Monday, June 25, 2012

Questions for poems from a language theorist in 1968

Maybe David Bowie could be lured out of retirement to make the soundtrack?

One of my summer projects this year is to, well, I guess “reboot” is the closest word for it. I’m going back to the books that are way back in my reading history, those—for me—foundational texts. I’m wondering what I think of them now.


The one I’m currently reading is titled The Labyrinth of Language, written by Max Black. It was published in 1968 in the Britannica Perspective series. It’s an overview of language theory at the time.

Here’s something about poetry I find rather interesting:

“. . . to try to explain how a poet manages to display or exhibit a ‘meaning’ without making a literal truth-claim about that meaning—how [the poet] manages to ‘bracket’ the truth-claim in the interest of some more subtle, less explicit, ‘statement.’ This is perhaps the hardest unsolved problem in poetics.

Further complications would be introduced by the necessity of distinguishing within each dimension, . . . between the explicit and the implicit. And running athwart this already sufficiently complex scheme of analysis there is the distinction, constantly to be borne in mind, between what the words mean (conventionally express, conventionally evoke) and what the speaker means (expresses, evokes) by means of those words. . . .”

And now, a half quote, half paraphrase:

Questions for poems:

1.What does the explicit utterance “say” and in what modes of “saying”?

2.What does the same utterance “express”?

3.What kind of influence does it bring to bear upon the reader?

4.How much of all this is explicit, and how much, and in what ways, are these effects to be counted as merely suggested or implied?

5.How much is intended, how much merely revealed, without the speaker’s consent?

6.How far does all this come about as a matter of standard linguistic convention?

7.How much results from the distinctive contributions made by the speaker in the given context and setting?

What does the explicit utterance say, and in what modes of saying. I like the construction of that question. I think I’m going to try that one out next time I’m wanting to do that sort of thing with a poem. What does the same utterance express. Indeed.

So I’m almost done with this book. I wonder what’s next.

28 Comments:

At 6/26/2012 12:16 AM, Blogger adele daney said...

Poems are based on natural themes and human emotions that can make anyone feel happy.
Poems

 
At 6/26/2012 6:23 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This robot understands irony.

 
At 6/26/2012 8:23 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It's the flip-side of their prime directive.

 
At 6/26/2012 12:49 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

I want someone to talk about what meaning means.

 
At 6/27/2012 4:21 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

We could try The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. By the illustrious I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden, 1923. Robert Lowell alludes to this book in "Waking in the Blue," one of his confessional poems:

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare's-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.

Lowell! There's a poet to reboot.

 
At 6/27/2012 12:34 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

David,

Ah, yes...I.A. Richards. Language Poetry came out of early 20th century British Philosophy: J.L. Austin taught Stanley Cavell who taught Charles Bernstein. Robert Lowell came under the sway of the Southern Fugitives who were Rhodes Scholars and studied in Britain. Anyway, Austin wasn't just interested in "meaning," but speech as "performative act."

Anyway, all these questions in the post seem to me questions that get asked when a poem fails. If a poem succeeds, none of these philosophical questions need arise.

Tom

 
At 6/27/2012 12:41 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Tom,

I think people ask these sorts of questions of poems all the time, and when they are asked, it has much more to do with the person asking than it does the success or failure (and/or who's deciding) of the poem.

 
At 6/27/2012 12:50 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

I'm mostly interested in these questions in the context of poems that succeed (for me). My favorite art, regardless of medium, usually works in ways that I don't grasp 100%.

When there's no mystery at all to what makes a poem work I'm usually bored by it. That's a failure.
I don't spend that much time theorizing about the failures.

 
At 6/27/2012 2:06 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I'm afraid I don't understand your comment, Tom. I see Austin's connection to the language theory underpinning Language Poetry, but as a proto-New Critic, Richards gave rise to exponents of such un-Language Poetry-like characteristics as associational hypotaxis, unity, persona narrator. I don't see the connection--but then, I haven't studied any of these birds exhaustively.

