Wittgenstein, a Memoir

How a teacher of philosophy turned one writer into a poet.

I came to poetry fairly late; that is, I was probably a senior in college before I could read it with anything like enthusiasm. This was a direct result of studying Wittgenstein with James Guetti, an eccentric, disgruntled professor of English at Rutgers University. Jim’s passions seemed to be gambling (horses, cards, dice), fishing, writing, and drinking. (A former football player at Amherst College, he also loved sports, but you didn’t bet on sports, because that was unsportsmanlike.) Yet somewhere along the way—after 1980, to judge by his published work—he added Wittgenstein to the mix of his obsessions, culminating in his 1993 book Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, whose publication fortunately coincided with the period during which I studied with him. Would I have become a poet without encountering this man and, through him, Wittgenstein? I’m inclined to say no.

Wittgenstein, of course, wrote very little about literature and even less about poetry. His efforts were principally directed toward clearing up philosophical dilemmas brought about by linguistic confusions. Most often, these confusions result from misleading analogies between different meanings of the same word. This conviction is so strong throughout his later work it compels him to devote much attention to the word “meaning.” His most famous remark on the subject occurs in Philosophical Investigations:

For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
            And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.

The second half of this remark is misleading out of context, for the overall thrust of Wittgenstein’s discussion in this portion of the Investigations is against the picture of meaning as primarily a matter of names and things. Implicit here is a critique of Saussurean linguistics in making the signifier/signified model the paradigm of meaning. He’s not suggesting such a model is never an appropriate explanation of meaning, but rather that it only sometimes is. Naming is only one way we use words.

But as Guetti points out in relation to the first half of the remark quoted above, Wittgenstein’s sense of “use in the language” is more active than simply equating a name with its bearer:

It will soon become clear that “use” for Wittgenstein is a quite restrictive concept: it is “use in” specific verbal situations and exchanges and sequences, and “use” to do or to achieve something, “use” that always has consequences. It is this practical and purposive “use in the language” that becomes more and more unquestionably, as his arguments develop, the measure of meaning.
            But that observation still does not communicate the strength and even the severity of Wittgenstein’s formulation. For if “use in the language” is not, as we might initially have supposed, “all sorts of things,” then a great deal of verbal behavior—all such behavior, for example, that seems purposeless or inconsequential or, in Wittgenstein’s terms, “idling”—cannot be considered “meaningful.”

“The consequences of this exclusion,” Guetti continues, “are enormous for how we think about language, and especially for how we conceive linguistic process in literary studies.” Certainly they were for me. What Guetti writes above seems very simple, but in the context of literary studies—where interpretation of “meaning,” however defined or ill-defined, remains the prime directive—it is difficult to conceive of a more radical proposition. For it is tantamount to saying, among other things, that works of literature have no meaning; that is, the “meaning” we speak of in literature is different in kind from the meaning of a word or a sentence in the context of a purposeful, real-world exchange. In the latter, the use of words has consequences, in that it gives rise to action, whereas in literature—even literature that seeks to inspire readers to political action—words lack direct application. When we speak of “meaning” in relation to literature, we quite often mean something like “significance” or “point,” but when we speak of, say, the meaning of a line of poetry, or a phrase within a line, we mean something more like interpretation or paraphrase. And this is where confusion is liable to arise, for we can also interpret or paraphrase a meaningful expression. But the difference remains, for, absent a need for clarification, we can use a meaningful expression as is, and there are “measures of meaning” with such expressions—actions, consequences—that literature lacks.

One caveat: I should be clear that Wittgenstein doesn’t purport to have discovered the essence of meaning in any phenomenological sense. Philosophy for Wittgenstein at this point is dealing with words, not things. Yet too, he isn’t claiming to have found the real meaning of “meaning.” Rather, he’s restricting the term for philosophical use. The active and purposeful sense of meaning is only one of the ways we use this word, and other ways of using the word aren’t incorrect. But these other uses are, again, different in kind from purposeful use, and the restriction of the word “meaning” to this latter sense is simply to avoid confusion with them.

