“I gotta use words”

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by Bob Lane 

“Talking does not make the world or even pictures, but talking and pictures participate in making each other and the world as we know them.” Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols has pointed correctly in this statement to the inevitable association between works of art and the language used to talk about those works. In the last century, it was believed that the exclusion of subject matter (landscapes, people, family scenes) from painting would disentangle the image on the canvas (or the words of a poem) from literary associations and clear the way for a direct response of the eye to optical data. The hope was to reduce art to speechlessness. An “Art of the Real” exhibition recently at the Museum of Modern Art described its selection as chunks of raw reality totally liberated from language. “Modern art,” writes one recent critic “has eliminated the verbal correlative from the canvas.” Perhaps. But if a work of today no longer has a verbal correlative, it is because its particular character has been dissolved in a sea of words. 

At no time in history have more words been written in defence of art, in explanation of what it “really is,” in defence of its “uniqueness,” in the production of manifestoes of explanation and genesis. To describe a striped canvas and a striped tablecloth in the same terms is to commit an artistic faux pas of great proportion much like the child who, because he didn’t understand the rules of the game, remarked that the emperor was naked. The language of art criticism today is a subtle and abstract means to create the idea of art works in conceptual framework of theories instead of in the perceptual framework of the senses. Recently two young artists in Latin America contrived a Happening that was reported in detail in the press but never took place, so their “work of art” consisted of their own news releases and the resulting interviews, accounts,, and comments. Here the “work of art” was only what was said about it. There was no “picture” only “talking”. 

Other “artists” are using nature as a canvas. By rearranging rocks (or grinding up bottles to cover a B.C. Island) and making trenches in the dirt, they hope to show that there is no real distinction between a work of art and natural objects. But, like the child in the “Emperor’s Clothes” this is to function without knowing the rules of the game. “Art” implies artifact. Its Indo European base is from “ar ” which means to join, fit together. Certainly Goodman is right when he says that talking does not make pictures (or by extension any work of art, except, of course, in the obvious way that talking makes, e.g. oral poetry, where the act of talking is the art form) but participates in making them. One need only look at any history of art book to note the way in which words about pictures are used to classify and categorize those pictures. But the pictures are real. The works of art are there in time and space, have an existence of their own carved out of the flux of that time and space. Talking and pictures are married, but form allows the marriage. 

In literature, the art form closest to me in terms of training and interest, one finds not only the primacy of words, but also words about words. 

“I got to use words when I talk to you”. Perhaps, at least on this point, all literary critics would agree. A simple statement. Yet implicit within it are the very problems about which the critics storm and rave. “I”,, “talk”, “you” or poet, poem and audience these three parts of the poetic experience are the basis of all critical arguments. Where does one place the emphasis? Which is to be considered most carefully? Is each of equal import in the communicative process referred to as the poetic experience? Do we study a poem to investigate the complex maze of the creative mind, or to discern its philosophical statement and place it in the history of ideas, or do we concern ourselves with the emotional impact of the poem on the reader, or are all of these ingredients of the poetic experience? 

Most all critical differences of agreement dealt with by our critics come about as a result of shifting the emphasis from or changing the relation among the three: poet, poem and audience. The formalist critics insist upon concentrating on the poem itself, convinced that knowledge of the poet (his life, letters, philosophy, etc.) is of no value in the evaluation and judgment of his poem. The psychoanalytic critics would have us concentrate on the poet in an attempt to probe his psyche to discover what makes him different from the rest of the world of nonpoets. And of course the political critic is interested in examining the poem as a rhetorical device for the control and/or education of the audience. Aristotle,, for example, would have us believe that art serves simply a social function in that through purgation (a purging of emotions as if by an overdose of laxative) or catharsis the human audience will be trained to the higher ideals of the perfect state. Following this notion we find the state subsidized plays where the theaters become hospitals to cure the ills of the tribe. Or in somewhat less pejorative terms the emphasis is on the spiritual regenerative function of tragedy and comedy. 

