Stylistics and grief

[content note: death, especially of loved ones. Descriptions of guts, blood and assorted viscera)

Last term I was teaching a literary linguistics module. Literary linguistics, or Stylistics, basically uses concepts and frameworks drawn from linguistics – so stuff about everything from phonology (sounds) to grammar to lexicology to pragmatics – to make sense of (usually, but not always) literary texts. I went to the Dark Side of linguistics pretty early in my undergraduate career because I adored nerding out over language being used to do stuff and create relationships and manipulate people and summon ideas into being. However, I’ve been an avid reader since I was a small child – I once fell down an entire flight of stairs in an ill-fated attempt to combine reading and walking, and was more cross at losing my place than worried about the potential for injury – and it’s rare that I don’t have at least one book on the go. Stylistics is appealing because it’s very text and evidence based, and ultimately I was on the Dark Side of empiricism before I even got to university.

Teaching Stylistics was also a superb opportunity to immerse myself in something new. Both my PhD supervisor and partner work with corpus approaches to literary texts so I’ve come across a lot of it by osmosis even if I don’t research it myself. It was also a joy to learn alongside my very engaged and interested students. One session introduced students to cloze procedure texts which are basically a way of testing people’s mental associations of words – their internal sense of what words go with which. We might consider these their lexical primings or their internal sense of collocations, and for that reason I like contrasting this approach with corpus linguistics.

One of the poems we used was an extract of W H Auden’s ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ with the following gaps:

He ________ in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the ________ almost deserted.
And snow _________ the public statues;
The _______ sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What _______ we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The _______ ran on through evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the ________quays;
By mourning tongues
The _______ of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and ________;
The provinces of his mind revolted,
The ______ of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the _______,
The current of his feeling failed; he _______ his admirers.

Now he is _______ among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of _______
And be punished under a foreign code of ________.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the _____ of the living

This was a multiple choice cloze procedure text so they had four word options for each slot, they spent some time choosing which word they thought fit best into the gaps, then I showed them the whole poem and we discussed it.

Their choices included things like “An afternoon of nurses and doctors“, “a foreign code of conduct” and “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. They were quite surprised when I showed them the actual poem and the weird, unexpected things it does with words.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) suggests that nurses and should occur with words like doctors, physicians, midwives, patients, orderlies, pharmacists and therapists – people working in medicine or who we may expect to see in a hospital or GP surgery. There are also a few occurrences of other professions, such as teachers and engineers. My students clearly had an internal sense of this collocation and their choice reflected their expectations. However, the poem doesn’t give us what we expect. “An afternoon of nurses and rumours” juxtaposes the concrete noun “nurses” with the abstract noun “rumours”. Reading it is a bit of a jolt, a bit of wrongness.

Again, the “guts of the living” doesn’t give us what we’d expect. The poem is contemplating the afterlife of the poet and where his words live on. We would probably expect this gap to say something about existence beyond the body; perhaps, as my students predicted, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. We expect the missing word to reflect the language of something metaphysical and elevated. Instead, the poem gives us this very earthy noun guts, derived from the Anglo-Saxon guttas.

Gut can be used both metaphorically and literally. Its metaphorical uses describe emotions, particularly bravery and intuition: “they had the guts to put up a sign”, “We just followed our guts” or “he had the nerve and guts and discipline”. When it’s used literally, it’s used to describe a really immediate physicality of intestines and viscera: “The fly and the smell of guts and urine made me want to puke”, “Its guts had been pulled out and strewn across the dirt, no longer wet and glistening”, “these bacteria thrive (or don’t) in our guts” (again, all examples are taken from the Corpus of Contemporary American English). The rest of the poem doesn’t really talk about the actual process of death but instead slightly dodges it; it’s in this line that we are confronted with bodies and physicality and vulnerability.

I think there’s a tension in this poem between our expectations of what to think and feel and say in the event of death, and the sense of bewilderment and confusion and being wrong-footed. We know what we ought to be able to expect: nurses and doctors, codes of conduct, souls. We may try to find solace in that ritual. And yet we feel loss and lost: the rules and knowledge we could predict are no longer there. Someone dear to us is no longer there. The words we expect to come do not come, and something strange and unfamiliar and disconcerting are in their place.