The Poet’s Companion.
This reminds me a lot of Plato’s arguments regarding mimesis: that there is only one ideal, and any attempt to copy that ideal concept is exactly that–a copy, something which is not quite as perfect as the original.
I’ve heard the argument that words are not objects and therefore we cannot create objects with words and so on. It makes sense that no matter how detailed my descriptions are, I can never use those words to produce the exact thing I experience and make it appear in the reader’s mind. Descriptions don’t work like that.
But on the other hand, I also believe that saying that a flower made of words cannot be left by the roadside to grow, or that Language is inherently unable to create feelings and experiences you have never had is discrediting the power of language. Language is one of the most powerful tools we have ever created. I may not be able to transform you into myself so that you see what I see when I put my words together. As a prose fiction author, I may not be able to even give you the experience of being the person I see when I write those words. But, words can give you the feeling of being someone else and having experiences you have not had. Granted, such experiences will be less rich without background experience to fill in images and context, but that doesn’t make them non-existent.
Language is not only an analogy, or a symbol, it is much stronger than that. Language forms the basis for our thoughts and therefore our memories of real objects. (Is a memory of a flower less real than the physical flower you remember? But a memory is not a flower either.) Even if your descriptions cannot create a solid and specific flower, you can still create the idea of a flower. If you can create ideas and sensations well enough (which is what craft is all about) then the flower will be real enough to the mind that it takes no extra will to envision the flower living, growing, and dying beside the road just as if it were a true flower that had roots made of matter and not of words.
This sort of persistent reality and belief in things formed only of words is one of the strongest traits of all well-written fiction. It is useful also in poetry. It can be useful to remember that while language cannot, as our readings have asserted, recreate exact experiences in other people’s minds, they can create powerful and to some extent equally real experiences. Why else would anyone read travel fiction?
Sorry if this is a long and unedited or proofread rant. I felt the need to get this off of my chest because it’s one of the things about writing that I care deeply about. Also, my craft is typically fiction prose and not poetry, so I possibly care about the persistent nature of characters more than is relevant to this class.
What you are saying is about language is absolutely relevant to this class. There is some miscommunication happening between the quote, Julia’s comment, and your response, however, which I will try to unpack before I address your concerns.
The Poet’s Companion is a pedagogical text that simplifies certain problems in order to be helpful as a practical guide to writing (better) poetry. It is very good in what it is doing, but it is not necessarily attempting to make strong philosophical claims about how language works, how we experience the world, and the relationship between the two. If we go back to the text, we see that this passage is responding to the implicit objection to getting “fancy” with language: “Why isn’t a straightforward description enough?” The authors then do not really say what makes better poetry, but rather offer a series of helpful questions to try to open the readers mind to a variety of possibilities. Ultimately, all the options are provided with the intent of helping you better evoke an experience, or a range of experiences, in your writing. Their implicit argument: nonlinear, illogical, disjunctive writing may sometimes be the best way to evoke a particular experience with a particular flower, real or imagined.
They are claiming here that we can’t transfer our particular experience to a reader: this is common sense. They are also saying that language can be used to create a parallel sort of experience (and you have to understand that first premise, that language is not transparent, to take full advantage of its possibilities).
Plato is always fun to bring into a conversation about poetry. I’m glad he’s here. Although Plato is most famous for wanting to keep poets out of his republic, his views on poetry were rather complex (and vary from dialogue to dialogue). The main reason he didn’t want poets around is because they could, through the beauty of their language, create the illusion that they were saying true things. And he wasn’t wrong! We may say that we are working to get at the Truth, but our work is evaluated based on how well we create experiences with language that feel true in some transcendent way (a feeling one can rarely escape, even if one’s beliefs do not include the possibility of Platonic transcendence of physical reality).
This thing about truth sounds like what I was saying earlier about the advice in the Companion, but the connection is actually very superficial because Plato’s Ideas are not our objects: the physical world we experience, according to Plato, is already a circus of shadows, so that any artwork is twice removed (an imitation of an imitation). Poets who have been heavily influenced by Platonism, Neo-Platonism, and relevant heresies tend to think of the material world as fallen/illusory. For them, poetry is a portal. The poet has privileged access to the realm of Ideas and suggests this higher/more perfect reality through poetic language.
The elusiveness of the material world can be more productively addressed with reference to the Lacanian Real—and there has and will continue to be much ink spilled in an attempt to figure out how to talk about our relationship with that (if it is possible at all). Crudely stated, the Real is what we are severed from by language and consciousness. When I see a flower, I think: “flower,” I think “wedding” or “funeral,” I think “sky blue” or “mustard.” To talk about creating a “real thing” in writing is moot because, as you point out, Stephanie, our experience is always mediated by language anyway. (To say that our thoughts are “based on” language is a little more controversial.)
All of which brings me to: I think your essential claim is right, and I don’t think that it is really at odds with anything we’ve read. I don’t know that one can take responsibility off the reader for struggling through authors’ attempts to evoke experiences that might be less familiar—provided the author has given the reader enough to work with (and to decide what “enough” means in this context is to choose one’s position on what constitutes good poetry). But, yes, the work of most literature is to try to create as real an experience as possible for the reader, to communicate, and one can succeed, at least to some degree, in doing that. Granted, communication is difficult, and some writers like to keep hitting the reader over the head with the theoretical impossibility of communicating anything precisely, and some do it interestingly and well, but if we all wrote like that, we’d drive ourselves crazy. (But there is a wide spectrum of poetry that manifests awareness of the potential failure of any communicate act without thematizing it.)
I’m going to add something to the mix—one of the “letters” Jack Spicer wrote to Lorca in his book After Lorca. The letters tend to deal with translation, but translating from language to language undoubtably has something in common with translating from personal experience to work of art.
I completely agree, especially as it says “Language itself becomes an analogy - what something is like rather than what something is.”
I really found this striking because in my opinion, regardless of how carefully you word your description of an object or of an emotion or etc, and despite how intentional your structure of your description is, the words used and how it is said will never be able to actually and wholly describe what something is. All it can really accomplish is describing what something is similar to or resembles or is an essence of.