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  • Thinking Some More about Narrative in Poetry:A Brief Reply to Bruce Heiden
  • Brian McHale (bio)

“What a service to poetry it might be to steal story away from the novel & give it back to rhythm & sound, give it back to the line.”

—Alice Notley, “Homer’s Art” (1988)

My friend and colleague Bruce Heiden and I disagree on fewer matters than he seems to think we do, or in any case our respective positions can often be reconciled; but where we do genuinely disagree, we seem to disagree profoundly.

Heiden thinks that analyzing verse in terms of the interruptions that lineation, stanza breaks, etc., introduce in the flow of language—as I propose to do in “Beginning to Think about Narrative in Poetry”—is misguided. In his view, versification produces not interruption but combination and continuity: “phrases are modules of combination, and phrase-boundaries are not ‘breaks’ but junctures where phrases connect. … Verses are rotations, and every end is another beginning.” I concede that I favored the model of interruption in describing the segmentivity of verse precisely because it is somewhat counterintuitive, and so potentially (I hoped) illuminating. [End Page 284] Obviously, verse continues—from one metrical unit to the next, from one line to the next, from one stanza to the next, and so on. It does seem to me, however, that far from being incompatible, these two approaches to verse—as segments divided by pauses vs. segments joined at junctures—are strictly complementary: two ways of capturing the same phenomenon, which is both continuous and discontinuous, separated and joined. Looked at one way, verse is segmented; looked at another, it continues. (Question: Is light made up of particles or waves? Answer: Yes.) The ongoing flow of verse is interrupted (if only momentarily) at the end of a segment, but that interruption is immediately overcome. Verse induces us to lean forward in anticipation of the completion of the pattern, or its repetition (the next foot, the next line, etc.), on the other side of the break. Keying on one or the other—on the forward lean, or on the break that intervenes—no doubt yields different emphases, different insights, but I don’t see how one excludes or contradicts the other.

Heiden also thinks that the counterpointing of verse segments and syntactical units—or what I called (cribbing from John Shoptaw) countermeasurement—is relatively anomalous. It is, rather, the coincidence of verse units with syntactical units, the reinforcement of syntax by versification, that is (in his words) “typical,” “usual,” and “normal.” No doubt he is right about this, if we take the broad historical view (which, as a classicist, he is bound to do): more poetry, in more traditions, exhibits convergence or concord of verse and syntax than divergence or counterpoint between them. But Heiden seems to imply that, once we have identified what is “normal” or “typical,” there is nothing of interest left to say about variation in poetic practice—as though identifying the norm foreclosed any further inquiry, instead of (as I believe it does) establishing a baseline or platform from which further inquiry might be launched. For one thing, the terms “typical” and “normal” imply a range of more or less acceptable variation, suggesting a possible program of research into the relative concord or discord of verse and syntax across periods, languages, cultures, genres, schools, even among individual poets (e.g., enjambment in Milton vs. his predecessors and successors) or across the same poet’s career (e.g., early vs. late blank verse in Shakespeare). Secondly, violations of norms, in versification as in anything else, are intrinsically interesting and potentially revealing, prompting us to ask, when does verse counterpoint instead of reinforce syntax, under what circumstances, for what purposes, with what effects, etc.?

In any case, I introduced Shoptaw’s notion of countermeasurement in order to capture the relationship between verse segments and units of narrative analysis, which don’t always coincide with syntactical units. Rather, narrative segments—events, sequences, shifts of voice and focalization, shifts among narrative levels, etc.—are typically abstracted or reconstructed from actual textual segments, tending to straddle syntactical units, or to subsume multiple syntactical units; think of Barthes’s (in...


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