French poet Yves Bonnefoy writes, “Now night has fallen (Maintenant, c’est la nuit): if by these words I claim to express my sense-experience they promptly become merely a frame from which presence has disappeared. The portraits that have seemed to us the most lifelike turn out to be mere paradigms. Our most private words become myths once we have let them go” (107). This is both a critique of language and an affirmation of its only possibility of communication. What is most intimate, coterminous with the thoughts and emotions it expresses, is simultaneously exterior and utterly other: my language is both mine and not mine at all. Similarly, physical sensations can only be articulated and vicariously shared by being turned into abstractions, virtual feelings.
Language exists in and as a liminal state between the material and the immaterial, thing and idea: it is neither sheer marks on the page, sounds in the air, nor sheer ideality, but rather it is their contingent and temporary union. (This would be Saussure’s union of signifier and signified that together produce the sign, which Saussure brackets off from the unattainable, and unsayable, real.) It cannot veer too far in either direction without losing its character as language. (The poetic avant-garde seeks to discover how closely language can approach either pole without losing its language character.) Language is neither object nor concept but their articulation. Words hover and hesitate over the abyss between being and non-being, presence and absence. They embody a non-Aristotelian logic of both/and, in which A need not equal A and simultaneously equals B, as well as some third term that’s both their combination (A/B) and some other item altogether (a not A/not B not quite reducible to C).
The notion of direct, unmediated presentation of the “as is,” Pound’s demand for “direct presentation of the thing itself,” is itself a metaphor, a speaking of one thing—the things of the phenomenal, event-full world—in terms of another—words, which are at once tangible and intangible, which are both things and non-things. The world is, for us, always a tropological world.
Language converts the intangible into the tangible (thoughts or feelings that are events into words that are objects) and the tangible into the intangible (trees or dogs or the skin of a lover into words that cannot as such be touched, heard, or even seen, yet only function as words by being heard or seen, by their materialization): poetry foregrounds this travel between realms of being, this transfer of contents. (The word “metaphor” means “transfer” in Greek.) As Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz writes, “Language is symbolic because it tries to relate two heterogeneous realities: man and the things he names. The relation is doubly imperfect because language is a system of symbols that reduces, on the one hand, the heterogeneity of each concrete thing to equivalences and, on the other, constrains the individual man to use general symbols. Poetry, precisely, proposes to find an equivalence (that is the metaphor) in which neither things in their concrete particularity nor the individual man will disappear” (227). Language is by its very nature metaphorical, calling a near infinity of unique, individual entities all by the same name, “chair” or “fig tree” or even “person,” calling an unlimited range of movements all the same action, “walking” or “laughing” or even “writing.” The name asserts that all the phenomena it points toward are if not identical then equivalent: this is like this is like this is like this, or even, this is this is this is this.
The poem always aspires to be an object in itself (as all art aspires to the condition of music), but is always also a thing about things. The thingness of language is an asymptote (neither marks on a page nor sound in the ear is language per se): language is by definition both object and meta-object. Thus there cannot be an abstract poem in the way that there is abstract music or abstract visual art, with no content but its formal procedures, for language is not a discrete entity the way sound and color and shape are: like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, when examined closely, there is no there there.
“Abstraction” in art is the foregrounding of the materiality (as against the referentiality) of the medium (in this sense, “abstract art” is the opposite of abstract). Given language’s tenuous materiality, its capacity to foreground that materiality and still remain language (as shapes and colors are palpable and perceptible as such even when not “representing” anything) is limited. Compared to music or painting or sculpture, language has no “as such,” which puts stricter limits on the degree to which one can successfully experiment with it as a medium. Art critic Clement Greenberg characterized the history of modern art as the process of each form stripping itself of all that is not unique to its medium, an Hegelian coming to awareness of its own essential nature. In this sense, literature has no unique medium. What poetry captures isn’t things or events, but mind’s relation to objects and events. Perhaps this is what literature has/is that is unique: all relation itself, it is perfectly suited to enact and embody relation.
The poem performs a double transformation: translating feelings (in the sense of physical sensations) into feelings (in the sense of interior phenomena), and also vice versa (thought-feelings become sense-feelings, including the words themselves as sensory experiences). It turns conceptions and emotions into analogues of sensuous experience (by turning thoughts into images) and simultaneously turns both thoughts and images into, if not the intangible, then the not-quite-tangible: that is, into words, which can function as a shared medium precisely because they are not specific to individual sensations, while at the same time they are sources of sensation.
While for Plato the actual is that which is graspable by the senses but fleeting and ultimately insubstantial, whereas imperishable but not immediately apprehensible Ideas comprise the real, for Kant the never to be attained Ding an sich is exactly the naked, unmediated physical existence—it is not the material world but mental phenomena to which we have immediate access. Following in Kant’s very regular footsteps, in his Speaker’s Meaning Owen Barfield maintains that it is not our thoughts but our physical sensations that are unique to us as individuals: anyone can have the same thought that I have had (and I can share any thought I have with another), but no one can experience the same sensation on biting, for example, into a ripe Bosc pear on a May morning at nine: I can attempt (hopelessly) to describe it, but I cannot share it with anyone. (From this perspective Williams’s poem “This Is Just to Say” assumes a wider significance than its unassuming surface pretends to: the taste and feel of the cold, delicious plums the speaker’s wife cannot experience at breakfast because he has already consumed the fruit are a figure for all physical sensation, private and unshareable.) I would assert that thoughts are more events, and thus unrepeatable in identical form, and sensations are more things, and thus reproducible, than Barfield acknowledges. The distinction he draws between thoughts and sensations, events and things, is too sharp; it is exactly the double sense of the word “feelings” (which double-faced word can here stand in for language as such) that exemplifies their interpenetration.
Barfield, Owen. Speaker’s Meaning. Reprint. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1984.
Bonnefoy, Yves. The Act and the Place of Poetry: Selected Essays. Ed. John T. Naughton. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.
Paz, Octavio. The Bow and the Lyre. Trans. Ruth L. C. Simms. Austin: U of Texas P, 1973.
This piece is excerpted from the essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Coat: Nuances of a Theme by Stevens,” which will appear in my forthcoming collection Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, to be published in the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series in 2008.