Nicolas Barker, Visible Voices: Translating Verse into Script & Print, 3000 BC – AD 2000. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2016. xii, 179. $23.95.
[A review by Tom Bredehoft]
My friend Pat Conner recently lent his copy of Nicolas Barker’s new book to me, knowing that I have long been thinking about the topics of verse, and form, and writing, and that my own thinking has tried to cover almost two of the five millennia that Barker’s book attempts to survey. And while I think there is much to like about this new book, I also have doubts about it, at almost every level. As I once wrote about metrical study, it seems likely that experts should never take on the work of reviewing each others’ books: we have too much at stake in our own positions to be objective about the work of others. And yet, of course, a book on such a specialized topic can only be reviewed effectively by someone with a real depth of knowledge. It is a double bind from which there really is no escape.
So let me begin this brief review by noting what I think is especially strong about Barker’s book. First, it honestly tries to survey five thousand years or so of recorded verse, and it does so with a wealth of illustrative examples, many of which (though not all) are accompanied by clear and legible photographic facsimiles, often in color. The sheer range of examples is simply astonishing, and the numerous facsimiles offer opportunity for readers to evaluate many of the claims and descriptive passages relating to them. In this, the book takes seriously a position that is dear to my heart: that the visible presentation of texts can be, and often is, meaningful in its own right, above and beyond the linguistic content of the written characters. That this is often true of verse in particular is, I think, one of the theses of Barker’s book. If nothing else, the range of examples and facsimiles will give readers interested in similar ideas a wealth of starting points for considering how the visible component of texts might operate across a vast range of Western scripts and languages. And in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I have no real ability to comment on Barker’s comments about Egyptian or Akkadian or even Greek verse, to take just three examples; surely few authors or readers will attempt to span the range that this book attempts, and I must marvel even at the attempt.
I think this book fails to either have or express a sufficiently clear understanding of exactly what verse is, as well as an understanding of what writing itself is. Since the book attempts a survey of the intersection of those two things across the full Western tradition of writing, it seems important to me to be clear and precise about these two important defining concepts. The remainder of my comments here will do what I can to articulate both where and why Barker’s positions are insufficient, and what might be done to address those insufficiencies.
1. The nature of verse. Barker’s position, I believe, is to claim that poetry is language adorned with features intended to improve its memorability. This book’s Preface, for example, begins with the claim “poetry is a memorial device, its purpose to remind audience or reader” (ix). Again, at the beginning of the first chapter, he writes “the verbal devices by which we recognize verse were originally memorial in function,” though adding “they came to have their own discipline” in time (3). Further, “verse had separated itself from all forms of prose long before the first preserved records of either came into existence” (3). But since the forms of prose Barker has been discussing were those used by orators and preachers, organized by what Barker characterizes as “mnemonic system[s] for recording words: rhetoric and theology” (3), he seems to be suggesting that it is verse’s particular focus on the specific mnemonic tools of alliteration, meter, and rhyme that define verse.
My anxiety about this definition or understanding of verse derives, in part, from the way Barker’s book appears to work upon a definition of writing as a technology designed also to supplement memory, a topic on which I will have more to say below. But here, it is important to note that defining the two phenomena this way aligns verse and writing as being analogous phenomena. Such an alignment may well give a book a valuable coherence: if writing’s purpose is the same as verse’s purpose, what could be more natural or appropriate than to look at the history of written verse?
Unfortunately, I am convinced that the central claim that the formal features of verse have a memorial function is simply untrue. Ignoring, for the moment, the complications of writing, it think it is more correct to understand the formal features of verse as artifice in language, the very precondition for at least some sorts of art in language. In oral contexts, verse is, specifically, an artificial subset of language more broadly. The fact, which I think all must acknowledge, that prose too may be adorned with rhythms, with alliteration, with rhyme, tells us that such artful adornment is not the distinguishing feature between verse and prose. The central difference lies, rather, in the structural (not memorial) form or function of such adornment in verse. Verse has a meter, a measure, by which an entire passage of verse (a poem, a section of a poem) has a defined structure. When what we once took for the adornments of prose turn out to be structural, after all, we know we have left the realm of prose behind. That those adornments (structural meter, as well as its elements, which may include rhythm, alliteration, or rhyme) may serve as aids to memory is a bonus, not a matter of definition.
I think we might actually go a step further. The artificiality of verse is, in fact, not originally or essentially mnemonic, but generative. This is certainly the case in oral-formulaic traditions (a topic Barker barely even mentions), where verbatim memorization is not at issue. And I suspect it is true in most other types of verse composition as well—except for those varieties of written verse that rely upon visibility for their effects.
As always, discussions of this topic are made more difficult by the common desire to also define or understand the difference between verse and poetry. And Barker’s book certainly often appears to restrict his range of interests to poets and poems in particular. I might be willing to accede to a claim that all verse is poetry, because it is all artificial and hence art-ful, but this additional level of definition is passed over entirely, I think, in Barker’s book, in part because of the problematic claim that poetry has a memorial function.
