Ashok R. Kelkar



The being of a poem


A poem should not mean
But Archibald be Macleish, Ars poetica




            The ancient Greeks were notoriously fond of setting themselves philosophical puzzles.  You may have heard of one such—a certain city possessed a certain historic ship. Every year one plank was ceremoniously removed form it and a new one substituted for it.  Thus eventually would come a time all the wood in the ship will come to be replaced by new material.  When this happened.  Was it the same ship?  If not, when did the new ship come into-being?  The point of introducing the fable here is of course putting you in the proper frame of mind-exorcizing any metaphysical longings that the title of this essay may have roused in some of you and bracing you for an embattled for playful refusal to dismiss as obvious and therefore trivial.


            Our aim, however, will not be the setting up of an ontogical theory of poems, though the ontologist is welcome to draw his own conclusions from that we have to say or to let us have the benefit of his professional expertise.  Our central concerns will still be those of the literary critic.  But here again we are not going to offer say solutions to the critical problems but rather suggest an adequate frame for the discussion of such solutions.  To that extent this is an essay in philosophical midwifery.


            When we assert that something or other is a poem.  We raise, roughly speaking, three sorts of questions: (a) Under what conditions can we say that x and y are the same poem?   What makes a poem identical with itself?  This is the problem of self-identify. (b) Where exactly do we look for a poem?  What is the mode of existence of a exactly do we look for a poem?  This is the problem of locus or situs. (c) How do we know that what we have encountered is a poem?  Is classifying x as a poem different setting a value upon it as a poem?  This is the problem of class-identity. (d) How do we find a place in the sun for a poem?  What is the raison d’être of a poem? This is the problem of meaning.


            We shall attack these questions on a general level-we shall not worry about this or that poem we may have encountered.  At the same time we shall sedulously avoid the word ‘poetry’ (except for one passing reference) and stress the particularity of poems.




           It will be best perhaps to start with a preliminary clarification.  We must distinguish a poem from an encounter with a poem.  The latter is obviously an event which happens to a particulars person at a particular place and time.  It is more than likely that there are many persons to whom this has never happened: we shall not worry any further about those.  Rather am I worried about finding out what hits me when a poem-encountering-event happens to me.  Out of the countless poem encounterings n my life.  I can string together sets of such encountering as have been occasioned by the same poem.  Poem encountering-events are more like coin-handlings or umbrella-up-holdings or love-makings or penal-code-invokings than like tea sippings or cigarette-smokings or battle-fightings or letter-writings. That is to say, while a poem persists through many persons, we can be quite sure that no two tea-sippings involve the same tea.  Every time you letter-write a different letter: of course some of these letters my be destined for the mail-box, others for the waste basket.  To be sure, all these events, whether of the coin-handling variety or of the tea-sipping variety, have one thing in common.  They are typically human events—events involving one (or more) human beings in characteristically human roles.  Car-hittings, sun-baskings, or rainsoakings may also involve human beings—but they may involve cats or trees or earth clods instead.


            What are the typically human roles involved in the event classifiable as a poem-encountering?  Remember that we are not counting heads here but counting caps; and remember further that we are analyzing a poem-encountering-event and not a poem-making-event.  Even if no new poems get written after 1968., poem-encountering-events may still go on.  It takes a poet, a performer, a reader (or listener), and a critic to make a poem-encountering-event possible: a poem by itself is not enough.  The frequency with which this happens to a poem may fluctuate—it may even go down to zero and this not necessarily because the speakers of that language have been wiped off in some disaster.  The frequency with which poem-encountering-events in general happen in a community may also fluctuate.  Coming back to in four roles, we quickly realize that they can be and very often are combined in various ways.  A poet comes to be this own reader, a reader may choose to be his own performer, and so on.  But this need not happen in all cases.  A proof-reader may also happen to an august professor.  Some persons may specialize in a modest way, if their readings of a poem is to qualify as a poem-encountering-event.  This will explain why I have included a critic’s role as an essential one.  (Incidentally in a poem-making-event a poet is also being his own critic.  The poet cannot be his own performer and reader at that time, since the poem is not ‘on the air’ so to say and only studio rehearsals are possible!) The number of persons who happen to play the roles of performer, reader, critic to a given poem may be unlimited.  How many persons can father a given poem?  The answer—a limited number of them, quite often just one.  More precisely, there can be only a single rule designable as the maker of a given poem---and this is true even of a folk poem.  More than one person may share in the making of a poem; but the reader-critic does not have to know that this is the case.  As long as we are counting roles and not heads, the poem expresses only one maker to the reader-critic.  The people of India can give themselves a constitution and a national anthem, but they cannot enact or make a poem.


