MLA Conference 2016, Austin

Sessions for Linguistics and Literature Forum: Abstracts

Session 1. Lexical and Syntactic Experimentation in Postmodernist Literature

Presider: Billy Clark, Middlesex Univ.

Presenter 1: Marina Gorlach, Metropolitan State University of Denver

Title: "Lexical Experimentation, Word Systems, and Code-Switching in Nabokov’s Pnin"

This paper presents a linguistic analysis of the word systems in Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, their implications and applications, as well as their role in conveying the message of the text. By ‘word system’ we understand a matrix of words within a spoken or written text with a common denominator which may be phonological, lexical, syntactic, or associative.   

The paper is based on a semiotic theoretical and methodological approach, which treats text as a multilayered and multidimensional structure, where all structural systems – phonological, lexical, syntactic, semantic - are interrelated. The analysis focuses on the non-arbitrary choice of linguistic forms by the author as a means of achieving textual cohesion. The non-random distribution of such forms may be viewed as a combination of the conscious and subconscious, which is greater than the sum total of the linguistic signs used. It is synergetically intensified and multiplied by the consistent application of the carefully selected forms in close-knit systems.

The text in focus is Nabokov’s Pnin – a partially autobiographical novel drawing on Nabokov’s experience at American universities, whose genre can be identified as college satire. Timofey Pnin, the novel’s protagonist, is an assistant professor of Russian at fictional Waindell College, which bears close resemblance to Wellesley College where Nabokov himself taught Russian. The narrative revolves around Pnin’s academic life with its various tragicomic misfortunes and mishaps while he is adjusting to American life and language.

Nabokov writes with a remarkable blend of realism and fantasy, the ranging humor of delightedly observed eccentricities in both Pnin and himself. Pnin is a hilarious mix: he is arrogant and humble, jubilant and bumbling, practical and absent-minded. The novel represents the looking-glass literature by émigrés about émigrés in their sadly compartmented exile. 

The message of the text is conveyed via an array of word systems based on the marked distribution of phonological and lexical forms, conceptual and associative fields, metaphoric systems, and syntactic strategies. The paper analyzes the phonological systems mocking Pnin’s Russian accent, the systematic use of hyphenated modifiers and complex appositives, metaphoric systems based on sarcasm, and the use of the non-English word order in portraying Pnin, showing how their combined effect creates textual coherence and becomes a determining factor in constructing the message.



1.      Aphek, E., Tobin, Y. Word systems in modern Hebrew: implications and applications. E. J. Brill: Leiden and New York, 1988.

2.      Barabtarlo, Gennady: Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov's Pnin. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1989

3.      Barabtarlo, Gennady. "A Resolved Discord (Pnin)," Zembla, June 7, 2001. (Originally appeared in the author's Aerial View: Essays on Nabokov's Art and Metaphysics [New York: Peter Lang, 1993].)

4.      Bouchet, Marie C. “Migrations of Signifiers in Lolita and Pnin, or The Two Faces of Vladimir Nabokov’s Exile”, in Exils, migrations, créations, M. Gibault (éd.), Paris : Indigo, 2008.


Presenter 2: Nicholas Myklebust, Regis University 

Title: “‘You Private Person’: Pronominal Self-Portraiture in John Ashbery’s ‘The New Spirit’”

Since the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror in 1975, critics have read John Ashbery’s signature “floating” pronouns in light of the crisis poem paradigm (Lehman 1980; Wolf 1980; Stamelman 1984; Vendler 1985; Looper 1992; Shoptaw 1994). The failure of pronouns to refer properly to their antecedents triggers a crisis of representation in which the poet “refuses the object,” consistently slipping it into the textual margin in order to lure readers into a hermeneutic circle that traps them in a “chronicle of its own making” (Lehman 1999). This mannerist technique evacuates the person from the painting, leaving only a vestige of that reference in the pronoun set adrift without an antecedent (Kalstone 1977; Sokolsky 1985; Edelman 1986; Leckie 1992).

This paper uses Binding Theory to map the syntactic strategies that constrain Ashbery’s experiments in so-called “vacuous referencing.” Returning to “The New Spirit” (Three Poems 1973), the poet’s first sustained work in this style, I find, in contrast to crisis-paradigm readings, that Ashbery’s use of vacuous referencing serves as a critique of mannerist modes of representation that distort “a desire to communicate a sense of space” (Ashbery 1964) into an aesthetic in which, as the speaker of “Grand Galop” comments, “all things seem mention of themselves” and yet “the names we stole don’t remove us.” In “The New Spirit” Ashbery violates locality constraints so that proper binding domains do not apply, stripping pronouns of their pronominal feature and rendering them de facto R-expressions. The result is a powerfully foregrounded reference to the absence of persons, a gesture toward a world beyond the mannerist’s margin where the new spirit of open space, of substantive self-portrait, is found in an attention to the nuance of waiting, to objects simultaneously emerging and receding—to pronouns in search of pronominals.

Presenter 3: Linda Pillière, Aix-Marseille Université

Title: “Making Language Stutter : A Deleuzian Reading of Christine Brooke-Rose’s Style”

This paper will address how Christine Brooke-Rose challenges traditional syntax in her novels.


