Poetry in the Cloud Chamber

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The Higgs boson has got nothing on poetry. The God particle may have succeeded in evading high energy detection until only recently – when the Large Hadron Collider finally revealed its tell-tale tracks – but all attempts to find the poem have so far met with failure. Perhaps we will never find it.

Some years ago I attended a seminar in which my group was tasked with providing a definition of poetry. As we each began offering tentative suggestions (‘poetry is rhyming’, ‘poetry has specific structures, like verses and quatrains’ etc.) it became clear that our tutor never expected us to succeed (‘What about blank verse?’, ‘What about free verse?’ etc.).

Every suggestion was met with a counterexample until, perhaps inevitably, a quick-thinking fellow student adopted the opposite tack and took the discussion to its logically extreme conclusion by lifting a sheet of clear paper and announcing (and I paraphrase) ‘Surely, then, I can say that this is my poem and no one can offer a valid objection!’

Seeing as we were only halfway through the seminar the tutor did indeed object and drew the discussion back into the fold of strictly paper-marked poetry. But despite this return to the written word I found myself compelled to address my friend’s assertion; not least because if no counterargument could be found then a blank piece of paper could indeed count as poetry, and the word itself would cease to have any meaning.

After the seminar I conceived a simple strategy to justify the necessity of defining poetry in terms of written words or characters. In short, if somebody approaches me with a blank sheet of A4 paper and says ‘This is a poem’, I would take the sheet, turn around, sandwich it between two reams of printer paper, turn back, and then ask him/her to search the ream for the ‘poem’ and to place it on top when found.

Hopefully, at this stage the point would already have been made and the definition offered would be sufficiently negated without any real need for a ‘paper-chase’. Also, any trickery involving subtly marking or creasing the paper in order to make it recognizable would immediately reduce the manipulated page to a form of expression solely in terms of those discernible signs, regardless of whether they were tiny folds or full stops. In other words, to quote the eminently-divisive Derrida: ‘Il n’y a pas de hors-texte ‘ (‘There is nothing outside the text’). Not where poetry is concerned anyway.

In his essay “Che cos’ e la Poesia” (‘What is poetry?’) Derrida, through the rather arcane medium of fable, described poetry as: ‘…That which you desire to learn…by heart’. In other words he defined it in terms of its concrete effects upon ourselves as readers and listeners. In so doing he may have avoided the intellectually risky business of providing a positive definition, but this is not a reprehensible omission given the difficulty of the task at hand. It would be reasonable to assume that by refusing to positively ‘identify’ poetry Derrida was implicitly denying the existence of an ideal and exhaustive definition.

The mature Wittgenstein adopted a similar stance by proposing that the meaning of a word or sentence depended upon context-specific rules. Poetry can therefore be seen as an instance of a language-game complete with its own rules of syntax and semantics. But what do these rules look like? How do we define them? It appears we are no nearer a definition in terms of methods than we are in terms of properties. Worse still, Wittgenstein makes a strong case for the inadequacy of definition to ‘pick out’ the essential meaning of any term we could care to create or consider.

His ‘family resemblance’ model of language builds upon the method of counterexamples I mentioned earlier (itself attributable to Socrates) and refines the concept by noting that instances of the same category can share any combination of characteristics without necessarily having a single one in common.

However, if poetry is a language-game then it surely has no equal and, consequently, there is little to be gained in attempting to tease out its rules. And where its ‘players’ are concerned much of their pleasure must surely come from making the rules play too.

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