And, in the end, Barker’s book seems to operate on the widespread belief that we all know verse when we encounter it. Though an early passage of the book admits the difficulty of sometimes recognizing whether or not a given passage is verse or prose, nowhere does the book offer any actual guidelines for distinguishing the genres, I think. And since the book is very good at saying (and providing numerous examples of) verse written in long lines, not lineated according to verse structure, the comparison to prose and a demonstration of how we can identify verse in such cases would have been very welcome. But maybe that’s just me.
2. The nature of writing. The very title of Barker’s book exemplifies an understanding that what writing makes visible is language, since we know the title does not refer to writing’s ability to preserve the unique auditory or acoustic qualities of a well-known, well-loved individual’s voice. Certainly, writing is not language, though it has often been held to represent language, or to represent pieces of language. And yet even if we assent to the claim that writing’s central purpose is to record language, to preserve it across time, that claim does not entail that all other properties of writing are ignorable, meaningless, or irrelevant. That is: even if the purpose we put writing to most often is to record language, it does not follow that writing is (merely) a record of language.
What other things writing is or might be are often hidden from us, I think, by our very willingness to treat writing as recorded language. And often enough, it is writers and poets themselves who have treated writing in this reductive fashion, encouraging readers to do the same. But a history of the intersection of writing and verse, I firmly believe, must attend both to cases where the written text does and does not do more than represent a passage of language.
This is a truth Barker knows well enough, and his book essentially ends with a discussion of concrete poetry, in which the texts we see cannot readily be spoken aloud. The implication, obviously, is that some poems are more than pieces of language, and their texts are more than or different from representations. Some poems are not about voices, or about reciting or reading out loud. For Barker this appears to be understood as a development of the (late) age of print, the end result of poets taking greater and greater control of the appearance of their words on the page. As a result, Hrabanus Maurus’s remarkable Carolingian multiple acrostics are mentioned only in the final chapter, standing as a kind of precursor to the concrete poets, and acrostics in general (though mentioned by Barker as being produced among both the Greeks and Akkadians) are referred to only briefly and vaguely.
|Adalstan Acrostic, from Oxford Bodleian Library C 697; 10th c.|
But all along, writing has been more than a tool for representing language. The related notion that writing is somehow related to memory goes back at least to Plato, and perhaps a good deal further. Of course, one of the chief physical features of writing is its durability across time, so very much in contrast to the evanescence of spoken language. It is this durability, or endurance, that generates the comparison to the mental function of memory, which is so widespread in commentaries about writing as to need almost no justification. And the origins of Western writing, at least, in record keeping seem to suggest that the enduring record is what was valued in the earliest written texts. But the part of writing that preserves or records something preserves language, and definitely not memory, and this seems important to note and be clear about.
These critiques, about Barker’s largely unstated definitions and understandings of verse and of writing are not mere quibbles, I think: I think they reveal much about how this book builds itself. It is an appealing notion to imagine that poetry or verse is properly read or recited aloud, but it is, at best, a notion that applies to only some poems, and perhaps not always the best ones. Even Shakespeare, I think, writes some poems that cannot be read aloud, or that lose some of their meanings when they are read aloud. To understand the nature of verse expression we must always attend to whether a particular poem is a work of art in language, or a work of art in writing, or even a work of art in manuscript or in print. If we assume that “real” poetry is art-in-language, we must conclude that acrostics, to take only a kind of example that Barker refers to on a number of occasions, are mere writing games (Barker, writing of an Egyptian poem with numbered stanzas in which the numbers are repeated homophonically inside the first and last line of each stanza, suggests “These artifices, however, even the play of words, are all more scribal than authorial” (12) suggesting just what sorts of play an author or poet is allowed, in Barker’s view). But surely we should judge an acrostic on its merits, rather than assume or assert its use of a second dimension is merely a toy or a trick.
In the end, I am suggesting here that there is more than one kind of poem. Some poems are works of art in language. Some are works of art in writing. Some, I believe, are works of art in print, and some poems literally have two-dimensional or even three-dimensional spatial structures. A history of poetry, even a more limited survey of how poetry has been recorded in writing, needs, I think, to have a clear and effective understanding of what poetry is, what it consists of, and how these different kinds of poems make their different kinds of meanings—because writing is essential to some of these kinds of poems and irrelevant to one. Each time we read a poem, any poem from any period, it matters to the act of reading to know and understand which of these kinds of poem it truly is, in both the poem's essential nature, and in the instantiation of the poem we see before us.
And yet the kinds of poems I’ve described in the paragraph above have become clear to me (to the degree that they are clear) only after literal years of trying to understand how poems I’ve read have been recorded and represented across time, and it has been some of the hardest intellectual work I’ve ever engaged in. In some ways, I can hardly critique Nicolas Barker for not seeing what it is I think I have seen. And thus we return to the problem of an expert reviewing another expert’s book.
In the end, I found much to value in this book, and not only the profusion of facsimile images. Barker’s range of reference remains impressively and usefully broad: there is much to follow up here, in every chapter. It is a book that, in the best way, has much to teach: especially if the reader is willing, as all critical readers should be, to judge for herself which of its teachings to accept, and which to reject. This review attempts to articulate what I’d try to do better, if I were trying to write such a book: but I can only do so, of course, because the book exists in the first place. I hope it is read widely by all those interested in the materiality of text.