Theory: A Dialogue

(For my literary theory class last semester we wrote several short papers about different theoretical ideas. One of mine, co-written with another student, took the form of a dialogue between “1” and “2” about paraphrase. Given its subject matter, it seems right to not attempt to rewrite the ideas it contains in essay form, but to simply post the thing itself. It runs as follows:)

1: To begin, I would agree with the New Critic’s claim that a poem cannot be paraphrased; or, at the very least, that such a paraphrase would necessarily be woefully inadequate.

2: It is a plausible enough sounding claim, but what precisely do you mean by “inadequate”? If a poem is saying anything at all, any format will do for communicating whatever it says. Now there might be as much controversy as you like about the meaning of a particular poem. And maybe you won’t ever be able to paraphrase all the constantly changing, evolving critical debate out there. But as long as you have a view on what the poem says, or at least what it might say, then you have a paraphrase you can express with standard English sentences. Perhaps that paraphrase is boring or contrived or awkward, but it gets across everything you believe to be the poem. There’s nothing you can’t say about the poem that you can’t say about the poem.

1: Well that hardly covers it. What about the aesthetic impression a poem makes? That can’t be replicated in ordinary language—it’s an experience, not a propositional claim. If poems were just complicated propositions then their form would be little more than decoration. But it is not mere decoration—it’s of central importance to the experience of the poem, which cannot be replicated. It is this that makes paraphrases of poetry inadequate in a way normal paraphrases are not. Poems are not simply statements, they are aesthetic objects.

2: That I will grant—a poem is independent of the description of a poem, in the same way a flower is independent of the description of a flower. Perhaps my paraphrase does not have the same “ring” to it, or perhaps it’s harder to remember. Perhaps my description of a flower fails to evoke the same emotions the actual flower might. But that doesn’t make poems special—all objects are like that. The phenomenon of the thing differs from its description. Fine. But not important.

1: No, I don’t think that’s quite right. Poem’s are not quite like flowers. You see, a flower does not mean to communicate anything at all. Perhaps there is some sense in saying it has a certain rhetoric with regard to bees. But poems are not like that. They are intentional acts of communication. And I don’t think this is trivial, because language acts’ only meaning is intentional. Flowers exist regardless of how they rhetorically affect bees, but the word “flower” only exists as long as we allow it to mean something. And poems are made up of words. Moreover, I think poems are special acts of communication. They intend a “meaning” like any statement might; but unlike other verbal acts, a poem also intends itself.

2: What do you mean by “intends itself”? All this sounds very nice, but, if you see my point, you’ll know you have to tell me specifically what it is that only a poem can tell me. You’ll have to say what it is that you cannot paraphrase, and you’ll have to say it in a way that couldn’t itself serve as a paraphrase.

1: When one speaks, one intends something by one’s speech different from the speech itself. Speaking attempts to communicate linguistically, but the act of speech, at the most basic level only produces sound waves. The meaning behind those sound waves is intended, but not explicitly present—what would it mean for it to be? For it to be present, the speech would have to carry within itself the entire context of the conversation, indeed the entire English language. None of this is present in the speech itself, yet we can say that the speaker intends for us to find it there. Synecdochally, we can say that the speech intends it. We could, but perhaps should avoid, getting into whether speech is actually the sort of thing that can intend.

2: So explain what is different about what a poem intends.

1: Consider the sentence “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.” In normal speech, this is a proposition about the location of certain women and their activities, and intends to communicate that information. Within “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is something quite different.

2: Is this due to the strange form of that line?

1: No. Not really.

2: Well, what do you attribute this special sense to? Look, the line you are talking about has an unusual form, but it can nonetheless be paraphrased.

1: How would you paraphrase this line?

2: Well, I suppose I might rather say that the poem itself can be paraphrased. The sentence can be paraphrased insofar as it is part of the poem.

1: But the line cannot be paraphrased?

2: Merely because of its brevity and isolation from context.

1: Well, this is sort of what I’m trying to get at: that poetic context makes things mean differently; and that we cannot get beyond poetic context without changing meaning.

2: I’m not sure I agree with that. To say that a line cannot be paraphrased because it is within a poem is akin to saying that a word cannot be paraphrased because it is within a sentence. Certainly the individual word cannot be paraphrased, but the sentence as a whole can be. Context must always be considered when paraphrasing; the non-poetic version of the “Michelangelo” utterance can vary drastically in meaning because of context. If it followed the question, “what sort of art do women prefer?”, it would mean something different from if it followed, “where are those women, again?” But this does not render the phrase impossible to paraphrase, any more than all language cannot be paraphrased—and it would be absurd to say that no language can be paraphrased, for then the word “paraphrase” would become useless. So clearly paraphrase depends on context, for all paraphrase. My point is this: Poetry provides an unusual, but arbitrarily defined kind of context; it has no special properties that are in principle unique to poetry. Poetic context is not unique. It functions in the same was as the context of normal speech, except in that the context of normal speech is immediately obvious to the speakers while the context of poetry is not always so clear.

