Ling 131: Language & Style
Topic 2 (session B) - Being creative with words and phrases > Being creative with noun phrases: Edwin Morgan
|Uncovering your intuitions about phrases|
|Playing with phrases|
|Phrases in the structure of sentences|
|Being creative with noun phrases: Edwin Morgan|
|Topic 2 tool summary|
Being creative with noun phrases: Edwin Morgan
Read through the following poem by Edwin Morgan. We also have an audio version of the poem.
Off Course Task:
Having heard / read the poem, we'd like you to analyse it, applying what you have learned so far. We've included the following six questions and suggestions to help you. Once you have answered the each question click on each question to acces our answer.
We will eventually have to take this into account in framing an account of our understanding of the text (our interpretation).
But in pragmatic terms, we might still want to see each phrase as the 'equivalent' of a sentence. They are each separated from one another by lineation and within-line spacing, so there is a possible (if unusual) textual equivalent to the normal way of indicating written sentences graphologically. And it is also possible to construe each noun phrase as if it were a normal sentence by adding 'structural fillers' as you read (as in 'There is the golden flood', and so on).
The poem 'Off Course' consists entirely of a series of noun phrases. Noun phrases are phrases which have a noun at their head - i.e. the most important word, which the other words and sub-phrases are related to, as in:
Each noun phrase in the poem consists of a head noun pre-modified by the definite article and an adjective (e.g. 'the golden flood') or a noun modifier (e.g. 'the cabin song'). This poem is a very unusually restricted in grammatical terms, and our interpretation will need to take this into account.
The way we have presented the poem to you on-screen is with an outer space background, and with the poem 'tumbling' towards you and eventually stopping in an attitude on-screen which is slanted from the horizontal. This is a rough dynamic equivalent of the overall graphological representation of the poem in the anthology we first saw it in, where it was printed in this slanting fashion and with a pictorial background involving an astronaut floating in space.
There are no sentence-initial capitals or sentence-final punctuation marks in the poem. Indeed, there is no punctuation, and no word-initial capitals at all (even at the beginnings of lines, as is traditional in poetry). We have already noticed some of the effects of this graphological structuring in relation to the answer to the question 'Are there any sentences in the poem?' We also noticed the way in which each noun phrase is separated off from one another in graphological terms, making us want to treat them pragmatically as if there were sentences, even though they are not sentences in normal graphological, grammatical or semantic terms. An explanation of this 'series of noun phrases' structure is that they could represent a series of 'flashes of thought' on the part of an astronaut who, in the light of the poem's title, is off course.
Finally, we should note that although the left-hand edge of the poem is justified, there is an indented shift to the right for the last 7 lines. This suggests that we need to interpret these last seven lines as being in some way different from the first 14 lines, and to account for the shift which takes place between lines 14 and 15, perhaps by looking for correlates at other levels of structure.
All of the words relate to space and space travel (e.g. 'spacesuit', 'spacesuit', 'orbit'), or can be explained by what we know generally about astronauts and space flights. So, for example, the 'smuggled mouth-organ' of line 5, although not lexically related to space, can be imagined to be taken secretly into the spacecraft by the astronaut because it is light and can be used for entertainment purposes.
Almost all of the lexical items in the poem are repeated twice. There does not appear to be any obvious pattern to the double repetition or to the words that are not repeated ('seat', 'black', wisecrack', 'imaginary').
The only possible exception is that the three words that are repeated three times ('space', 'floating' and 'orbit') are all intrinsically connected with the main theme of the poem.
What we can say, though, is that there is a difference in the relations between the lexical items if we compare the last 7 lines (the indented lines) with the first fourteen. In the first fourteen lines the relation between the adjective/noun modifier and the head noun in the noun phrases appears to be normal, given the assumed situation of space travel. Many of the phrases appear to be literal in this context (e.g. 'the floating crumb', 'the space debris', 'the space walk') and those which are metaphorical are easy to understand in the space-travel context (so, for example, 'the golden flood' can be easily construed as a stream of sunlight (another LIGHT IS WATER metapthor!) perceived by the astronaut).
But in the last 7 lines, many of the semantic connections between modifiers and headwords are much more peculiar (cf. 'the crawling camera', the orbit mouth-organ, 'the visionary rendezvous'). This helps to suggest that something has changed in the last part of the poem.
Lexically, there is much to suggest that we are meant to imagine a situation of space travel or exploration, both in terms of the lexical items and the pattern related to those which are repeated three times. The poem is called 'Off Course', and that suggests the likelihood that something has gone wrong, and that perhaps the astronaut may not survive. The series of noun phrases leads to the idea that we are being given a series of semi-random observations, impressions and thoughts of the astronaut who is off course. The graphological change in line 15 signals a possible situational change of some sort, and as the number of odd semantic relations within the noun phrases increases dramatically in this last section, we need to provide an explanation for the oddity. One obvious possibility is that the astronaut is becoming delirious for some reason, perhaps because of the stress of the situation he finds himself in or perhaps because he is running out of oxygen and beginning to hallucinate. Thus the poem ends on a pessimistic note.
A note on gender and other '-ist' matters
We have referred to the astronaut above as 'he' although there is no specification indication of gender in the text. However, given that the large majority of astronauts so far have been male it is likely that most readers will assume that the astronaut is a man, perhaps without even realising it. A 'reading' with a female astronaut is possible, but it doesn't appear to change the overall interpretation of the text. Similar remarks could also be made, for example, about the age of the person (a 15-year-old astronaut), except that this 'going against ageist assumptions reading' would be even more unusual. A general issue this raises is whether these 'readings' constitute different interpretations of the poem or not. We think not. And so not all differences in presupposition result in different interpretations for texts. When is a difference an interpretative difference. This is something we will come back to at other points in the course.
Did the interpretation that you arrived at intuitively for the poem correlate with ours or differ from it in significant ways?
And, finally, a reference.
You can find a published discussion of this poem in Ron Carter (1988) 'What is stylistics and how can we teach it in different ways?' in Mick Short (ed.) Reading, Analysing and Teaching Literature, Longman, 161-77.