Version classiqueVersion mobile

Letters of Blood and other works in English

Göran Printz-Påhlson

The Words of the Tribe: Primitivism, Reductionism, and Materialism in Modern Poetics

Part Four. The Polity of Metaphor and the Purity of Diction

Texte intégral


1This being the last essay in this series on the ‘Words of the Tribe,’ I feel obliged to bring as many threads of argument as possible, if not to an end, at least to some kind of tangled visibility. Before I start to summarize, however, I would like to pursue further a question I touched on earlier. This is the question of the single-word reduction of a poem, or of the poetic line, as we have encountered it in Mallarmé, in Winters, in Borges and in Riffaterre. It seems to be a central if somewhat submerged tenet of modernism, and has not elicited as much commentary as could have been expected. The possible consequences of such an idea have very wide ramifications. One can isolate two possible permutations of such a view.

2Firstly, one can see this word formation in a non-reductionist way, as cancellation of normal word boundary-markers under restriction of supra-segmental constraints on rhythm and prosody. Whether or not this occurs in poetry is to some extent an empirical question and can be elucidated by investigations of, say, readings of poems, especially readings by the poets themselves. More important, though, are the resulting theoretical implications as to the communicative aspects of poetry. If the line, or the whole poem, is to be regarded as one word, it is not a word that can be understood in the normal way, as a function of some semantic relationship or as an entry in a dictionary or lexicon. It must rather be treated as a very indeterminate entity, comprising all of its separate sub-words. As such it does not mean anything but itself (which makes it a name: hence the insistence of the romantics and their modern followers, like de Man and Octavio Paz, on naming in poetry).

3It may have been ideas of this kind that inspired the mysterious hints from Coleridge and Poe about how a poem would be better if only generally, and not completely, understood. These hints, of course, immediately beg the question of what it means to say that a poem is understood. If it only means that the reader infers that it has been the poet’s intention to create a poem that is not intelligible, then we have a situation that involves a kind of understanding, but of a meagre and unrewarding kind. If it means a fuller and more integrated mode of grasping its content, then a one-word-theory of poetry clearly needs to presuppose the existence of some extra-linguistic faculty of intuition or the like. Many such theories have been available ever since Kant made his influential distinction between vernunft and verstand, between theoretical and practical reason. Bergsonian intuitionism is only one of many formulations of this dualism. In any case, adherents of the non-reducible one-word-doctrine for the poem are sure to find antecedents for their dualist interpretations in romantic and modernist theories. Mallarmé, whose copious pronouncements on these matters are significant but also very difficult to understand—and thus preferably to be avoided—did, no doubt, consider poetry as part of a wider non-semantic context, with music and ballet as its nearest relatives. The question that remains is, as with all dualism, a question of ontology.

4A second possibility is to regard the poem not as one word in itself, but as reducible to one word, or a phrase stating its message or prose meaning. If, ontologically, the first permutation gravitated towards Cartesian or Kantian dualism, this second permutation has a strange historical pedigree in the powerful conventional, and at one time uncontroversial, views that poetic discourse can be generated from plain discourse through a number of rhetorical devices, devices at least vaguely enumerable in an informal way. Favoured for centuries by the rhetorical manuals—which one should remember, as is not often the case, were written as much for the benefit of forensic and public oratory as for poetics—this view has had a long period of decline, but seems, as in the quoted case of Riffaterre, to have been recently reclaimed as a sophisticated theory. It is an emphatically rationalist and reductionist conception which allows full reflexivity and transitivity in its operations. In the versions we have encountered in Winters and in Riffaterre, it promises both reducibility to a logical statement, and reversibility—so that, starting from these, you may generate, through the rules of amplificatio, the poem from its nucleus, guided by the restrictions imposed by genre expectations. The problematical character of this activity becomes obvious when we are confronted with historical development or genre shifts: arguments have to be found to make the genre restrictions universal and eternal. As with the first permutation of the idea of the word-poem, one has to find a faculty of the human mind tuned to such restrictions, but otherwise unknowable.