            The distinction between a poem and a poem-encountering-event also brings into view another distinction-that between a poem and a poem-taken, both of which are ingredients of a poem-encountering-event, but a poem-taken is.  A poem-taken primarily consists of a performance of the poem, which may be either ‘loud’ or ‘silent’; in either case it may be done form ‘memory’ or form a physical ‘prop’.  The poem-taken may thus secondarily involve a prop to set the stage—say, a piece or written score or notation, black marks on a page, or a tape—recording.  But nobody should mistake the prop or artefact for the poem—all written or printed copies may be destroyed and the poem need not be the worse for it.  An oral poem may occasion poem-encountering-events for centuries without the benefit of a prop.  And the same is true of a performance.  A performance may take place without anybody encountering a poem—not all performances and in success.  What is more, a poem may be encountered without any concomitant performance.  True, the performance of a poem has to take place at least once for a given reader and it may be undertaken again for the sake of renewal of contact.  But the encounter may consist as much in what happens after a successful performance as in the successful performance itself.  For one thing the encountering is not really complete till the reader contemplates the poem in retrospect.  Further, the encounter may be renewed without even silent performance—we often describe this experience by saying that we are haunted by a poem.  ‘We reach our understanding of literature.  Assimilate it, in some make it out own, not only when we are in direct contact with the “words on the page” …[but also] when, apparently otherwise engaged, we recall that we have read, when we listen—or half listen—to a lecture, or in talk with a friend’2 poems are not poem-tokens, in short.


            It will be instructive to compare with this the state of affairs in arts other than literature.  Paintings, statues, edifices are much more bound to the artifacts—if you destroy the material prop, you have destroyed everything.  A well-executed ‘copy’ of a painting calls forth praise precisely because the production of a matching prop partakes some of the quality of ‘making’.  Nobody would see any poet-like gifts in copying a poem-it is merely plagiarism at best!  The performing arts tends to depend more on performance.  Even here there may be differences—compare an instrumentalist rendering a kti or composition of a Tyāgarāja Mozart and an instrumentalist elaborating a rāga.


            A poem-encountering-event involves not only the poem, the four human roles, and the poem-token (that is, the performance with or without the prop), but also the socio-cultural envelope, the life of the community, the matrix of the varied roles-in-society and customs-in-culture that prevail in a given historical period.  (See Figure 1) In what ways is all this an ingredient of the poem-encountering-event?  It is an ingredient specifically in two ways—the language and the literacy culture.

















Socio-cultural envelope


     Other uses                                                                                   other poems

     Of language                                     Critic



                              Poet                                   POEM            Reader







    Other role                                                                                    other customs       





            The making of a statue sometimes been thought of as merely hewing away of excess stone so as literally to bring out the statue already hidden there in the shapeless block of stone!’  The poetic analogue to this will be to think of the poem in language L as one long sentence chosen out of the total set of sentences that could possibly be said in the code of symbolic calculus known as language L.  The poem is as it were already there in the language same sense as a statue, is there---developed by the block of stone with the specific texture.  I hope that nobody will take the foregoing statement literally—the statement is only a rhetorical hyperbole for emphasizing the role of the material in the making and the encountering of works of including poems.


            One other aspect of the envelope is the literary culture, whose importance can hardly be overestimated.  Literary culture, artistic culture, aesthetic culture---these are simply the bodies of customs through which a society determines the categorization of x or y as works of literature, works of art, aesthetic objects and determines the appropriate modes of encountering these.  The Japanese, to start with a crude and obvious example, prescribe that, in order to enjoy a certain well-known scenic spot in Japan, you should turn your back to it, bend yourself, and look at it between our spread legs.  The American society frowns o the explicit discussion of works of art—the customary thing to say is: ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I know that I like.’  Some societies have insisted that writings should be done with care so as to produce an aesthetic object—calligraphy is prized and more or less common property.  Among the Rwala Bedouin Arabs, the pounding of coffee is an art with dignity and the musical ability of the salve doing it is judged by the neighborhood according to the measured strokes of the pestle against the bottom and the sides of the mortar.  An eleventh-century Chinese treatise lists as arts---ritual, music, archery, charioteering, painting including calligraphy, and numbers.  What has made us oblivious of the crucial place of the local aesthetic culture of the period is the gradual acceptance of the Western categorization of the Seven Fine Arts and the peculiar twentieth-century situation where in people in India feel free to enjoy the plays by an Elizabethan Englishman and an Indian plays to Western audiences.  This museum approach to art4 is a comparatively late instrumentalist development in human history.  The encountering of a poem is an event that occurs typically (and, for the majority of poem, exclusively) in the same contemporary society in which the making of that poem has taken place.  The museum canvas is a luxury: all that a poem takes to thrive is the company of other poems.  In teaching literature for example, it will be absurd to ask a student what he thinks of a poem unit after he has been exposed to many other poems.


            The encountering of a poem in cases where the poet-critic is separated by a historical or geographical or social gulf from the reader critic is not only difficult but in some sense secondary.   An Indian professor enjoying a play of Shakespeare is in a sense eavesdropping on an encounter that took place long ago in a far-off country: if, on the top of this, the professes to take interest in the contemporary ‘vernacular’ literature, he is merely fooling himself.  His enjoyment of Shakespeare, if genuine, is so to say an extra bonus crop reaped long after the main harvest is over.  When a new poem is said to take its place in the simultaneous order constituted by all the older poems and then to modify it ever so little.5 the wording ‘all the older poems’ refers actually to those poems only that are currently subject to poem-encountering-events with in the literary culture in which the new poem is made and encountered.6  Even the museum approach is only an apparent exception in that it is valid only to the extent that a historical and/or international consciousness permeates the community which espouses that approach.


