being of a poem
A poem should
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
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
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
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
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 kṛti
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
is an ingredient specifically in two ways—the language and the literacy
Of language Critic
FIGURE 1: MAKING AND ENCOUNTERING A POEM
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
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
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
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
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.
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-text: Virtual
= 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
D.K. 1945a. A note on
the significance of bāhva in the Nātya- śāstra,
Studia indologica intermationalia, I [Pune and Paris].
------------ 1954 b.
svaūpa. In Sāhitrya: nirmiti va samūkā
Chitrashala , Pune. [In Marathi.]
S. L. 1948 Essays on Literary Criticism and the English Trudition. London: Dobson. [Collected from New English
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.
Bühler, 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,
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.
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
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Hare, R. M. 1955.
Universalbility, Proceedings of the Aristatelian Society, N.S.55
Hockett, Charles F.
1958 A Course in Modern Linguistics, New Your: Macmillan. [Ch.63:
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.
Concluding Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.
In Thomas A. Sebeok, Ed., Style in Language. Cambridge. Mass: The Technology Press, and New York: John
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
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).]
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
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.
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
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).