Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time


Roman Jakobson
Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy, editors

Roman Jakobson, one of the most important thinkers of our century, was best known for his role in the rise and spread of the structural approach to linguistics and literature. His formative structuralism approach to linguistics and literature. His formative years with the Russian Futurists and subsequent involvement in the Moscow and Prague Linguistic Circles (which he co-founded) resulted in a lifelong devotion to fundamental change in both literary theory and linguistics. In bringing each to bear upon the other, he enlivened both disciplines; if a literary work was to a him a linguistic fact, it was also a semiotic pheonomenon - part of the entire universe of signs; and above all, for both language and literature, time was an integral factor, one that produced momentum and change. Jakobson’s books and articles, written in many languages and published around the world, were collected in a monumental seven-volume work, Selected Writings (1962-1984), which has been available only to a limited readership. Not long before his death in 1982, Jakobson brought together this group of eleven essays - Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time - to serve as an introduction to some of his linguistic theories and especially, to his work in poetics.

Jakobson’s introductory article and the editor’s preface together suggest the range of his work and provide a context for the essays in this book, which fall into three groups. Those in the first section reflect his preoccupation with the dynamic role of time in language and society. Jakobson challenges Saussure’s rigid distinction between language as a static (synchronic) system and its historical (diachronic) development - a false opposition, in his view, since it ignores the role of time in the present moment of language. The essays on time counter the notion that structuralism itself, as heir to Saussure’s work, has discarded history; in Jakabson’s hands, we see a struggle to integrate the two modes. In central group essays, on poetic theory, he shows how the grammatical categories of everyday speech become the expressive, highly charged language of poetry. These essays also deal with the related issues of subliminal and intentional linguistic patterns of poetry. These essays also deal with the related issues of subliminal and intentional linguistic patterns in poetry - areas that are problematic in structural analysis - and provide exemplary readings of Pushkin and Yeats. The last essays, on Mayakovsky and Holderlin, make clear that Jakobson was aware of the essential (and in these instances, tragic) bond between a poet’s life and art. The book closes with essays by Linda Waugh, Krystyna Pomorska, and Igor Melchuk that provide a thoughtful perspective on Jakobson’s work as a whole.

Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) was born and educated in Moscow. He worked in Prague and Brno from 1920 until 1939, when the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia forced him to flee, first to Scandinavia and then to the United States. He taught at the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes in New York and then at Columbia, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy were both professors of Russian literature, she at MIT, and he at New York University.

Krystyana Pomorska was a professor of Russian literature at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an internationally known scholar in Slavic literature. She was born and raised in Poland, she graduated from Warsaw University in 1951.

Stephen Rudy was an associate professor of Russian and Slavic languages at New York University.

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