            This is probably the appropriate point to raise the philosophical question—whether the being of a poem has the dimension of time and change, Making, performing, encountering a poem are undoubtedly events that occur at particular places and times.  The poem is that which persists through a series  of such temporal events.  In that sense it is timeless-while the battle of Panipat or Ketas’s first looking into Champan’s Homer or Goethe’s encounter with Sākuntala are not.  But it is not timeless in the sense in which the concept of triangularity is timeless.  A poem is rather like a language.  A language is ‘alive’ as long as the last pair of users are alive.  Languages perish and so do many poems in the course of time.  The ‘death’ of a poem or a language, however, is not irrevocable.  We can be and do even now read the poems lying tucked away for centuries in the Ancient Egyptian papyri.  The birth of a poem, unlike the birth of a language, can be fixed with relatively greater certainty. Language as a system of habits not only persists through time but changes---eventually beyond all recognition.  Can a poem ‘change’?  The literary culture of a community certainly has a history—does the poem have a history?  The poem certainly sees its vicissitudes—it may be forgotten, praised, mangled, set to music, quoted from, adopted as a national anthem, appointed as a college?  If we say that it is changeless, we are in fact saying that any difference between two encounterings occasioned by the same poem is by definition not a part of that poem—but of the other ingredients of those encounterings.  We are also saying that there is one correct interpretation and any deviations there form are not a part of the poem. We can further stipulate that the correct—later readers have to reconstruct the correct reading by a historical study.  Consider, for example, the lines from ‘To His Coy Mistress’, a poem by the seventeenth-century English poet Andrew Marvell:


            My vegetable love would grow

            Vaster than empires and more slow


            To the seventeenth-century reader vegetable meant ‘vegetative’ and had no associations with the cabbage in a garder.  Marvell was thinking of love as a life-giving principle.  A modern reader unaware of this (or even aware of this) may be unable to resist the grotesque image of an erotic cabbage outlasting the pyramids and may actually enjoy it as studied artistry!  Can we say that the poem has ‘changed’ and perhaps changed for the better?  Assuming we can, need the poet complain?  At least one poet, Robert Frost, seems to be cheerful about it.  ‘A poet’, he says, ‘is entitled to all the meanings that can be found in his poem.’  Conversely, there are cases where such an anachronistic intrusion may irreparably and undoubtedly damage the poem, as with these lines form Tennyson’s ‘Edwin Morris’:


                                                                             And this is well

                                                                             To have a dame indoors, who trims us up

                                                                             And keeps us tight.’


            At a deeper level, moreover, we have to consider the claim that each age has and has to have its own interpretation of Shakespeare.


            If we accept that the total sociocultural envelope is a determinant of the poem-encountering-event and that the role of the reader-critic is as much central to the event as that of the poet-critic, there should be no difficulty in accepting that a poem can change just as a language does. But just as, in spite of the changes, the language at any given time is a determinate and self-contained set of norms enabling us to sort out, say, grammatical sentences in English for quasi-English  or pseudo-English sentences, so is, at any one time, the poem a determinate and self-contained set of norms governing our performing and readings and encounterings at that time and out of these norms which constitute the poem some are less likely to be deviated from and to be changed than others.  The set of norms that a poem is a hierarchically ordered set ranging from the overcall theme and structure to the specific and local texture.  A love poem is not going to change into a hate poem.  No sophistry will persuade us to accept the interpretation of ‘tight’ as ‘drunk’ in the twentieth-century slang sense in the Tennyson poem as a genuine enrichment of it. By the same token editors continue to accept the earlier versions of some of Wordsworth’s poems as authentic ones and reject the poet’s own ‘revisions’ as senile ineptitudes.  Out of the many events that can happens to a poem, the poem-encountering-event is central to its being and to its being what it is. We have obviously run into the whole problem of abstractions here.  Broadly we can think of three sorts of concrete-abstract relationship: (a) particular-universal (and the closely allied member-class relationship), (b) members-collectivity (e.g., a nation, a living organism), (c) realization-norm (e.g., language).  Beyond indicating that a poem is an abstraction  of the third sort, a realizable norm (more specifically, a realizable collectivity of norms), I should want to leave the technical philosophical problem to more competent persons.




