medium and meaning: an argument for poetry

I recently came across this article in the New York Times and wanted to share it.  In a sense, it is a defense of poetry.  And why does poetry need defending?  Because people are always asking why it is that what is said in a poem can’t be said more simply and clearly in another way.  Poetry is unclear and inaccessible, or so it would seem to many people.  And even philosophers and linguists ask (according to Ernie Lepore, the author of this article), “How do we figure out what a poem means if its words do not carry familiar learned meanings?”  So many of these cultured despisers (to borrow a term of Kierkegaard) of poetry seem to think that a poem can be turned in prose – translated and paraphrased into a more easily understandable summary.  Why not just say exactly what you mean, they all seem to ask.

The problem with asking most poets to answer this question is that they will go out and write a poem in response and leave the philosophers and linguists just as confused as before (perhaps I exaggerate, but you get the idea).  Lepore makes an appeal to the poetic authority of TS Eliot to answer this infuriating question that gets to the heart of why paraphrasing poetry defeats the purpose of poetry entirely.  Eliot was asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” His response? “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.”  The point here is that poets do say what they mean; a poem says something that can be said in no other way and through no other medium.

Poetry shows us the power of the medium itself – the very articulations and presentations of the words and the meanings attached to them.  These articulations themselves can take on meaning, and this extra layer of meaning would be lost in a translation to another form of language.  Lepore gives the example of italicization: this practice allows the poet to present a word in a manner that cannot be carried over into the medium of the spoken word.  The full force of the italicized word is only there when we can see the word on the page, untranslated.

All this is to say that some things can only be said with poetry (and that you should read this article).  In Lepore’s words, “it is…in and through a chosen medium that the poet intuits the object in the first place,” and if the medium of the poet’s intuition is poetry and is articulated in a poem, paraphrasing this expression of the poet’s intuition through the use of a different medium can never do justice to the full force and meaning of the original expression.  Not everyone intuits their lives poetically (and indeed, even poets are never constantly thinking and feeling poetically…or perhaps there are some who do, but that is  a different blog post in the making), and those disinclined to poetry may not be able to appreciate the beauty or harshness or tragedy or joy in a perfect rhyme scheme or a surprising word choice.  But that does not change the fact that there is so much more unspoken meaning in saying, “My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night,” than a “translation” of these two lines into “I’m getting tired” or “I’m wearing myself out.”  It is generally accepted that the sense and meaning of photographs and music are never fully re-expressed in words, and what skeptics of poetry must fully realize is that like these other forms of expression, poetry is communicating something that relies on the very medium itself to be revealed.


3 Responses

  1. All we can say is that poets say what they say. Who knows if they say what they mean, or if they mean what they say. Sometimes, obscurity is its own reward. We don’t react to poetry because we lack an internal vocabulary of reaction, because we don’t have the patience or have never developed the inclination to develop one. We don’t even know that we are missing: beauty; surprise; awe; trepidation; etc, so we never search for them, and cannot articulate if we notice them. Glimmers are caught as we pass through our day, and sometimes we look up, puzzled, before descending back into the murk, forgetting it all.

    • Can we react to poetry only with poetry? I’m curious about this “internal vocabulary of reaction;” is it a poetic vocabulary, or can it be something else entirely? Perhaps all the scholars who try to respond to poetry with the language of academia and theory are undertaking a feat similar to attempting to answer a question in French with an answer in Russian. But maybe I am being to harsh with the academics. Maybe by analyzing poetry in a non-poetic language, we can reveal even more glimmers of beauty – we pick the poem open with analytic trepidation and awe, and who knows what surprises can be had. Theory and literary analysis, then, can have a poetic value of its own…sometimes.

  2. 1. Something else entirely. I see an internal vocabulary of reaction as part of a language of longing, and not restricted to poetry. If we are completely inarticulate about deeper things, can we do more than even register them?
    2. Does poetry need “defending”? A non-responsiveness to, or puzzlement at, poetry is part of culture that may be superficially clever, but which runs from the profound. When we run from profundity, meaning, depth, when we are satisfied with easy stimulus, cheap sentiment, when we don’t cultivate reflection, and avoid paying attention to our deepest longings because it is hard or because it hurts or is bewildering or may demand a response that is too difficult, how can we expect to find value in poetry? To do those things, we need time, inclination, encouragement and strength. Do we keep the inclination if we weren’t rewarded for it at least a little, or if we are not satisfied with all the rest?
    3. Tools of analysis of course can help. Learning and exposure are important. It is a false democracy to assume or demand that all be revealed at a glance, a false egalitarianism to assume that skills (and tastes) cannot be developed. (I accept immediately you are not saying these things.) If you have had the experience of picking a poem open with analytic trepidation and awe, you are very fortunate, and if you are still doing that, I envy you. How many academics and scholars are there? How many schools are there? How many millions of words have already been written? I love literature, so I decide to study it. My inclination remains and I do well at my studies, so I decide to make a living of this. Can I make such a living remaining fresh, without feeling forced to continue to trot out cleverness after cleverness? What fad or trend must I align myself with to be published? How do I compete with other scholars, living and dead? Am I not now part of an industrial process, which can exist because my society allows my class to exist? It can all help, it can all be beautiful, everything can be poetic. I just don’t think that we can expect it will be, or at least not very often. So think I agree with you. The answer is: sometimes.

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