Meaning in Poetry

Introduction: Philosophic Meaning

I have criticized Geoffrey Hill and other Modernist poets for being willfully ignorant of what philosophy understands as meaning, {1} and now may be the time to look at the issue again. The Geoffrey Hill page provides a whistle-stop tour of meaning, and that material I shall rework, and in places expand, for this comparison of modern poetry with philosophy.

Definitions of Poetry

Definitions are fraught with trouble, but we could start with something simple: poetry is language used for aesthetic purpose while philosophy aims at generality, at making statements that are true in all possible worlds. (Complicating this distinction is contemporary poetry's attempt to make its own private language by exploiting and sometimes hijacking certain aspects of philosophy into aims that are often entirely contrary to the philosopher's intentions, so that we find parallels between the two disciplines, but also areas of extreme divergence. {2} Both I look at later in the article.) The first phase, from approximately 1920 to 1960, was a drive towards clarity, towards the supposed simplicity of the 'scientific approach'.

Logical Positivism: Imagism and The New Criticism

One attempt to say something philosophically interesting and non-circular about meaning was made by the Logical Positivists. Either, they said, sentences are statements of fact, when they can be verified. Or they are analytical, resting in the meaning of words and the structures that contain them. All other sentences — i.e. metaphysical, aesthetic and ethical statements — are only appeals to emotion, and therefore devoid of intellectual content. {3} Logical Positivists supposed that language had simple structures and that the facts they held were largely independent of that language. They supposed that matters which inspired the greatest reverence in individuals and which united communities could be dismissed as meaningless. And they supposed that verification, for which mathematics and science were the admired paradigms, amounted to no more than reference to straightforward, immediately- given sense data. {4} None of these is true, and the approach was not pursued much after the 1960s.

Broadly parallel to the Logical Positivists were the Imagists in poetry and 'The New Criticism' in literary studies.


The Imagists stressed clarity, exactness and concreteness of detail. Their aims were, firstly, that content should be presented directly, through specific images where possible, and,  secondly, that every word should be functional, with nothing included that was not essential to the effect intended. In this way, they thought, poems could dispense with classical rhetoric, emotion being generated much more directly through what Eliot called an objective correlate: ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’ {5} By being shorn of context or supporting argument, images could appear with fresh interest and power.  Thoughts could be treated as images, moreover, i.e. as non-discursive elements that added emotional colouring without issues of truth or relevance intruding too much.

But, of course, there were difficulties. It is doubtful, first of all, whether specific emotion can be generated in the way Eliot envisaged. Emotive expression is a complex matter, as every novelist or playwright soon discovers. There was also the problem of isolated images. Human beings look for sense wherever possible, and will generally supply any connecting links that the poet has removed, correctly or incorrectly. Poems are not self-sufficient artifacts, moreover, but belong to a community of codes, assumptions and expectations, which we must learn when reading literature of the past. Context is important.

The New Criticism

The so-called 'New Criticism' became the dominant activity of university literature departments on both sides of the Atlantic. The approach was unhistorical, dismissed authors' intentions and biographical matters as unknowable and/or irrelevant, and brought an armoury of sharp analytical tools to bear on what the poem was saying to contemporary readers.

If its presiding genius (though hardly devotee: he practised very little close reading himself) was T.S. Eliot, the founding fathers were I.A. Richards {6} and William Empson. {7} Richards had no time for the Edwardian prose-poetry in which contemporary literary criticism was couched, and argued for analysis in the cool, strictly-defined and well-supported language of the sciences. Empson looked into the complexity of literary language, and suggested that poems were often successful by deploying meanings at different levels. A snippet from Empson's first book gives the flavour of close reading: {8}
[An ambiguity] connects two words which are mutually exclusive unless applied in different ways. For example, Othello speaks of

the flinty and Steele Cooch of Warre. (i. iii. 231).

A soldier’s couch is flinty in that he lies on pebbles, steel in that his weapons are beside him. This satisfies the suggestion that the adjectives apply in different ways, which is conveyed by their different forms and by the fact that one of them has a capital ; both suggest the hardness both of external circumstance and of the inner man that confronts it (so that the first ‘ both ’ mirrors the second); and, taking them together as a unit, they are the flint and steel with which you fire your gun. I hope the reader will agree with me that the word ‘and’ here is standing for three different ways of fitting words into a structure.'

Behind lines and phrases lurked many ambiguities and paradoxes, which held the poem together in creative tensions. {9} Further developed by K. Burke, J.C. Ranson, R.P. Warren and Cleanth Brooks, {10} the approach looked for three characteristics from poetry. First was self-sufficiency: the poem should stand on its own feet, and be independent of biography, historical content or effect on the reader, which were called the intentional, historical and affective fallacies. Second was unity: the poem should be a coherent whole: a very traditional view. Third was complexity: which was sometimes, though not always, held to be the central element of poetry. Since poetry often asserted things that were not true, or entirely true, poetry did not have meaning as such, but provided the emotional equivalent of thought. {11}

Discussion: Simplicity and its Limitations


The 'emotional equivalent of thought' may well have sufficed for literary criticism, but did not serve for philosophy. Aesthetics, the philosophy of art, asks such questions as: How is art or beauty defined exactly? Who gets to decide? Is art representation, an expression of emotion, or an evocation of emotion?  Is that from the spectators' or its creator's standpoint?  And so on: aesthetics is a vast, fascinating but difficult field of study, {12} one generally disregarded by literary criticism, which, in dwelling on the specifics, can overlook the larger picture. One general requirement of art, for example, is beauty, which is not prominent in contemporary poetry.