            We have tried so far to the distinctions and the interrelationships between a poem, poem-token, a poem-making-event, a poem-encountering-event, the roles that go into that, and the envelope.  In doing so we have arrived at a partial answer to the three questions we started out with: (a) What we encounter on one occasion and what we encounter on another occasion are the same poem, if and only if the two encounters are governed by the same hierarchy of norms.  Under a looser interpretation, ‘sameness’ tolerates replacements or alternations in the lower-rankings norms.  Under a stricter interpretation.  ‘To His Coy Mistress 1700’ is not the same as ‘To His Coy Mistress 1950’. (b) The poem exists as a hieratical set of norms.  It is brought into existence through the event known as the making of a poem.  It ceases to be when no literary culture can sustain any poem-encountering-events occasioned by it.  It is revived if the frequency of such events climbs up again from zero.(c) We know that what we have encountered is a poem when we find that this particular manipulation of symbols in a given language is categorizable as a work of art in the aesthetic culture of the community of which the poet (and/or the reader) is a member. The parenthetical addition is intended to validate the museum approach to art.  Any dealings with a poem are incurably norm-governed dealings.  Classifying a linguistic text as a text capable of generating poem-encountering-events is a matter that is not quite separable from assigning aesthetic value to the text.  To put it bluntly, define what a poem is and you have by implication defined what a good poem is.  A poem par excellence is an excellent poem.  (It is rather like defining a conclusion in relation to defining a valid conclusion.)


            In a sense, our answer cannot be fuller than this if we want to maintain the level of generally we have maintained so far.  But then the definition of the term ‘poem’ hinted at so far is no more than a librarian’s definition of that term.  For any filling out of details, we have to come down to specific poems in specified literary cultures in specified language communities in specified periods of history.  Any definition richer in content is a partisan or a persuasive definition, not neutral enough for the librarian’s purposes.  The partisanship may be partisanship of a whole community with a relatively stable and homogenous literary culture---a tribe, for example—or that of a particular school in a particular epoch in a complex and dynamic literary culture—English romanticism, for example.  Thus if we find two readers of a text one of whom has encountered it as a poem and the other is unable to, we shall be in a position to say whether the reader is found wanting or the ‘poem’ is in the latter case.8 Do we have to?  No matter what we say about it, we have to choose sides if we are to qualify to play the role of the reader-critic in a poem-encountering-event.  The concept of poem is what is technically called an ‘essentially contested’ concept (cf. Gallie 1956.)  is it possible to avoid or identfinitely postpone value judgement in relation to a specific poem?  The greater the poem, The more trivial will an explicit global evaluation or ranking be in comparison to an interpretation of its complexities.  The lesser the poem, the less trivial will evaluation be.  But even when a critic is busy with interpretation rather than evaluation, he is still doing piecemeal evaluation of details and in a sense he has implied a global evaluation too-that the poem is worth fussing about.9 Postponing evaluation may heighten the pleasure of the encounter, but it cannot be shirked any more than one can shirk orgasm at the end of prolonged sexual congress.


            Is there then no half-way house between a definition of the term ‘poem’ acceptable to everybody but poor in content and a frankly partisan definition that is universally valid for some but unacceptable to the rest?  In a sense there is none, because the very being of a poem lies in its uniqueness, in enacting something that has never been done before in just that form. Every great poem (‘the really new’) in its autonomy creates its own definition of the term ‘poem’.  Fortunately, we may say, the acceptance or rejection of critical relativism that I have here adumbrated is a philosophical, metacritical decision, and is not a pre-condition to critical activity proper.  The half-way house, however, is a sorely felt need for another set of concerns—again, non-critical concerns but nevertheless important.  This is need, say, of an anthropologist or a humanist or a philosopher to find for art and literature a place in the sun, if any.  In a way this is like defining religion or marriage or state as a universal or near-universal human institution in a way that is not ethnocentric or culture-bound.  This involves the adoption of two logical maneuvers: (a) We separate ‘poems’ from the institution known as ‘poetry’.  This will enable us, for example, to deny that poems have any function and yet accept that poetry has function. (b) We think of the set of things that have been deemed to be poems in some partisanship or the other in human history not as a tightly defined class but as a loose-kit writtgensteinian family with a penumbra of border-line cases.  Having adopted this caution, we then proceed by a not overly cautious induction to an informal definition of the term ‘poem’.   We must not, for example, let the relatively more homogenous class ‘lyric poems’ to duty for ‘poem’: this identification of poetry with lyric poetry seems to me partisan  procedure based on romantic theory and practice that should not be counter a need by others.


            What, then, does the being of a poem resolve itself into?  What are the parts of a poem that have to be examined in determining the identity of a poem with itself and that have to be co-present in a full-dress encountering of that poem? A poem is, first, a linguistics act, a text: a poem is, text, an aesthetic object, an object stimulating responses that are intrinsically satisfying; poem is, last, a work of art. To put the matter in cumulative progression—a poem is (a) a text, (b) a stylized non-casual text, (c) an autonomous art object using stylized language as a material and constituting a communicative symbol.  A poem, then, is like an onion.  (See Figure 2).



