433. Do poems express meaning or do they produce it?
Since about a year, I have been writing poems. I have now read three books on poetry: by Stephen Fry, Glyn Maxwell and Stephen Dobyns, all three active poets. In those books, I came across the old idea that poems are supposed to ‘express’ some meaning intended by the poet, and that this expression is always imperfect, approximate, never quite covering the intended meaning. For any word in the poem, the rest of the poem helps to convey the intended meaning.
I think that is a misrepresentation. Meanings are not pre-established in the mind of the poet. In writing the poem the meanings of words in it emerge, are produced. The meaning of a word emerges in interaction with the other words, as a function of meter, sound and rhyme. Interestingly, the poets mentioned above did say that one ‘writes a poem in order to discover why one is writing it’. The discipline of meter and rhyme serve to prod the poet to consider alternative words, not grab the first word that comes to mind. That yields new avenues of meaning, often quite to the surprise of the poet. The poem as a whole, as it emerges, guides the meaning of the words in it, and may lead the poet to replace them, and change of a single word can change the meaning of the whole. In this way, writing a poem may become a process without end.
Being also a philosopher, I now ask: how, if at all, does this fit with philosophy of language?
Earlier in this blog (item 32), discussing philosophy of meaning, I used, with a twist, Frege’s distinction between sense and reference. A meaning is supposed to refer to something, to what the word ‘gives’. Frege defined sense as ‘the way it is given’ (‘die Art des Gegebenseins’), by which he meant: the way somethings manifests itself. I changed that into: the way something is identified as something. Sense is the process of identification, reference is its outcome.
Sense entails a set of associations that one has with a kind of object, say a chair. Some of those will be shared, public, such as its having legs (3 or more), a seat, and possibly (but not necessarily) head- and armrests. Other features are its upholstery, soft or hard, wood, metal, cloth, or leather, colour, and so on. Some of the associations will be personal, connected with the chairs that were significant in one’s life. Part of my sense of a chair is grandfather’s chair with curved armrests of polished ebony wood and a blue velvet upholstery fastened with buttons. Which features are triggered depends on the context. Odd cases may enter. I used the example, encountered in a newspaper, of someone who had turned a stuffed cow into a chair. For me, seeing a cow may now make me think of chairs.
Poems are not to indicate things that are already given, but engages in sense: plays of sense making, of making and shifting reference, shedding new light on things whereby we see them differently, or see different things.
Different words can have the same reference, but certainly do not have the same sense. The famous example is Shakespeare’s (from Romeo and Julia): ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ (the intention for Julia was to say that Romeo was the same to her whether or not he carried the name of a rival family). Whatever other name we might choose for a rose, with ‘rose’ it would share the feature of smell, while having very different other features.
Sense depends on the context. New contexts evoke new associations that may be added to the set of sense, thus making us look differently at an object, and may link it to other words we never associated them with before. That is what poems often do: trigger surprising connections, thus enriching meanings, shifting them or demolishing them. That is also why poems seldom stick to abstractions but play with particulars in specific, surprising contexts, playing with sense, which may cause us to shift or demolish abstractions.
In conclusion: Poets do not necessarily express meanings they intended before undertaking the poem, but in writing the poems discover meanings new to themselves, from the context that emerges in the poem as they write it.