Welcome from Amy D. Unsworth

Language, Literature, Learning & Life.

About Poetry: a multitude of tongues.

Well, there's grumbling out on the blogsphere that us poets need to talk more about poetry. So, here goes: On Poetry

Well, I've been doing a lot of thinking about Bakhtin and how he seems to be bad-mouthing poets for what he sees as a self-serving use of language. But, if you look at his description of how poetry works to create context which limits the "meaning" of the words and thus sentences, it is actually a compelling argument for how poetic language actually must work. He argues that at least on one, basic, level of "meaning" that poets exclude alternative meanings and lock in a single (although some poets do play with alternative meanings) meaning for words which are shaped by their context.

This idea, that the meaning is changed when a poem is “explained,” brings about such truisms as Coleridge’s “Poetry: the best words in the best order” and Robert Frost’s “Poetry is what is lost in the translation.” What makes poetry poetry is that the words are locked into this best order to create a precise meaning regardless if we can determine the author’s intended significance(I'm using Hirsch's defintions of "meaning" and "significance" BTW).

But then Bakhtin wants to say that the language in the poetry only is revealing the poet's "self." This seems problematic to me. Does every painting reveal the painter's "self"? Would you criticize the painter for "only using the paint colors on his palette to the exclusion of all other paint colors"? If words are the poet's medium as paint is the painter's medium, why would you criticize him or her for only using "his own words/ meanings" ? What else can one possibly do? Run down to the word store and pick up another few tubes of language? And what's more, even in a novel which Bakhtin champions, the author can only use words that she already "owns" even if they are from a variety of languages. It is impossible to speak or write in any manner that communicates without using one's own word horde. ( I know not everyone cares about that communication issue, and lots of folks believe it's impossible, but I try to communicate when I speak and participate in communication when I listen and read. )

Maybe Bahktin would like the post-modern attempts at heteroglossia, books of poems like "Poeta en San Fransico" and other poems that attempt to cross language borders. But the words are still, must be, can be no other than the poet's own words, even if the poet uses a multitude of tongues.

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