(i)         At the most rudimentary level a poem is a text---a set norms governing its ‘oral’ or ‘silent’ performances.10  The poem shares this organization not only with non-poetic works of  literature but also with many kinds of non-literature-letters, advertisements, jokes, riddles, slogans, laws.  These are all re-performed from time to time in essentially unchanged form: 11 the addressee, however, may or may not be the same person for each performance.  This state of affairs must be distinguished form the repeated use of some skeletal text-forms like idioms (he is a pain in the neck), signs (no admission without permission), formulas (will you take this woman for your lawfully wedded wife?).  Every time the wedding formula is used, for instance, ‘this’ and ‘you’ refer to different persons. Idioms, formulas, clichés, and such like, therefore, are text-forms (comparable to propositional functions); riddles, jokes proverbs, poems, and the rest on the other hand lack this variability and are texts (comparable to propositions).  A poem as a whole is never identical with any recurrent text-form, though of course it may incorporate such text-forms within it.  The set of norms that constitute a text is organized, first, at the level of outward form-some differences in the poem-token, in writing and reading, in speaking and listening will alone matter and belong to the outward form of the text.  Poems, as opposed to, say, novels, are more closely identified with this linear phonetic-graphic organization. The text is organized, next, at the level of inward form-the grammatical skeleton and the lexical fillers of this skeleton.  Finally, the text is organized at the level of meanings.


(ii)        A poem is more than a text—it aesthetically satisfying text, which observers some or all of the usual language norms discussed earlier and, in addition, some of the stylistic norms in the literary culture (norms of versification, for example).  One way of conceiving the critic’s role in the poem-making-event (the poet-critic) and the poem-encountering-event (the reader-critic) is to think of the critic as a custodian of he stylistic code in the literacy culture. The poem shares this stylistic organization with many kinds of non-literature also.  Poems are not the only avenue for verbal skill or excellence.  We praise a person for the way he writes letters, proposes a vote of thanks, narrates an incident, or drafts a note. Proverbs show rhyming and figures of speech (but then it is possible to treat them as a genre of folk literature). 12 In Arabic abuse and insult a cultivated as a ‘fine art’.  Historians and philosophers may cultivate a prose style. In all these cases style is used decoratively or like the functional design of a chair or an Olivetti typewriter.  In a work of literary art, however style fashions an art object out of the linguistic material and helps the poet to exploit that material to its utmost.


(iii)       While is properly speaking the material of literary art answering to the paint and canvas of painting or to the stone or clay of sculpture, what is exactly the medium of literary art answering to the line and tone and surface texture and colour of painting and the masses and texture of sculpture? 13  The medium of literature is simply the contouring of human experience that language in its phonetic-graphic-grammatical-lexical-semantic totality lets loose in us.  The linguistic symbol expresses the sender, appeals to the receiver, refers to the subject-matter, dovetails significantly in to the context of situation, establishes the channel, and utilizes the code.  (See Figure 3.)14   Language is the most ambitious, least restricted of made culture-inherited sign-systems.  The province of language is not just numbers, just spaces, just categories of sense-data, just this, or just that, but the totality of man’s sharable experience of man’s comprehending and feeling of the world outside and inside himself.  And yet, impressive as language is, a literary





























artist,  particularly a poet, plays with language, works  it harder, and may unwittingly make it inaccessible to some of the readers.  It seems plausible to say that, just as some people are colour-blind or tone-deaf and so incapable of fully enjoying painting or music or just as some people lack a sense of humour, some people are insensitive to style in language.  A certain amount of artificiality and difficulty is inseparable form the poet’s use of language.  It will not be an exaggeration to say that a poem is written not just in  a ‘natural’ language, like Urdu, but in a highly specific ‘artificial’ sub-variety of it, like the Urdu of classical poetry.  The more specific the code of a symbolic system the smaller the number of possible texts in it.  In reading ordinary discourse the reader simply decodes it in accordance with a code he is already in possession of.  In reading a work of literary art, especially a poem, he is rather in the position of a child still learning his mother tongue and in partial control of the code.  Like a child, he is simultaneously decoding the message and breaking or guessing at the code that underlies the message.  It may turn out that the sub-language of a poem is so specific that the poem is the only possible discourse that could be composed in that sub-language! The only evidence of getting at that sub-language is the poem itself.  (This should be a consolation to those who are frightened by the prospect of looking about for ‘keys’ or of solving the poem like a crossword puzzle.)  It is this peculiarity of poems that makes it possible that successive encounters with a poem, far from being replications of one another, may serve to ‘change ‘ it.


