by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau

pipeReading and analysing (and perhaps even enjoying poetry) are complicated by competing perspectives, both current and historical, on what actually constitutes ‘poetic language’. A major player in the formation of such perspectives are the questions of if, how and why a written art-form which is subject to all the normal limitations of language can present thoughts, events, feelings, concepts or combinations of these in a manner which transcends language’s significatory limitations to create a poetic text-object which is more than the sum of its linguistic parts. Does poetry create or only represent its subject matter, and to what extent should these two states of creation and representation be labelled (as they have been) as a binary opposition?

The utility of attempting to define ‘what’ poetic language is lies perhaps mainly in the light it can shed on the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ it exists. Poetry of any kind presents deliberate linguistic challenges to the reader – chronological compression and expansion, rapid shifts in mood or character presence, the abstraction of images, referents and phrasing shaped to some degree by the impositions of form, or the creation of ‘vowel and consonant music’. These challenges are not necessarily present (or are present to a lesser degree) in the discourses of natural language. In the terminology of linguistics, natural language describes a means of communication arising in an unpremeditated fashion as the result of the human intellect’s innate facility for language. This serves to imply that poetic language is considered as being to some degree a constructed language; the degree of construction being dependent on the individual poem and its milieu.

PastedGraphic-1In poetry of the modernist era onward, where the refusal or subversion of poetic form, the displacement, fracture or effacement of a unified lyric subject and a conscious exploitation of the Saussurian deconstruction of the link between signifier and signified are somewhat normalised, this constructedness is perhaps at its most obvious. However, contemporary re-investigations of earlier poetic texts can reveal internal oppositions and complications to simplistic acts of representation through the introduction of reading practices which place a particular emphasis on the historical, social and cultural conditions of the text’s construction; such as Marxist, post-colonial or feminist readings. It is clear that, overall, a concise, workable definition of ‘poetic language’ is increasingly problematic considering the breadth and diversity of poetic material now extant.

Still, a definition of poetic language remains important for critics and practitioners, as well as publishers and other agents in the literary sphere. Not an essentialist definition listing a range of necessary attributes, for that might proscribe the addition of as yet unconsidered possibilities, but one which seeks out bases of similarity at least as broad as the bases of difference in text-objects being considered comparatively as ‘poems’. The question of what poetic language is, how its purpose differs from other types of language use marks the genesis of poetics itself, and an increased interest in the role and responsibility of the poet as the arbiter of the representation shown to the reader / audience. Ian Johnston traces the shift in classical thinking thus:

In Homer there is a recurring celebration of art, but it is not seen as anything we need to discuss or debate. It is there to celebrate the deeds of great heroes and divinities or as a manifestation of the excellence of the owner of the art (like Menelaus) or to foster enjoyment among those who contemplate it…What makes a work of art good is self-evident–it moves those who are exposed to it to admiration.

Plato, Ancient Greek philosopherI think it would be fair to say that we may never quite escape this attitude (the enjoyment ideal) towards art entirely, from a subjective, if not theoretical, standpoint. From Plato’s Republic onwards, though, debates about poetics begin to be shaped by a constantly evolving notion of the role and means of representation in the poetic text, and the social function of writing as an art-form. For the first time, ‘the contribution of poesis to the political development of the community and to the well being of the individual lies at the heart of the argument’ (Johnston).

Thus from Plato’s politically motivated suspicions of the poet as an imitator of forms twice-removed from the essence of the subject-matter who may promulgate bad examples as well as good, a split develops between the voice of the poet and the voice of the poem:

Placed alongside a nascent theory of genre, the idea of mimesis introduces the important issue of decorum (what is appropriate for certain characters to say or do in certain situations). An ancient concern for genre thereby anticipated one of the fundamental tenets of later formalism, namely that representational content is inseparable from representational form (Hamilton 2005, 2876). [1]

The genesis of a political or a moral dimension to poetry leads to the notion of the author as responsible for his or her own material, which inevitably leads to some conflation of authorial presence with lyric presence. Plato’s dismissal of poetry as an art that is purely mimetic (but flawed) has ramifications today, although the idea of mimesis is considerably broadened in scope. Acts of representation are widely divergent, and are often aimed at transcending the ways in which natural language might explain an object or situation. Both diachronically, in the flow of poetic movements, and synchronically from poet to poet, both that which poetry represents and the method of representing it varies greatly: thus, Wordsworth’s ‘fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’ presents a very different attempt to give verisimilitude to the representation of intangible abstract concepts such as sublimity than does Keats’s formalism.

