Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Poetry, Medium and Message

So if we both say the same thing we're still not saying the same thing. Yes, but do we mean the same thing?

“So what’s is your poem about?” begins the little essay. The issue is one that keeps popping up, isn’t it? It leads Lepore to consider the translatability of poetry, and the division between meaning and the poem’s singular, written, manifestation.

Coincidentally, I’m reading a book on Derrida right now, so, under its influence, I’m thinking about how philosophy, and culture, privilege speech over writing. I’m now convinced (at least for the rest of the day) that this is a large part of the difficulty, the situation of poetry. Speech is closer to thought, and writing is a distant third, right? In that economy? So poetry, of all the arts, would be the most suspect, as it relies more than does any other art on its written manifestation. No wonder it gives so many people the jitters.

I will admit to a certain level of snooze-facor in this. Maybe it's because I'm over this issue? Maybe I just have a short attention span?  A problem with italics? I'm allergic to binaries? Or maybe it has something to do with mystery. Anyway, here you go:

Poetry, Medium and Message
July 31, 2011

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

Here is a question that has been confounding or even infuriating poets for eons.

So what is your poem about?

(If you happen to personally know any poets, you may even have empirical evidence of this.)

That frustration has little if anything to do with the supposed stormy temperaments of poets. It rather derives, at least partly, from the fact that the question, simple as it may appear, is one that in fact has no satisfactory answer.


In “The Well Wrought Urn” — that well-known and well-wrought book of literary criticism — Cleanth Brooks described what he called “the heresy of paraphrase.” The main idea — that efforts at paraphrasing poetry into prose fail in ways that parallel attempts for prose do not — was not new. It has been generally agreed upon since Aristotle. This skeptical thesis was championed in the first half of the 20th century by the New Critics as well as by their guiding spirit, T.S. Eliot, who, when asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” from his poem “Ash Wednesday,” responded, “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.’ ”

Eliot’s implication was that repetition is the best we can hope to achieve in interpreting poetry. Translators of Rimbaud likewise lament that because French is soft, melodious and fluid in cadence, English and other non-Romance languages are unsuitable for translation. The poet E.E. Cummings went further, claiming that even the visual impact of the typography of his poems renders them unparaphraseable.

Eliot Contemporary philosophers and linguists have either ignored such skepticism or dismissed it out of hand. The idea that an unambiguous word might mean one thing in a news article or shopping list and something altogether different in a poem is not so easy to embrace. How do we figure out what a poem means if its words do not carry familiar learned meanings? And further, isn’t this skepticism vulnerable to the following simple refutation: take any expression in any poem and introduce by fiat a new expression to mean exactly what the first one does; how could this practice fail to succeed at paraphrase or translation? Though such substitutions can change the aesthetic, emotive or imagistic quality of a poem, how could any of them change meaning?

Despite the simple refutation, the heresy of paraphrase remains compelling. Anyone familiar with Roman Jakobson’s or Vladimir Nabokov’s lamentations over translating Pushkin into English will feel its force. But can their irresistible skepticism concerning poetry translation and paraphrase be reconciled with the obvious logic of the simple refutation?

There is a way out, but to find it one must first attend to a crucial but universally ignored distinction between linguistic expressions and their vehicles of articulation: to this end, consider two individuals both of whom know English but one only speaks while the other only writes. For them, communication is impossible even though they share a common language.

Since each expression requires articulation for its presentation, it is easy to conflate words and their articulations. (Many philosophers and linguists have!) And, of course, more often than not, the linguistic sounds or marks with which we articulate our language make little difference to our intended message. It usually matters little if at all to our grasp of what someone says whether he speaks or writes. But if you reflect upon the distinct possibilities for presenting language, it’s easy to see how what normally goes unnoticed can take center stage.

Or, here’s another way of saying it, one that makes Neko Case cry. And I don’t blame her, friends. There’s a singular spot-on quality to this tender, duende-filled, romantic song. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on, and jump!