 
At 6/28/2012 9:05 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

John,

If a reader is asking about "modes of saying" or "linguistic convention" or "context, setting and speaker" after a reading a poem, the poem is probably a failure. Shelley's "Ozymandias" works the way Shelley wanted it to work, and the reader 'gets' the poem immediately. This, I think, is so self-evident and so obviously what the poet wants to do, that, as critics, we can lose sight of this. One can ask a million such questions about a poem, and, as critics we can pride ourselves on our deconstruction; we can be deluded into thinking that the more of these questions the better. I'm just suggesting that if a poem gives rise to hordes of questions, we shouldn't assume that the poem succeeds as a poem. I know it's heresy to suggest among a certain clan of thinkers that philosophy and poetry are distinct, but that's what I'm doing here...

Tom

 
At 6/28/2012 9:20 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

David,

If you actually read the New Critics (Tate, Warren, Brooks) you'll find they are really brilliant and wooly-headed and set the table for Language Poetry pyrotechnics. Remember, the Warren and Brooks New Critic textbook, "Understanding Poetry," slobbered with delight over Williams' Red Wheel Barrow and Pounds' Metro Station. The target of the whole British Philosophy/New Critic/Language Poetry school (yes, it's essentially one school) is Romanticism of Lessing, Poe, Shelley, Keats, etc which was populist, rigorous and limiting---not wooly-headed.

 
At 6/28/2012 11:30 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Well, a shearer may have to fleece my mind now, because couldn't you just as easily say that Romanticism, Modernism, and Postmodernism--of which Language Poetry is a part--are all one movement? Modernism simply exaggerates the Romantic tendency toward alienation, obscurity, irrationality, and disorganization. Like Romanticism, Modernism emphasized the poet's subjectivity and epater les bourgeois. And Postmodernism simply extended Modernism's alienation and irrationality and confusing, epater-les-bourgeois stylistic innovation with Modernist-like collage and Language Poetry--which, like Modernist poetry, challenges readers to find coherence among fragments. A man and a woman and a blackbird are one. My stovepipe hat is a mongoloid bazooka. It all breaks down. You could end up saying that because he exhibited some Romantic tendencies, Shakespeare was a sort of ur-Language poet.

 
At 6/28/2012 12:05 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

If that's what makes a poem successful, I guess I'm only interested in failure.

 
At 6/28/2012 4:29 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

David, that's an interesting thesis. I've thought about this too, but with less of a sense of pure continuity. I see Modernism as a genuine attempt at breaking from Romanticism, but in many ways a failed one. This failure, and the tension behind it, makes the work more interesting to me than a lot of pure Romanticism (which I generally have little taste for). Likewise postmodernism strikes me as an often failed attempt at breaking from modernism. And again that failure adds a lot of interest for me.

 
At 6/28/2012 4:44 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 6/28/2012 5:29 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 6/28/2012 8:26 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 6/28/2012 8:29 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

I deleted the comments above because I don’t think they were relevant to the topic. I got off on a tangent. I apologize

 
At 6/29/2012 5:06 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Thanks for the interest, underbelly, but I doubt I expressed myself clearly. I just meant that "setting the table" for a new thing doesn't make you the new thing. Chuck Berry chord progressions set the table for punk rock, but that doesn't mean Chuck Berry was punk rock. New Critics' appreciation of non-traditional prosodies--the innovative lineation of "The Red Wheelbarrow," for example--may have helped to create a climate of receptivity to experiment that eventuated in Lang Po; but that doesn't mean New Criticism and Lang Po are one. The New Critics would've hated Lang Po. I had a New Critic prof who dismissed Ashbery--a precursor of Lang Po--as "chaotic." And I'm sure his view of Armantrout, if he had one, was even dimmer. It's fair to point out, however, that different New Critics had different opinions; they didn't all toe a party line.

 
At 6/29/2012 8:09 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

David,

Randall Jarrell has an essay in "Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism" Garrick Davis, ed. which argues just that point: Modernism is an outgrowth of Romanticism. You almost seem to be referring to this essay in your remarks. But are Keats/Shelley/Byron/Poe "obscure" the way Ashbery is "obscure," or even the way Williams or Allen Tate are obscure? Absolutely not. Langpo embraces obscurity; New Criticism made a strongly qualified acceptance of it, and Byron laughed to scorn it. Sure, there is blending, but it's not difficult to see the slippery slope.