Symbolic Logic

But there are other approaches to the less-than-truthful statements of poetry. One is the prepositional logic developed to handle such quandaries as 'the present king of France', a fiction that we can refer to notwithstanding. Sentential logic is built with propositions (simple assertions) {13} that employ logical constants like not and or, and and and if - then. Such logics cannot deal with expressions like ‘he believed her’ (which appeal to the common understanding of the human heart) but are very powerful in their own field. Once connectives are used (&, ~, &Exist, &Sup, InvertedA, and, not, some, supposing, all) very complex sentences can be built up where the truth value of the whole sentence is dependent only on the truth values of its components. We arrive not only at secure judgements, but see clearly how the individual propositions systematically play their part in the overall truth or falsity of the sentence. 'The King of France is bald’ can be re-expressed as a conjunction of three propositions: 1. there is a King of France, 2. there is not more than one King of France, and 3. everything that is a King of France is bald. Put another way, this becomes: there is an x, such that x is a King of France, x is bald, and for every y, y is a King of France only if y is identical with x. In symbols: (? x) (K(x) & b(x) &(y)(K(y) ? (y =x))). {14}.

There are many advantages in this approach: clarity, certainty, universality. Once expressions are reduced to propositions with truth values, it becomes harder to dally with relativism. Truth and falsity are universals, and apply across the different worlds of individuals, cultures and times.

But matters are a good deal less clear-cut when metalanguages and different logics are involved. {15} And, even without such complications, there is Quine's objection that translation is underdetermined, that we inevitably make assumptions in translating from one language to another which must undermine any claim that truth is universal. {16} There is Hacking's objection that style of reasoning is important, there being no one true, fundamental language in which reasoning should be conducted. {17} And there is the question whether such a logic properly represents meaning. Are all sentences assertions of fact, and do we always intend to be so logical? More damaging still is the observation that language is not the self-evident and unmetaphoric entity that propositional calculus assumes. Arguments are commonly not matters of fact but rhetoric. {18} And finally there are the facts themselves. Even in science, the most objective of disciplines, facts are not matters immediately given but arrived at through a communality of practice and assumption. {19}

Nonetheless, language is severely stripped down to logic, and therefore shorn of time and place. A similar context-free environment prevails in some Postmodernist poetry:


Walks. Left foot. Head raises. Walk. Forward. Forward. Forward. Bend at knees. Forward. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Stop. Left hand tucks at pubic area. Extracts testicles and penis using thumb and forefinger. Left hand grasps penis. Pelvis pushes on bladder, releasing urine. Stream emerges from within buttocks. Stomach and buttocks push outward. Stream of urine increases. Buttocks push. Sphincter tightens. Buttocks tighten. Thumb and forefinger shake penis. Thumb pulls. Left hand reaches. Tip of forefinger and index finger extend to grasp as body sways to left. Feet pigeon-toed. Move to left. Hand raises to hairline and pushes hair. Arm raises above head. Four fingers comb hair away from hairline toward back of head. Eyes see face. Mouth moves. Small bits of saliva cling to inside of lips. Swallow. Lips form words.

From Fidget, Chapter 2 by Kenneth Goldsmith (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1999)

Literary critics can be over-clever with these simple pieces. 'Why is this description of the most ordinary and trivial of human acts so unsettling?' asks Marjorie Perloff. {20} Her response is to invoke Swift ('the inherent hideousness of the human body by means of gigantism') and defamiliarisations that recall such Wittgensteinian questions as "Why can't the right hand give the left hand money?" ') But perhaps it's sufficient to note that anything pressed closely against us can be unsettling — peer at an insect through a magnifying glass — and that any language can be readily defamiliarised by changing our expectations. The human body is not inherently threatening, and Wittgenstein is not celebrated for creating difficulties but for showing how to sort them out.


Sometimes the culprit is the tangled chain of reference, the spurious associations and the procedural sleights of hand that demagogues employ. By the approach developed by Saul Kripke, naming is introduced by dubbing (ostensively, i.e. by pointing). People not present at the dubbing pick up the word, and others use it. This theory of designating chains (d-chains as they are called) has several advantages. The chains are independent of their first use and of those who use them, and they allow name substitution. Identity is speaker-based. We accept the linguistic and non- linguistic contexts, but understand that the speakers' associations forge the link between language and the world. And speakers can be precise, unclear, ambiguous and/or plain wrong. D-chains can designate things meaningless and false, as well as things meaningful and true. {21-22}

Rather than assert that poems were the emotional equivalent of thought, with all the difficulties that aesthetics will have with such a statement, it may be easier to 'section off' areas of the poem that are demonstrably untrue, either in the manner of prepositional logic, or with D-chains. Instead then of asking 'can we accept a statement (e.g. Not marble, nor the gilded monuments . . )', we can say 'given that . . ., then . . .'

Linguistic Philosophy and Post Modernism

Logical Positivism had nonetheless done good work in clearing away the tangle of philosophic argument. Perhaps more could be done? The later Wittgenstein argued that the purpose of philosophy was to clarify issues, to see through the bewitchment of language, to demonstrate that many conundrums of meaning arose through words being used beyond their proper remit. {23} In short, rather than immerse ourselves in abstruse theory, we should study language as it is actually used, by everyday people in everyday situations. Philosophy should not be the final arbiter on use, but more the humble investigator. Much had to be given up, but the gain is the roles words are now seen to play: subtle, not to be pinned down or rigidly elaborated. Games, for example, do not possess one common feature, but only a plexus of overlapping similarities. Once we appreciate the artefact of language in each particular case, moreover, the conundrum becomes a senseless proposition, and we can then throw away the ladder we used to surmount the problem.

