Ernie Lapore, “Poetry, Medium, and Message.” The Stone. New York Times Online. 7.31.2011.
Rutgers philosopher Ernie Lepore writes about poetry in yesterday’s installment of “The Stone,” a philosophy “blog” on the New York Times. Something about the article rankled me and inspired this cranky response.
Lapore says the New Critics locate meaning, and the resistance of poetry to both translation and explanation, in a magical (or mystical) property of the words themselves, but his critique describes a pomegranate, examines an orange, condemns an apple, then recommends something that looks to me just like a pomegranate. Apples to oranges, Lapore.
He confounds words like “meaning” “interpretation” “translation” and “paraphrase” as if their mutual substitution could be accomplished without qualification. In general, he seems to think definitional meaning resides at the level of the word, or nearly so, and does not discuss combinatorial syntax, figure, image, denotation, connotation, nor manifest versus latent content. No mention of cultural identity, class, historical and geographical factors, codes or other vexed subtleties of discourse. Apparently he wrongly assumes these do not matter to his argument. Perhaps he thinks they can be easily disposed of in phrases like … “Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur” — but that is just silly.
His article takes on the problem of explaining the truth behind the persistent ‘heresy of paraphrase’ … beginning with a witticism from Eliot … literalism, I’d call Eliot’s quip … as if New Critics all just thought that poetry means only what is said. He conflates the idea with translators’ complaints that languages resist full translation. (If languages did not resist translation, we’d all be effortlessly multilingual). And mixes in the notion, one I find typical of undergraduate writers, and unworthy of a philosopher, that interpretation can be accomplished by plot summary.
He ends up defending a simple distinction between articulation (“perceptible” or measurable qualities of the presentation of words) and lexical meanings. Poetry brings intentional articulation in to play, and that’s why it can’t simply be paraphrased.
He writes: “Of course, we can introduce a new expression to mean exactly whatever an old expression means but since poems can be about their own articulations, substituting synonyms will not result in an exact paraphrase or translation. To do so requires not only synonymies but also identical articulations, and only repetition ensures this end.”
Notice here that what he calls articulation is reserved by definition from “meaning” … but this simply cannot be the case.
He says “the poet wants to draw the audience’s attention to … articulations as much as to the ideas the words so articulated express” but also says poetry differs from prose only in that it can be more “about” its articulation.
Once you’ve admitted that the poet can take language and make it about its articulation, you’ve committed yourself to a robust and complex idea of meaning. It doesn’t matter if you jest, like Elliot, or dismiss complexities with a vapid gloss like “linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur, but in poetry (as in other forms of mentioning) the medium really becomes the message.”
No poem can “be about” something other than its meaning; meaning is the aboutness of discourse.
A paragraph or so earlier Lapore had blasted New Critics for claiming that “form shapes content” [his italics, ironically] a notion he mocks as both “quasi-mystical” and “magical” … utter nonsense. Only the color blind, the tone deaf, and the naive would insist upon the idea.
A poem’s unique articulations have been brought into its meaning; manifest features manifestly shape the content of discourse. Meaning cannot be found in a dictionary or thesaurus, and you cannot even look up the meaning of poems in books.
I think Lapore is right on the money to emphasize the importance of articulation as a key way of distinguishing poetry from prose; of course an older age was content to call this music, and under his analysis, we can still call it music.
Lapore implies that an interpretation and a summary of a poem amount to the same thing, and then ends up defending a ridiculous version of ‘the heresy of paraphrase’ on the allegedly new grounds that summaries leave out the music. He doesn’t actually care to interpret poetry, so he seems not to care without caring that his conflation of paraphrase and meaning would make interpretation, by his own account, more or less impossible for more “poetic” texts. Again, nonsense. (Also nonsense: that ‘interpretation’ is restricted to discovering “meaning” on his or my terms).
Meaning must be sought afresh in every utterance, as a dog finds water in a bowl, as a parent places a hand on a child’s forehead, as a student looks at the clock. Meaning is not strictly lexical or referential; it is critical. A worker opens the days newspaper, or a believer approaches scripture. All meaning is phenomenon; it resides in the lived, temporal, historical present — the appearance or presentation — of communicative action. This necessarily includes linguistic and paralinguistic features.
To talk about meaning in things, among other things and their meanings, that’s interpretation.
Beware of pomegranate seeds.