Nonetheless, particularly in relation to poetry, Guetti’s remark struck me with the force of a revelation. Indeed, at the time, I probably did take it as something more like a phenomenological statement. But no matter: the idea of poetry as meaningless proved to be the key that unlocked the seemingly impenetrable mystery of the art. Previously, I felt “outside” of poetry; it seemed so full of meaning, but how, as a reader, could you know if you got this meaning, and how, as a writer, did you put it there? What Jim did for me was turn the problem not so much on its head as inside out. For where literary criticism tends to speak of meaning in poetry as internal, something to be “unpacked,” in Jim’s classes the poem was empty, its words reaching out to possible meanings, much as Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations during a series of remarks on “understanding”:

Hearing a word in a particular sense. How queer that there should be such a thing!
             Phrased like this, emphasized like this, heard in this way, this sentence is the first of a series in which a transition is made to these sentences, pictures, actions.

This sounds very much like what occurs when you interpret the meaning of a line of poetry. You make a transition not to “actions,” as Jim pointed out, but definitely to “sentences” and “pictures” against whose backdrop a line of poetry might seem to take on a certain meaning. This is sometimes instructive and interesting to do, but at the same time it leads you away from the poem to other language that is not the poem. If you abandon the search for meaning, however, you’re more likely to stay with the poem, and this is the only way, finally, to learn how to understand poetry. And to “understand,” in the case of a poem, is not the same as to interpret its meaning, as Wittgenstein writes in one of his too-few remarks directly touching on poetry:

We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)
             In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is only expressed by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)

To be sure, this remark is not limited to poetry; Wittgenstein is talking about understanding sentences generally. “Understanding a poem” here exemplifies those things we understand about sentences that specifically aren’t meanings of words, our comprehension of intonations and structures. Hence the analogy with a musical theme, which is all tones and structures without semantic values. The problem here is that our understanding of musical themes is difficult to articulate, precisely because meaning is not involved. “What is it all about?” Wittgenstein asks of a musical theme. “I should not be able to say. In order to ‘explain’ I could only compare it with something else that has the same rhythm (I mean the same pattern).”    

One of Guetti’s strokes of genius was to link this aspect of Wittgenstein’s thought to the poetics of a writer who could be no more out of fashion in contemporary considerations of poetry: Robert Frost. In a letter to his friend John T. Bartlett, Frost writes:

A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.
             You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between two trees, but—it is bad for the clothes….
             The sentence-sounds are very definite entities…. They are as definite as words….
             They are apprehended by the ear…. The most original writer only catches them fresh from talk, where they grow spontaneously.

It seems to me, as it did to Jim, who quotes this passage at even greater length in his book, that Frost is speaking of the very thing Wittgenstein grapples with in his remarks on understanding sentences. When I consider now that Frost wrote this in 1914, as Wittgenstein was just beginning his pre-Tractatus manuscript Notes on Logic, it kinda blows my mind. As it was, Jim’s juxtaposition of Frost’s “sentence-sounds” with Wittgenstein turned my head around, not simply about poetry but about writing, period. When I began to write “compositions,” as they were characterized in third grade, I learned you didn’t write the way you spoke, and this is both true—think of how “nonwritten” a transcript of conversation reads—and suitable advice for an eight-year-old writer. At a certain point, however, it is false, and bad advice. Writing is not speech, but both use sentences, and thus sentence-sounds—which is to say that written sentences need to be sayable, not merely to be elegant or effective but simply to be understood. Sentence-sounds, in other words, aren’t meaning but are intimately bound up with our understanding of sentences.

In terms of poetry, what I gleaned from this juxtaposition of ideas was to follow the sentence over the line. The line had me psyched out. With a poet of rhyme and meter like Frost, the line can bully your mind into blank incomprehension, whereas his game is to play his sentences against his lines’ almost brutal regularity. With unrhymed poems of variable meter, the line retained for me an aura as a unit that it often doesn’t merit. I was looking for reasons where there were none; if a line or a line break is noteworthy, it will declare itself, but otherwise, it’s not worth worrying about. Following sentences, moreover, was never a problem for me, not since learning to diagram them in fifth grade under the perpetually furious tutelage of an Irish Catholic nun named Sister Timothy. Reading poetry was suddenly easy; I had the grammatical chops, and Frost’s concept of sentence-sounds attuned me to those spoken intonations that animated the grammar. And the meaninglessness of poetry had eliminated the intimidation factor, for instead of approaching it with the forlorn hope that I could access its meaning, I let the poem come to me. It’s not for me to figure out a poem’s meaning but rather for the poem to convince me it has one. Or not, because I don’t demand that it have a meaning. I assume the poem is meaningless unless it convinces me otherwise. This is a far preferable state of affairs.

