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What is a poem IV: mention and use

It’s clear from the comments of the many/several/actually one reader of the story so far that I have not explained myself yet. What I mean by ‘make it new’ is radical (I am not going to discuss whether Pound also had this more radical sense in mind, though I am fairly clear that Eliot did). Unfortunately to explain what I mean we’ve got to do a little philosophy of language – and take a good deal of philosophy of language for granted.

First a technical distinction: mention vs use. The tree is green and ‘tree’ is a four letter word – ‘tree’ is only green if I use green ink and the tree has a trunk and leaves but no letters. Philosophers typically believe that a word can be either mentioned or used not both. The archetypical case of mention is definition: “‘Tree’ means x, y, z”, or we can point and say “‘Red’ is that colour”.

Second a very brief excursus on meaning. We tend to think of the meaning of a word as a kind of boundary in space which encloses an area of things/situations it applies to, outside that hard line lies all the other stuff. This is a kind of Venn diagram idea – there is a solid continuous boundary which the meaning of the word draws around part(s) of the (possible) world(s). That picture of meaning can’t work. How would you learn the meaning of anything, if meaning was like that?

The way we actually learn words is haphazard and the world we encounter is a small segment of all the (possible) world(s). We learn to apply words in a number of typical situations. We are pretty good at extrapolating these cases to new things in ways we all tend to agree upon – but that is it, no magic. In that case our experience with words can only give us parts of a boundary – our rules are partial. (Most words are best not thought of as names for parts of the world at all, but the same considerations apply to them, we have a finite experience of an indefinite – but definitely bigger – world). The meaning of most words is a gappy, bendy, fuzzy and unfinished thing – of necessity – although we do our best with technical terms to harden up the edges.*

The philosophers’ view that mention and use are exclusive is not true of human communication. We can do both or either in the same breath, and that breath is poetry! Now the excitement – the poem havering between mention and use encounters bendy wobbly meaningy thing and bends or extends or circumscribes it a little bit more. The poem changes the fabric of language. That is what I mean by the radical sense of ‘make it new’.

This capacity is actually in play to some extent every time we use language – but in general we try to pretend it isn’t – or isn’t too much because we want to use words not define them. That is the kind of communication typical of prose – where we hope words will not ‘bend or break’ they will ‘stay in place’ (Eliot). Poetry is the deliberate activation of these potentials. If the limits of my language are the limits of my world (Wittgenstein) then poetry is my bid for elbow room.


*If you want to understand this there’s pretty much no way around Wittgenstein. The Tractatus is an attempt to construct a theory that allows meaning to be completely determinate: his later work is a concerted demonstration that such attempts must fail. I wrote a thesis on this once.