Jeffries, Lesley (2004) Silent game: the stylistic 'shadow' of a poem and readers' meanings. In: PALA Annual Conference 2004, 25 - 28 July 2004, New York University. (Unpublished)

The theme of this conference lends itself to work which tries to demonstrate that the tools of the past can be taught to do new tricks. This research continues an investigation reported at PALA 2001 in Budapest, into the relationship between text and readers' meaning(s), in that particular case the range of possible readings that in some sense fulfil the originally intended meaning of the authors.In my earlier research, the text was 'visual' (mostly photographic) and the informants were asked to produce a verbal commentary on aspects of the text. In the current case, the text is a poem, and the context in which informants commented on it was a first year undergraduate language examination in which students were asked to comment on the language of the poem and begin to apply their technical knowledge to stylistic analysis. In the event, the answers were pedagogically very disappointing; some of the students didn't answer this question at all and most of the others simply wrote down what they thought the poem meant with the occasional rather vague and impressionistic comment on the language used. In the spirit of 'waste not - want not', this nevertheless seemed ideal serendipitous data for my purposes.The resulting 64 responses to the poem form part of what I would call the 'shadow' of the base text (the poem). I will argue that the language of responses to (and interventions in) texts is at least as open to stylistic analysis as that of base texts. This leads to the possibility that one can map out aspects of a text's meaning, as it has been read by a particular group of readers, by investigating the stylistic features of their own responses. The advantage of this approach, particularly when using tools of analysis aimed at accessing 'hidden' aspects of meaning, such as presuppositions and implicatures, is that there is a direct (linguistic) parallel between what we would wish to do as stylisticians of base texts (such as poems) and as investigators of cognitive aspects of texts. No need, in this case, to become a psychologist! The other advantage of the current data was that it was collected for a completely different purpose, so the informants were aiming at impressing an examiner, not providing a researcher with the answers she needed.

The 64 responses to a single poem form a corpus investigated for its stylistic patterns as well as its content, using the more discourse-oriented tools of analysis such as modality, transitivity and nominalisation as well as aspects of more 'traditional' stylistic analysis, such as lexical semantic choice and local clause structure. The conclusions to be drawn directly from this analysis relate to the range of meanings this poem has for a particular group of readers. More general conclusions will be about the nature of textual and poetic meaning. With luck, by the conference itself, the poet herself will also have an opportunity to comment on the outcomes of this work.

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