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An excrescence, an excess, a surplus, a bonus—one which literature, as opposed to other forms of writing, is slow to give up, and thus slows reading to reinstate.

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The marginalization of the audible in Western text culture has, so we begin to see with Augustine, a history in its own right, not just a set of cognitive implications. Involved crucially here, within the broader transition from oral to written culture, is the specific history of word units coming into their own as scriptive rather than just vocal entities. Lexical juncture was an oral phenomenon, that is, well before a textual one, as can be seen from the first frontispiece, showing a typical Latin manuscript without marked word. To speak of this by way of such a theoretical anachronism only highlights what we might call a cognitive reversion incident to poetic language in the subsequent epoch of print rather than early manuscript culture.

The diachronic ground gained in the medieval introduction of word division into script is ground always lost again, a grounding giving way, in the synchronic flux of any evocalized reading.

Such reading thus generates a kind of metahistorical backsliding from word to word. In encounters with the texts of Shakespeare or Joyce, phonemic reading constitutes at times a relapse to the primitive status of a writing which, as it were, gave the decipherer no break. Phonemic reading—reading as we inevitably read—thus undoes that same economy of scriptive demarcation which writing, in imitation of vocal inflection, was only gradually to develop.

Phonemic reading might thus be said to replay, if not the birth of modern consciousness in something like Hegel's sense of the inward articulation of mind, then the birth of its localized correlative in a private, an inner, an asocial reading. In a written text, as it is augmented and recontoured by silent reading, we descend into the origins of the reading activity as we know it.


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From late antiquity through the early to late medieval period, the oral processing, if not delivery, of texts eventually metamorphosed into silent reading, with the parallel shift from composition by dictation, or self-dictation, to composition by writing. In the present state of civilization, ontogeny now recapitulates phylogeny, with each child or preliterate reader being tutored in what the culture had once to discover for itself: the liberating pace and privacy of silent reading, as historically facilitated by the innovation of marked lexical borders.


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Transformed at the same period in the Middle Ages, too, was the representation of reading in the visual arts, its earlier iconography having frequently included the pictorial trope of a dove hovering at the ear of a reader, suggesting audible voicing. It is hard to overestimate the contribution of textual word division to such historical change.

In this light, those cross-lexical slippages actuated, whether intentionally or not, by a later literary writing generate an aural ambiguity that does indeed return writing to the condition of orality without the predetermined inflections of public oratory or private vocalization.

Scholarship on the scribal tradition, as a matter of fact, often instances errors of transcription which have the form, if not the force, of poetic transformation. As one would expect, running words together without breaks runs the continuous risk of "assimilative" misreading. Discussing the career of Chrysanthus after his sudden death, one of Petronius's speakers in the Satyricon says "Quid habet quod queratur?

Ab asse crevit," given by the Loeb translation as "What. He started with twopence" the "as" a basic unit of monetary measure. At a late point in its manuscript history, this speech was anachronistically transformed by a Latin scribe to "Quid habet quod queratur? Whether or not this ecclesiastic imposition on the Roman text is taken as a kind of direct dictation from the scribe's unconscious, its medium is still the shifting phonemic base of language.

It is this very basis in the phonetic alphabet—especially given the fact that scribes regularly mumbled the undivided words out loud to aid in differentiating them—which permits the displacements that lead to junctural ambiguity. Another "classic" example of scribal error, combined again of ecclesiastic transformation and syllabic malformation, happens to occur later in this same epic by Petronius.

A curse is being delivered, a promise of sure vengeance—even "though you may have a gold beard like a god" "barbam aureum habeas" [chap. This misprision may have occurred, commentary suggests, because of the preceding s at the end of the "habeas," inducing the "dittography" of a false liaison. The point is finally that even when word breaks were introduced into the manuscript tradition and reading went internal, its operations under cover of silence, there remains a sense in which private text production is always a response to writing as "interpreted" by voicing. Writing is received first by the retina and then "copied," reconstituted as language, along the palpable surfaces of the vocal apparatus, however much inhibited by silence—and well before any secondary graphic recording that might follow.

Reading is thus a transcoding, if not a transcription, of the graphic into the alphabetic, the scriptive into the morphophonemic—and all the while, of course, the linear into the syntagmatic. By speaking out loud in order to facilitate his graphic replications, the scribe merely ritualizes that detour through "reproduction" at the root of all reading. In view of the unsteady link between the phonotext and its graphic determinants, the scribal epoch and the post-Guttenberg computer age enjoy at least one point of near—and illustrative—convergence. Those collaborative.

Without the typewriter's mechanical interposition of the impressed page between the moment of input and the legible text, the fluid "screen" of one's thoughts is open to continual and virtually instantaneous self-revision. What we see on the computer's display panel is a cursor speeding along just fractionally ahead of the words we think—and think we are finished with.

Precisely because such textual production is more completely at our "disposal" than any set of typed lines, its momentum remains at the perpetual mercy of a spacing that can lop and fob off a stray grapheme, make a word by breaking another, or, for instance, where "a void" is meant, "avoid" it by nudging forward the gap. In continual play is the cursor as "pace bar" sparring with a space bar for the disposition of the text. Letter by letter, the incremental articulation of words in syntagmatic sequence can, therefore, in their electronic manifestation, activate a felt relativism of word division that bears closest comparison, outside of technology, to the work of the inner ear in reading—for which of course "word processing" might also serve as another name.

