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What is a poem II: preliminaries

I left off at the end of ‘What is a poem 1’ with the preliminary conclusion that a poem is a particular kind of language act, not a particular kind of language. That idea on its own doesn’t get us very far unless we can say what sort of language act it is – what is it doing or not doing? Now is the time to avoid some common philosophical pratfalls.

1) No assimilation. ‘Everything is what it is and not another thing’ – a poem is not going to turn out to be any other kind of language act than a poem, but we can (I hope) poke, prod and describe until we get a pretty fair idea of what that is (or those are see point 2).

2) No oversimplification. Socrates/Plato’s great trick in the dialogues is to ask us what one feature all instances of ‘good’ or ‘justice’ etc. have in common and, when no consistent answer is available, tells us we don’t know what we mean. This is an unreasonable demand – at least outside the laboratory – based on a mistaken view of what meaning must be that has plagued philosophers for well over 2000 years. [I’m not going to explain why this is an unreasonable demand here, which would turn into a massive treatise on philosophy, but unless you are a philosopher you may well think that’s common sense! How did you learn to speak your first language? Is there anything inadequate about how that taught you what words mean?]

‘Poem’ may be a term which not only covers several different overlapping kinds of language use but one which is ultimately open-ended. (I think it almost certainly is – and none the worse for that – and ultimately I will argue that the open-ended nature of meaning is key to many of the language acts we call poems).

3) No foundation. There is a strong tendency in these discussions to start with some case which we want to be the key and use it as a foundation for a spreading inverse pyramid of relations and definition. This really arises from a combination of 1) and 2) but to counteract it we need to collect a broad sample of poems and try to decide what differentiates them from prose. Good work here may look quite formless. If you like, this is the drafting stage: where uncertainty and inconsistency are to be welcomed.

Just in case you want to rebel against these prescriptions they are not lightly undertaken. I spent 8 years studying philosophy, starting from a background of science mathematics and logic, and points 1-3 are not pleas for irrationalism, but for the only kind of rationality which, in the end, works.

So the next post under this head will be an attempt to collect a (certainly non-exhaustive) set of examples and differences.