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This article is taken from PN Review 95, Volume 20 Number 3, January - February 1994.

Davie and Wittgenstein: the music of language Michael Grant

In his article 'The Relation Between Syntax and Music in Some Modern Poems in English' (1961), Donald Davie sought to introduce into the criticism of the period a new emphasis. He objected to the way in which much of the influential writing of the Fifties and early Sixties took poetry to be a field or structure, with verbal 'forces' balanced in tension against each other, and with meaning organized into planes or levels. This was to see a poem as extended in space, with all of its parts simultaneously present, like the figures in a painting or the patterns in a carpet. Davie argued instead for an analogy between poetry and music: he insisted that the experience of reading or hearing a poem inhabited a duration. A poem, he wrote, 'erects its structures in the lapse of time'. 'A poem … is a sequence of verbal events, a train of actions, of preparations, crises, denouements. And this is the truth about poetry which many of the metaphors most favoured nowadays by English and American critics, metaphors taken from geometry or architecture, seem designed to obscure.' To see poetry purely as a spatial form is to miss the experience of temporality - of poetic duration - and so to blind oneself to the expressive realities that language gives only as it unfolds through time. The significance of this claim reaches well beyond the immediate concerns that occasioned it, to issues that continue to agitate literary thought today.

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