From 25 Minnesota Poets #2, copyright 1977
By Keith Gunderson
A Non-Regional Note on Poetics, Poets, and Cats:
By living through the experience of tripping over a cat one does not thereby comprehend the nature of balance, equilibrium, or the laws of gravity. Nor by living through the experience of writing a poem or even another and another is one guaranteed any understanding of the nature of poems and how and what poets do when they write them and why they come up to snuff when they do, and why when they don’t they fizzle. Perhaps it’s the failure to sense this lack of guarantee-through-experience that feeds the overconfidence of so many talented poets in their prouncements about the nature of poetic creation and how to assess it. It’s as if anyone who tripped over a cat felt themselves thereby to be an authority on physics. But things are much more difficult than this in both physics and poetics. As a well-known philosopher of language, Paul Ziff, not long ago remarked: “We are still living in the dark ages with respect to an understanding of the nature of meaning. It will probably be another 2,000 years before we come close to solving such a problem.” This type of modesty in the face of an overwhelmingly difficult subject matter (of which poetics is one part) is something I’ve found shared by the best philosophers of language, linguists, psycholinguists, and cognitive psychologists. So it’s startling, on reflection, to realize how little an inkling of such modesty there is to be found in the writings of poets on poetic theory. Instead we find in too much of that wordage – albeit passionate and sincere – an almost unbridled self-confidence in statements that, if subjected to any critical perusal by the non-lobotomized of acerage cognitive endowments, should be immediately recognized as noting more than neo-theosophical astrological projective versey quasi-mystical pseudo-scientific idiosyncratic glop.
But glop and intractable subject matter aside, there are at least some tentatively plausible and important things that have been said about language in general which bear on an understanding of poetic activity. Noam Chomsky, the Newton of 20th century linguistics, has cogently argued that human language, as distinct from the signal systems, mimicry, etc. of other animals, involves a “creative aspect” and freedom from being “stimulus bound.” By this he means that human beings can at will weave together new and novel strings of words in such a way as to use them appropriately in new and novel situations, and do so quite independently of incoming stimuli. The resultant sentences are thus often ones never seen or heard before, such as, for example, the first sentence of this paragraph. In these respects human linguistic behavior differs dramatically from the sorts of activities which can be explained in terms of some stimulus-response model (rats learning a maze, etc.). When at their best, I see poets as having an intensified love and sense of this “creative aspect” and freedom from being “stimulus bound,” and wishing to exhibit it simultaneously at all levels of language (meaning, syntax, rhythm, typography, etc.). When this happens the language is enriched with novel forms and contents. But when the “creative aspect” is neglected and the poet writes as if stimulus bound no enrichment ensues. This we find when, for example, a poet uses the lower case ‘i’ like e.e. cummings, because cummings used it and cummings received many pellets, or when one works the “confessional vein” because it’s the going thing, etc. This, of course, does not show that any of us really are huge featherless parrots, but only that from time to time we are capable of acting as if we were.