But in contemporary poetry we emphatically don’t throw away the ladder because the ladder is the poem, something using language in a novel and thought-provoking way. It is this sense that contemporary poetry campaigners often take Wittgenstein's work, {24-25} believing that we are all prisoners of language, and that poetry which best illustrates its gaps and uncertainties is the most authentic. 'The poet never fully says, as in traditional poems, what the one and precise meaning of the poem is. That is why the reader has to work with many ‘possible’ themes and meanings in the same poem. The best one can expect is to try and find logical support for the theme or themes that he "finds" in the poem. So, in modernist poetry, the meaning of a poem is the "differing" interpretation of different readers. There can be no single and fixed meaning of any poem.' {26}

But if Wittgenstein's insight was hijacked by literary theorists, the philosophical programme itself proved on investigation to ramify into further difficulties, which only increased with greater depth of investigation. Gilbert Ryle and J.L. Austin were among many creating what came to be called linguistic philosophy. The clarification did not arrive, only a gradual realization that the problems of philosophy, meaning included, remained on the far side of linguistic analysis. {27}

At this point, simplifying what the readers will have to research for themselves by reading the references below, we might say that contemporary poets can surely please themselves in writing lines that do not close to any specific meaning, but also note that there is no warrant from linguistic philosophy for the practice. As noted on the Wallace Stevens page, {28} using language in unusual ways simply gives unusual results, where the 'meanings' are only an artefact of that doubtful use.

Intention-Based Semantics and Language Poetry

Perhaps we should start from another direction altogether and ask why human beings use speech. What are their purposes and intentions? J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words was the seminal work, and his approach was extended and systematized by John Searle and others. Meaning is real and includes both what the speaker intended and what he actually said — i.e. the function of a sentence and its internal structure. Speech, moreover, is rule-governed, and we should be able to spell out these rules. {29} Paul Grice concerned himself with differences in intention between the said and the meant, and in analysing conversational situations. Implication was conveyed by general knowledge and shared interest. And an action intended to induce belief would have to a. induce that belief, b. be recognized as such by the hearers, and c. be performed with every intention of being recognized as such. His cooperative principle introduced maxims of quality (things are not said which are known to be false or for which there is no evidence), quantity (appropriately informative), relation (relevant), and manner (brief, orderly, not obscure or ambiguous). {30} Intention-based semantic theories are still popular and are actively pursued. But they have not entirely succeeded in reducing meaning and psychology to actions and utterances. If meaning is defined as acting so as to induce belief and action in another, theories of meaning must be grounded in non-semantic terms to avoid circularity. And there is some doubt whether this can be done. Individuals act according to beliefs, and the communication of these beliefs eventually and necessarily calls on public beliefs and language. {31}

In a contradictory manner, something of intention-based semantics can be found in early versions of Language Poetry, which played on thwarting expectations. Its aims are best grasped by what the movement opposed: {32}

1. Narrative: no story or connecting tissue of viewpoint or argument: poems often incorporate random thoughts, observations and sometimes nonsense. {33}
2. Personal expression: not merely detached, the poems accept Barthe's thesis that the author does not exist. {34}
3. Organization: poems are based on the line, not the stanza, and often that line is discontinuous or fragmentary: the poems reject any guiding sense of purpose. {35}
4. Control: poems take to extremes the open forms advocated by Williams and the Black Mountain School.
5. Capitalist politics and/or bourgeoisie values. {36}

Synesthetes at the Writers House

The above would seem to make language poetry bafflingly difficult, but in generally it's playful, and indeed charming, as Bernadette Mayer's piece demonstrates: {37}

I'm pleased to announce
that staying at the Writers House
is like living under a multi-colored apple tree
in winter; syneshetes would tremble with pleasure
tempera paint and chalk make a formidable coat

of many colors, in summer pink and white blossoms fall on your head
to the south here, a forest
to the east, only snow and a garden
to the north a road and forest
to the west forest, a blue halloween-observing house

The Debtor in the Convex Mirror

Later poems in this style grew much more ambitious. The Debtor in the Convex Mirror by Susan Wheeler {38} is a major poem by a well-known poet: nearly 300 lines laid out in long lines, often broken in typography and reference. A typical snippet is lines 46-50:

So here you are.             Master.

said Friedländer, were “common possession, freebooty, fair game.”

A painting by Jan van Eyck eighty years before Massys’ glimpsed
And described in Milan but now lost, was its model: banker and his wife;

Friedländer is Max J. Friedländer, {39} an important though perhaps now rather dated authority on Flemish painting, and there are references in the poem to coin denominations, metal sources, contemporary prices, the Arnolfini Portrait, ange, Massys’ St. Antony, Jean Shrimpton, modern day music, Saint Eligius, other Flemish towns, Luther, Guicciardini, Chlepner, Hanseatic corn market, Bernays, Portuguese spices, Brooklyn, the Levant and Venetian goods. A poem peppered with scholarly allusions, therefore, and seeming to show a good grasp of its subject matter.

