Tax and Syn/tax
First, dividing the word ‘syntax’ into its constituent syllables is not for stylistic flourish merely nor is it just a scribal genuflection to a postmodern quirk. One rather wishes to coerce some cumulative synthesis of meaning from the possible accidence in the root ‘syn’- on the one hand and the ‘accident’ in the morpheme and suffix ‘Tax’ and ‘tax’ respectively in their relative proximity, all within an overarching semantic field while discussing how a sentence or line is, or should be, constructed in poetry.
To consider the semantic accretions possible in ‘syn/tax’, one could begin to think of the root, syn- in some multiplicity of ways to help exemplify, but not necessarily prescribe, what a healthy piece of poem should look like. ‘Syntax’, of course is, naturally visible in ‘syn/tax’, and this implies sentence construction within the poem in relation to each other, to the whole poem and as a unit- word order, in short. Someone described “finding the right syntax for a poem” as being “like finding the right light before you take a photograph”. The idea of a photograph is important as we shall see. Furthermore, the syntax of poetry should not be like the syntax of prose as is now more and more the contemporary poetic ‘habit’- which needs curbing. We could also consider the synchronic as juxtaposed against the diachronic in syntactic poetic construction. In that light one needs to look at what the history of syntactical practices was like (i.e. diachronic) and what is it like today (i.e. synchronic). This brings us to a consideration of the question of traditional and modern predilections.
Traditional English poetry explored the full range of English prosody- metre and rhyme in all its variation- sometimes stilted – especially in the light of the changes that have overtaken language and expression with the onset of time: hence the natural arrival of the modernist impulse, which moves closer to the tonalities of contemporary speech and shuns what has become, in diction and syntax, an archaism of the distant past. One would not expect to read a poem beginning ‘thou’, today, certainly, nor a line carrying the whole fusillade of traditional prosody. Sometimes, though, there is a marrying of tradition and modernity. So we could have a modernist free verse in 21st century diction but garlanded with the heroic couplet of the restoration period (as practiced by, for example, Dryden in Absalom and Achitophel or Macflecknoe) or with the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearian sonnet from the Elizabethan period. Some contemporary poets still retain past forms, such as the sonnet, today.
After historical upheavals like colonialism and decolonisation and the contemporary postcolonial moment, the equation becomes more complex. We have postcolonial poets from the former English colonies, who have inherited the linguistics burden of English and work in that language. Traumatic enough as that history is, the reality is that the postcolonial poet who dips richly into English and his own native literary store-be it written or oral-is very rich indeed in the range of the sources and examples to borrow from. Oral literature in Africa for example, not to talk of India- with its ancient verdic tradition, has the verbal equivalencies of what we call prosody within poetry in English; or other poetic conceits. As such the postcolonial is richer in his or her hybridity. Of course it is not a simple, problem-free hybridity but this is not a place to delve into the cultural politics of acquired language.
The extents to which such postcolonial poets scour the archives of native and English traditions are varied depending on the poet. Usually, linguistic appropriation results in the use of English diction with the tonality of the native tongue overlaid upon it to a greater or lesser degree, and to multifarious rhythmical effects, depending on which poet is in question. We have examples in the earlier work of Derek Walcott up till Omeros, in Niyi Osundare’s homespun tonal ranges or Tanure Ojaide’s ululating Urhobo accent, in Pius Adesanmi’s incantatory chant in the Wayfarer and other Poems. There are those African poets like Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka, whose tonalities are more steeped in the rhythms of classical English prosody, although shorn of its usual cumbersome metre; that is, they are modernist in the usual sense of the word. The moral, as insinuated in T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, is that the ‘individual poet’ has to find a metrical, and syntactical- even lyrical- niche compatible with, and useful to, his own talents within the provisions of tradition and then progress from there. The reluctance to look back upon tradition is where the contemporary avant-garde stumbles. The ‘newness’ that it seeks to propose is not real and suffers from a refusal to borrow enough as prop before discarding the scaffoldings of tradition.
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #43 - June 2006. ISSN 1479-425X
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002. Editor: Amatoritsero Ede