5It seems that we have come to a dead end, or at least to some instruction reading: ‘go back to square one!’ But I would like to point out that these somewhat claustrophobic constructions are not unlike the larger models of human knowledge that have dominated the last three centuries of Western philosophy. Even empirical and scientific knowledge has had to rely on explanations in terms of correspondence criteria (as related to things), or in terms of coherence criteria (relating to internal consistency).

6In a more limited and perhaps more fruitful sense, one can see these constructions as parallel to more recent schools of thought, like structuralism, or transformational generative grammar in linguistics. The problematic place of difference and identity in the first permutation of the word-poem theory, having to work on a genetically determined identical text on two separate levels, but relinquishing the problem of identity to a larger categorical framework, reinforces the hermeneutic circle of understanding. In the second permutation, formalized operations of substitution or equivalence within the text seem to preclude any rapprochement to mimetic structure. The amplificatio technique only allows for more and more exhibits to be displayed but, if we are allowed to develop the forensic parallel, no court-room confessions, no culprit suddenly bursting into court, shouting: ‘I did it! I did it!’ It is to be noticed that it is the rationalist version of the theory that supplies the strongest prohibitions on direct imports from empirical reality.


7We would perhaps be well advised to transfer attention from the most hypothetical case of the one-word poem to one of the features which would figure as exhibit A in most of the trials of poetic language we could envisage. This is a metaphor in its more extended sense of the essential and formative element in figurative language.

8Recent years have seen a great swelling of the literature on metaphor, but not all of these studies add much to the clarification or re-interpretation of the actual mechanisms at work. The expectations of demarcation and elucidation of metaphor within the framework of linguistic syntactical analysis, which were strong in the early history of transformational generative grammar, have remained unfulfilled. This has to do with the attempts to create a hierarchy for different levels of grammaticalness, attempts that had to be abandoned at a fairly early stage, together with analytic criteria and classification of natural specifics in the lexicon. Noam Chomsky himself always showed a healthy scepticism towards these developments: he remarked as early as Aspects of the Theory of Syntax that he thought that linguistic theory was unlikely to be able to handle metaphoric extensions, or stylistic variations, as long as reliable criteria for paraphrase are not forthcoming. In more recent years, literary theorists and philosophers of all camps have taken over the struggle to bring the concept of metaphor into some intellectual respectability.

9It is easy to see that metaphor falls as easily as the one-word poem theory into one of the two grooves we noticed at the beginning of this lecture; it can either be regarded as an ornamental amplification of the argument of the text, or as an organic excrescence on the linguistic utterance, providing a bridge to a perhaps unknowable reality. The two main theories of metaphor that have been most popular in recent years, the comparison theory and the interaction theory, fall neatly, although perhaps not snugly, into these two grooves.

10The main problem with metaphor as a functional element of language is its submerged character. It has been a commonplace at least since German romanticism to insist on the ability of language to absorb metaphors in its active structure. It does not feel right to regard such sunken or petrified metaphors as irrevocably dead: as long as metaphor is a living, functional force in language, as long as it is generative, a dead metaphor can always be re-activated. It is reactivated, though, at perhaps too great a cost: remember the Victorian habit of putting skirt on chair-legs in the name of modesty.

11It is surely time to apply some amplificatio technique to this rather arid reasoning. But let me first refresh our memory about mimesis, which stands in a hidden but important relation to metaphor: I’ll recap the most elementary argument from book ten of Plato’s Republic: If an artisan makes a bed, he fashions it after some model, or idea, or form: it is an imitation of this form. If a painter paints a picture of the bed, it is thus an imitation of an imitation, an imitation to the second degree. This was one of Plato’s many arguments against mimetic art. A comparison-based idea of metaphor can be seen as a mimesis argument. When the artisan has constructed the bed, he wants a name for the four supports underneath it and looks out the window and sees a ram grazing in his field. ‘Eureka,’ he says, ‘just like my bed, four supports, one in each corner: I’ll call them legs.’ ‘How clever you are,’ says his wife, ‘what a brilliant metaphor: just think of applying a word like “leg” which refers flesh-and-blood to a wooden thing like a support under a bed.’ But perhaps not—perhaps our artisan and inventor of metaphors has not invented a subcategory of ‘legs made of wood instead of flesh-and-blood’ but just extended the category of legs to include both wooden and flesh-and-blood objects. ‘Listen,’ he says to his wife, ‘I was even cleverer than you thought: through an act of abstraction, I extended the category of legs to include both wooden and flesh-and-blood objects.’ ‘Didn’t I say you were clever,’ she says. ‘What do you want for dinner?’ ‘I wouldn’t mind having a leg of mutton,’ he says, eying the ram outside. When they sit down at the table, he says ‘And what is this?’ And she says, ‘Just a leg of the old settee we threw out last spring cleaning. If you are so clever with your abstractions you can always categorize it again.’