First the poem’s affiliations and aims: Lyn Keller's Introduction {40} speaks of her “polysemy and linguistic aggregation, juxtaposing contrasting dictions, from hip-hop vernacular to Middle English’ and adds ‘Announcing her indebtedness to John Ashbery with her title, Wheeler’s long poem ‘The Debtor in the Convex Mirror’ suggests that the accumulation of various debts (and uneasy guilt) are as much part of the twentieth-first century poet’s art as they were for moneylenders and their clients in Renaissance Antwerp.”  That puts the matter exactly. Guilt is indeed explored in the first section of the poem, where the tiny figure reflected in the convex mirror is taken to be the debtor — readers may want to look at the painting at this point. {41}

The painting has received various interpretations. {42} Many art historians recognize a satirical and moralizing symbolism, the couple representing greed and its attendant sins. Others, notably economists, see the opposite: goldsmiths and money lenders were losing the medieval taint of usury and becoming respectable. The wife divides her time between watching her husband carefully weigh the coins, and reading an illustrated book of hours. The convex mirror in the foreground discloses a man with a red hat, whom the art historian Jean-Claude Frère interprets as a thief, {43} which seems unlikely: he is inside the room and quietly reading a book. The figure is not much interested in the proceedings, moreover, and may be part of a quiet domestic scene, simply overseeing receipts being totted up at the end of the day’s business. Some have thought the image was that of the painter himself: such signatures occur and the features have a passing resemblance to Massys’, {44} as Wheeler herself acknowledges later in the poem. There is no reason to think he is a debtor, however: money changers did lend but the transactions were elaborately witnessed. {44}

In fact, when we look further, many details seem questionable. With a little research we find that Antwerp was an important trading city when the Flemish artist Quintin Massys painted the picture of The Money Changer of his Wife around 1514. Much of its business at the time centered on the import of pepper from the Portuguese plantations in the spice islands, but the sugar trade was also becoming important: there were Spanish plantations in the New World, and the sugar was transshipped to German and Italian refiners. The city was also an international bourse and financial centre, arranging loans to European rulers. {45} In short, it was a busy financial center that foreshadowed many of today’s banking facilities, notably the currency exchanges necessary when so many different denominations circulated.

Now we can look at some odd errors in the poem’s text. Milled coins appear a century after the Money Changer was painted. {46} The silver in coins of the period would have come largely from Kutná Hora, Freiberg, and Rammelsberg and not Bohemia: the great Joachimsthal discovery was not made until 1516. {47} The gold coin called ange-noble should be angel-noble: ange (angel) is the French coin on which the series was modeled. Excelente was indeed the Spanish gold coin of the period, but the gold pieces being weighed are more probably the Venetian ducat and Florentine florin (the Italian banking connection) and/or the Portuguese cruzado, justo or portugues (the Spice Islands connection).  ‘What bought a sack a century before almost buys a sack now’ is not the case: prices actually fell over this period. {48}

In short, the erudition seems a little doubtful, and we would want to look ahead at this point to the strategy of the poem. The painting represents greed -> the figure in the convex mirror represents the debtor -> the debtor feels guilt because he has to borrow -> contemporary poets should also feel guilt because they borrow so shamelessly -> we understand the world around through words and images, which are also borrowed, taken out of context and therefore not necessarily underwritten by truth or reality -> our world view is therefore a collage or montage of media ‘events’ -> the poem faithfully reflects this situation. There is nothing unusual in this extended line of thinking in radical criticism, and language poetry itself is generally anticapitalist. But they are assumptions just the same, unsupported by evidence or argument that a learned article would supply (and have any errors therein corrected by peer review). Why, for example, should today’s poets be ashamed of their borrowings? Poets have always borrowed. More to the point is what the borrowings do for the poem. Words denote social registers, spheres of discourse, audience appeal, and so forth. Mixing the mundane, academic and popular spheres produces certain effects, which poetry often employs. Keller in her helpful introduction {49} places Susan Wheeler among the Language poets: ‘Like many of those associated with Language writing, her work foregrounds the ways in which language, especially the languages of mass culture, constructs our world.’ And, speaking of the poem under review: ‘she enters a particular moment of economic and ecclesiastic history: in the first capitalist center . . . Her concern is specifically with the redemption of “the grasping soul”, the soul in an era of capitalist acquisitiveness and of the problematic focus on the self.’

But questions remain. Firstly, notwithstanding the example of Pound's Cantos, is it the province of poetry to make sweeping generalisations on diverse material assembled by unexplained means to illustrate a contentious thesis? We can follow the dots, but where does the overall argument come from anyway, and what are the authoritative arguments or evidence supporting it? And thirdly, shouldn't poems of this nature make fuller sense to the average reader, and have some emotive appeal to be poetry at all?

Deconstruction and Contemporary Poetry

But does language itself have to make sense? Since attempts to  ground meaning in more fundamental entities have failed — and far more so than this brief overview suggests — perhaps we should conclude that sentences have no meaning at all, no final, settled meaning that we can paraphrase in non-metaphorical language. That was the contention of Jacques Derrida. {50} Deconstruction is the literary programme that derives from this approach, though Derrida himself did not see deconstruction as a method, and still less an attack on the western canon of literature, but more a way of investigating the textural contexts in which words are used. The social, cultural and historical aspects of that context, and how we interpret a text from our own current perspective, were the concerns of hermeneutics. Derrida's view went deeper. There is no ‘thought’ as such, he argued, that we create in our minds and then clothe with words. Words are the beginning and the end of the matter, the only reality. They refer only to other words, not to things — be they ‘thoughts’ in the mind, or ‘objects’ in the world. By looking carefully at a text we see where the writer has chosen one word in preference to others of similar meaning, and these choices tell us something about what the writer is trying not to say, i.e. is suppressing or hiding from us — either deliberately, or by thoughtless immersion in the suppositions of his time.