If we put back together the three layers of a poem discussed so far—the textual, the artistic, and the stylistic which intervenes between the two-and if we stop thinking of individual encounterings in order to think of the poem integrally, what sort of an object do we see before us?  Art objects have also been called works of art.  The two names ‘object’ and ‘work’ in a way serve to reveal two faces of art.  To the poet-critic a poem  and performer, a poem certainly is a piece of work, a fruit of work.  To the reader-critic a poem presents itself as an object of some sort.  Susanne Langer calls it a virtual object comparable, say, to the image in a mirror or to a vividly remembered dream.  She insists that not only are a dance or a piece of music virtual objects but so are a statue or a painting.  However that may be about taken-prop-dependent arts like sculpture or painting, calling a poem a virtual object certainly seems to be a fruitful insight.  In encountering the poem a text you are participating in a symbolic transaction. (See Figure 3.) But something in the text itself, if not the whole sociocultural situation, warns the reader that this is not an ordinary text dovetailing into the practical context as a love-letter or an insult or a votge of thanks does and that there is also a second-level symbolic transaction.  The poem-anything in the practical world at all but a virtual object.  The string words in a poem superficially about some ‘me’ or some ‘daffordils’ or some ‘Milion’ actually symbolizes a self-contained internally coherent object.15 Everything about this message-at-the–second-level is self-contained: the reference, the expressiveness, the significance, the appeal, even the grammar or code.  The ‘grammar’ or the second-level symbolization is style-a particular modification, distortion, selection, enrichment or the ordinary grammar of the first-level symbolization. This ‘grammar’ is only partially given by the literary culture.  Properly speaking, it has to be ‘learned’ afresh for each poem.  That aspect of poetic grammar which reaches down to the linear performance, to the local effect can be called the texture of the poem: for example, rhythm, imagery, wit, and the like.  The other aspect of poetic grammar which reaches down to the contemplative phase of the encounter, to the total effect can be called structure of the poem: for example, atmosphere, symbolism, situation, and the like.  The structure and texture together constitute the hierarchy of norms.16  Does the virtual object point beyond itself?  Is there a third-level symbolization such that we can meaningfully ask for the value of x in the following proportion?


            Poem-token: Poem-text

    =      Poem-text: Virtual Object

    =      Virtual Object: x


            I shall merely say that it is worth asking this question, through you may end up answering it by saying that no x exists, that there is no third level symbolization. I shall not go beyond this because any going beyond involves a partisanship.  It is indeed a different problem altogether and not a part of the problem enshrined in the title of this essay.






            Perhaps I should go one step beyond—I shall suggest that the varied answers to the question ‘is there an x and if so what is it?’  whether  with respect to poems in general or to particular poems can be grouped under three headings:



            1. A poem should not mean but be;

            2. A poem should be in order to mean;

            3. A poem should mean in order to be.


            Any fourth answer—for example.  A poem need not be but should mean—is going to be a critically spurious answer.


            I have peeled the union to the core.





1.  The term carva¸ā (literally ‘chewing’) in Sanskrit poetics also probably refers to the same phase of the poem-encountering-event.


2.   L.C.Knights (1959), Foreword.


3.  The notion is probably to be traced ultimately to Aristotle’s remark that ‘the statue of Hermes is (potentially) in the stone’ (Met.107 B 7).


4.  As Andre Malraux calls it in Vol. I Museum without Walls of his The Psychology of Art (I have depended on Jospeh Frank 1950).


5.  This of course alludes to the locus classicus in T.S.Eliot (1919): ‘What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.  The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified b the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.


6.  The repertory theatre, the museum.  Palgrave’s Golden Treasury are but institutional recognitions of this fact: every age has to have of course its own Palgrave.


7.  The examples from Marvell and Tennyson are taken form Wellek and Waren (1949, ch. 14 Style and stylistics).  Compare also the critical history of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting La Gioconda (better known as Mona Lisa): the quality of mysteriousness associated with it was discovered only by much later generations (George Boas 1950: Appendix II).


8.  Hockett (1958. p. 554) points out that though we do ‘find inconsistencies and disagreements’ about evaluating certain texts positively as literature even in ‘smaller and more homogenous societies’ there is nothing to match the ‘strange situation’ in ‘our own complex Western social order’ in which ‘the discourses which the literary specialist values most highly tend to be most despised by the layman’.  It will be seen that this strange situation is not a troublesome exception but only a special case of partisanship—partisanship of the particular sub-culture within a complex culture.  Actually Hockett might as well have added that the discourses which the layman values  most highly tend to be most despised by the literary specialist (who calls then Kitsch, for example).


9.  On the distinction between interpretative criticism and evaluative criticism and their interrelated roles, cf. G. Wilson Knight (1930, pp.If): “Criticism”[= ‘evaluative criticism] to me suggest a certain process of …comparison of  [the work of art]  with other similar works in order especially to show in what  respect it surpasses, or fails short, of those works; the dividing its ‘good’ from its ‘bad’; and , finally, a formal judgement as to its lasting validity.  “Interpretation”, on the contrary, tends to merage into the work it analyses; it attempts, as far as possible, to understand its subject in the light of its own nature, employing external reference, if at all, only as a preliminary to understanding;… its existence depends entirely on its original acceptance of the validity of the poetic unit which it claims, in some measure, to translate into discursive reasoning…. Criticism is a judgement of vision; interpretation a reconstruction of vision….The greater part of poetic commentary pursues a middle course between criticism and interpretation…But sometimes work is created of so resplendent a quality so massive a solidity of imagination, that…any profitable commentary on such work must necessarily tend towards a pure interpretation’ T.S. Eliot (1930, p.xvii) in his ‘Introduction’ to Knight’s book says: ‘In my own experience, a writer needs less to ‘interpret’ the work of some minor poet who has influenced him, and whom he has assimilated than the work of those poets who are too big for anyone wholly to assimilate.   ‘Evaluate criticism is at a discount is at a discount currently, but we can neglect it only at peril to interpretative criticism itself.


