Experiential Reading

Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry was that which cannot be paraphrased, and by defining it that way he added his considerable literary weight to the debate on the topic of form-content unity. By this definition he might in fact have started that debate, I don’t know and purely for reasons of unnecessary self-restraint will refrain from Googling it. Whatever the case, the idea is a very interesting one: Can the expression of something be so tied in with the how of its expression that the two cannot be split? That is, cannot be split without losing the meaning of what is being expressed. The contours of the argument are pretty plain to see, and a few moments’ reflection can give one plenty of ammunition for both sides. Intriguing though is the related thought that in focusing on meaning kept or meaning lost we may after all be looking in the wrong place.

What is a text’s meaning? If language is a communicative tool then it must be the content of that attempted communication, the meat and bones of it. If in writing we are trying to “say” something (given the context it’s an oddly placed verb, I know, but that’s convention for you) then that something must surely be sayable in another way if it is there at all. Take this short stanza from the poem “Thaw Compass” in Joseph Massey’s Illocality, for example (found on page 76):

March rain snow thaw
crumpled metal sign stuck
gravel-grained mud   mulch
ground to dust over sidewalk divots

The meaning here could very easily be paraphrased, in prose form or any number of ways; it is after all a description of a natural scene. It could be paraphrased, that is, but could the whole of it be? Things here start to get a bit more interesting. Let’s try: “Rainfall in March has caused the leftover snow to thaw. There is a misshapen metal sign stuck in some mud that has bits of gravel in it. There is also some mulch that has been stepped on or otherwise crushed and is spread over bits of broken pavement.” That certainly gives the meaning of the poem, but not much else. Our prose-ification does seem to be missing something, and missing a great deal. What has been lost?

It is of course the experience of reading Massey’s work that has gone by the wayside. His framing of the scene, his meter, his grammatical compounding, even his use of spacing (note the extras preceding “mulch”) to offset reader flow and thereby insert a mental break, all are missing from the paraphrase. The meaning may have been maintained but the magic is gone. In a sense, then, we are tempted to conclude that the real unity involved in form-content unity might be experiential and have little or nothing to do with meaning per se. If we take this approach it has the added advantage of appearing to work for all kinds of poems, even those in the Dada tradition where nonsense and the irrational are prized. Extending this beyond poetry we might wish to further the case by stating that any reading is primarily about the felt experience of that reading at that time and only secondarily about actual textual meaning. Would that though imply that the communicative efforts made by the author had been diminished or nullified? I don’t think so, for surely a part of any communication is the way it makes its recipient feel, and in favoring that aspect we do not need to affect any of the other elements involved.

Does Pound’s definition stand? Given the above I don’t see how it could, and that is because of the meaning of paraphrase itself. To paraphrase is simply to restate alternatively, to give the same meaning in different words, and if a poem does have a communicative content (acknowledging here that many poems do not, e.g. some Dada poems but not only them) then that content could conceivably be put in any number of ways and still assert the same thing (more or less). What cannot be translated – as it were – is the emotional movement generated by the structure of the writing, but that is not an issue of paraphrase. It is instead one of phenomenology, one of awareness of the internal, one of life now. And when it comes to reading that, I think, is really where our attention ought to be.


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