on poetry, articulation, connotation, meaning, and magic

Posted on: Mon, 08/01/2011 - 12:48 By: Tom Swiss

I may be wrong, but from the leaden, academic prose of Professor Ernie Lepore's "Poetry, Medium and Message", I suspect that the good professor is not a poet.

I don't merely mean that he's not a published poet, or not a critically-acclaimed poet, or not a good poet (three very different things, by the way!); I mean that I have the sneaking suspicion that the idea of writing a poem fills him with the same sort of dread that the idea of drawing a picture inspires in me, or that the idea of public speaking inspires in the average American.

It's okay to not be a poet, of course, just as its okay to not be an artist or a musician or a bricklayer or a parent. But if I were to write about painting or masonry or parenting, I would certainly consult an artist or a bricklayer or a parent, and pay heed to what they say.

I'd love to have Lepore come out to Zelda's Inferno, our weekly poetry workshop, for a couple of weeks to learn what poetry is about. Instead, he cites poets only to claim that they cannot possibly mean what they say. He rejects the idea that "form shapes content", and claims that the distinguishing feature of poetry is its attention to "articulations", the linguistic sounds (or marks, but in poetry sound dominates) by which a piece is transmitted, and that "the poet wants to draw the audience's attention to these articulations as much as to the ideas the words so articulated express."

In support of his claim that "[t]he poet does not first intuit her object and then find an appropriate medium in which to articulate it...rather...through a chosen medium that the poet intuits the object in the first place", he cites not a poet, but another academic philosopher. Would it not be more fitting to ask a poet, "Pardon me, good sir or lady, but when you write about a flower or a mountain or a lover, do you intuit the object of your poem first and then become poetic about it later (though perhaps only a moment later), or do you initially apprehend the object via poetry?"

I would certain pity a poet who could only apprehend flowers, mountains, or lovers through poetry! In order to be a poet one must be a complete human being, capable of direct experience. In so far as it is an intentional creation, a poem is a comment or a gloss on that experience, a means of sorting out one's thoughts and capturing the memory of the experience, and an attempt to create a resonating experience in a reader or listener. But to some degree, a poem is also an unintentional, natural response of the poet. Strike a gong with a mallet and a tone results; strike a poet with a certain sort of experience and a poem results. But either way, the experience comes first.

Yes, a poet pays attention to the "articulations" of his or her work. (And what a suggestive word Lepore has chosen here, suggestive of the movable joints of a body or of a mobile work of sculpture, as in "a fully articulated model".) This is the craft of poetry -- rhythm and rhyme and tone work their way into the brain via unguarded backdoors. When the "articulations" of form unify with the shape and movement of content, the effect is synergistic, more than a simple sum.

But a poet who draws the audience's attention too much to matters of form is a gaudy showman, a ham actor, a technically proficient but soulless musician, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

The form and the content of a poem go together, shape each other. This is not some "New Criticism" idea but has been recognized as one of the driving forces in poetry at least since the days of Pope, who tells us that "The sound must seem an echo to the sense".

It's fairly clear how content shapes form: the poet wishes to speak of something, and has a toolbox of forms from which to choose. When setting out to tell a heroic story, don't pick a limerick. But form also shapes content. Let's look at one of Lepore's own examples to see how this works.

The professor cites Coleridge’s "Rime of the Ancient Mariner":

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.

and notes that if we substitute "luster" for "sheen", we break the rhythm and the rhyme that ties the lines together.

But he misses something even more important: "luster" is not a word of identical meaning with "sheen", it carries slightly different connotations. Pearls have luster, not sheen. (Google hits for "luster of pearls": 323,000. Hits for "sheen of pearls": 17,700.) I would say the same for gold. Oil on water has a sheen, not a luster. Aluminum, perhaps, has sheen but not luster.

When we choose either "luster" or "sheen", it brings with it a host of associations, and these subtly change the meaning. The content is different.

So even if Coleridge were writing in free verse, as a sensitive user of language it's quite possible he would have deliberately chosen "sheen" over "luster" here, to bring in the proper shade. But he wasn't writing in free verse; his word choice -- and thus the shades of meaning available to him -- was constrained by the form he had chosen.

