September 29th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; stylistics; making choices in poetry...

My current draft of the poem-in-progress we're working on right now has this as one of its stanzas:

=========
If raping a woman is a sexual offense,
you need a prison.
If raping a woman is a crime of property,
you only need to make a deal.
=========

dteleki has posted four possible variations on that stanza; unmutual has proposed another variation that changes only one line.

From unmutual:

1. If raping a woman is a sexual offense,
you need a prison.
If raping a woman is a crime of property,
you need only make a deal.

From dteleki:

2. If raping a woman is a crime against a person,
you need a prison.
If raping a woman is a crime of property,
a check will do.

3. If raping a woman is a crime against a person,
you'll go to prison.
If raping a woman is a crime against property,
you'll write a check.

4. If raping a woman is a sexual crime,
there's a prison involved.
If raping a woman is a property crime,
there's a wallet involved.

5. If raping a woman is a sexual offense,
you shouldn't have done it. Ever.
If raping a woman is a property offense,
you should have made a deal. Beforehand.

The question, for a linguist, is whether there is some defensible and systematic mechanism for choosing among the six possibilities, or if all that poets do in such a case is pick the version their gut tells them is best. We can't examine this question in a single post, but we can get started.

Semantically, all six versions make essentially the same point (although Version 5 throws in some additional content, which I'll come back to in a moment). Mainstream Anglo culture perceives raping a woman as a sexual crime, and as an offense against the woman. In Old Testament culture the offense was a property crime -- a theft -- and the offended party was not the woman but her husband or fiance, or her father or some other highest-ranking male relative. [For a whole book on this subject, see Women, War, and Metaphor: Language and Society in the Study of the Hebrew Bible, a special issue of Semeia (Issue #61, 1993).] In one case the metaphor is A Woman Is A Person (using "person" as a cover term for something like "a member of the community having personal legal rights like any other member of the community"); in the other case, the metaphor is A Woman Is Property. There is therefore no semantic basis for choosing among the six versions, and if the document in question were intended to be prose instead of poetry, any one of them would do.

The only relevant choice factor would be deciding between (a) the set composed of the original version and Versions 1-4, and (b) the set composed of Version 5. Version 5 stipulates that the arrangements for recompense should be made in advance, and -- with the italicized "ever" -- lays on some additional moralizing. Since whether the "deal" is made before or after the offense has no effect on the content of the metaphor itself, the "do it in advance" stipulation isn't necessary to the poem. And since the actions in some of the other verses -- for example, flying a plane into a skyscraper -- are as immoral as rape, singling out rape for extra moralizing doesn't seem to me to be justified. I would therefore reject Version 5, because -- effective and dramatic as it is -- I believe that it's out of symmetry with the rest of the poem semantically and risks diluting the poem's thesis and weakening the case it's intended to make.

Syntactically -- again with the exception of Version 5 -- there's no factor that can be used for making a choice among the six alternatives. All of the versions follow the same syntactic pattern: "If X equals Y, (then) Z." I would reject the syntactically different Version 5 on the same grounds as those for which I rejected it semantically; it disturbs the parallelism of the poem and, because it calls attention to itself, might weaken the thesis of the poem. Another poet might decide that differently, choosing Version 5 on the basis of a principle that says something like "Variety is a good thing; too much symmetry bores the reader"; that wouldn't be my choice.


[Next up, patterning for the eye (graphic arrangements, like line breaks and eye rhyme), and patterning for the ear (meter, rhyme, assonance and alliteration, and so on). We don't yet have a readily available mechanism on the Net for including in poetry patterning for the skin -- patterning for the sense of touch.]
ozarque figure

Linguistics; stylistics; making choices in poetry; afternote.....

Well.... two things.

1. Whether rape is a crime that has lust for sex as its core, or a crime that has lust for power and control as its core, or is something else entirely, my concern in this poem is with the contrast between the behavior that results from the metaphor of woman-as-person and the behavior that results from the metaphor of woman-as-property.

[I encourage those of you who who are more interested in the issue of how rape is to be defined than in my pair of metaphors to continue with your threads here for as long as you like.]

2. I strongly disagree with the suggestion that the metaphor of woman-as-property is some sort of historical curiosity, relevant only for someone interested in biblical history. The metaphor of woman-as-property is as vigorously alive and kicking in this wide world today as it was in the days of Abraham.