Can we ever really deny this function of art? Something does happen to a person as the result of experiencing Hamlet or The Seventh Seal, somehow one is different as result of the experience, one has been impressed, purged, changed as a result of the intellectual, emotional power of the experience; has achieved a new insight into the nature of man and his relationship with the universe, with whatever gods there may be, has come closer to an awareness of what it means to be a mortal human being filled with passions, desires, ego, and overwhelming self-concern, who is attempting to carve some meaning out of life as he continues his walk toward the grave. Poetry helps to supply this much sought meaning, this non scientific truth concerning the nature of things which helps to bind humans together in an appreciation of the wonder of life. 

One must never forget the importance of life itself, however, as teacher, as a force which shapes and changes the human sensibility. To my knowledge it is impossible to have a satisfactory love affair with a poem. Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony are, unfortunately, not enjoyable on an empty stomach which demands to be fed. Being absolutely physically exhausted as a result of physical labour can produce an almost cathartic effect itself: in the very tiredness of one’s body is the gnawing yet needed feeling of being alive. To fight, to love, to fear, to know pain, concern, wonder and awe these are the lessons of life which are prerequisites to a love of poetry. (Commonplaces? Obvious truisms?)  

                                                                (Yes. But I am positive that many of my associates do not realize in their bones the depth of these truths.) In any event, to appreciate poetry as an integral part of life, one must become a part of the creative poetic experience. In a sense every reader, insomuch as he is creative, recreates the work of art which he is perusing. To the creative reader, the moment of insight has value insofar as he is able to relate it  to the body of his previous experience, his previous attitudes, his perception of reality and his outlook on life. Integrating what one reads with one’s beliefs about self, about man, about the world values is a process that must be unique to each individual, and is, therefore, a creative act. 

A few years ago, I attended, with a small group of friends, a production of Christopher Fry’s The Dark is Light Enough. The Countess was played by an exceptionally able and excellent actress (Elizabeth Officer) and the overall production was extremely impressive and thought provoking. I recall that upon leaving the theater each member of the party expressed the feeling that a profound emotional experience had been lived. A few minutes later, over refreshments, we began the inevitable critical attempt at explaining exactly what had happened to produce this cathartic effect. A strange thing happened: the emotional and intellectual complexity of the experience began to disappear as the critical attempt at understanding it progressed. Each member of the group became more and more interested in impressing the others with his acuteness of perception, with his ability to compare and contrast the work we had just experienced with possible sources, trends, philosophical ideas, and as a representative work of theater, etc. Each was using the play as a springboard from which to begin his own dialogue concerning the nature of art and the nature of life. Interesting discussions? Yes. Important to an understanding of the play? Probably. Valuable to the experience of the play? No. It became more and more apparent that the whole (the experience of the play) was not to be divided into segments, discussed, distorted and then reassembled. The critical (amateurish perhaps, but no different in kind from any critical study) dissection was interesting in and for itself, could be judged on the basis of its own internal consistencies and depth of insight, but was, finally, completely divorced from the total effect of the play, and in fact tended to destroy the wholeness of the experience produced by the play. 

Critical theories grow from the same soil as did this remembered discussion. Each man is attempting to explain the nature of the feeling he experiences when confronted with a work of art. Each man is interested also in developing his own dialogue, in verbalizing his own understanding of the nature of things by reference to an individual work of art as his springboard. His criticism will by necessity reflect his previous experiences, attitudes, and his perception of reality. The work under his attention lends itself to such discussion because it is timeless, unchanging and ordered as compared to the experiences of life which are so often flowing, ephemeral, unordered, and meaningless. 

