Poetry. Whatever.

This from Ernie Lapore and Matthew Stone at the NYT Opinionator blog, “Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination” [2.12.2012]:

In short, a poem — and artistic language more generally — is open to whatever we find in it.  Whenever we notice that an unexpected formal feature amplifies our experience of a poem in a novel way, we add to our understanding.  All the same, we can still say what makes these interpretive efforts poetic.  They do not concern the ordinary significance of form in language.  When we approach language prosaically, our focus is on arbitrary conventions that link words to things in the world and to the contents of thought.  These links allow us to raise questions about what’s true, and to coordinate our investigations to find answers.  But poetry exists because we are just as interested in discovering ourselves, and one another, in what we say.  Poetry evokes a special kind of thinking — where we interpret ordinary links between language and world and mind as a kind of diagram of the possibilities of experience.

New technologies can only add to these possibilities.


I have no idea what the line about new technologies is doing, thrown away there at the end. But the rest of the article has no philosophical, psychological, or linguistic insights that I can detect, which may account for its obtuse conclusions about poetry and poetic language. The authors go through a Fishean exercise with some so-called found poetry in order to point out how we engage differently with poems than with other language. And by poems they seem to mean only “lineated written language.” But as David Beaver’s attempt to make a found poem out of their article demonstrates (despite itself, perhaps) just because a good definition for poetry doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean that any broken up or defamiliarized thing will qualify as poetry.

A half-decent experiment along these lines would think about the case of a prose poem, or an actual found poem, rather than the cute journalistic exercise by Alan Feuer (all of whose relineated Craigslist ads sound vaguely Williamsian, I suppose by design: “It was incredibly humid / and you had pink top and jeans.” The best of Hart Seely’s Rumsfeld poems, on the other hand, are vaguely Eliotic – the worst are vaguely Haiku, or Jack-Handyian). I mean, there are some out there in the wild. Some of them good. See Michael Longley, for a start.

The authors of the post give us two alternative linguistic-philosophical approaches (semantics and pragmatics) that they say cover the field of linguistic understanding, and then drop their bomb:

We believe, contrary to these received views, that the key differences are to be found in the different ways the audience can engage with language. In our view, part of what makes language artistic is that we have to explore it actively in order to appreciate it.

Is this really the state of philosophical enquiry into this question today? If so, perhaps it’s time our cutting edge philosophers took an entry-level literature course. It reminds me of a seminar in Oxford in which a fairly well-known philosopher thought he had discovered something totally new when he applied J. L. Austin’s ideas on speech acts to poems, in that they performed the very things they described. Mind=blown. Enjamb-


Having just finished teaching English 251A (“Criticism I”), in which I spent the best part of twelve weeks thinking about the problems of literary interpretation with second-year students in the arts, I would hope that any one of them could give me both the long and the short intellectual history of this kind of thinking, plus three or four problems with it. From what I can tell of their final essays, they are (as I am) still tumbling Susan Sontag’s epigrammatic concluding sentence around in their heads: “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”.

A poem is not “open to whatever we find in it.” A poem is not the pool of Narcissus. It does operate differently from prose and does evoke a special kind of thinking, yes, but not because prose raises questions about its truth relation to the world and poetry is more interested in internal and interpersonal states. Among the reasons why the distinction is meaningless is because internal states and interpersonal relations are things in the world. But it’s also true that poems are about things, and that we can learn things about things, can raise questions as to the kind of truth or untruth we are encountering, in poems.

A poem that is closed to some of the things we would wish to find in it is often the kind we should care the most about.

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