P I N D A R ' S

H O M E R : 2
Nada's thoughtful comments of Friday make me think another look at Nagy's argument is called for--in particular the specialized distinction between SONG and song which in the interest of time and space I tried to pass over. It's at the heart of his thesis, though, so let me double back and do it again. The main point is that SONG is essentially defined not in terms of its formal characteristics (rhythm, melody etc.), but "the simple fact of its actual markedness or distinctness from everyday speech"(34). In other words, SONG isn't per se about "singing": "Undifferentiated SONG as opposed to speech can be imagined as having features that ranged all the way from what we see in differentiated song to what we see in poetry. Thus, for example, SONG in any given society may or may not require melody"(36). Think of SONG as a ritual simulacrum of speech. It's important to remember that the subsequent separation of SONG into poetry and song which Nagy outlines is particular to the ancient Greek case--and yet this will hardly deprive it of interest to the modern poet:

"From the standpoint of the Greek language, what potentially sets SONG apart from speech is a differentiation in patterns of duration/intensity (eventually rhythm) and pitch (eventually melody). In a later stage of development what sets song apart from poetry is a further differentiation on the level of pitch (melody), so that song is plus melody while poetry is minus melody or reduced melody"(34-5). The clearest evidence for this idea is drawn from Athenian tragedy, where "the opposition between sung or lyric meters on one hand and the spoken iambic trimeter on the other hand imitated the real-life opposition of SONG on the one hand, with its ritual context, and speech on the other, with its nonritual context. The imitation is effective: poetry actually seems closer than song to speech in that it does not have the same degree of specialized patterning in melody.... And yet, if indeed poetry is to be derived from SONG, it is really one step further removed from speech"(45).

Nagy postulates a later separation within poetry along the same lines of what divided (reduced melody) poetry from the various types of (enhanced melody) song. The result is the emergence of prose, characterized as a rhythm-reduced counterpart to the various meters and forms of poetry: "[W]hile song is specialized by retaining and refining melody from SONG, poetry is specialized by detaching melody from SONG, and prose is specialized by at least partially detaching rhythm from poetry"(47). And so prose comes to usurp recitative poetry's function as the default medium for representing non-ritual speech, and poetry becomes ever more obsolete and fun, as seen in the graph on p. 46:

Here again I'm skipping over an awful lot, mainly the question of writing--a glaring omission, in light of the received idea that prose emerges only after the development of writing into a viable performance medium of its own. However, careful consideration of the evidence suggests that rhythm-reduced prose arose as an oral performance medium, more or less independently of writing. An oral prose tradition stretching back at least as far as the 6th c. BCE is indicated by the beast-fables of Aesop--not a frivolous example in the least, once you hear Leslie Kurke's talks on early Greek prose. All this is to recommend caution in mapping Nagy's argument onto Foucault's, which is obviously what I'm trying to do here on The Ingredient. In fact I still feel pretty good about equating the primordial separation of SONG from speech with the primordial erection of a mirror to infinity against the black wall of death. But the subsequent stages of Nagy's archaic progression correspond neither to the development of writing nor to much of anything in "Language to Infinity." Foucault also will tell of a secondary transformation in "the work of language," inaugurating "an uncanny process of amplification in which our language is today lodged and hidden." Even more remote from the advent of writing, this transformation happens to be made contemporary with the advent of the Gothic novel: "It seems to me that a change was produced in the relationship of language to its indefinite repetition at the end of the eighteenth century--nearly coinciding with the moment in which works of language became what they are now for us, that is literature."

More soon on this transformation, which may just guide us back to the Ann Radcliffe novel (Romance of the Forest, 1791) this whole outburst was ostensibly about.


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