- Sense-Making Sound:Agamben, Longenbach, and the Question of Poetic Meaning
In The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, Giorgio Agamben devotes several pages to a discussion of what makes poetry different from prose. His answer to the question may be fairly predictable to anyone who has an interest in poetics: that “poetry lives only in the tension and difference (and hence also in the virtual interference) between sound and sense, between the semiotic sphere and the semantic sphere.”1 “Poetry” will be the name given to the discourse in which the opposition between sound and sense is possible, while “prose” will be the name for the discourse in which the opposition between the two cannot take place. And it is in “enjambed” lines that the disjunction between sound and sense is most tangibly and dramatically present.
Agamben here follows the definition of enjambment given by Nicolo Tibino: that “it often happens that the rhyme ends without the meaning of the sentence having been complete” (EP, p. 110). When one line of verse runs over into the next without pause or punctuation, the end-rhyme, no less than the caesura, makes manifest “an antagonism between sound and sense by virtue of the noncorrespondence between homophony and meaning” (EP, pp. 110–11). For Agamben, this schism (or rather, undecidability) between sound and sense marked by the [End Page 276] possibility of enjambment is understood to constitute the core of “the poem’s very identity” (EP, p. 113), which makes it possible for us to distinguish poetry from prose.
Agamben, however, aims to suggest not merely that poetry is the being that dwells in that schism, but rather that poetry is the being that avoids and overcomes that schism in the end. It is precisely because, at any rate, the poem must necessarily come to an end; indeed, when the poem ends, the enjambment ends along with it, so that at the end of the poem “the element of sound” is irresistibly incorporated into “the very lap of sense” (EP, p. 112). “There can be,” in other words, “no opposition between a metrical limit and a semantic limit” at the very moment in which the poem ends, since “there can be no enjambment in the final verse of a poem” (EP, p. 112). And, more or less provocatively, Agamben goes on to argue that “if poetry is defined precisely by the possibility of enjambment, it follows that the last verse of a poem is not a verse” (EP, p. 112), by which he means that the final verse is inevitably destined to blur the line between poetry and prose, or, more properly, that the end of the poem presumably signals the end—the death—of the poem. (This is why he raises the following question: “Does this mean that the last verse trespasses into prose?”)
Thus, the end of the poem implies for Agamben a poetic impossibility, a loss of poetic identity, by way of “the exact coincidence of sound and sense” (EP, p. 113). Meanwhile, the only way to escape such a catastrophe and to keep poetry alive is to delay the ending perpetually, or, as Dante does, through the use of “unrelated rhymes,” to make the poem “fall by once again marking the opposition between the semiotic and the semantic, just as sound seems forever consigned to sense and sense returned forever to sound” (EP, p. 115).
James Longenbach, although he never goes so far as to allude to the death of the poem, a radical blurring of the boundary between poetry and prose, makes an argument very similar to Agamben’s. In The Art of the Poetic Line, by focusing on the relationship between syntax (or sentence) and line, he also attempts to account for the poetic effects of enjambment in poetry in general. According to Longenbach, it is at the very moment when the lines are enjambed, or, more precisely, when the lines “end while the syntax keeps going,” thus increasing the tension between syntax and line within the longer sentences, that the reader can hear “the rising passion” of the poet’s voice.2 His point here is that the poet...