Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Fifty years ago, a group of critics who came to be called the Chicago School raised questions about some of the assumptions then prevalent in the criticism of poetry. Among these was the notion of the poem as merely a verbal or textual phenomenon among other such phenomena, as simply another form of discourse. Elder Olson and R.S. Crane explored Aristotle’s insistence that at least certain forms of poetry (epic, tragic, comic) were not, essentially, discursive : rather, they were mimetic, representational.

The technical language which proliferates in the practice of criticism is useful and necessary. Nevertheless, it displays an unavoidable tendency (while appropriating endless reams of paper products) to trade the forest for the trees. The debates over the nature, function, and evaluation of poetic language, due to their intense focus on supplying evidence for close argumentation, often fail to acknowledge the larger semiotic context, within which words per se occupy only a narrow band.

Poetry along with everything else inhabits a forest of signs. Words themselves are only the most explicit and denotative (“pointy”) form which signs can take. Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances” inevitably comes to mind, which begins:

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

[Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
- trans. by William Aggeler]

Whether or not we agree that Nature ever sends us familiar glances, contemporary science certainly provides voluminous evidence that the living world (at least) operates by means of signals : from the sub-microscopic messages in DNA, to the festive display and camouflage exhibited by the animal world. Moreover, we cannot fail to recognize – even when we cannot succeed in understanding – that we ourselves are highly attuned to the unspoken language of sound, color, shape, gesture, and appearances in general. Such a text is not easily translatable into the verbal medium : we live in a sensorium of perception and feeling, emotion and intuition, absorbing its signs in many conscious and subconscious regions at once.

But poetry is not science : it is not primarily analytical, abstract or theoretical language, though it can incorporate these features to a limited extent. Poetry is representational. It offers a set of signs which, through evocation and mimicry, re-present experience from that wider sensorium and semiotic field which is life and nature. In so doing, poems open many and various paths for interpretation - sometimes making explicit argument, sometimes offering a kind of evidence for argument, sometimes both, sometimes neither.

From this perspective, Robert Frost’s quip that “poetry is what gets lost in translation” takes on another meaning. Each poem is an echo of a wider band of sensuous signs. A particular language-shaper’s effort to communicate this larger field in a verbal medium is itself a rather desperate act of translation.

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