Unreal Nature

August 28, 2012

Like Whole Animals

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:33 am

… What an extraordinary psychotic characteristic of human nature to need to reconstruct the world in this way!

This is from Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry by Paul Goodman (1971):

… Finally, there is what might be called the religious meaning of poetical language. Poetry as a life wager. Creating another world, instead of living this one.

In the aboriginal language, we saw, there might be a blurring between lexicon and grammar, between denotative names and meanings given by formal devices. Likewise, in some primitive languages there is a very large number of acceptable sounds, clicks, explosive noises, and musical notes, and there might be a blurring between what are words and what are mere echoes and exclamations. Both these blurrings occur, in a more sophisticated way, in poems. But in poems there is an even more important ambiguity, an ambiguity of semantics: What is language and what is being talked about? This is usually posed as the question, “Does poetry mean anything?” or “Is the ‘meaning’ of a poem  just the poem itself?” or “Can a poem be paraphrased?” Let me repeat from previous chapters some passages that bear on this question:

All speech is assertive. … Poetry is also assertive, but it does not say sentences about reality and sometimes does not use the common code. Rather, it goes about the business more directly, by tying down more reality in its complicated structures than is possible in ordinary sentences and by trying to make the poem itself more like a real thing.

Poets have rarely regarded their speech as communication, but usually as a physical thing. In classical literary theory, poems are imitations; and the discussion of imitations is usually how to make them “like whole animals,” as Aristotle put it, self-subsistent and internally coherent.

Speaking is such that there comes to be a world made of signs. Meantime these same signs are functional for biological and community survival, personal well-being, and intellectual growth. And we cannot simply sort out the two aspects, for the functional use of words requires that people believe in their meanings, and this belief is in the speaker and hearer — it is not in the relation of the signs and the designates.

The words that are parts of a poem are not nonsense syllables. The poet believes they have meaning, and he wants to use just these words and not others. Nor does he do this just to “express himself”; he is making a public statement, and he feels the strongest responsibility — it is his only responsibility — to make the statements “clear,” though hardly ever to a particular audience, even when it is a declaration of love. By this activity he lives through, and brings into the public forum, an occasion that is important to him; and he does this as a human being, he is not assuming the role of “being a poet.” In short, all parts of the discourse are real, real speech, except that, unlike in the aboriginal language, the poem has no real referent, it is a complex-word that closes on itself. A poet simply doesn’t care if what he says is true, at least as propositions are true.*

Also, poetry is not rhetoric. An audience that is not a particular audience is not a respondent at all. Thus, the only test of the relevance of his poem is whether or not he carries it off. Does it hang together? Does it have magnitude or is it trivial? Is it interesting or boring? Is it believable? But poetic credibility is not a semantic relation; it depends on how the poet manages the words. A poem lacks verisimilitude — “incredulis odi,” as Horace says — not because its propositions are fantastic — most poetic sentences are anyway lies, fictions, platitudes, or exaggerations — but because it does not carry the hearer along.

What an extraordinary psychotic characteristic of human nature to need to reconstruct the world in this way! And sometimes to manage to reconstruct it and make it stick.

On the one hand, one thinks of Flaubert and the farm family: “They have the right of it.” On the other, there was Beethoven unbelievably miserable, but he must have been something like happy during those hours of exploding energy and long song when he was not there.

[* As a poet, I like to compose with accurate observations and true propositions, but this is not to inform or persuade anybody. It is because true propositions lie heavier on the page — I can’t just push them around: it’s like carving wood rather than modeling clay.]

The footnote which I have put in square brackets is in the original (though with a tiny little “4” instead of an asterisk, and minus the brackets).

My most recent previous post from Goodman’s book is here.




  1. PG> Poetry as a life wager.
    PG. Creating another world,
    PG> instead of living this one.

    The more i think about that, the more it seems to describe all literature…

    …all art, in fact….

    …much mathematics, even…

    …the more I’m entranced.

    Comment by Felix — August 28, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

  2. I like the idea of aboriginal “blurring” and I like “whole animal” and I especially like the footnote, ” It is because true propositions lie heavier on the page — I can’t just push them around: it’s like carving wood rather than modeling clay.”

    And I like that you like the “life wager” which I also like. Oh, and then there’s the “long song when he was not there.” Goodman is very good.

    Comment by unrealnature — August 28, 2012 @ 7:17 pm

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