Counting and the heart of a poem

At the MLA conference in January, in a roundtable session entitled “Rhythm and Rhyme,” the poet-critic Simon Jarvis offered the following general observation: “Counting can often take us quite quickly into the heart of a poem.” Jarvis titled his paper “In Defense of Numbers,” with a pun on the historical meaning of ‘numbers’ (‘verses of poetry’).

In my own critical practice, I find Jarvis’s observation to be profoundly true, and in a way that often goes unremarked in the larger conversations about the study of poetry. I thought I would record some of my reactions to Jarvis’s statement here, with examples drawn from my own research on medieval English verse. This post can then function as a summary of my modes of investigation as well as a medievalist Defense of Numbers.

My research into medieval English meters involves a lot of counting. First, I count in order to define a study corpus. The distinction between alliterative and non-alliterative Middle English poetry, for example, is crucial to my research program. One way to appreciate the distinction is to read a list of alliterative and non-alliterative poems generated by a certain set of criteria. Counting is a way to understand what counts in a given critical paradigm.

Second, I count in order to define a research problem. For example, I might search through the text of Piers Plowman B for lines ending in the word gold. (Hooray for concordances.) I might want to make such a search because the rules of Middle English alliterative meter, as these are currently understood, prohibit monosyllabic words like gold from appearing at the end of the line. (And of course meter is itself another form of counting.)

Third, I count the attributes of a given dataset. For example, the quantity, distribution, grammatical structure, and poetic context of the lines ending in gold in Piers Plowman B might all be relevant to their interpretation. This stage of research generally involves Excel spreadsheets with multiple columns.

Finally, counting in poetry almost always involves discounting: whatever interpretation or explanation I offer for lines ending in monosyllables in Piers Plowman B, it will likely cover some but not all of the verses in the dataset. I think this might be the phenomenon that Jarvis most had in mind when he wrote that “counting can often take us quite quickly into the heart of a poem.” As soon as one recognizes multiple instantiations of a poetic form pointing to contradictory critical conclusions, one has begun the work of understanding a poem as a poem.

It seems to me there are two critical objections to counting-as-interpretation that successful counting must answer. From the right, counting appears less as an interpretive process than as an objective truth discovery mechanism. Adopting the language and rhetoric of the hard sciences, certain strands of philology tend to view data as given information that must be carefully counted, after which time the truth becomes apparent to all reasonable observers. This sort of methodology tends to underestimate the extent to which critical paradigms serve to create ‘the data’ by shaping the questions we ask of available evidence. Saying this need not amount to solipsism or relativism, as the work of Thomas Kuhn shows clearly.

From the left, counting comes under fire as scientism or solutionism, the quantification of qualitative phenomena. Adopting the language and rhetoric of French philosophy, certain strands of poststructuralism tend to regard statistics in general with suspicion. This sort of methodology tends to emphasize the uniqueness and irreducible historicity of each individual poetic text. And yet counting need not imply an escape from the individual poetic text as such. On the contrary, “counting can often take us quite quickly into the heart of a poem.”

What the empiricist and poststructuralist objections share is the assumption that counting should be understood as an inductive process involving little or no subjective self-reflection. For the empiricists, this is what is so valuable about counting; for the poststructuralists, this is why counting is always suspect.

Of the two challenges to counting as a vehicle for transporting oneself into the heart of a poem, the poststructuralist critique is the more fundamental. In modern English departments, it is also the more prevalent. This is, I presume, why Jarvis styled his paper a Defense of Numbers (rather than, say, an Exposition of Critically Aware Counting). Yet I would like to raise one final caution about poststructuralist critiques that have supposedly done away with previously important theoretical concepts in the study of poetry (such as ‘foot’ or ‘volta’ or ‘lyric’). The kind of critical practice that ought to please structuralists and poststructuralists alike (indeed, the kind of critical practice that the structuralists always intended: see Culler’s Structuralist Poetics) is one that engages in counting but also remains aware of its limitations. Counting can often take us quite quickly into the heart of a poem, but to understand where we are when we get there, scholars must appreciate counting as an occasion for critical reflection.

Postscript: It turns out there are five lines ending in gold in Piers Plowman B. Two primary types of interpretation recommend themselves. On the one hand, one might view these five verses as asystematic, that is, nonconformant with general metrical principles. The reasons for asystematic verses might be historical (such verses were once conformant but have become nonconformant as a result of ongoing metrical evolution) or perceptual (such verses express a poet’s or scribe’s overgeneralization of metrical principles). In favor of this interpretation is the rarity of such lines: gold appears at line end in Piers Plowman in only five of its 22 occurrences in the poem, or a total of 0.07% of all lines in Piers Plowman (more counting). On the other hand, one might seek to salvage these verses as metrically systematic. For example, all five instances of gold at line end in Piers Plowman B are the objects of prepositions: while inflectional –e‘s, inherited from Old English case usages, are not generally counted in modern scansion of Middle English alliterative meter, the example of gold might be a reason to count at least some of them. In favor of this interpretation is the spelling of gold: in all five cases, gold is spelled golde in several manuscripts, even though it is spelled without –e in normal scribal practice. Both of these possible explanations, negative and positive, would teach us something important about the historical poetic practices in which William Langland and his audience engaged.


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