Kenneth Burke, for example, who is undoubtedly, a brilliant, vibrant, vital and concerned critic, has produced several books which are insightful, interesting, sometimes brilliant works in which he constantly suggests that human relations should be analyzed with respect to the leads discovered by a study of drama. His basic interests are not in literature but rather in producing a theoretical terminology which will handle any written work, be it drama, philosophy, poem, novel or Time magazine. As Aristotle had his six elements of tragedy (plot as act, character as agent, thought as purpose, melody and diction as agency, and spectacle as scene); as Ben Jonson had his “poem poesy and poet”; as Emerson had his “cause, operation, and effect”; as Ferguson had his “purpose, passion, and perception”; so Burke has his pentad of the five key terms of dramatism: act, scene, agent, agency, purpose, which are offered as tools to discover “the basic forms of thought which, in accordance with the nature of the world as all men necessarily experience it, are exemplified in the attributing of motives”. His book Grammar of Motives is dedicated to showing how these five terms can unlock the motivational and purposive reasons and meanings in “metaphysical structures, in legal judgements, in poetry and fiction, in political and scientific works, in news and in bits of gossip offered at random”. He does a brilliant job of applying his terms to a vast number of writings including philosophers, poets and legislators. The immediate value of the terms to literature is, however, limited. For example, when looking at the lines by Wordsworth: 

My heart leaps up when I behold 

A rainbow in the sky: 

So was it when my life began; 

So is it now I am a man; 

So be it when I shall grow old, 

Or let me die! 

The Child is father of the Man; 

And I could wish my days to be 

Bound each to each by natural piety. 

and comparing them with the haunting lines of Wallace Stevens: 

You like it under the trees in autumn, 

Because everything is half dead. 

The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves 

And repeats words without meaning. 

In the same way, you were happy in spring, 

With the half colors of quarter things, 

The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds, 

The single bird, the obscure moon – 

The obscure moon lighting an obscure world 

Of things that would never be quite expressed, 

Where you yourself were never quite yourself 

And did not want nor have to be, 

one would say that the agent scene had changed. That is, in the Wordsworth poem the emphasis is on the scene and its power to influence the agent (poet) while in the Stevens’ lines the emphasis is on the agent and his ability or power to influence to scenic condition. Or again, in the first, one finds the internalizing of an external purposive scene while in the second, one finds the externalizing of an internal scene. Intellectually a sound observation, I submit. And yet does it really tell us much about the poems and our relation with them? Is the haunting beauty of Stevens’ lines explained by the awareness of the shifting agent scene ratio? 

Where does all this lead? Are we left with simply an impressionistic antenna with which to sense the power of a work of art? Yes. But the reception is not determined; the reception can be increased by the use of the many tools critical and educational which our culture has available for us. Not too long ago in the classroom a college freshman insisted that the poem “Spring and Fall” by Hopkins was a “bad” poem and that memorization of it was, at the least, immoral. Further questioning produced the fact that she did not understand the poem at all. The “paraphrasable content” of even the last two lines: ‘Tis the blight man was born for,/ It is Margaret you mourn for/ had escaped her understanding. Obviously, it was ridiculous for the girl to make a value judgment about a poem which she did not understand at all. But that’s where education and criticism are helpful. By discussing the many ingredients of a poem: (meter, diction, syntax, paraphrasable content, participation in a genre, relation to a tradition) a notion of its meaning will begin to emerge. Intellectually one will understand the poem and the tools of criticism will have been invaluable in that understanding.  

Yet, until one can relate the poem to a set of perceptions about the nature of reality which are true because they have been lived, only then can the poem have meaning to the individual. And when life and art can be united in the sensibility of one mind each becomes more meaningful and the resultant intellectual/emotional experience can truly be considered transcendent. 

But then, “I got to use words when I talk to you”. 

One thought on ““I gotta use words”

  1. Still true: “. . . until one can relate the poem to a set of perceptions about the nature of reality which are true because they have been lived, only then can the poem have meaning to the individual. And when life and art can be united in the sensibility of one mind each becomes more meaningful and the resultant intellectual/emotional experience can truly be considered transcendent.”


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