1: Yes but you’re ignoring aesthetics. Perhaps I take back what I said about the form of poetry. Perhaps it is the crucial difference. The sentence in question has aesthetically interesting properties, and it is because we find that poem in a poetic context that we pay attention to them. The rhyme between “come and go” and “Michelangelo” doesn’t mean anything, propositionally, but within the poem it is significant.

2: So it looks like we’re relegating the supposed uniqueness of poetry to its rhetorical value, i.e. how well it sounds?

1: That is certainly part of what distinguishes poetry from other speech.

2: But can’t anything have aesthetic value? A good speech will use the same tropes of repetition, evocative imagery, and allusions that you want to call specifically poetic. So I grant, again, that poetry can’t be paraphrased fully, qua rhetoric. But note two things: First, the word “paraphrase” does not really demand replication of rhetorical effect in the first place, and, Second, it is in any case sometimes still possible to reproduce the aesthetic effect in the paraphrase.

1: Still, poetic speech doesn’t intend to be taken rhetorically—at least the words “poetic” and “rhetorical” are not to be understood equivocally. Rhetoric seeks to persuade. Poetry may be persuasive, but poetry qua poetry entails nothing of the sort. Thus I feel legitimate in maintaining that a poem is “about” its own aesthetics in a way the speech is not.

2: I don’t follow. Are you saying poems that poems are meant to be pretty? Lots of things are pretty. What is the difference between a poem being about its aesthetics and a poem having aesthetic value?

1: A poem is not just aesthetically pleasing, but of aesthetic interest—we take rational interest in the poem’s aesthetic facts. We can hear “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo” and simply find it pleasant, but we can also try to make sense of what that rhyme does as it is situated in the poem. This is what most literary criticism written about poetry attempts to do. So, what differentiates the context of poetry from the context of normal speech is that the context of poetry draws our conscious attention to the aesthetic facts of the poem.

2: If aesthetic facts are the type of thing in which we can take rational interest, then they are the type of thing which can be paraphrased. If poems are about their aesthetics, then a summary of the poem insofar as it is as a poem, rather than insofar as it makes statements, would be a description of its use of tropes and figures, and a summary of the poem as a whole would be a combination of the two. So the poem can be paraphrased by summarizing its use of aesthetics/rhetoric as well as its propositional claims.

1: Even if that is the case—that we can paraphrase poems that way—there is no sense in which it would be an adequate account of the poem. Reading a good poem has an effect on the emotional state of the reader in a way that a description of that same poem would not. That effect, for its part, alters the way in which all aspects of the poem affect the reader. A cold, dead summary could not communicate this emotional experience that we all know to be inextricable from our encounter with a poem—inextricable from the poem in a way that it is not inextricable from normal speech.

2: To an extent, I will grant this. Yes, the way in which a poem affects my emotions differs from the way in which a description would, however elegant or correct that description may be. This having been said, it is not the purpose of a paraphrase to mimic the emotional ups and downs of a poem, but rather to be like a description, however inadequate a description it will be. Secondly, we should note that all descriptions are by nature inadequate, not merely those of poems. My description of a flower is exactly like my description of a poem, in that it would be incapable of mimicking the emotional effect of a flower in an exact way. The fact that the paraphrase of a poem is limited in its descriptiveness does not make poems “special” in any way.

1: That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all. If we allow paraphrases to be descriptions, however inadequate, then of course we can paraphrase a poem; grant that, and we can paraphrase anything, and made the word “paraphrase” meaningless. But you have completely ignored the way in which paraphrases of poems are radically inferior to paraphrases of non-poetic speech. Leaving flowers to the side, your description of a speech is not exactly like your description of a poem. What would be lacking from that of the speech would be incidental to the propositional purpose of that speech, but what would be lacking from that of the poem—its aesthetics—would be of the utmost importance.

2: You continually attempt to separate poems from normal speech by saying their aesthetics are of special importance, but it is unclear what exactly you mean by that. You shift between saying that they are aesthetically pleasing and that they are aesthetically interesting. But the first of these applies to all aesthetic objects, and the second poses no significant obstacle to paraphrase. Insofar as poems are like flowers, they can be described; insofar as poems are like speeches, they can be paraphrased. I am not denying that poems are like both of these—that poems are not reducible to normal speech—but just because a poem is like both of these things does not mean it is a third kind of thing distinct from both. I remain unconvinced that poems differ from normal speech in some deeper fundamental way that makes them impossible to paraphrase.

To be continued…


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