To summarize these curious intersections of philology, technology, and the physiology of reception: in the modern encounter with texts, to read phonemically is to be reminded of the historical "necessity" of word breaks by the momentary chaos of their suspension or displacement. In this sense, the contingencies of computer "writing" can serve to visualize, precisely because they do not stabilize, the fluxions of such reading—of reading as such.

With the history of word division in mind, to evocalize a text is therefore to travel a major cultural advance in reverse, and to do so in the private space, the lag or slack, between the scripted demarcations of a text and its aural processing. The perpetual risk of ambiguity being introduced into the system, however, since it would not be scriptive, hence visible, does not, as it did for the medieval scribe, so much require a deceleration in reading speed as incur an inevitable oscillation in the read field of wordplay. Oscillation: another word, at times, for disturbance, dysfunction.

From Hegel's phenomenology of mind to this somatic phenomenality of reading is a leap for which a quintessentially modernist passage from Virginia Woolf should provide some mediating intuition.

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With its unique struggle of mind against body, sickbed reading even to oneself struck Woolf as a rather astonishing reversion to the temporality of sound production, a dis-ease of the signifier—in other terms, a rematerialization of Hegel's "two aspects," aural and visual, as no longer a unified "basis. In yielding to the phonic grip of poetry, Woolf is transgressing a latter-day Hegelian law of literacy that will be formulated at its most rigid a little more than a decade later, in Wellek and Warren's Theory of Literature , whose authors dismiss as "absurd" any "behavioristic" attempts to deny what "all experience shows," namely, that "unless we are almost illiterate.

By a calculated ironic reversal, she writes of "health" as if it played the role of foreign invader in her psychopathology of silent reading: "In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence dominates over our senses. Woolf moves from textuality to reception in order to speak about a troubling of sense by sensuality. In this fine madness of a reading at once debilitated and hypersensitized, phonology obtrudes upon script, delays the denotative by the delirious, keeps meaning at bay.

It thereby induces a poetically restorative encroachment of sound upon cerebration. In fact, it does just what Barthes hopes for from textual "listening": it lets the forces of signifying out from under the watchful eye of signification. With the anti-body, so to speak, of silent textual processing no longer immunizing the mind against letters as the signs of sounds as well as of semic elements, reading finally for Woolf, and in more than the ordinary way, makes sense: aural before logical sense.

What Saint Ambrose may have thought to escape, what Hegel theorized into subordination, Woolf turns round to embrace—and at her desk as well as upon her sickbed. Idiom once again has it right, especially for literary texts: silent reading is not inactive or undirected: I read to myself. When John Russell, in Style in Modern British Fiction , attempts to expose the excesses of Stanley Fish's brand of "affective" or "reader-response" stylistics, he drives Fish's premises to what he considers their reductio ad absurdum: "Take his criticism to its ultimate application, that is, to the experiencing of syllables while one reads, and it will be seen to be overstated.

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The very attentiveness the mind gives to words will be to portions of words chiefly. We will be examining the combined somatic and cerebral "affect" generated in the reader by the exertion of one syllable or phoneme upon another at its border. With the eye as "cursor" and the ear as "space bar," now making space,. It invites an "affective stylistics" that—far more palpably than Fish ever intended by the title of his influential essay—does indeed locate "literature in the reader.

And it is there in me as I am present to its meaning: dispersively, with no grounds for a totalizing integration. In breaking with the verbal "icon" of the New Critical enterprise, and in replacing it with a very different kind of kinetic "artifact," the magnitude of Fish's departure has to do with our own uprooting as readers. To process a text at full engagement may well be claimed "to use it up" , in the sense that its whole purpose is eductive: "It gets you not any sustained argument to the next point.

It is thus a self-consuming artifact" At a deeper, because also more superficial, level than Fish explores, however, such an artifact "consumes" the readerly "self" as well—and in both senses: preoccupies and exhausts me, drawing me so far into the text, even while it is all surface from the start, and leading me on and astray so blatantly, that there is no stable position left from which an implied I can be said to have been reading all along.

Literature thus takes its place "in" the reader to the exclusion of the existential "self," doing so—at the most rudimentary level of psycholinguistic operation—through the tremble and blend of what could well be called "affective phonemics.

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Literary language often goes forward by marking the perpetual danger of a collapse back from structure into origins: into phonic and graphic bases together—or no longer together, which is more to the point. Literary textuality, when self-consciously foregrounding the relation of literature to language, may be read—which is a way of defining a certain kind of reading as well — as the continual confrontation, within writing, of the phonic and the graphic.

A confrontation variously elastic or implacable, placid or explosive. At this point a graduated formulation is in order, one which should explain why so much of what follows may seem preoccupied with semantic denotation, with referential activity, however much carried out in the name of phonological analysis.


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  • For this is exactly where the anarchic possibilities of phonemic reading encounter directly, only to diverge from, a more familiar stylistics of motivated and thematized authorial effects. A threefold understanding, then: If 1 speech is the coordination of noise into articulate utterance, and 2 poetic language is understood to be a recovery in part of the acoustic aspect—.

    Such a challenge is posed most directly not through the irruptions of musicality into meaning, since this is merely one classic reckoning of the poetic function in general. The challenge is triggered instead by the dragging of meaning back toward its source in a dispersion of phonetic material awaiting articulation.