8 jul 2005

The idea that poetry is a distinctive kind of thinking, that cannot be replaced by paraphrase. Heiddeger thought so. So did María Zambrano. The Anglo-American New Critics thought so. Derrida thought so. William Blake. William Carlos Williams, John Ashbery, C. Dale Young, and André Breton, all agree. So does David Shapiro. Gerard Bruns and Maurice Blanchot. Chantal Maillard, recent winner of the Premio Nacional de Poesía in Spain for her book La muerte de Platón thinks so. She is also a philosopher and specialist on María Zambrano, a Spanish philosopher better than Ortega y Gasset. Even Helen Vendler thinks so. I don't know Lance Armstrong's opinion of the matter, though I'd like to know yours. I suspect Joe Montana and Charles Bernstein agree with me, not to mention K. Silem Mohammad.

This is an idea so basic and foundational to modern poetics, that it can serve almost as a litmus test. Someone who thinks of poetry as fancy language for dressing up other kinds of "propositional content" are on the other side of a great divide. Excuse the fact that I am being a "lumper" here rather than a "splitter." That is, I'm not going to go through and explain all the differences among those I've lumped together.

17 comentarios:

Kasey Mohammad dijo...

Do you know of anyone who actually holds the "dressing-up" belief about poetry? I mean, as an actual position, not just as an ignorant or apathetic assumption?

Jonathan dijo...

Joan Houlihan? Any number of literary critics in academia whose reading practice basically commits them to read for "content." Whether you want to conclude in these cases that the assumption is ignorant and passively held, or a principled position, I don't know.

C. Dale dijo...

"The idea that poetry is a distinctive kind of thinking, that cannot be replaced by paraphrase."

I agree mostly because whenever I try to recount what a poem is "about" it always sounds horrendous. A significant part of understanding a poem, for me, is inhabiting it. When reading a poem, I like not just what it says but the "world" or "landscape" of the poem. When describing a poem to someone, I often find I cannot relay for them the oddity and wonder of a poem without just handing them the poem.

Mike Hauser dijo...

poetry is a way of dressing for the end of the world or like your perception (or knowledge of existing) is a little dog you take for a walk and poetry is the little sweater it doesn't want to wear or if you eat alot of dressing poetry is how you digest it or is how you think about dressing for your 93 year high school reunion where Kenneth Koch (very charming) asks to dance with your date and then whatever happens in this special case is poetry

Kasey Mohammad dijo...

My point is that even the persons you mention, Jonathan, would *say* they believe that poetry is ideally unparaphraseable, etc. Their practice, and the poems they actually admire, may belie that belief, but it would still be the official line they would take. No one would *want* to be characterized as upholders of the poetry-as-dressing-up theory. Except maybe Lucretius or other ancients who wrote in metered strophes for "non-poetic" purposes.

In fact, the dogma is *so* prevalent and so oft-appealed-to that it makes one almost want to challenge it by starting a contemporary didactic movement that advocates using verse as an incidental scaffolding to prop up ideas. The New Cosmeticists?

Jonathan dijo...

I'm not sure. Yvor Winters, for example, clearly stated that poetry had a paraphraseable meaning by which it could be judged. His influence is felt on the whole new-formalist crowd even to this day. And there is a whole lot of didactic poetry already out there, in fact, poetry that is all about its message. You don't have to invent a new movement here.

You are right that many if not all would retreat if challenged on this point, but then they would come back the next day with their assumptions intact. Don't all these demands for accessibility ultimately rely on a notion of paraphraseable content?

Jonathan dijo...


In other words, everyone agrees, but not everyone follows through on the consequences of this belief.

Dan Green dijo...

I'd like to think that this applies to fiction as well. To the extent that fiction is to be taken as literary art (emphasis art), it has to apply. And there are many, many critics who write of fiction as "fancy language for dressing up other kinds of 'propositional content.'"

jwg dijo...

From ?A Homemade World? by Hugh Kenner:

?No one can page through his (Wallace Stevens) letters without being struck by his confidence that his poems have a paraphrasable content, worth the extracting. In the thirties, to Ronald Lane Latimer, and in the forties, to Hi Simons, he tirelessly explicated, explicated. ?In ?A Facing of the Sun? the point is that, instead of crying for help to God or one of the gods, we should look to ourselves for help. The exaltation of human nature should take the place of its abasement.?

Jonathan dijo...

That's Kenner trying to make Stevens look bad, which shows that "paraphrasable content" can only be a term of abuse. That's the dullest side of Stevens, in fact, the urge to explain himself.

Nick Piombino dijo...

