A. Prigov and Others)

 
 
 



 

Summary

Verse is the system of pervasive compulsory paradigmatic segmentations, which structure the fourth dimension of the text. Verse segmentations are pervasive because they run through the entire work or fragment. Verse segmentations are compulsory because they are pre-ordained by the author’s will which is objectively expressed and cannot be ignored by a recipient. Verse segmentations are paradigmatic: they form the rhythmic units belonging to the same level which are correlated with one another as variants of a single invariable.

More often than not, it is obvious that relations between the verse units within a single level are invariant. For instance, any line from Kantemir’s satires contains thirteen syllables, has a feminine ending and a caesura after the seventh syllable. In Lomonosov’s original odes, there are eight syllables between the beginning of a line and the last ictus, and in all words but monosyllables only even-numbered syllables of the line can be stressed. In Katenin’s original idylls the first and the penultimate syllable of each line are stressed; each line contains six stresses; the interval between stresses cannot be less than one syllable nor more than two; the last interval is always disyllabic. Examples of poetic invariance can easily be multiplied, but it is clear anyway that it is precisely invariance, or invariability of the verse units belonging to the same level that makes the construction of each following line partly predictable. This predictability is provided by interlinear rhythmic constants, the set of which is usually called metre in the wider sense.

However, among other versification systems there is one which is free of metre. This is vers libre, in whose lines the rhythmic construction is virtually unpredictable: in free verse, the minimal paradigmatic constant is a line taken as a whole. Different lines of vers libre are correlated with one another just as different syllables in syllabic versification, different breath groups in accentual (tonic) versification, and different feet in syllabic-accentual (syllabotonic) versification. Syllables can be long or short, stressed or unstressed, but, in syllabic versification, they are equated: for example, a thirteen-syllable line of Kantemir’s Petris may contain three stresses (S exídnymi vlasámi, i edinoródna) or ten stresses (O, bý plách séj mój být’ mógl, v stýd mné, néchto lózhno), and this does not violate the isomorphism of the lines. Mutatis mutandis, the above formulation remains in force with respect to accentual verse, where monosyllabic and polysyllabic breath groups are equated, or with respect to syllabotonic verse, where feet are equated to one another, although some of them leave out metrical stresses or allow for additional stresses.

In vers libre, lines are equated in the same way: they are also invariable and interchangeable as the units of the verse construction (but not in terms of their grammatical, lexical or semantic filling). Moreover, as a rule, in vers libre the isomorphism of lines is revealed in the implicit restrictions imposed on the length of the line. Thus, in each poem from Kuzmin’s Alexandrian Songs (1906—1908), the proportion of stresses fluctuates within rather narrow limits: the difference between the minimum and the maximum is not less than two and not more than four stresses. In terms of the number of stresses the most frequent types are always extremely close to one another: in each poem, either lines with two and three stresses, or lines with three and four stresses are preferred. A telling fact is that the average proportion of the two most frequent combinations (2 + 3 or 3 + 4) is 72%.

Isomorphism of lines is easier to demonstrate using the example of well regulated vers libre such as Kuzmin’s, but even far looser verse still has rhythmic limitations. The diapason of the length of lines in Sergej Nel’dixen’s “poem-novel” Holiday (1920—1922) is much wider than what may be observed in Alexandrian Songs: different lines can bear different number of stresses, from one to eleven. However, even such a diapason is negligibly small in comparison with what is possible, the more so as very short and, especially, very long lines are sufficiently rare. Just like Kuzmin, Nel’dixen patterns his verse on a certain length of line, and the longer (or shorter) a line is than the predominant length, the less frequent it is in his work.

One should not think that the restrictions imposed on vers libre lines are necessarily of a “natural” character and are predetermined by the prosody of the language. The free verse in the even-numbered (“fabula”) chapters of Georgij Obolduev’s poem Poetic Review (1931) is exaggeratedly agrammatical and asemantic. Interlinear borders can dissect words, morphemes and syllables: <...> panes in // windows <...>; <...> went to the // pond <...>; <...> the S- // un <...>; <...> I was just in // time <...>. But, despite “unnatural” (in terms of language) and unmotivated (in terms of meaning) division into lines, the length of a line, in Obolduev, is governed by the familiar limitations. Clearly, the free verses of Poetic Review are aligned “by sight”, in accordance with the number of typographical marks (including spaces between words): lines consisting of 23 characters are most frequent, the diapason is from 17 to 32 characters in a line, and the proportion of the most frequent forms, which make up one fourth of the rhythm repertoire (22 to 25 characters) is 62. 7%.

