Making and Meaning

October 9, 2007

Recently I was asked to say a few words about the relationship between the work of the critic and that of the poet, so I began with the observation that we are meaning-making creatures. Aristotle was well aware of this characteristic part of being human when in his Poetics he noted our love of imitation and linked it with our desire to know. When a person imitates something, he or she presents it in new terms, that is, she re-presents it, and in this act of representation one finds out new associations, possibilities, and implications. And so humans have made paintings (as in the Lascaux cave), sung tales, and shaped material objects pretty much from the earliest moments they were able to do so. The invention of writing systems then transformed the ways that humans interact with and investigate the world. When humans wrote down the tales and songs that had been circulating for centuries, the genre was poetry–eventually the multiple genres of ‘literature,’ a term that comes from the Latin littera, meaning an individual mark of the kind composing words on a page, which brings us back to the technology of writing. When humans used this technology to articulate the fundamental contours of the world and of ourselves and of our origins, the genre was philosophy. When humans wrote down the stories of their forbears, ancestors, and precursors, and how their experiences and actions shaped the world of human living, the genre was history. When persons write up the results of observations and experiments concerning the physical world, the genre is science. And so on.

This litany of genres is meant to be suggestive rather than exhaustive, and one will no doubt notice considerable overlap among the categories, an overlap that should exist since these are among the genres of study in the liberal arts curriculum, and they should come together. So what all of this has to do with the relationship between the work of the poet and that of the critic is not a matter of strict division, but rather of specialization. Both of these activities arise from our fundamental orientation as meaning-making creatures, though each pursues meaning in its own way. As it has developed over the centuries, poetry is the art of shaping language into lines, experimenting with the effects of words and how they can create new mental states and elicit the reader’s participation. Criticism in its most traditional form seeks to explain and interpret what poetry does, but then criticism quickly becomes its own art, as in the work of Dr. Johnson, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Derrida, J. Hillis Miller, Helen Vendler, William Gass, and Lyn Hejinian. At its best the work of the critic reaches out with all that intellect and imagination can muster. Much the same can be said of the poet’s labor as well.

After my presentation / reading was finished, an astute student (this was at the University of Portland) asked an important question: Is it that we create meaning or discover meaning? The best response that I could formulate at the time was that on a deep and fundamental level the two are much the same. The world exists without language and we humans speak up to make our meanings mean. At the same time, we really do articulate some parts of actuality. The tree a botanist investigates really is that structure in the ground, even if the botanist’s language can never really exhaust the tree. In terms of what we value, other judgments call out to be made. If I may be permitted the most brutely obvious example, when humans pronounce the Holocaust that happened at Nazi hands to be evil, I know that this pronouncement is true; it is not merely a statement of preference or wish or feeling, but rather a fundamental statement of truth even if I cannot see it under a microscope (an instrument that specializes in disclosing quite other parts of the world). To say as much is not to say that our concepts of good and evil, justice and so on do not have their ragged edges, or that our judgments can’t be wrong; but rather to say that such an obvious case points out the reality of what we refer to with our language of value and ethics even as it continues to be notoriously difficult formulate an abstract definition that covers all cases, something that Plato shows Socrates knowing in the “Euthyphro,” where we find our philosopher pointing out that definitions refuse to stay put, but rather run away like some animated statue from ancient myth. But then we know by more than definitions, however much they might disclose about the world. We know by remaining alive to our experience, understanding, and judgment in a constant and dynamic process on the move.

Or as I have written before, there is no one single thing to know about anything (and here my Ongian training shows once again). Because everything is connected, every statement conceals at least as much as it reveals, including this statement I am making now. Language is a slippery tool that uses us as we use it, and it’s a good thing too. If the only meanings we could know were merely the most explicit thoughts that we could consciously muster at any moment, our knowledge would be much impoverished. Every statement carries more meaning than we can know at any moment, and much the way we learn is by following up the further implications of what we say.

In our multiple uses of language, we discover the meanings of the world by creating our meanings as we go, and we create the meanings that we discover. It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to make the process come out even. Ours is much the meaning situation that Wallace Stevens articulates in pretty much all of his poetry. As his speaker says, describing the woman singing beside the waves in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The song and water were not medleyed sound / Even if what she sang was what she heard, / Since what she sang was uttered word by word.” In her act of mimesis, this singer sings what she hears, and yet her singing transforms what she hears into human voice, a language with implications beyond the sea. The scene of singer, sea, and song is more than “sound alone”–“More even than her voice, and ours, among / The meaningless plungings of water and the wind.” Those natural sounds are quite without meaning until she sings them, yet when she sings them the sounds are more than her voice, more than our voices combined, for the voices put something of the world into circulation in ways it did not circulate before. This singer encounters a world already transformed by voice (since the language that we know with is a language we receive even as we make our most personal use of it; to the extent that what is personal is uttered, it is made public), and her singing transforms the world further, and yet this song would not exist were there not this “place by which she walked to sing.” Stevens’ poems may be read as a long meditation on the dynamics of voice and the world where meanings are discovered, disclosed, and made.