In support of Jonathan's point, the #1 result Googling
The New York School of poets includes this passage
byJohn Simon:

"So, by way of further laying down of cards, let me state my idea of poetry. It comprises music, painting (imagery), insight, and pregnancy or memorableness of utterance, the first two, of course, in a special sense. Ambiguity, too, may be a legitimate device, but it should not be confused with the mainstay of much New York School (henceforth NYS) stuff: openness to infinite, arbitrary, private readings?quot homines, tot sententiae. That way lies formlessness, dissolution, anarchy, and, yes, madness, when free association, becoming too free, hurtles into dementia.

By accepting such scot-free association, anything the NYS poets tossed off or elucubrated could be proclaimed poetry. That these poets were closely associated with some painters (mostly of the NYS of painting) and some composers explains one of their major fallacies: the bland assumption that the procedures of the other arts could be readily appropriated by poetry, so that, for instance, the techniques of Jackson Pollock and John Cage could be applied to writing poems."

Robert dijo...

I think it's true it would be hard to find anyone who agrees with the "dressing up" theory. Even a "simple" poem like Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" ("The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough") can't be paraphrased into some platitude like "Life is short and sad" without destroying the poem. On the other hand, the poem is "clear" in a way that it wouldn't have been if he'd said, say, "The bough of apparition wet these on ...." It's almost the simultaneous accessibility and inaccessibility that makes it a poem.

michael dijo...

it's not the meaning but the mystery of poems that matters.

within this mystery there are complex negotiations--some of which may be crudely oversimplified into usable paraphrases, without ever touching the reasons that that poem was written & works as it does.

meaningfulness is not an essence; it's a world.


robert dijo...

You could say too, that this so-called "twinkie" argument about meaning is a collection of banalities "dressed up" as insights. The obvious by way of a silly metaphor. Here's another one: Kasey's "argument" resembles a donut--lots of circular reasoning with an empty center.

Silliman is the undisputed master of the donut argument. Check out this piece based on Silliman's recent nonsensical bloggings about Clark Coolidge:


Jonathan dijo...


Yeah, "You" could say that, but that would make you an idiot, the kind of idiot I have no patience for. Kasey's reflections on meaning in poetry are quite brilliant. Coolidge is one of the great poets of our time, and Silliman is right to defend him against cretins like those at Webdelsol.

robert dijo...

This all reminds me of the old joke: "You know what kind of idiot I hate the most?" "No, what kind?" "A stupid idiot."

It's one thing to make self-evident statements dressed up as insights and another, worse, thing to call such banalities "brilliant." Really. What poet or reader of poems could possibly believe that poems are simply content or pieces of writing to be paraphrased? Of course poems are more than their "meaning"-- however you choose to characterize that term (and it's certainly more than content)--otherwise they wouldn't need to be poems. Duh.

"Coolidge is one of the great poets of our time, and Silliman is right to defend him."

Coolidge is a waste of time for anyone who cares about poetry and Silliman is pursuing an idea about poetry that passed its prime--long ago.

And "You" my friend are the kind of idiot I have no patience for--a self-righteous and intellectually pretentious idiot.

robert dijo...

"Don't all these demands for accessibility ultimately rely on a notion of paraphraseable content?"

Accessibility and paraphrasable content are not synonymous. For example, you can have access to someone's emotional--and even, to some extent, mental--state, through intuition, empathy, prior knowledge of the person, etc. without being able to--
or, perhaps more importantly, without wanting to--paraphrase it. Poems are often paraphrased in a classroom as a way to discuss aspects of the poem, but such paraphrase always falls short of the poem. This is so much a truism, I can't believe it's being
debated here, that anyone here claims there are serious readers (or writers) of poetry who believe accessibility in re: to a poem means being able to paraphrase it. An accessible poem enables the reader to inhabit the poem, to enter the same creative domain, as it were, to experience it, not to sum it up in a paraphrase. Accessibility allows inhabiting, experiencing. Paraphrasing is a reductive, sometimes instructive activity, a shorthanding of the poem so as to discuss some of its features and techniques.

How can this blogging community hold such wrong-headed beliefs--perhaps because it serves to prop up delusions of being "avant-garde"? (To be "ahead" someone necessarily needs to be behind--thus, a need to create such a laggard group when they don't really exist?) Kasey at least has a clue that the so called "mainstream" would not characterize themselves as they are being characterized here. The next step is to understand that the reason is simply because such characterizations are not true. They are self-serving characterizations only. The straw-man mainstream poet-idiot who makes all the avant-gardners look smart, even when they are unitelligible or banal--or both.