For instance, typing the word “brick” in italics (as in “brick”) obviously draws attention to a particular presentation of the word, not to the word itself. But it is one of many. The word might have been spoken, rendered in Braille or even signed. Surprisingly, in this instance, a moment’s reflection ought to convince you that no other articulation could have been used to make this point in this way. In short, that “brick” is italicized cannot be said out loud or signed or rendered in Braille. In effect, the practice of italicization allows the presentation of a language to become a part of the language itself.

If poems too can be (partly) about their own articulations, this would explain why they can resist paraphrase or translation into another idiom, why, for example, substituting “luster” for “sheen” in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” breaks the bind between its lines, and thereby, alters the poem itself.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken —
The ice was all between.

Since synonym substitution in a poem can change meter or rhyme, etc., to the extent that poems are about their own articulation they prohibit paraphrase and translation. Accordingly, as with other forms of mentioning, any effort at re-articulation inevitably changes the topic. Here’s another illustration of the point. Although Giorgione — Big George — was so-called because of his size, Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco was not, even though he is Giorgione. This is possible because the “so-called” construction is partly about its own articulation. Change the articulation and you change the claim even if substitutions are synonymous. These sorts of considerations expose what’s misguided about the simple refutation.

The language of poetry is not magical, nor even distinct from the languages of other discourses; they are identical.

Of course, we can introduce a new expression to mean exactly whatever an old expression means but since poems can be about their own articulations, substituting synonyms will not result in an exact paraphrase or translation. To do so requires not only synonymies but also identical articulations, and only repetition ensures this end.

This explanation of the heresy of paraphrase differs from the New Critics’ quasi-mystical invocation of form shaping content. Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur, but in poetry (as in other forms of mentioning) the medium really becomes the message. From this, however, it does not follow that the language of poetry is magical or even distinct from the languages of other discourses; they are identical. The words in a Cummings’ poem mean exactly what they do in prose. But because a poem can be a device for presenting its own articulation, re-articulating Cummings while ignoring his versification fails.

Is this what Sartre might have meant when he said the poet “considers words as things and not as signs”? Likewise, Dylan Thomas writes of his first experiences with poetry, that “before I could read them for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone. What the words stood for, symbolized, or meant was of very secondary importance — what mattered was the very sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and quite incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world.” Thomas might have simply said that his first concern was with articulation, especially sounds — a perceptible property.

Pause and examine these letters as you read them — their shapes are not unappealing. The poet concurs. But, unlike ordinary folk, the poet wants to draw the audience’s attention to these articulations as much as to the ideas the words so articulated express. The poet achieves this end through the devices, for example, of rhyme, alliteration and sundry others. Unintended, rhyme or alliteration and other mishaps and distractions are often rectified by re-articulation, perhaps with different pronunciations of the same words or with different words or linguistic structures that convey the same content. In such circumstances, the discourse is decidedly not about its own articulation. With poetry it is different.

As W.M. Urban noted, the poet does not first intuit her object and then find an appropriate medium in which to articulate it. It is rather in and through a chosen medium that the poet intuits the object in the first place. The philosopher Suzanne Langer once wrote, “though the material of poetry is verbal, its import is not the literal assertion made in the words but the way the assertion is made and this involves the sound, the tempo … and the unifying all-embracing artifice of rhythm.”

Given this, what might poetic effects achieve? Poe’s “The Raven” is an over-the-top case, but a clear one. The poem is partly about sound and its effects on thought, and words and meter are chosen to evoke the sounds themselves, as well as the words: ”the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain..” The repeated rhyme is also important, by the time the raven first says “nevermore,” the pattern is established, so that the raven’s pronouncement arrives with a sense of finality and inevitability which echoes or mirrors or just helps the reader appreciate the way thoughts of death and loss have taken over the narrator’s mind — the bleak obsession that is the theme of the poem.

Brooks and the New Critics would have us believe that what is at work is somehow magical. But there is no mystery here.

It's simple really. Like rain starts in the ocean, right?

Just so that there's no mystery here, either: Ernie Lepore, a professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Science at Rutgers University, writes on language and mind. More of his work, including two related studies, “On Words” and “Against Metaphorical Meaning,” can be found at his Rutgers Web site.


