This is my closest approach to an informal literary credo. I have only just now tried to collect the ideas that I have found useful in productively interacting with texts.
The intellectual must analyze the assumptions that underlie individual judgments. In the field of literature the poet need not, but the scholar and the critic must. Examining the implications of the patterns of one’s discernment is an ongoing part of the process for generating well-justified decisions. People who pooh-pooh theory, pretending they have none are either unselfconscious about their own or ignorant. This phenomenon is common in the free-for-all of the American political realm where the illusion has been constructed that only conservatives have values. The literary counterparts of the opportunistic timeserver have less opportunity to wreak harm, perhaps, though who is to say that poetry and art do not provide a part of the sustenance needed by humans.
All human groups possess art, though some may lack metal, pottery, even fire. It is surely absurd to imagine that this devotion of energy to symbolic structures created apparently, in play, is inessential. Human beings are, after all, preeminently a semiotic species: the creation and manipulation of symbols is more our distinguishing characteristic than tool use or an opposable thumb. Though the species had already a hundred thousand years of history, David Lewis-Williams suggests in The Mind in the Cave the simultaneous development of art, language, and religion about forty thousand years ago. Poetry is one indication of the fact that humans build imaginative structures as spiders build webs; it is our nature. The ability to state conditions contrary to observed fact allows lying, fabulation, hypotheses, poetry, and myth.
Most of my own basic assumptions have been set forth in other essays, some numerous times in various forms, but I shall here isolate them from specifics so they may be better judged on their own merits.
Poetry means only things made, constructions, artifacts, and indeed every object made by human hands carries within its design the intentionality of its maker. The students of stone blades have shown what expressive subtlety, what range of skill and inventiveness may be discerned even in such conventionalized and functional objects. From the earliest times, people also made objects for aesthetic purposes that were no less carefully designed, that were, in fact, specifically constructed to bear an astonishing load of meaning.
Art is the more densely significant information-bearing code. In poetry this efficiency is achieved because all elements of the text may be read: not merely what one may take for the straight denotation, but also what is left out, what is stated ironically. The text may also be fruitfully read for its turns on earlier similar texts, each deviation bearing new implications. The aesthetic text uses many figures of speech and thought, each of which requires an attempt to formulate something inexpressible using only its simple terms. Further, the material basis of the poem is itself significant. The series of phonemes that form the poem’s body is also expressive in ways that emphasize, extend, alter, qualify, or deny one’s first reading.
Analysis of a single word can expand in ever-widening waves. The semantic field of any word is unlimited, when one takes into account denotation, connotation, associations, prior uses, sounds, antonyms, homonyms and near homonyms, rhymes and half-rhymes, and the myriad other links. Increasing the unit of speech to the line and the paragraph, to the narrative and the conversation entails vastly more complex networks of interpretation, and moving then to the speech, the lyric, the fiction lifts the hermeneutics yet again.
Within the ocean of words that forms the body of literature itself, every text reacts against every other. Some gestures must be understood as hommages or as deliberate defiance of the reader’s expectations. A set cadence must be established before rhythmic play may begin, and the same rule applies to semantic and other phonic elements. As soon as a recognizable literary convention appears, its opposite, its contrary, its inversion, a whole field of possibilities is generated whose understanding depends upon the original. For too long critics have thought in terms of tradition and innovation as opposed rather than complementary terms.
One of literature’s spectra is that from highly conventionalized and predictable to wildly inventive. Around the one pole work becomes boring and repetitive; around the other the semantic codes weaken and the work approaches incomprehensibility.
It is for this reason that the literary text is distinguished by its polysemy. Though undergraduates may think of the search for multiple meanings at first as a sort of crossword puzzle and later as a license for the validity of any reading whatever, in fact the semantic field of a successful literary text is precisely controlled, its every ambivalence or ambiguity corresponding to traces in the reader’s consciousness.
The text, of course, always is understood with reference to lived experience. Every poem, story, or play implies certain propositions about life off the page. This is by no means always the most significant element in the work, though it is the one most commonly pursued in schoolrooms. (Often the chase is announced with the instructor using the execrable expression, “What is the author trying to say?” as though the poet was all but impossibly tongue-tied.)
The information the literature suggests about the world is itself of a particular type, differentiated from other discourses, such as scientific, philosophical, or historical. The aesthetic text specializes in information generated subjectively: the irrational, the ambivalent, ambiguous, conflicted, the self-contradictory. In this way, art more accurately reproduces the data of experience, often simplified or edited out altogether in everyday transactions. Admitting that pleasure is a primary goal of all organisms, art foregrounds and privileges this drive. The emotions, which are often suppressed as a matter of decorum, are the focus of poetry. Whereas most utterances are concerned with limited subjects, art projects an entire world-view in its every fragment. Furthermore, the literary text can create new thoughts, never before uttered, and thus allow change and progress.
Through these practices art gains its license to investigate the mysteries: the student of love does not turn to a psychology study, the student of death to a medical volume, nor the seeker after Ultimate Reality to theology. If they wish to learn what these things mean to human beings, they will read poetry.
The poet is not, alas, the bearer of revelation from higher realms he was long thought to be, but he is a bearer of a sort of provisional truth, what the world might have seemed like to one person at one moment, and there is no closer approach to truth in life. Whether the poet is wise or foolish, the written record of human reactions with reality, concretized on the page, allow the reader to triangulate and thus compensate for the limitations of every individual view.
The methods of poetry are then necessarily different from those of other discourses. Whereas most uses of language value concision and clarity, seeking a transparent language through which the meaning will appear with a single clear meaning, the literary text foregrounds the material of words itself and makes use of ambiguity and even obscurity. The simple act of framing art in a way that is non-functional in the ordinary sense creates new meaning: a junkyard cannot look the same in a photograph as in a casual glance and the act of recording a moment’s reaction to scenery changes that reaction forever. Always pursuing new shades of meaning, the poet uses music: rhythm, rhyme, half-rhyme, assonance, alliteration. The immense array of figures of speech and thought are all “tropes” that bend language to forge novelty.
The writer may originate poetry and the critic may examine it from a variety of stances. A focus on the author will lead to an expressive theory of poetry (Romantic theory if semi-sublime, art as self-help as the modern epigone). Placing the text at the center will result in an ars gratia artis (as well as New Criticism and all formalist practices). If the writer or reader wish to look particularly at the effect of the text on the audience, the result will be didacticism in some form, Christian, Marxist, or otherwise. (Actually, all popular and oral forms lend themselves to this sort of approach.)
As I said toward the outset, these assumptions underlie my own criticism. They rest on my experience of poetry more than of criticism, though eight years in graduate school can hardly have failed to leave a mark. This is a collection of observations rather than an exposition of an aesthetic. I invite dialogue. It is a pleasure to learn something new, to see reality from a different perspective. Is this not one reason that we read literature?