10.  Of course it is only at this rudimentary textual level that a bald statement like the following is valid: ‘a poem is… not… an individual in the ordinary sense.  The Iliad is like the Union Jack…writing a poem for recitation on many occasions is like designing a flag for printing on many pieces of bunting’ (Hare 1955, p. 296).  What the poet’s retort will be can be easily gathered from statement by Manmohan (1968. p. 8), a Marathi poet: ‘My poetry to copybook lines for the good sense of the capable reader (rusikāncī sadbuddhi) to trace over and over again….It is very much the ‘hand’ of one man’ (a slightly free translation by me).


11.  Cf. the definition of literature given by Hockett (1958, p. 554; ‘essentially that of Martin Joos (unpublished)’, p.565): ‘In every society known to history or anthropology, with one insignificant exception, there are some discourses, short or long, which the members of the society agree on evaluating unchanged form.  These discourses constitute the literature of that society.’ (Italics in the original.)  For the so-called ‘insignificant exception’ see note 8.


12.  A genre unevenly cultivated in different parts of the world (e.g., richly among Africans south of the Sahara and very poorly among the American Indians; Kroeber 1948: p 543f).


13.  The distinction between the material and the medium of art is, one somebody points it out, obvious enough, though it has been overlooked in the past.  Mardhekar (1937, essays  ‘On mediums’ and ‘Poetry and aesthetic theory’) identifies the ‘material’ of the poetic art as words–both as sounds and as referential meanings—and the ‘medium’ of poetry as the emotive meanings of words.  Jessup (1933: 170f), in a similar vein disintinguishes between the ‘sensory beauty’ of ‘colour, line and space’ which constitute the medium of painting and which are to be ‘apprehended apart from what [they] may happen to ‘stand for’ and the ‘indefeasibly humanistic’ ‘ideosensory beauty’ of the word, the medium of literature, which ‘ceases to be a word when its signification or significance are not apprehended’.  I have taken over Mardhekar’s more helpful distinction but applied it differently.


14.  This analysis of the symbolic transaction represents a recasting of Hymes’ revision (1962) of Jakobson’s expansion (1960) of Bühler’s scheme (1933).  Buhler codifies the traditional three-factually analysis as the three functions of language—Ausloung (conative appeal), Kundgable (emotive expression), and Darstellung (cognitive reference)—and associates these respectively with the 2nd, the 1st and 3rd person of grammar. Incorporating the insights of information theory and Malinowski’s phatic communication’ (1923) Jakobson identifies Bühler’s conative, emotive, and cognitive functions with the Receiver, the Sender, and the Context respectively; and breaks the numerical confinement of most earlier schemes by adding three more functions—poetic, phatic, and metalinguistic focusing respectively on the Message, the Contact, and the Code. Hymes questions any rigid one-to-one correspondence between the functions and the factors; splits Context Referential into Topic-Referential and Situation-Contextual (another Malinowrklan insight 1923); and hints at two more splits—the Message factor into the Message Form and the Token (a term he does not use) and the Contact facor into the Channel (in the narrow sense) and the Phatic Rapport.  By way of rounding off my own scheme I may finally add that Noise (anything that disturbs communication) may enter the transactions at three points—the Code, the Token Channel, and the Message Chanel (Rapport).


15.  I think it is this second-level symbolization that Bedekar (1954, 17-9) ahs referred to by the name vikalpana and that Sanskrit poetics (Bedekar 1954a) intends by the name bhāva (whose root is cognate with be in English) before that term came to be reinterpreted as ‘sentiment’.


16.  The distinction between the structure and the texture of poems I owe of course to John Crowe Ransome (1941 pasim, see Index), who speaks of a logical structure, a meaning texture, the material structure (underlying regular patterns), and the metrical texture (variations).  My ‘structure’ corresponds to the first of these and my ‘texture’ subsumes the remaining three. The poem is a loose logical structure with an irrelevant local texture’ (p.280).  The latter is ‘both willed by the poet, and also incessantly induced into the poetry during his metrical manipulation’ (p.260). ‘The Binomial Theorem is a logical structure of great distinction.  Its members, on the other hand, have no distinction (I do not mean distinctness) unless it is a distinction to be completely obedient to the prescription laid down by the parent structure: they are not free but determined.  The poetic argument, in comparison, is not highly distinguished; it is comfortably general, and it is weakly regulatory.  It is the member details that have all the distinction; they luxuriate, and display energy in unpredictable ways, going far beyond the prescription of the paraphrase’ (p. 270). Bethell (1948. ch. 6: Narrative) sketches a similar distinction with respect to narrative literature (whether prose or verse, dramatic or non-dramatic) between the fictional world, the ideational level, the story level on he one hand (‘where the mind lingers ‘) and the verbal level of word-meanings, sounds and rhythm, association, imagery, and the like on the other hand.