12A leg of mutton is no philosophical argument, as little as the stone Dr Johnson kicked, in order to refute Bishop Berkeley. What I mean is, metaphor is no category mistake, as has often been maintained by the comparison school of thought, nor can it be called a sort-crossing or a type-crossing. Metaphor cannot be handled with classificatory arguments; if I say: ‘A whale is a fish,’ the answer is not: ‘What a brilliant metaphor!’ but is instead: ‘You are wrong, a whale is not a fish; it is a mammal.’ And it does not help saying ‘Of course I know a whale is a mammal, but I meant it as a metaphor: if you consider the tertium comparationis, all the ways a whale resembles a fish: it lives in water all its life; it has fin-like flukes; it cannot live for long on dry land: wouldn’t you agree that I have created a marvellous metaphor according to Aristotle, managed to discern the similar in the dissimilar, and shown myself to be a superior mind?’ The answer is still: ‘The whale is not a fish.’

13Why is this so? In one sense it is defendable to say that we do not know. In another sense we know very well. If we say: ‘Man is a wolf’ the answer is not ‘No, man is not a wolf,’ but: ‘Oh, yes, homo hominis lupus, brilliant idea!’ The problem is not that we don’t know what metaphorical use of language is, we know that fairly well; the problem is that we don’t know what literal language is like. If we say that a painting is blue, that is a literal statement. It we say that it is sad, that is not normally a metaphorical statement but just means that it expresses sadness; if we say that a man is feeling sad (although we might find it difficult to prove it) it just means literally that; if we say a man is feeling blue, it means the same thing, but metaphorically. Or consider another example. When we go to a bar in the United States and ask for a cocktail—a Martini, say—we invariably encounter the question: ‘And how do you like it? Straight up or on the rocks?’ If we take this as referring to our own position when imbibing our drink: whether we want to stand up straight or go outside to sit on some heap of stones, we are just mistaken, and not about the metaphorical meanings but about the literal meanings of words. This goes to show that the meaning of words is rigorously restricted by the extraneous conditions, whether they are metaphorical or not, which should not come as a surprise. But that gives the interaction theory—treating the tension between tenor and vehicle, or focus and context, or focus and theme—as many difficulties to contend with as the comparison theory.

14Metaphor in the sense we use the term in poetics, that is, informally, a novel and rapid interconnecting of different spheres of meaning, is probably a comparatively rare phenomenon in conversation and common speech, in contrast to mentions of metaphors or clichés of the type we have just exemplified.

15A true metaphor in this sense has always to be announced in some way, to be foregrounded. But this is very rarely done in conversation where the received metaphors from a standard stock of phrases, often from domestic usage or from the animal kingdom, dominate: ‘He is a pig!’ ‘She is a mouse!’ ‘What a mess!’ Monroe C. Beardsley’s connotative or intentional theory of metaphor is eminently applicable to these cases. But poetic metaphor is only ostensibly of this type. When Hamlet swears his companions to silence, he hears the ghost intone underground: ‘Swear!’ he instantly replies: ‘Well said, old mole! Cans’t work i’ the earth so fast?’ (1199). This does not invoke any secondary connotations from the stock of standard views of moles, nor does he here compare his father’s ghost to a little blind furry animal with shovel-like paws, nor, even less likely, does he replace him for ornamental purposes with such an animal, nor conjure up a mental image of one. He just refers to the habit of moles to travel underground, and in such a way that it will elicit a response in the expectations raised for the whole situation, for the action of the play and its main character.

