To the Poems Themselves

 I am always dissatisfied with definitions of poetry that focus on how poetry expresses connections between humans and the world (and maybe God, too). I have metaphysical objections to those kind of definitions, but aside from that, I just don’t enjoy the kind of analyses that follow from them. If you define poetry in terms of its expression of different human experiences or modes of thought, then your analyses of poems tend to talk a lot about humanity, culture, civilization, god, cosmos, etc., and the poems themselves get left out in the cold.  I prefer definitions of poetry that help us attend to poems themselves. To the poems themselves! Let’s attend to poems in their poeticity. In particular, I’m very influenced by Roman Jakobson’s approach to poetics. Although I would want to make a lot of changes to his structuralist thinking, I like the fact that Jakobson analyzes poems in a way that focuses on the actual sound and syntax patterns of the poems themselves.

Jakobson’s articulation of poeticity is situated in his account of the six functions of verbal communication. Alongside the poetic function, there are emotive, conative, referential, phatic, and metalingual functions. The poetic function of language, i.e., poeticity, “is present when the word is felt as word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion” (Jakobson, Language and Literature, 1987, p. 378). The poetic function has its own autonomy, and thus needs to be differentiated from the other five functions.

Poeticity is not apparent 1) when the word is reduced to the emotions of the speaker (emotive), nor 2) when it is reduced to its comportment toward a listener (conative), nor 3) when it is reduced to the contextual reality that it supposedly represents (referential), 4) nor when it is reduced to the psycho-physical contact of those speaking and/or listening (phatic). In each of these four cases, poeticity is not apparent because the word is reduced to something other than word, e.g., addresser, addressee, psychophysical contact, and referential context. Furthermore, poeticity is not apparent when a sequence of words is reduced to the codified equations given in metalanguage, such as A = A1 (bachelor = unmarried man). In fact, the poetic and metalingual functions of language “are in diametrical opposition to each other: in metalanguage the sequence is used to build an equation, whereas in poetry the equation is used to build a sequence” (p. 71).

Of course, poetry isn’t only in poems. The poetic function is at work whenever the word is felt as word, when the message is felt on its own terms. It is not about the speaker, the poet, consciousness, humanity, the world, or anything else but itself. Poeticity is present “when words and their composition, their meaning, their external and inner form, acquire a weight and value of their own” (p. 378).

I’ll give an example. Jakobson discusses the old political slogan “I like Ike.” The combination of “I,” “like,” and “Ike” is not merely a matter of “like” being selected from its synonyms (e.g., “admire,” “love,” “support,” etc.) because it accurately represents the speaker’s emotions and/or psychological relationship to Ike, nor is it merely a matter of “I” being selected because it represents the subject more grammatically than does “me,” or “my,” etc. If the message “I like Ike” is understood as its own thing (to the message itself!), then the combination of “I,” “like,” and “Ike” manifests an equation of the three occurrences of the sound /ay/, wherein “like” paronomastically envelops both “I” and “Ike”—as if all liking always already implies that “I” and “Ike” are together within it. From a metalingual perspective, the meaning of the “I” in this sequence is given according to other words with similar meanings; but from a poetic perspective, the meaning of “I” is given according to its similarity (in this case phonetic) to “like” and “Ike.” It is in poeticity that sound symbolism is most intensely felt.

Because “I” is typically employed as an index referring to the person saying it, the sound of the word “I” does not usually appear particularly meaningful; instead, it appears arbitrary—as if another sound referring to the same person (e.g., “me,” “ich,” “yo,” etc.) would have an identical meaning. Poeticity, on the other hand, relates the meaning of speech sounds back to the word itself, and not to a human poet, an autonomous signified, or a contextual reality. “I like Ike” is easy to analyze because of the obvious repetition of /ay/. A more difficult pattern to recognize would be William Blake’s “Tyger,” where the liquid consonant at the end of the word “Tyger” patterns with the liquid consonant at the beginning of “Lamb” (“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”). That is one of my favorite aspects of Jakobson’s poetics: to analyze a poem, you have to study phonetics and other aspects of linguistics. Doesn’t this make perfect sense? To study a poem, you have to study language. To the poems themselves! To the words themselves!

4 thoughts on “To the Poems Themselves

  1. [“poetry that focus on how poetry expresses connections between humans and the world (and maybe God, too)” – that specifically is ‘epic poetry’ surely, rather than poetry in general. Never mind.]

    The approach you describe is diametrically opposed to Romanticism, which places the poet/artist at the centre of the poem/work of art. If I approached, say, Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ on this basis I would be missing the point of the poet’s intentions. Of course I am free to appreciate that poem any way it takes me – I like the sound, I like being able to lift its iambic structure up and put it gently down in the rhythm of everyday speech (where it belongs), and that’s up to me. I’m free to regard it as simply a poem that exists independently of Wordsworth, despite its autobiographical content etc. and in a sense it is, because when we create something and put it ‘out there’ it ceases to be our exclusive property and is, in a sense, co-owned by everyone who experiences it.

    Basically I am opposed to all the Chinese walls that exist between forms and modes of poetry, between ways of regarding poetry, between the intensely poet-centred view and the poem-on-its-own view, between the poem-as-expression view and the poem-as-language view. Poetry is always more than the sum of its parts.

    Thank you for an interesting post.

    Marie Marshall

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marie. You’re right that the Jakobsonian concept of poeticity is opposed to Romantic interpretations of poetry in terms of the artist’s intentions (i.e., the mens auctoris theory of hermeneutics). I do enjoy studying the psychology of art and literature, in which case it is crucial to interpret the author’s or artist’s intentions, their social and political contexts, and for that matter, their ecological contexts. In any case, I agree that poetry is more than the sum of its parts. Interestingly, a whole poem is also less than the sum of its parts, since each of the parts (words, phonemes, etc.) has its own inexhaustible reality, which is oversimplified when assimilated into the whole poem. I am not opposed to Chinese walls if they mark real boundaries. Maybe my favorite Chinese wall is the one separating the world-with-walls from the world-without-walls… the boundary between the bound and unbound.

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