In the twentieth century beginnings of formalism and modernism, concerns multiply about the fact that poetic language is crafted from essentially the same building blocks as the language of the everyday. From Todorov’s idea that ‘[l]iterature exists by words; but its dialectical vocation is to say more than language says, to transcend verbal divisions … the nature of literary discourse is to go beyond otherwise it would have no reason for being; literature is a kind of murderous weapon by which language commits suicide’ [2] to Shklovsky’s insistence that ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’ [3] to T. E. Hulme’s view of the artistic object as a synchronic capturing of multiple perceptions and of the artist as one who fashions ‘a fixed model of one of these transient waves [and] enables you to isolate it out and to perceive it in yourself’[4], the concern lies primarily with esthesis rather than poiesis; the challenges of how to engage a particular type of reception in the reader or observer within the set of limitations placed by language. Representation is a focus here, but it is the representation of complex combinations of affects, not a poor imitation of a Platonic ideal, and may not rely on direct description or the felt impressions of a lyric subject.

By the time experimental and high-modernism, with their absent or fractured lyric subjects, had coalesced into the more institutionalised versions of the post World War Two years, voice began to come to the fore again as an instrument of representation in the poem. Robert Lowell’s famous acceptance speech at the 1960 National Book awards placed a firm distinction between two poetic camps – even if he was trying to avoid placing himself within either:

[s]omething earth-shaking was started about fifty years ago by the generation of Eliot, Frost and William Carlos Williams … Two poetries are now competing, a cooked and a raw. The cooked, marvelously expert, often seems laboriously concocted to be tasted and digested by a graduate seminar. The raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience are dished up for midnight listeners. There is a poetry that can only be studied, and a poetry that can only be declaimed.

lowell_roth_ellmanHere, Lowell is speaking of new formalist poetries as the cooked, and beat poetry as the raw. His speech posits a binary split between poetry for the page and oral poetry, a poetry of form and a poetry of content and perhaps most importantly a poetry for the academy and a poetry for the real world. Although by now distinctions between academic and non-academic poetic practice are fairly blurred, the binaries developed from these earlier perspectives (academic poetry as form-driven, representational, mainstream and avant-garde poetries as a non-intelligible experience created in language which can barely be contained on the page) still haunt debates on poetics.

Yet even the most avant-garde poetries – those which reject signification in the traditional sense of the word and to which no natural language ‘meaning’ can be ascribed and those such as language poetry which seek to lay bare the very operations of language itself, as opposed to its signified meaning, can be said to be representing something – in this case the operations of language. Poetry has always dealt with portraying imaginings, intangibles, human emotions and the workings of the interior aspects of human consciousness. To some degree then, we might say that all poetry is ‘representational’, and the question of how different poems represent or render their poetic object is perhaps of greater interest. Roland Barthes, speaking to the idea of the deconstruction of the sign, suggests that:

poetry … attempts to regain an infra-signification, a pre-semiological state of language; in short, it tries to transform the sign back into meaning: its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things themselves. This is why it clouds the language, increases as much as it can the abstractness of the concept and the arbitrariness of the sign and stretches to the limit the link between signifier and signified. [5]

It has just occurred to me, that in an odd way, this idea, although very much aligned with contemporary debates in poetics, almost overreaches its point of origin, hinting back at the Platonic idea that there is an essential form in the meaning of things of themselves. Perhaps if we could resolve this knotty question, the rest would fall into place. This can of worms might be best left for another day, though.

The wants to create a thing through language, but can only describe it, using a predetermined number of available signifiers. Twisting the structure and choice of signifiers makes a poem ‘difficult’ to read. Should the poet stray outside the bounds of those signifiers, for example writing in a personally created language, the poetic text ceases to signify to the reader in any way. Thus the poem is always held in tension between its attempts to transcend language’s limitations and its need to signify something, somehow for someone.

Cast in a contemporary light, we might see the evolution of Plato’s perception of poetry’s failure to move beyond the mimetic to the ideal form as a set of issues and competing arguments around the limits of poetic representation, in which the position of the poet’s ‘voice’ often plays a major role. Although the voice of a poem is not necessarily that of a lyric ‘I’, in practice the positioning of voice and/or of the speaking subject of the poem has a lot to do with how we understand mimesis – the position of a unified lyric voice tends to align itself naturally with the concept of representation. Even if what the lyric portrays is an abstract concept, or indeed not a concept at all, the presence of a unified first person voice, whether denoted by the presence of an ‘I’, or its apparent direction toward the presence of a ‘you’ lends it a perceived tangibility, a realness, because we tend, as humans, to speak about things. In the next post, I’ll look at Claire Nashar’s article ‘as the new  / gets newer’ in the current issue of Southerly, and think about what I’ve written today in both an Australian context and in terms of my own work. I’ve made some rather sweeping claims; get stuck in!

[1] Hamilton, John (2005). “Poetry and Poetics.” In Maryanne Cline Horowitz (ed.) New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Vol. 5. 6 vols. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: 2876-78

[2] Todorov, Tzvetan (1975). The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Translated by Richard Howard. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press. 267.

[3] Shklovsky, Viktor (1965). “Art as Technique.” In Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (eds.) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press: 3-24. 12.

[4] Hulme, T. E. (1936). Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art. London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd. 115.

[5] Barthes, Roland (1972). Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 132-33.

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