Bedekar, D.K. 1945a.  A note on the significance of bāhva in the Nātya- śāstra, Samjñ āvyākaranam.  Studia indologica intermationalia, I [Pune and Paris].

------------ 1954 b.  Sāhityasamīksecē svaūpa. In Sāhitrya: nirmiti va samūkā Chitrashala , Pune. [In Marathi.]


Bethell, S. L. 1948 Essays on Literary Criticism and the English Trudition.  London: Dobson. [Collected from New English Weekly, 1945-6]


Black, Max ed. 1962. The Importance of Language. Englewood Cliffs.  N.J. Prentice Hall.


Boas, George, 1950. Wingless Pegasus: A Handbook of Art Criticism, Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Press.


Bhler, karl, 1933. Die Axiomatik der Sprachwisenschaft. Kant-Studien [Berlin]. 38. Pp 19-90.


Eliot, T. S. 1919. Tradition and the Individual Talent. Egaist Oct. [Reprinted in his: The  Scared Wood. 1920, and later his: Selected Essays. 1932, rev. ed., 1951.]

----------------1930, Introduction, to Knight, (1930), op.cit.


Frank, Joseph. 1950 Review of André Malaraux.  The psychology of Art, vols. I, II (Translated From French into English By Stuart Bilgert), Partisan Review Feb. Pp. 174-88.


Gallie, W. B. 1956, Essentially Contested Concepts, Proceedings of the Arestatian Society, 56 Pp. 167-98, (1956) Reprinted in Black, ed,, (1962) op. cit, and Gallie (1964), op. cit.

-------1964 Philosophy and the historical Understanding, New York: Schocken.


Hare, R. M. 1955. Universalbility, Proceedings of the Aristatelian Society, N.S.55 (194-5).


Hockett, Charles F. 1958 A Course in Modern Linguistics, New Your: Macmillan. [Ch.63: Literature]


Hymes, Dell H. 1962.  The Ethnography of Speaking.  In Thomas Gladwing and W. C. Sturtevant, Ed., Anthropology and Human Behaviour, Washinton, Dc: Anthropological Society of Washington at the Smithsonian Institution.

Jakobson, Roman.1960, Concluding Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.  In Thomas A. Sebeok, Ed., Style in Language. Cambridge.  Mass: The Technology Press, and New York: John Wiley.


Jessup, T. E. 1933.  The Definition of Beauty. Proceedings of the Aristatelian Society, N.S. 33 (1932-3.) [Mr. Padhye (see fn. I) was kind enough to draw may attention to this paper.]


Knight, G. Wilson. 1930.  The Wheel of Fire, London: Oxford University Press.  (Rev. and enl. Ed., Medhtuen, London, 1949.) [Includes: ‘On the Principles of Shakespeare Interpretation’, Pp. Iff.


Knights, L.C. 1959. Some Shakespearean Themes. London: Chatto and Windus.


Kroeber, Alfred Louis.1948. Anthropology. Rev. ed. New York, Harcourt, Brace, and World.


Longer, Susame K. 1942. Philosophy in a New Key, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


---------1953. Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a new Key, NewYork: Scribner and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.  [Two extracts prepublished in Hudson Review 2,4 ]Winter 1950) and 3,2 (Summer 1950).]


Mallnowski, Bronislaw. 1923.  The Problem of Meaning I Primitive Languages.  Supplement to C. K. Ogden, and I. A. Richards, The meanings of Meaning. London: Kegan Paul Trench and Trümber. (See especially: Sections III, IV.)


Manmohan [pen-name of Natu, Manmohan]. 1968. Svathabaddala. Vācā. Pp. 7-8 [In Marathi.]


Mardhekar, B. S. 1937. Arts and Man, London: Mortiboy’s [Republished with added essays, Popular, Bombay, 1960: Hindi tr: Kalā aura Mānava, 1957.]


Ransome, John Crowe. 1941.  The New Criticism.   Norfolk, Conn: New Directions Slotkin, J. S. 1950. Social Anthropology: The Science of Human Society and Culture.  New York: Macmilian.


Wellek, Rene and Warren, Austin, 1949, Theory of Literature, New York: Harcourt, Brace, (Revised 1956, 1963.) (Ch. 12 (See) based on a paper of the same title published earlier in Southern Review.)




            First published in Foundations of language 55: 17-33. 1969.  This was reprinted, with minor modifications and permission, from Foundations of language, 5:1 1969, Pp. 17-33.


            An earlier version of this paper was presented before the literary group of the Centre of Indian Writers.  Pune, on 16 September 1967.  I must thank Mr. Prabhakar Padhye, the Director of the centre, who coaxed this paper into being, my laziness notwithstanding.  I have benefited from the comments in this and other formal and informal discussions with friends.  My intellectual debts are many and by no means fully indicated by the references.  I  should especially want to mention Wellek and Warren (1949, ch.12: The Mode of existence of a literary work of art), Slotkin (1950, Ch 9: The Esthetic World View). Susanne Lanuger (1942, 1953).  And D. K. Bedekar (1954 a. b. also personal discussions).