Christine Brooke-Rose’s fiction is characterized by her experiments with language. Critics have drawn attention to “the dazzling virtuosity of the linguistic play that is her signature” (Friedman 1993) and the fact that her novels are more about language than plot or character. Paradoxically, this style has been labelled both as fragmentary and as fluid (Del Sapio Garbero 1994: 193). While some critics comment on the flowing syntax of Brooke-Rose’s novels, the way she “dissolves structure” (Malina 2002) and the way the sentences glide, others focus on how her texts appear to be a series of repeated fragments (Schopohl 2008). By focussing on the various linguistic strategies employed by Brooke-Rose in her fiction, this paper will show how both these effects are paradoxically created.  In so doing I will be drawing on the concept of style that figures prominently in the work of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. According to Deleuze, literature creates a new language within language, a foreign language, thus making a writer a stutterer within his own language.  I will argue that this approach can offer valuable insights into understanding how Brooke-Rose’s syntax functions. Rather than communicating meaning, stuttering language attracts attention to its very nature, its sounds, its physical aspect, challenging the idea that syntax is an orderly, linear, hierarchical combination of propositions and creating instead myriad bifurcations.


Session 2. Syntax and Poetry

Presider: Donald Hardy, University of Nevada, Reno

Presenter 1: Davide Castiglione, University of Nottingham

Title: “A Parsing-Proof Whole: Susan Howe’s Experimental Syntax and Its Processing Implications”

It has long been acknowledged that syntactic violations in poetry are central to the difficulty of a poetic text (e.g. Fowler 1971, Fois-Kaschel 2002, Burke 2007, Thoms 2008). However, for all its merits, most of the work carried out so far tends either to be more concerned with linguistic theory than with literary effects (i.e. the generativist tradition); or, conversely, it treats syntactic violations as ancillary elements of broader contextual concerns (i.e. literary criticism). It should be the business of stylistics to map the uncharted territory in between these two approaches, explaining syntactic effects at a textual level. Yet, when it comes to syntax, most work in stylistics confines itself to a few canonical authors (notably Dylan Thomas and E.E. Cummings) whilst ignoring later developments of experimental writing (e.g. John Ashbery, Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein).

The present paper aims to widen the purview of poetic texts open to stylistic scrutiny as well as to make subtler predictions regarding the relationship between types of syntactic phenomena and resulting literary and processing effects. In particular, I show how different stylistic strategies (e.g. the blurring of constituency, syntactic ambiguity, the avoidance of main verbs) lead to very different readerly responses. My main case study is Susan Howe’s experimental poetry, whose ‘incomplete statements’ (Middleton 2010: 637) and ‘asyntactic writing’ (Quartermain 1992: 184) have called for extensive critical commentaries. I analyse the blurring of word classes and functions in a poem from the collection Bed Hangings (2001), leading to multiple garden paths and to a posited reading that de-emphasizes syntactic relations in favour of a coarse semantic processing guided by freestanding nouns and adjectives. I conclude by showing empirically that these parsing difficulties are reflected in reading times that are much longer than those for other poems with more moderate syntactic disruptions.

Presenter 2: Michael Huffmaster, University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez

Title: “Syntactic Deviation in a Foreign Tongue”

Poets achieve poetic effect through various kinds of deviation from linguistic convention. But poetic effect, though afforded by authorial production, is ultimately a matter of reader response. Readers must know a convention to be able to recognize deviation from it in order for poetic effect to happen. This presents a special challenge for readers of poetry in a foreign language. They may well understand every word of a poem and be able more or less accurately to summarize its propositional content but nevertheless fail to appreciate the kinds of aesthetic meaning it might afford through deviation from conventions. And syntactic deviation may be especially hard to discern among already unfamiliar structures. This circumstance, I argue, presents a unique opportunity for the use of poetry in the foreign language classroom. It can support the traditional aims of communicative pedagogy by highlighting and reinforcing conventional syntax to promote proficiency, while also serving the broader goals of liberal education by fostering critical and divergent thinking.

Based on stylistic analyses of four German poems that employ syntactic deviation to achieve particular aesthetic effects (“Zeitsätze,” Rudolph Otto Wiemer; “worte sind schatten,” eugen gomringer; “weil sie mit ihm geschlafen hat,” ernst eggimann; “halte ich meinen rand,” Manfred Bosch), I demonstrate how poetry in the foreign language classroom can be of inordinate educational value. In the context of an appropriate pedagogy informed by stylistics, it can raise critical awareness of the conditional nature of all conventions (linguistic or otherwise), knowledge essential for educated citizens in a functional and thriving democracy. Moreover, scrutinizing specific instances of syntactic deviation in foreign-language poems provides unique practice in learning and thinking in new categories, while at the same time transcending them. Such experience cultivates divergent, creative thinking, a skill increasingly vital in today’s ever-changing, globalized world.

Presenter 3: Calista McRae, Harvard University

Title: “Parsing The Dream Songs

Although John Berryman’s inversions are the most extravagant of any 20th-century poet, and though Berryman owned two copies of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, his grammar has received little close attention. His flamboyant sentences—e.g. the delayed glint of “Golden, whilst your frozen daiquiris / whir at midnight, gleams on you his fur / & silky & black” from Dream Song 16—have gone underanalyzed. For the most part, Berryman’s wildness is sketched as completely devoid of method and rationale, the “crazy sounds” (Song 271) of someone with no restraint.

This talk looks more systematically at The Dream Songs’ grammar, and especially at its extremes. Although we think of The Dream Songs as tumultuous, its language is also full of ostentatiously complicated subordinate clauses. The intricacies of the grammar require considerable foresight, in which the speaker must differentiate relations between numerous parts of speech. Such moments of seeming logic and formality, especially when accompanied by archaic grammatical junctures (such as therewith or whereat), create moments of pointed orderliness amid the poem’s general atmosphere of misrule.

Beyond implying reasoning and forethought—and, often, a little grandiloquence—what do such ornate grammatical structures do for this quintessentially confessional poet, known for “[c]rumpling a syntax at a sudden need,” as he puts it in Sonnet 47? When parataxis jostles against hypotaxis, or when order gives way to fragments, what is the effect on The Dream Songs, and what can Berryman’s syntactic extremes tell us about his project?