16Metaphor in this sense is always self-conscious in that it brings attention to itself with irony. It is the most self-conscious of the tropes. But the operation invoked is one of generalization from reality, or from fictional reality, not the presentation of reality. It is a kind of abstraction, like generalizations of national charter, such as: ‘Scots are parsimonious’ or, to stick closer to Hamlet: ‘Danes are drunkards.’ ‘Mole’ implies a statement: ‘Corpses underground should be still and not travel around like moles.’ It is not reducible to such a statement, though, nor could it be replaced with such a statement.


17Substitution criteria are clearly helpless to establish demarcation lines between what is metaphorical and what is literal, and they also fail to generate metaphorical utterances from literal ones. One way out—and it has proved with time to be very popular—is to turn the whole question upside down and historicize it. Giambattista Vico tried this in his Scienza nuova (The New Science) of 1725, the first treatise to assert that figurative language preceded literal language in human history. He believed that in the historic time of the gentes, or tribes, language (in its pre-articulate state) could be derived from the poetic logic of the four master tropes: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony:

The heroic language was a language of similes, images and comparisons, born of the lack of genera and species, which are necessary for the proper definition of things, and hence born of a necessity of nature common to entire peoples. (262)

18Vico’s influence has been deeply felt in Western thought on very different levels, but in contrast to many of his followers, he was no primitivist, not even in the cyclical sense implied in his philosophy of ricorso. He believed that mankind could benefit from progress, and that the powers of abstraction which he saw at work in articulate language were more beneficial than the forces of primitive language. Homer was both the recorder of dissolute mores of a heroic age, and a founder of the virtues of the Greek city-state, of its polity or civility, favourite expressions of approbation with him. It is from this I have derived one of the terms of my title ‘Polity of Metaphor.’ As a term, ‘polity’ is more pliable and accommodating than ‘policy,’ and it lacks the Machiavellian or cunning connotation of the latter.

19Not that cunning is goes needed. Metaphor is activated only when it is made self-conscious or foregrounded. That also means that it has to be made conscious of its own history and its own conditions. Hamlet’s mole metaphor belongs to the sermo humilis, not only because it stems from the everyday sphere of experience, but also because it belongs to humus, to the earth, just like corpses, and thus reinforces the hidden, illicit ways language has to travel. ‘Cans’t work i’ the earth so fast?’ is, among other things, an address to the facility with language Hamlet exhibits on many occasions.

20Such a view of metaphor has had some difficulties in gaining ground: it was, I think, systematically used for the first time in a remarkable book by William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words, which has hardly been added to or surpassed in the years since its publication. The view is also quite close to the basic insights of a book by Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor (where the original French title, La métaphore vive retains the organicist bias).

21The Viconian concept of the gentes or tribes in their barbaric splendour has travelled a long way through the anthropologizing theories of the origins of civilization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It can be strongly felt in the Marxian view of language as an emanation of social consciousness. Moreover, it ended up on the tombstone of Edgar Allen Poe, in that line of Mallarmé: ‘donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu’ [‘to give a purer sense to the words of the tribe’] (70). The line that offers a truly Viconian vision of the power of abstraction of the poetic imagination, a power that would lead Mallarmé to the ultimate abstraction in the shape of the white sheet of paper.


22At this point it may be appropriate to recapitulate briefly the main themes and the main concerns of our investigation. My search has been for the road of transit—as Coleridge reminds us, this is the true meaning of methodos in Greek—between ideas in the maze of poetic theories. I found one such road of transit in primitivism of language, which threatens to overwhelm the clarity of statement in poetry with the richness of particulars of matter. I found another in reductionism that threatens to reduce the tangible to arid formulae. But these dangers are only there when the roads or methods are abused, as Ezra Pound remarked in a short early essay (being in a more serene and less excitable state than usual):

A return to origins invigorates because it is a return to nature and reason. The man who returns to origins does so because he wishes to behave in the eternally sensible manner. (92)

23The recourse the poet has to the world of abstract science is, as Wordsworth and Coleridge often testified, a real and not an imagined source of strength. I leave the assertion to Wordsworth in The Prelude, in his praise of geometry:

Mighty is the charm
Of those abstractions to a mind beset
With images, and haunted by itself;
And specially delightful unto me
Was that clear Synthesis built up aloft
So gracefully, even then when it appear’d
No more than as a plaything, or a toy
Embodied to the sense, not what it is
In verity, an independent world
Created out of pure Intelligence. (179)

24Earlier in The Prelude Wordsworth had related a dream of a friend (presumably Coleridge) about an Arab of the Bedouin Tribes, encountered in the desert. With true dream-logic, the Arab is described as carrying two things, a stone and a shell, being at the same thing alternatively Euclid’s Elements and a book of all poetry, an ode of human passions. The lodestone of pure intelligence and the haunting voice of mankind are the two guiding principles or archai in the poet’s search. But the phantom is at the same time Don Quixote in search of the unattainable and irrevocable. At least part of him is. He is a semi-Quixote.