At 8/03/2011 7:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In defense of About:

I think it's a great word. I don't believe it demands a translation or paraphrase. It is an antidote to "what does this MEAN?"—to ask the meaning is to ask for something reductive.

But to ask what something is about allows any distance, ambiguity, or shifting perspective that a poem / painting / piece of music / photograph / performance might merit.

I use this vocabulary in photographic criticism all the time—What is this picture about?

It might be about something as specific as urban decline after the market crash.

Or about something as big and vague as death.

Or about formal concerns, like the effect of heavy elements crowded to the top of the frame creating a sense of imbalance.

Or about the implications of the unusual perspective

Or about new ways of seeing that can be brought to the Post-Friedlander urban documentary tradition.

Or about some, or all, or none of these things ...

Talking about what something is about is like talking around what something does.

about |əˈbout|
1 on the subject of; concerning : I was thinking about you | I asked him about his beliefs.
• so as to affect : there's nothing we can do about it.
• ( be about) be involved or to do with; have the intention of : it's all about having fun.
2 used to indicate movement within a particular area : she looked about the room.
3 used to express location in a particular place : rugs strewn about the hall | he produced a knife from somewhere about his person.
• used to describe a quality apparent in a person : there was a look about her that said everything.
1 used to indicate movement in an area : men were floundering about | finding my way about.
2 used to express location in a particular place : there was a lot of flu about | a thief about in the hotel.
3 (used with a number or quantity) approximately : reduced by about 5 percent | he's about 35.


At 8/03/2011 8:07 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Allen Grossman, I believe, was the one who said something like, "Poetry is about a subject in the way a cat is about the house."

So in that way, sure, sounds OK to me. But only if that means I get to be about 35.

At 8/03/2011 8:10 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Q: So what's your poem about?
A: Oh, it's about a page . . .

It's the language ambiguity that disrupts the binary.

At 8/03/2011 8:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's the language ambiguity that disrupts the binary."

And makes the language useful, in this case. But you can use the ambiguity in a less obviously subversive way than "it's about a page."

Someone asking what a poem is about may be expecting a translation. But if your answer is "it's about the fragility of the word-world relationship" or "it's about the sound of the words working against their meaning" ... or whatever ... your answer broadens the question they were asking without completely hijacking it.


At 8/03/2011 9:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul, this is all well and good, but now I can't decide whether I want poems that hijack the question, or poems that hijack the answer.


At 8/03/2011 9:21 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And I'm reacting to many years of the question, you know? And I'm trying to pretend that I'm not here. To paraphrase Spicer.

Yes, do we hijack the question, the answer, or are we the ones hijacked?

Well, the translator has to navigate meaning . . . does it arise fundamentally from a prior center, or does it arise in the relations between the form and content of the poem-as-object.

It's an unnecessary binary, as all answers in such an economy are YES. (The OR, above, is the error, then, when it should be an AND.)

Phenomenology & Structuralism go off on holiday to the coast together. The coast is determined. The vacation, less so. But we can guess.

At 8/03/2011 9:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poetry as cultural hijack has a long history: see the opening of Beowulf, Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," etc.

The "prior center" and the "in-between" are both relational, in poetry. The art form itself is interstitial, a tangible form of waiting.


At 8/03/2011 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: hijacking ... there's plenty of poetry that does lend itself to paraphrase / translation / reductive explanation. It just happens to be the poetry that I avoid (I suspect most people reading this feel similarly).

"What is this about?" when it means "what does this mean?" presumes the first kind of poem, often out of ignorance of other kinds.

I like the gently subversive kind of hijack, because it tries to shed some light on the whole enterprise. A zen slap, not a zen whack on the knee with a pipe.


At 8/03/2011 11:47 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

My young nephew is interested in writing poetry, but he doesn't "get" my poems. If I show him lines like

A paltry wage hike
in the mountainlike patterns
inscribed on my eyelids.

