[Milton-L] Re: Books, documents and texts

Duran, Angelica ADuran at cla.purdue.edu
Sun Dec 12 10:50:08 EST 2004


I try to get my students to think and feel as you so wonderfully express in your concluding paragraph in your email to the list of yesterday.  To help that along, I include the following page in my course readers, which we go over in Week 1 of the semester.  We revisit that page in the last week of the semester, and it is easy to guide students through question and answer to understand how much the knowledge they have gained in the intervening semester helps them even better appreciate the Bécquer poem in particular.  I wil confess that I try to live my life as an incomplete poem: it's turning out okay so far, and shows some promise.

Internationally renowned nineteenth-century U.S. poet Walt Whitman's assessment emphasizes the interrelations between reader and text:
		Books are to be call'd for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast's struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay-the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.

Ezra Pound put it succinctly: "Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree."  Elsewhere, he defined it as follows: "Literature is news that stays news" ABC of Reading, 1934.

Poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer addresses what John Milton called the "simple, sensuous, and passionate" nature of good poetry: 
		¿Qué es la poesía?, dices minetras clavas	What is poetry? you say while you nail
		en mi pupila con tu pupila azul. 		your blue eyes into mine.
		¿Qué es la poesía? ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?	What is poetry?  And, is it you who ask me?
		Poesía . . . eres tú. 				Poetry . . . is you.

Major literary critic Marjorie Perloff defines poetry as follows: 
				And in a way my definition of poetry is quite conventional and classical. I believe a poem differs from routine or normal discourse (like this statement, for instance) by being the art form that foregrounds language, in its complexity, intensity, and, especially, relatedness. My criterion here is what Aristotle called to prepon or fitness. In the poetic text, everything is related to everything else--or should be--the whole being a construct of sameness and difference in pleasing proportions. What makes something "pleasing" can of course not be said outright and depends on the reader, the historical moment, and the cultural milieu. But we can say what poetry isn't: it is not straightforward, expository discourse (as in a chemistry textbook), whose aim is to convey information. I go back to Wittgenstein's proposition (#160) in Zettel, "Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information." 
				Poetry must meet the criterion of re-readability. If a poem can be absorbed at one reading (as the typical poetry reading demands--i.e., at one hearing), then it's not much of a poem. Poetry is news that stays news; it is "language charged with meaning" (Ezra Pound). And here Pound's aphorisms accord with Russian Formalism and the notion of defamiliarization, making strange, the orientation toward the neighboring word. But neither Pound's nor the Russian Formalist notion is new: one finds the same formula in Sidney's Defense of Poetry or in Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare, where we read "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature." I take Johnson's "just" to mean the Aristotelian "fitting" (the prepon again), the implication being that representations (whether in lyric, drama, or fiction) must strike us not just as plausible according to some outside norm, but internally consistent and coherent.
"Language charged with meaning" suggests that poetry can never be a matter of "lovely" or "elegant" language but that it must be meaning-ful; on the other hand, "meaning" that is external to or prior to language, as in much of contemporary writing that passes for "poetry" is not poetry either. 


Angelica Duran
Assistant Professor
English Department
Purdue University
500 Oval Drive
West Lafayette, Indiana 47907-2048
(765) 496-3957, phone
(765) 494-3780, fax
<aduran at sla.purdue.edu>

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