 
At 6/29/2012 8:17 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

As for your New Critic friend who finds Ashbery "chaotic," yes, the New Critics look conservative from a distance---"Praising It New" is introduced by William Logan---and certainly "serve" the purpose for some. But when one reads the New Critics, one finds them to be Romantic-hating Moderns (and this is where I differ with guys like Gioia and Logan who thought High Modernism was wonderful). The New Critics followed Eliot and Pound in their hatred of popular Romanticism, even Shakespeare. Think of Eliot's hatred of Shelley, Milton, even his condemnation of Hamlet, etc and Pound, of course, hated the Romantics and popular literature, generally...

 
At 6/29/2012 8:39 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

One more remark about the New Critics and then I'll shut up: even a "conservative" like John Crowe Ransom said Byron was old-fashioned and one can't write like him anymore. Hell, Ransom was born in the 19th century. Why can't we write like Byron? Williams, also born in the 19th century is perfectly OK to imitate, though. Today. The question is, why was Ransom so eager to diminish Byron? This really has little to do with labels such as "Modern" and "Romantic." It's complicated. The New Critics also happened to be the guys who started the Creative Writing Industry.

 
At 6/29/2012 8:46 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I was partly referring to that Jarrell essay, Tom. I read it in my early 20s, and it bowled me over. I hope I didn't crib it too egregiously.

"But are Keats/Shelley/Byron/Poe "obscure" the way Ashbery is "obscure," or even the way Williams or Allen Tate are obscure? Absolutely not. Langpo embraces obscurity; New Criticism made a strongly qualified acceptance of it, and Byron laughed to scorn it. Sure, there is blending, but it's not difficult to see the slippery slope." Right, sure, though "slippery slope" has pejorative connotations. That's my point. All movements engender the movements that supersede them. If we define movements broadly enough to include their progenitors, all movements will meld into one amorphous AbEx rorschach ceiling stain. There will be only one movement, which is to say stasis. But you can't carve a cabinet out of an acorn.

 
At 6/29/2012 7:03 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

David,

Maybe we need a radical melding. Why do we have to label Byron and leave him behind? Why can't we have one big tent? Why does Silliman have to separate himself from the 'quietists' and 'America's Best Loved Poems?' Let it all be judged as the same thing: poetry, and let's drop the whole pretence of movements and labels and cliques. If we all let it be one 'movement' by doing away with all 'movements,' we'll still be able to see differences, but maybe we'll see them more honestly and more openly and in a more practical, democratic sense. Instead we erect these artificial walls about what we think a 'modern' poem should be, or what a 'romantic' poem is. In our minds we pre-label everything, and thus don't really see it/enjoy it for what it is. We really think there is something 'mystical' and 'true' about Ron Silliman or Ezra Pound as opposed to some lady Victorian poet. I think it's mostly crap, these division and labels we modern scholars erect. I suspect it's mostly to make mediocre contemporary poets and their 'latest' experimental dribbles seem more important to themselves.

 
At 6/30/2012 5:47 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I'd endorse a lot of that, Tom. Nevertheless, we need labels, if only to circumvent elaborate and tedious periphrasis; & we need groupings, if only to enable poets and scholars to marinate themselves in a particular style. We need to be able to say, "So & so is a surrealist in the manner of Andrew Joron," don't we? But yes, let's have a big beer tent where Byron hangs with Kenneth Koch & practitioners of the "ultra-talk" poem. Let's invite Cole Swenson and Christina Rossetti. Call the roller of wacky backy scuds, the ripped one, and bid him whip in fetish regalia concupiscent Kurds.

 
At 6/30/2012 5:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Echoing David, in my reading life, I don't think of large labels, schools, and the like, but I do like the labels that are more like amazon.com's "if you like this you may like this" sort of thing. That seems friendly.

 
At 6/30/2012 5:06 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Those Amazon 'if you like this...' suggestions never mean a thing to me.

Yes, please invite Byron back to the party. Even if John Crowe Ransom and Tom Eliot get upset. Let Shelley dance on Cyd Corman's knee. Inviting Byron means you have to invite Thomas Moore and then, song, joy, sorrow and light. Punctuation. Syntax. Good writing. Roses. Horrors.

 
At 6/30/2012 5:09 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

cid. apologies to mr. corman.

 

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