Rhythmic invariability of vers libre lines is present in Kuzmin, in Nel’dixen and in Obolduev. It is another matter, however, that rhythmic limitations in vers libre do not enable us to predict the construction of each following line: we recognize the restrictions post factum, when we have finished reading or analysing the poem. This is what distinguishes free verse among other systems of versification: in vers libre, rhythmic prohibitions bear a mild and implicit character, and their “violation” does not have the appearance of deviating from the metre. Alexandrian Songs contain only one six-stress line (<...> ia vízhu blédno-bagróvyj zakát nad zelénym mórem <...>), but we cannot consider it illegal, just as we could not have considered illegal an even more extended line should it have appeared. Nevertheless, some kind of limitation nearly always exists: intuitively we understand that a line cannot be extended ad infinitum.

This is why it is so important to interpret the experiment in lengthening the poetic line performed by Dmitrij Aleksandroviè Prigov. Metaphorically speaking, his poem “Large is my native land...” (1974) is constructed as a set of “glosses”: the author’s own words are “overwritten” on Lebedev-Kumach’s celebrated song (1936) and constitute multiple insertions in his text. These additions widely extend the length of the line: as compared to normal lines, Prigov’s are more than one hundred times as long, as if the space of verse is likened to the “boundless” expanses of the Motherland. The longest line contains 429 phonetic words, but it could have admitted even more: it is significant that the line is completed by the eloquent i t. d. ‘and so on’. Because of the interpolations nothing remains of the trochaic pentameter of Lebedev-Kumach’s Song about the Motherland. In actual fact, rhyme is also eliminated: many lines are supplemented from the end. In its new “edition” the song has been transformed into vers libre, whose free rhythm ironically corresponds to the motifs of “man’s free breathing”, “free and wide life”: the anacruses and clausulae are not regulated, and the number of stresses in different lines varies from 5 to 429.

One might think that, given such rhythmic peculiarities, one cannot even begin to talk of the isomorphism of lines. But — contrary to expectations — Prigov’s poem is permeated with intra- and intertextual paradigmatic links. Firstly, its opening and concluding words are the same as in Lebedev-Kumach, whose text, in respect of Prigov’s work, plays the same role that metre usually does: it is a matrix which can be filled and which admits variability in the frame of a single invariable. Further, in Prigov, each line of the initial text accumulates homogeneous augmentations, and, in this sense, the lines of the derivative text are isomorphic to each other. Moreover, each augmentation is a kind of elucidation, varying the main theme of the line (for instance: <...> And nobody in the world — neither the Germans, nor the Chinese, nor the Americans, nor the English <...> nor the nations of Africa, nor the nations of Oceania, nor the nations of the Arctic, or the nations of the Antarctic <...> can, // Better than we do, laugh and love people, animals, insects, birds, fish, microbes, viruses, phages, cells, genes, DNA, RNA <...> and so on). The qualified and the qualifier, generalization and enumeration are correlated as an invariable and its variants, which function as the representatives of a single semantic paradigm.

In this way, paradigmatic relations in Prigov’s free verses penetrate inside the line. If a line is very long, then the words and expressions of which it consists enter several microparadigms. The element of the enumeration list which is situated on the boundary between two microparadigms, may, in terms of its semantics, belong to one paradigm, while in terms of its phonetic, morphological, word-formative or syntactic structure, it may belong to the other: <...> nobody <...> can, // Better than we do, laugh and love <...> clyster, condoms, aspirin, streptocid, enteroseptol, Zelenin’s drops, the Lebedev effect, Mendeleev’s law, Einstein’s theory <...> Paradigmaticality of enumeration is sometimes reinforced by clichés and allusions: <...> love <...> Pushkin, Lermontov, Maiakovskij, Gor’kij, Homer, Theocritus <...> Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin <...>

Prigov’s poem indisputably marks the apotheosis of a paradigmatic organization of the text, as it pertains to verse as such. To be sure, no limitations on the length of a line are imposed: the enumeration lists are open and potentially inexhaustible (three of them end in the abbreviation i t. d. ‘and so on’, one ends in i t. p. ‘and the like’, another in i dr. ‘and others’, and yet another in i pr. ‘and so forth’). However, the removal of one type of restriction is compensated for by the appearance of others, allowing the preservation or even reinforcement of the isomorphism which was all but lost.

 



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