Whence comes the author's authority to make this choice? Not from any conception of ‘what he meant’, as this has no existence outside words. Nor from any unvoiced, inner intention, which is again without any final determinant of meaning, being just the product of repeated suppressions of other thoughts. The double bind is complete. There is no end to interpretation, and no escaping it, says Derrida. All we can do is point to its workings.

In this sense, texts write themselves. Context and author are largely irrelevant. And not only texts. Institutions, traditions, beliefs and practices: none of these have definable meanings and determinable missions. All dissolve into words, whose deployment it is the philosopher's task to investigate. Deconstruction has collected a large literature, {51} and I want to make only three points here.

Firstly, deconstruction is only one form of linguistic philosophy, and not the most persuasive: the subject has moved on a bit.  {52} Second is that Derrida is often misunderstood as saying essential distinctions like truth and falsity don't exist. {53}  The third is that, whatever the theoretical difficulties, human beings do largely succeed in making themselves understood. Our world would otherwise and speedily come to an end. Aircraft drop out of the sky if their engines aren't continuously maintained through workshop manuals and the like. The point is too obvious to be worth labouring. In fact, reality can be only partially circumscribed by words, and what we know of brain functioning would make it highly unlikely than anything as complicated as consciousness could be governed by the small areas responsible for linguistic skills. Mostly we learn by seeing and doing, and there are many types of knowledge — riding a bicycle, playing the piano, painting — where words clearly take us only so far. We remember places and faces without preserving or employing them in words, obviously so, or we wouldn’t recognise our family, homes or places of work. But what of more abstract concepts like truth, honesty, kindness: how do these have existence outside words? Because we need them in our everyday lives. Societies have codes of conduct, and that means we privilege (to use Derrida's term) good over evil, truth over falsehood. Language may be mysterious in its operations, but we don't have to deny the existence of what we cannot fully explain.

Many philosophers do indeed believe that meaning precedes expression, and that we can to some extent think without possessing a language. Idiot savants, for example, have amazing mathematical abilities, but often have only a few words at their command. Even Derrida rewrote his paragraphs, and in doing so acknowledged that the first drafts did not fully express what he meant. Academics don't relish deconstruction games played with their salary cheques. The brain is a complex organ whose use of feedback and successive approximation makes the 'chicken and egg' dilemmas of deconstruction unlikely to arise in the first place. {54} Language is always modifying and being modified by our need for a consistent understanding of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things. Perhaps what Derrida attacked is the common pursuit of philosophy.  Too often it is merely word spinning, and by being a good deal more learned, subtle and inventive, Derrida outrageously sent up the whole process.
Why was he so popular? Because his views, incompletely understood, furnish grounds for rewriting the canon of western literature, which is doubtless too narrow. If everything is merely interpretation — individual, shifting, groundless — there are no reasons for preferring Jane Austin to a slush romance, which is doubtless overdoing matters. But Derrida is then being misinterpreted. Certainly he understood the irony, if not absurdity, of employing as weapons the very words he criticized. But Derrida's approach was guerrilla warfare, attack and retreat, with no ground held. Awareness of the fundamental problems is what he aimed at — problems which persist even if we ground understanding in brain processes and regard words as articulations of behaviour largely instinctive and unconscious. Derrida's revelations were not revelations at all, only late and perhaps sensible reactions to the overblown claims of philosophy.

But the notion of 'indecipherable meaning' continues to underlie much of contemporary poetry. Compared to this sonnet by Karen Volkman, Geoffrey Hill's work is clarity itself: {55}

What is this witness, the watching ages,
 yield of hours, blurred nights, the blue commerce
 limned limpidities the skies rehearse
 dreaming their seasons, raptured in their rages.

 Eventless auction the sun screams and stages
 for outered spectacles that bloom their source,
 or eyes are mouths and utter tongued remorse—
read me, augur, from the wrists of sages

 the shocks and tangencies strangled in their veins.
 Or stars are livid links in lucent chains.
 Heart will read its figure in its willing

 or blinded needle the compass stains;
 lidless volumes and vortices of pains
 distinct the dolor, and kind the killing.

Paul Otremba sets the scene. His introduction {56} to Karen Volkman's work starts with:

'By the time Karen Volkman's lyrical, debut collection of poems, Crash's Law, appeared as a National Poetry Series selection for 1996, the lyrical mode had already spent decades under suspicion for being ahistorical and monological — the favored genre of mainstream poetry and the New Criticism. By the 1990s, with the rise of feminist, Marxist and poststructural theories, American poets were becoming self-conscious about the ideological implications of their medium, particularly lyric poetry's participation in upholding a patriarchal society and a belief in the "transcendental signified".' He also notes Susan Scultz's remark that 'Lyric poets (because there are always such) must find ways in which to accommodate the lyric to the actual world, where voice does not denote mastery so much as conflict, identity so much as confusions and contradictions.' He goes on to say 'Her poems give no illusion of finding resolution and certainty in an expressible, essential identity. Instead, the poems act as events, actively coming out of the experience they create from the materiality of the language and the self-conscious employment of and experimentation with poetic forms.'

That would appear to be the case in the piece above. It is a Petrarchian sonnet, written in tetrameter/pentameter lines, which may be commenting on the ineradicable prevalance of violence that neither memory, nor the historical record, nor brute sensation can fully come to terms with. But that's  only a guess: the piece resists analysis. On a technical level, I'd suggest that the sense is too much led by the rhymes (the shocks and tangencies strangled in their veins. / Or stars are livid links in lucent chains, and more so by the over-emphatic alliteration (distinct the dolor, and kind the killing.) But again, this may be deliberate, as parody of a formal sonnet, where the form is undercutting the sense in good Postmodernist fashion.

Otremba provides a detailed gloss {57} on the first in these Nomina poems, showing how one word suggests another through common associations, rhyme and alliteration. But these do not cohere into meaning so much as remain gestures of the unsayable. Yet if we can't express ourselves sensibly, and only write a piece to demonstrate that failing —  however assuredly the failure be that of language, and not of ourselves —  why should anyone want to read a poem illustrating the matter? The notion is doubtful and limiting to begin with, and its exposition, by its assumptions, must be even more so. 

Interim Conclusions

I have tried to suggest that Postmodernist's preoccupation with the limits of language is misplaced. Semiotics is still an obsession of literary theory, but clearly only one of many approaches to meaning, and may indeed be fading now from the American philosophy scene. 

Inspired by the example of science in its search for objective and fundamental knowledge, philosophy and its kindred disciplines have attempted to ground language in something incontrovertible, free of individual and cultural suppositions. They have failed. {58} And even if cognitive science should one day be able to explain language in terms of the chemical or physical processes of the brain, those very processes would rest on findings produced by the shared beliefs and practices of the scientific community. There is no escaping the human element. Indeed, even if expressed entirely as mathematics, the processes could not escape the lacunae discovered by human beings at the heart of mathematical logic.

But this is no cause for Postmodernism to throw up its hands in despair. The various disciplines of art, philosophy and science each make their own starting assumptions, and consequently map the world differently. But the spheres are not wholly distinct and detached from each other, so that cooperation between the disciplines could be enlightening and enriching. In short, this article is a plea that serious poets widen their reading and loosen the straightjacket of contemporary poetic forms. Like medieval thinkers in their blind use of authorities {59} —  here their Modernist forebears —   they have argued themselves into theoretical cul-de-sacs, to the detriment of their art and the reading public.

Art as Emotive Expression

I have been rather dismissive of meaning in poetry as being the 'emotive equivalent of thought' and so look briefly at one aspect of aesthetics here, that of art as emotive expression. 

It is a popular approach. Tolstoy, for example, thought that art caused its audience to experience certain feelings, was art to the extent that it did so, and that its creator should have lived through those feelings to express them properly. Of course he also demanded that art express worthy feelings, preferably promoting the brotherhood of man, but even without its moral tag, Tolstoy's views raise enormous problems. Do we know exactly what an audience experiences during a play? Hardly, to judge from the comments of the audience making its way home from the theatre, or even from theatre critics, whose judgements are notoriously at odds with each other. Then, to take Tolstoy's second point, there is the question of great political orators whose words may work audiences into frenzies far exceeding those a Shakespearean play. Is theirs the greater art? Thirdly comes the inconvenient fact that composers frequently work simultaneously on 'happy' and 'sad' passages of music. Insincere? We should need to see inside the heads of all artists in the toils of creation if art were to be the expression of feelings actually felt. And that we cannot do —  with dead artists obviously, nor even with those still living, whose reports on the creative process are unreliable but generally suggest something different. {60}

Croce and Collingwood

Nonetheless, art as emotional expression finds its greatest exposition in the work of Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) {61} and R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) {62}. Both ranged widely: Croce into practical criticism, Collingwood into other areas of philosophy. Both could write with subtlety and insight. But both also believed in the mental nature of art, that it exists fully fledged in the originator's head before being put on public display.

Croce starts with 'intuitions', which are the immediate knowing of impressions and their transformation by the active imagination into unified images or organic wholes. The two (knowing and expression of those impressions) were linked, were indivisible indeed, and couldn't be encompassed by purely intellectual criteria. But Croce was not preaching 'art for art's sake'. Art was no more important than logic, economics, ethics and history. Indeed it was not even possible without a richness of the human spirit in all its manifestations.

Croce was influenced by Hegel and developed his thought somewhat analogously. Initially, Croce regarded intuition as expression of emotion ('lyricism', he called it) which was not simply letting off steam, or imitating actual feelings, but expressing the personality of the artist as it evoked some larger 'soul' of man. By 1918 Croce was arguing for an intuition that included something common to all humanity, though still something individual to the art concerned. By the mid-twenties, Croce's intuition had expanded to include moral ideas and conflicts. Finally, in 1936, Croce returned to his distinction between art and non-art, 'poetry and literature'. Only intuition-expression was art, and its externalisation was a secondary, practical matter. That externalisation assists the communication of art, of course, and is what the audience and critics must use to recreate the original artistic experience.

The first part of Croce's position was familiar enough. Even Aristotle had argued that poets should handle themes so as to bring out universal characteristics that are necessarily constrained and confused in historical actuality. {63} But how was communication as a secondary activity to be understood when most artists have no conception of their finished work until it is completed in their chosen medium? Croce's ideas were developments of a nineteenth century mentalism and only Collingwood in the Anglo-Saxon world continued their drift — but then Collingwood did not share in the beliefs of his contemporaries: in the primacy of logic, or the resolving powers of linguistic philosophy. For him art, religion, science, history and philosophy were separate activities of mind, with different objectives and methods.

