Poetry & Symbolism

by Nick (’15)

In his essay “The Concept of ‘Romanticism’ in Literary History,” René Wellek quotes Earl Wasserman:

“the creation of a poem is also the creation of the cosmic wholeness that gives meaning to the poem, and each poet must independently make his own world picture, his own language within language.”

This, says Wellek, “justifies the romantic concern for symbolism.” Because of course language itself is symbolism—at least in the view of C. S. Peirce, who tells us, “Any ordinary word…is an example of a symbol.” That is, words are conventions, shared denotations for a certain thing; language is a system of conventions of meaning-making. Thus the concern for the personal experience, and the concern for the personal language, are inseparable in writing; and the personal language inseparable from the personal symbolism.

But symbolism, as a tool for meaning-making, is also a way of ordering, particularly a way of ordering a “world picture,” by forming connections between things, and so imparting to them certain values, meanings, traits, etc. Symbolism in this sense is easy to equate with Adam Kirsch’s “world poetry,” poetry of “judgment” which “imposes an order upon the world.” It is this judgment which some have sought to escape—prominently the Imagists, with their focus on the object, freed from imposed meaning: “the object is always the adequate symbol.” Kirsch himself, in his essay “The Taste of Silence,” advocates a “poetry of earth” which, in direct contrast with the romantics, “imagines the artist not as a creator, but as a witness.” (Yet if artistry is not to be an act of creation, what is it?)

Even if we think do think of the artist as a creator—as the creator of a “cosmic wholeness”—can we not abandon the artifice of symbolism in order to closer approach the actual, to find the haecceitas of the thing, or at least, the personal experience of the thing? For this is what it must be, Olson’s energy transfer, the idea of reaching actuality is flawed, judgment cannot be rescinded because perception is judgment. But the haecceitas, the thisness of the experience, how do we find that, are not symbols rightly impositions upon it, inconvenient barriers erected by the separation of experience?

No: Kirsch is right, as long as the artist is a creator, there can be no freedom from symbolism. The very act of creation is an act of ordering—imposing an idea or conception upon something else. Conceiving a tool from a rock, music from an instrument, etc, are all orderings—manipulations orchestrating the world according to our conception. Kirsch is shortsighted, though, in imagining we can escape the imposition of world-order simply by refraining from conscious “world-building,” by stepping into the role of the observer, just as the Imagists are shortsighted in thinking that the object can be freed from the symbol: language can never be freed from symbolism, because language itself is a system of symbols.

WHAT’S MORE—the object is itself a conceptual division. Why do we apprehend an object, a lamp say, as one ‘thing’? It could equally be regarded as any number of things, any of its components could be (and will be) regarded also as “objects,” down to its beams, atoms, particles, halves, thirds of particles, nailscrews. BUT, we have the idea of its thingness, of lampness, that is, we apprehend the lamp as one object because we have the idea of its objectness.

The very fact that we see a LAMP or whatever object shows the the judgment, the conceptual action, inherent in perception. Obviously there is no “objective” integritas. Which can be boiled down to: all perception requires a perceiver. That is, we can only apprehend by the mode of our own apprehension.

It comes back, then, to the question: does poetry communicate more than the language constructing it? Can music be free from symbolism? It certainly relies far less on convention and symbol than does language—is far more universal. But also, does poetry communicate more than either musicality or semantics alone?

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