Let's imagine that at some point in the composition, he had the other three lines, but not the second:

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
da da da da da da
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken —
The ice was all between.

"Hmm," thinks ol' Samuel T., "what can I rhyme with between? Bean, keen, mean, seen -- hmm, da da da da was seen...maybe. What else...teen, wean, seem -- that opens up possibilities but no, I just rhymed "cold" with "emerald", can't get away with another near-rhyme. Lean, ball peen, sheen -- oo! The sheen of the ice. Yes, that works."

And so the form of the poem leads him to choose "sheen", and we get all the connotations and associations that word brings along with it. The sound has shaped the sense, the form has shaped the content.

In fact, given that generations of native English speakers have grown up with "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as mandatory reading, Coleridge's rhyme-constrained selection of "sheen" has been a player in shaping the connotations that this word now carries for all of us. The fact that "sheen" rhymes with "between" has, in a small way, affected the evolution of our language!

Now, if we are reading a technical manual, we are probably deaf to the distinction between "luster" and "sheen". But when we read a poem or a literary work, we know that we are reading something operating in the realm of art and are more alert to subtle matters of both connotation and "articulation". Lepore says that "[l]inguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur". But this ignores the fact that any linguistic expression occurs in a certain context.

This is why synonyms are not identical linguistic expressions. If they were we could purge the English language of a great many redundant words. But instead of redundancy, this plethora of words gives the writer the ability to select subtle hues of connotation.

Putting considerations of "articulation" aside, when we are operating in the poetic mode it is most definitely not the case that, as Lapore puts it, "we can introduce a new expression to mean exactly whatever an old expression means". When we step into a poem we are in the territory of chaos theory, and small changes of connotation can be magnified by the non-linear dynamics of the thing, like the flapping of the butterfly wings that causes a hurricane.

And as that last paragraph illustrates, linguistic expressions are not limited to word choice. Metaphor is also a key means of expression. If we consider "the heresy of paraphrase" in the problem of translation, metaphor is a huge cross-cultural problem. "Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing" does not have the same impact on us that it has on a nomadic herding culture.

It seems odd that in 1,500 words about poetry, Lapore has nothing to say about metaphor. From another work, it appears that he denies that metaphor is a means of conveying truth, and seems bent on attempting to make problems of "meaning" tractable by removing metaphor from consideration.

So perhaps it's not surprising that he seems unable or unwilling to consider its function in poetry. Indeed, I must suspect this drive to render problems of meaning tractable is also at the root of his attempt to reduce poetry to matters of "articulation".

But I will go so far at to say that there is not some gulf between poetry and prose, where a linguistic expression necessarily means one thing in a poem and another in a prose work. There is no firm line between the two; the context of a prose piece can alert us to poetic interpretation.

To take one of my favorite examples, I used to read Hunter S. Thompson's essay Midnight on the Coast Highway at poetry readings. Look at the poetic devices: the rhythm of "the legacy of the big machine", the onomatopoeia of "suddenly – zaaapppp – going past", the metaphors of "four hundred pounds of chrome and deep red noise" or "howling though a turn to your right", and of course the overarching metaphor of The Edge. This is a piece that jumps back and forth between any arbitrary line we might choose to draw between "poetry" and "prose".

And Thompson wrote it, not because he apprehended the experience of a wild motorcycle ride by means of prose/poetry, but because he had this overflowing experience that he wanted to capture for his own reference and to share with others. He selected every word for its raw, in-the-moment connotations. As he says, he "wrote the whole thing, right through, and never changed a word of it."

If it were possible to simply shift linguistic expressions without altering meaning, why is it important that he never changed a word of it? Because this piece was written in certain frame of mind, a certain state of consciousness; every word is a message from that state, and the meaning of this work, as it is for all work of literary merit, is to invoke that state, or a resonating state, in the reader.

And that, most certainly, is magical.

After I wrote all that, I realized I should have just recommended that Prof. Lepore read Emerson's "The Poet":

"For it is not metres [i.e., the "articulations"], but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,--a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing."