Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gibson on poetry

John Gibson has a valuable essay on poetry over at nonsite. I very much like his pointing out the differences between poetry and metaphor, but he says some surprising things along the way. For instance:
Simon Blackburn has said, with admirable understatement, that no one ‘would claim that the study of metaphor has been one of analytic philosophy’s brighter achievements.’
Davidson's work on metaphor strikes me as precisely such an achievement (although I'm willing to be corrected).
It is a sign of poetic success if a poem demands to be studied before it can be understood
Really? This is highly debatable. But the debate will be about taste in poetry, I suspect, rather than about anything very philosophical. Larkin, for instance, would disagree with Gibson here (I'm pretty sure).
If I sent you an email with clear and precise instructions on how to arrive at the funeral of a childhood friend, it would be plain weird to say of it, ‘I see, but what does this email mean?’ But if I sent you a poem with the very same content, it would not only be appropriate but expected.
Maybe. It sounds like a poor poem, so it's hard to know what the appropriate or expected response would be. But in general this seems precisely the kind of response to poems that annoys poets. I don't go to many poetry readings, but I don't remember "What does it mean?" being at all a common question, even if the audience wonders just this. It is a question that seems likely to be greeted with a sigh.
What we have when we first turn to a poem is an uninterpreted mass of images.
Some poems are like this. But all? Two more quotes and then some attempt at a point.
We frequently experience poetic meaning as a far-off destination not because the meaning of a poem is so deeply hidden in its language but because the kind of communicative act in which a poem engages is extraordinarily complex, beginning with language and words but then soon passing from this into a richly, and at times bizarrely, textured imaginative space, the exploration of which is potentially interminable.
I wonder about this. Gibson uses the concept of semantic descent, in which we move below language to the level of things. This is a rich idea, it seems to me, but 'complex' seems precisely the wrong kind of word. The textured imaginative space in question either is, or else is just the same kind of thing as, the world. And to call it complex is to allow the inference that with enough work we might get to the bottom of it all, which is contradicted by the (quite right) bit about its being potentially interminable.
At any rate, it would be silly to claim that the poets I have used to set up my argument are exceptions to the rule of how we experience meaning in poetry. What would the rule be to which these are exceptions? That poems are generally composed of clear, literal language? That the meaning of most poems is transparent and immediately available to anyone who reads them?  It is hard to say this with a straight face.
It's not so much that I disagree with Gibson on this as that I'm not sure how much I agree with him. The problem, it seems to me, here and in much of his essay, is that when he talks about "most poems" he means poems of a certain, distinctly modern, kind. There are many poems that at least try to be transparent, and that, perhaps more to the point, don't have a meaning any more than life does. (And life's not having a meaning is like sunshine and lollipops not having a meaning--it isn't a fault.)

All this reads like a long complaint, but I really mean it as a series of asterisks marking the relatively few points where I am not sure I agree with Gibson. For the most part I think his essay is very good indeed, but that's not a blog-worthy thought.


  1. "(And life's not having a meaning is like sunshine and lollipops not having a meaning--it isn't a fault.)"

    I enjoyed this line.

  2. Thanks, Daniel. I thought about writing a whole post on this, but I think what I have to say is short enough to be a comment.

    There's a sense of meaning in which life is obviously not the right kind of thing to have a meaning. But there's another sense, I think, in which something has a meaning if it somehow calls for understanding or a response that might be more or less good. If we think of understanding as an ability and life as something that can be lived more or less well, then those who demonstrate the ability to live well might reasonably be said to understand something about life, and we might call this something its meaning. By living well I don't mean drinking lots of champagne, although I suppose I could mean that, so, at least roughly speaking, I'm saying that anyone who believes in ethics believes in some kind of meaning in/of life. (Is this riddled with fallacies and sophistries? I wouldn't be surprised. Anyway...)

    But knowing how to live means knowing how to respond well to the particular circumstances you find yourself in, to the particular experiences you happen to have. It either can't be or isn't likely to be a one-size-fits-all thing. The meaning of life is never going to be something anyone could look up in a dictionary or encyclopedia. It's a matter of knowing how, not knowing that. And being a good player doesn't mean being a good coach. It isn't necessarily teachable. You pretty much have to find your feet as you go, as with coming to understand a work of art. A response is called for, and this response can be good or bad, better or worse, even if none is ever right or even, perhaps, wrong. So it's not all hopelessly relative or subjective, but it's a bit relative and a bit subjective.

    But I don't know how much more worthwhile it is to say that life is like a piece of music or a poem than it is to say that life is like a box of chocolates.