Sous-chefs loom like government-subsidized
icebergs between the cobbles on the path to
the annual fundrazor.

he'll ask what they MEAN or what they're ABOUT. My usual answer--to him or other puzzled people--is "They mean--or they're about--the experience of being shocked or opened/loosened up by the strange juxtapositions." The experience of the Zen tolchok.

At 8/03/2011 12:24 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Encounters with meaning are inevitable. I know this. But luckily, I've not had people come up to me much and ask what my poems mean, or are about. I guess I'd try to answer. Maybe say something about the title or something. Mostly those conversations just make me want to go run and hide. I'm nto afraid of meaning, or having poems be about something, it's just that when I've seen the question asked, it's been asked hoping the poet or whomever will hand them a key that will make the poem "clear." So answers are rarely (I want to say never) helpful.

Poetry, as all waiting, is referential. Or else, poetry, as all wading, is reverential. But that's another binary.

At 8/03/2011 12:48 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Whenever I tell people I write they want to see my poems. They too, are confused and want to know what I mean. Sometimes I can put some general theme out there, or what I think the poem is doing, but I hate doing that because then it colors how they read it. I always try to encourage that person that they might have a better interpretation than I do.

At 8/03/2011 1:19 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Yes, they ask you what it means, as if its purpose should be to convey wisdom. Or they sound like Anis Shivani: "WTF does it all mean?" They insinuate that your writing is chicanery, and they want to expose your fraudulence.

Often I'm aware that a multiplicity of meanings has accrued in the words I've assembled, but like you guys, I don't want to talk about it. I'm actually afraid that thinking too much about what I mean will "mess me up." As Spicer said, "I always try not to see the connections" (qtd. in Gallaher).

At 8/03/2011 1:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Answering about your own work is always fraught ... no one wants to touch that.

But suppose you're asked about someone else's? To keep it safe, how about someone famous, maybe even dead?

I think of the ways good critics (all three of them!) are able to illuminate work without trying to paraphrase or reduce or solve.


At 8/03/2011 1:49 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

David -

That reminds me. Chicanery means zigzagging and can be both con artistry and pure phenomenology of attention. Now you see it.

Bullshit is another thing altogether.

At 8/03/2011 3:12 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I probably should have written "bullshit," Jordan, though my experiences of the bullshit's color (brown) and location (the flashdrive in which I store my "poems") are subjective phenomena.

At 8/04/2011 8:00 AM, Blogger MASchiavo said...

Although he fails to mention Emerson (this is a complaint I have with most of The Stone's philosophers) or his essay "The Poet" in this particular case, I think, for a general reading audience, this is a fine enough defense/explanation. It's much better than having a Dining Section writer review poetry books.


At 8/04/2011 8:07 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Michael,

I'll give you that. AT the very least, it's a general-audience counter to the slings and arrows of the Content crowd.

At 8/04/2011 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, at Princeton, "dining" is actually the same as "English literature."

At 8/05/2011 12:33 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

so why are "theme" anthologies so popular and prevalent? Look at the shelves, dozens, probably hundreds of them over the past 3 or 4 decades, School poems, Farm poems, Car poems, Car poems by women, Movie poems, Mother poems, Mother/Daughter poems, Mother/Son poems, Father poems, Birth poems, you name it, there's an anthology of poems "about" it— there must be a reason why publishers keep putting out anthols like this...

At 8/05/2011 12:53 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

How about an anthology of disgusting eyeball poems? A man sitting on a bus pulls a hard-boiled egg out of his eyesocket and bites into it...

At 8/05/2011 1:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"so why are "theme" anthologies so popular and prevalent?"

You see this in visual arts as well. A monograph of a single photographer, or a book documenting a contemporary movement or esthetic school, will mostly appeal to the (very small) market of insiders.

A theme book, like an anthology of pictures of the aftermath of Katrina, or a day in the life of america, the sexiest firefighters of 9/11, or whatever ... these are themes a layperson can more easily wrap their heads around.

Publishers call them crossover books ... books that reach outside the insider audience. Most of the "hits" in art publishing are of this type.



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