Art for Collingwood was the originating experience. Transferring the conception to paper, dance, music and stone came later. Such fabrication of course took skill, but couldn't reach back into the imaginative experience itself. 'The aesthetic experience, or artistic activity, is the experience of expressing one's emotions; and that which expresses them is the total imaginative activity called indifferently language or art.' {64}. Art made no assertions, but was simply the unconscious becoming conscious. We cannot ask if an artistic conception is historically true, because such questions come afterwards, when the art is transferred to the public domain, when indeed it is no longer art as such. Art either has the emotions expressed (good), or repressed (bad), so that criticism is rather beside the point. But no matter: art is something we all do, and serves no end beyond itself.

Influence of the Medium: John Dewey

Collingwood's views seem preposterous. They omit to tell us why art is important. They succumb immediately to Wittgenstein's attack on private languages, and indeed run contrary to the attempts over the last hundred years to move philosophy from private mental events to observable human activities.
But the greatest shortcoming is surely that the theory is contrary to the actual experience of artists. A few have appeared to dash off masterpieces as though they were transcribing what was already given them. But most are not so fortunate. Studies and reminiscences show that there are golden moments of inspiration, but also long, long periods of working and reworking the material, struggling, despairing, succeeding in some ways but not knowing whether more or better isn't possible. {64}

The American pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952) {65} understood this interplay of medium and imagination but took a broader view of artistic activity. Even 'experience' for Dewey means 'a shared social activity of symbolically-mediated behaviour which seeks to discover the possibilities of our objective situations in the natural world for meaningful, intelligent and fulfilling ends.' {66} Dewey was not opposed to the deification of artists, or even to the self-serving circle of dealer, critic and museum curator, but he did stress that great works of art were essentially examples of a common human pursuit. We are constantly making sense of ourselves and surroundings, using our senses to maintain and develop our material and aesthetic needs. Experiences come to us in the light of half-remembered events, of mental and sensory constructions, of expected consequences. Art reveals to us how those experiences may be profoundly meaningful.

Art is not therefore the expression of emotion or even of the creative impulse. It arises from the interaction of many things — the artist with his medium, individual experiences with the cultural matrix, artwork with its audience. Art is a dialogue, and an artwork draws its life from the cultural life of the community. There is no one, settled interpretation, and the greatness of an artwork may lie in its profound appeal to many different groups and societies. All art has form, but that form is not something unchanging and abstract, but the way the work gives organization to experience. Art shapes by its own rules: 'the working of the work', Heidegger put it. And because aesthetic experience is the most complete and integrated of our responses to the world, it is central to Dewey's philosophy. {67}


But art does somehow involve emotion and —  perhaps to modify Plato's {68} condemnation of the pernicious effects of poetry —  Aristotle introduced his famous 'katharsis'. {69} The term means cleansing, removing the bad and leaving the good, and by its associations includes ritual purification, medical purges and bowel movement. In Aristotle's view, an audience is brought to feel fear, pity and even frenzy in public performances of religious ceremonies, of plays (comedies and tragedies, but particularly the latter) and of music. Those feelings are resolved in relief at the conclusion of the performance, so that the audience comes away with heightened emotions and sharpened aesthetic judgements.

Do they? Catharsis from the first has been a troublesome term. Since Aristotle did not describe art in terms of emotional expression, purgation of emotions seems somewhat subsidiary (the more so since we lack Aristotle's explanation in his second book on 'Poetics': the book has been lost). Perhaps he meant only that art raises emotions in an intense and justifiable form. Raising or releasing them? The two are very different. And cannot playwrights raise emotions without personally espousing them? As Eliot dryly remarked, 'poets do not express themselves in poetry but escape from themselves by a continual extinction of personality.' {70} But catharsis may well have been a principle behind bloodstained Jacobean tragedy, and which today continues in art therapy. Hans Robert Jauss has made catharsis an element of his aesthetic theory, though here it approximates to communication. The essential point is surely this: whatever may be claimed, the emotional resolution of aesthetic experience is clearly something more penetrating and finely wrought than the voiding of pent-up feelings.

Aesthetic Detachment

Indeed purgation may not enter into art at all. Emotions when real are often painful. We look with embarrassment at the parents of the missing child giving their television appeal.  We feel voyeurs at the raw sex act. Not art, we say, which really needs some element of aesthetic detachment or make-believe in the experience. In art we suspend belief: we feel horror in a murder depicted in a film but do not call the police.

Why detachment? Because art involves emotions different from those evoked by real life. Kant called the detachment 'aesthetic disinterest', distinguishing by it beauty and sublimity from mere pleasantness. Schopenhauer saw art as withdrawal from practical application of the will into contemplation. Edward Bulloch spoke of 'psychical distance'. {71} Phenomenologists argued that detachment made scenes into 'intentional objects' divorced from everyday considerations.

Much has been made of the aesthetic attitude. Formalists have reified the detachment into a complete divorce from feeling: true art does not express emotions, and should not attempt to. Abstract artists have turned their back on representation: since art does not employ our everyday, practical uses for objects, it should not depict them. Art for art's sake theorists denigrated art that served ends beyond the satisfaction of aesthetic contemplation: no matter how bestial the characters of a novel appear, or how subversive the attitudes depicted, none of this matters to true artistic enjoyment. {72}

The difficulties and fundamental untruths of these developments are obvious enough. Art that arouses no emotion is of no interest to us, remains only clever exercises or dry theory. Abstract art employs elements —  forms, colours, compositions —  that must somehow owe their appeal to our sensory equipment, either through experience or physiological inheritance. Films of Nazi war atrocities are not enjoyed as pure aesthetic contemplation. But the nature of aesthetic attitude nonetheless remains elusive. What is this detachment / distance / attitude? Perhaps it is not a simple thing, but a bundle of expectations and cultural suppositions but varies somewhat with the art form and the period? Certainly there are certain attitudes we need to adopt with art —  openness, sensitivity, a willingness to enter imaginatively into the experience —  but they come from us rather than from the art or artist concerned.

