Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Poetry isn’t just a pretty way of saying plain things

So says George Szirtes, and he’s right. Compare Sperber and Wilson (1990):
The most scathing criticism addressed by the Romantics to classical rhetoric concerned the treatment of metaphor, irony, and other figures of speech. In classical rhetoric, figures were seen as ornaments added onto a text, which made it more pleasant and hence more convincing, without however altering its content. Tropes in particular, it was said, achieve this ornamental effect by replacing a dull literal expression of the author’s thought by a more attractive figurative expression, that is, by an expression the literal meaning of which is set aside and replaced by a figurative meaning. …
Against the notion of a figure as a mere ornament, the Romantics maintained that a felicitous trope cannot be paraphrased. Thus Coleridge argues that the “infallible test of a blameless style” is:
“its untranslateableness in words of the same language without injury to the meaning. Be it observed, however, that I include in the meaning of a word not only its correspondent object but likewise all the associations which it recalls.”
It’s not just poetry. Ordinary speech recruits associations of words, and often more effectively than someone straining for effect. Sperber and Wilson discuss ‘You’re a piglet,’ (1990) and ‘Keep your paws off me!’ (2006).

Szirtes seems to me also to be right in the following two claims (and ‘baggage’ is a useful term to cover connotations, colouring, register, etymology – essentially anything that’s not literal meaning):
Words are not stable entities you can slam down like dominoes. They carry a baggage of music, context, allusion, attachment and history.
Something that really interests me lately is whether the second claim – about baggage – is necessary for the first. Does the possibility of using words to convey different senses on different occasions depend on the baggage?

The grab bag view of word meaning, essentially, is that words only have baggage. To know the meaning of a word is just to have a collection of baggage associated with it.

I’m pretty sure that is wrong. I’m less sure – but increasingly think – that words without baggage would still not be ‘stable entities you can slam down like dominoes’, and that the versatility of word meaning for words that do have baggage (which may be all of them) is not only due to baggage.

I’d also say that this is wrong, since literal meanings are surely very important for almost all poetry:
It is the baggage that produces the poetry.
It is partly the baggage that produces the poetry. Well, it’s obviously the poet who produces the poetry, but, what I mean is that she does it using words in ways that exploit both their baggage and their literal meanings.


Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (1990). Rhetoric and relevance. In The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice (pp. 140-156). Stanford University Press.

Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (2006). A deflationary account of metaphor. UCL Working Papers in Linguistics, 18, 171-203.

Monday, May 26, 2014

If and even if

A biscuit conditional with parenthetical even-if clause from the Guardian’s coverage of European elections in the UK:
if you didn't stay up late into the night to follow the results of voting for the European parliament (and even if you did), here are the highlights and key results.