25The search for abstraction in the messages of mankind gives a suitable ending to these essays, which have been looking for roads of transit between levels that may be incompatible. But before ending, let me add a couple of further examples or paradeigma (as Vico was quick to point out, in the Greco-Roman city-state polity, these meant ‘punishments’) drawn from contemporary or near-contemporary poetry’s insights into the basic dialectics of abstractions.

26The purification or katharmos needed for both poetic language and mathematical abstraction—and clearly they have been parallel methodoi for most of our history—is indicated from as far back as Quintilian, in the dialectics of abstract and concrete. Modernist poetics has made the transfer from abstract generalization to concrete detail the only privileged one. This is not the view of the poets, though, in particular not of Wallace Stevens, for whom abstraction was necessary part of the supreme fiction. Consider these lines from ‘A Primitive like an Orb’:

Here, then, is an abstraction given head,
A giant on the horizon, given arms,
A massive body and long legs, stretched out,
A definition with an illustration, not
Too exactly labelled, a large among the smalls
Of it, a close, parental magnitude,
At the centre on the horizon, concentrum, grave
And prodigious person, patron of origins. (443)

27This giant, this ‘definition with an illustration, not too exactly labelled’ can be recognized in one of the stage-managed asides in John Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters,’ where the poet comments on the progress and nature of his long poem:

This, thus, is a portion of the subject of this poem
Which is in the form of falling snow:
That is, the individual flakes are not essential to the importance of the whole’s becoming so much of a truism
That their importance is again called in question, to be denied further out, and again and again like this.
Hence, neither the importance of the individual flake,
Nor the importance of the whole impression of the storm, if it has any, is what it is,
But the rhythm of the series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and back to a slightly less diluted abstract. (152)

28That the dialectical movement is more important than the individual elements or stoicheiai, seems a lesson straight out of Plato. But the movement does not end there: as if to answer Ashbery’s somewhat coy caveats, Robert Hass replies in his prose poem ‘The Beginning of September,’ a work endangered by ferocious sensual and appetitive implosion:

are abstract, but
words are abstract
is a dance, car crash, heart’s delight.
It’s the design dumb hunger
has upon the world.’ (38)

29For me there remains only to quote the first three lines of the last stanza of the Stevens poem:

That’s it. The lover writes, the believer hears,
The poet mumbles and the painter sees,
Each one, his fated eccentricity. (443)

30If some hearers are now believers, at least in the possibility of poetry and poetics, this Semi-Quixote is satisfied. Satisfied to have mumbled, to the end, his fated eccentricities.

A Note on the Text

31The essays of ‘The Words of the Tribe’ have never before been published, and are based on a series of lectures presented at the University of Notre Dame in 1984. Printz-Påhlson’s manuscripts for the lectures contained some irregularities of style and punctuation that have here been corrected. The alert reader may notice some anachronisms in the list of works cited appended to each essay: editions of some works come from a period after the lectures were given. No bibliographic information appeared in the manuscripts, and I have chosen to cite editions readily available to the contemporary reader where they are consistent with the versions of texts quoted by Printz-Påhlson.


Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems 1956–1987. Ed. by Mark Ford. New York: Library of America, 2008.

Hass, Robert. Praise. New York: Ecco, 1979.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Collected Poems and Other Verse. Ed. and trans. by E.H. Blackmore and A.M. Blackmore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Pound, Ezra. ‘The Tradition.’ Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1968: 91–93.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Vol. 2. Ed. by G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Trans. by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. New York: Anchor, 1961.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude, or, the Growth of the Poet’s Mind. Ed. by Ernest de Sélincourt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search