Emotional Representation

Perhaps art is not an expression of emotion, but a representation of that emotion. Since books, paintings, music etc. cannot express emotion as originally present in the artist's mind (supposing we persist with this approach) but only as conveyed in and with the medium concerned, art cannot in some sense escape being representational. But there is another view of representation: that art is emotion objectified in symbolic form: a philosophy developed by Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) {73} and Susanne Langer (1895-1985). Cassirer extended Kant's a priori categories so as to represent language, myth, art, religion and science as systems of symbolic forms. These forms are mental shaping of experience. They are culturally determined and are created by us. But they also and wholly constitute our world: all 'reality' is a reality seen and understood through them. Outside lies Kant's noumenal world, about which there is nothing we can really say.

These systems of symbolic form are not arbitrary creations, but have grown up to answer human needs. Each system carries its own particular enlightenment. Langer {74} ranged over the whole field of artistic expression, though is best known for her theories of music. She rejected outright the Logical Positivist position that meaning was either tautological or statements in literal, propositional language verifiable by science. Art has its own meaning or meanings. Even in our simplest observations we transform a manifold of sensations into a virtual world of general symbols: a world with a grammar of its own, guiding our ear and eyes, highly articulated in art. In music we have a symbolic expression about feelings. Music has a logic of its own, expressing the forms of human feeling, and creating an inner lives. Certainly music does not denote as propositional language must, but it conveys knowledge directly, 'by acquaintance' rather than 'knowledge about'. Feelings are therefore symbolically objectified in certain forms, with a detail and truth that language cannot approach.

What did the philosophic community make of this? Very little. {75} Symbolic forms, particularly 'significant forms' remained very vague. How could the claim that music objectifies feeling with great truth and detail be assessed? By their influence on other musical compositions — music calling to music, no doubt Langer and many musicians would reply. But no philosopher will allow that. Philosophy (or at least analytical philosophy) requires close argumentation, and that is only possible in literal, propositional language: the very language that Langer stigmatised as inadequate. And linguistic expression is inherently ambiguous, thought Cassirer, a view which links him to Lakoff's metaphor theory,  and Derrida's deconstruction.

But if art expresses only the forms of feeling, why does it seem so emotionally alive? Artists extract what is significant from experience, Langer argued, and then use that form to create an object that directly expresses that significance. The 'meaning' of an artwork is its content. Through their symbols, great works of art powerfully express highly significant feeling, even if this feeling is only intuitively grasped, unfolding very slowly as we become familiar with the work. In this way feeling and creativity occupy a central position in Langer's philosophy, as they do in the work of many contemporary psychologists.


Once they became more than efforts to please and entertain, it was natural for works of art to make large claims of autonomy. The Romantics called art ineffable: it expressed what could not be expressed in any other way. Artists might start with some feeling they wish to express, but that feeling was only realized through the creation of the work: its form precisely articulates what was not expressed before.
Larger claims are often made for metaphor —  that they open up the world in ways we had not appreciated before. Metaphors become, in Paul Ricouer's words, 'poems in miniature'. Of course to see that world in the manner suggested by the metaphor means approaching the world in the right spirit ('comporting' ourselves, Heidegger puts it), when poems become the intellectualised registers of such 'comportments'. {76}

Features of Poetry

I have touched on only one aspect of aesthetics, but suggest contemporary poetry has retreated into some very narrow and doubtful strategies. Simply illustrating intellectual forays into the realms of meaning cannot be art in its larger understanding, and, to end where we began, a more comprehensive definition would be: {77}

‘Poetry is a form of literary art which uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language — such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre — to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning. . . .  Ancient attempts to define poetry, such as Aristotle's Poetics, focused on the uses of speech in rhetoric, drama, song and comedy. Later attempts concentrated on features such as repetition, verse form and rhyme, and emphasized the aesthetics which distinguish poetry from more objectively-informative, prosaic forms of writing. From the mid-20th century, poetry has sometimes been more generally regarded as a fundamental creative act employing language. Poetry uses forms and conventions to suggest differential interpretation to words, or to evoke emotive responses. Devices such as assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm are sometimes used to achieve musical or incantatory effects. The use of ambiguity, symbolism, irony and other stylistic elements of poetic diction often leaves a poem open to multiple interpretations. Similarly, metaphor, simile and metonymy create a resonance between otherwise disparate images — a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived. Kindred forms of resonance may exist, between individual verses, in their patterns of rhyme or rhythm.’

No doubt that's a traditional view of poetry, but the review above of 'art as emotive expression', brief as it is, and covering a small part only of aesthetics, should suggest how much Modernist poetry has given up in pursuing what is best left to philosophy. There are more fruitful avenues, surely, which suggest we retrace our steps to see what has gone wrong and how. 

In summary, as I have tried to show in pages devoted to leading individuals, the aims and assumptions of Modernism, doubtful at best and worsened by a studious avoidance of what has always made art, have loaded poetry with unnecessary and stultifying handicaps. That any poetry has been produced in such conditions is a tribute to our human needs and ingenuity, but the message is clear. Either we keep shifting the poetry goalposts to yet more sterile ground, or we return to sanity with studies of a mixed philosophic and literary nature that might revitalize the decaying Modernist canon.

References and Resources

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