Jim Guetti died of lung cancer in early 2007, several months shy of his 70th birthday. In a memoir he self-published on iUniverse in 2005 called Silver Kings, he reveals that a cancer specialist saw an ambiguous mark on an X-ray of his lungs and wanted to perform exploratory surgery, but Jim refused. He’d calculated the odds of the occurrence of the rare type of tumor the doctor thought could be there against the odds of dying during surgery and decided he didn’t like them. Considering he’d already survived colon cancer before I met him, I was shocked by this decision, although, at the same time, it was very much him, the gambler. I didn’t hear about his death until a couple of years afterward. We weren’t close and had fallen out of touch. The last time we’d spoken, I’d called him to get his address to mail him my first book of poems, probably around 2000. I was curious to see what he’d think of it, if he’d recognize any of his teaching in it, but I never heard back from him. I figured that meant he didn’t like the poems, which didn’t surprise me, as I knew what I was writing was pretty distant from the poetry he enjoyed, though it occurred to me after reading Silver Kings that he may have been dealing with the cancer by then and was too busy trying to stay alive. I’d wanted him to see the book because I felt like my whole process of becoming a poet began by reading Wittgenstein with him. Until recently, I was under the impression I didn’t actually start writing poetry until 1994, after I moved to California to enroll in the graduate English program at UC Berkeley. But not long after reading Silver Kings, I discovered a notebook filled with poems from my senior year at Rutgers. Not good poems, and few complete ones, but it seems like I started trying out things based on what I was learning in Jim’s classes fairly immediately.

Jim had vast reservoirs of bitterness. Though he’d had 30-odd years as a full professor at a major research university and written three books of criticism—he’s still sometimes cited in studies of Melville, Conrad, Faulkner, Chandler, and, indeed, Wittgenstein—he felt his career hadn’t gone the way he wanted. He didn’t like the way literary studies had gone. His one bid for literary glory—a novel about gambling called Action (Dial, 1972) that still has a following among connoisseurs of the genre—was, he claimed, ripped off and made into a film called The Gambler (1974) starring James Caan. I can’t say whether or not this is true, but how many stories about gambling English professors who end up owing money to the mob are out there? Caan even looks rather like Jim does in his author photo for Action. (Jim was doubly offended because the film replaces horse racing with college basketball and, again, betting on sports was unsportsmanlike.) Still, despite his bitterness, he retained his enthusiasm for teaching. A surprising amount of Silver Kings is devoted to teaching, not so much about his own endeavors in the classroom as about those significant encounters in his life with teachers and coaches who helped him discover and develop abilities he hadn’t been aware he possessed. In the acknowledgments to Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, Jim thanks two of his own professors at Amherst—Theodore Baird and Armour Craig—for their role in his development as a thinker and a writer, saying, “The best teaching lasts.” It does.

Excerpted from Retrievals, copyright 2014 by Garrett Caples. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wave Books.
Originally Published: October 29th, 2014

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...

  1. October 30, 2014
     Philip Nast

    Your essay on James Guetti prompted me to poke about the Internet,
    and I came across an Amherst College obit. I liked this:

    ' Lou Greer mentioned Jim’s “unforgettable question to Robert Frost
    during one of Frost’s visits to Theta Delt”: “Dr. Frost, could you
    capsule your life in a sentence or two?” Frost’s answer was, “I see my
    life as a library, with books all around…but with an occasional
    window.” '

    Here's the link:

  2. October 30, 2014
     Dwight Homer

    Regarding Wittgenstein's investigations of "meaning," I
    would only add that his thinking moved away from language
    as a system for creating "models" of the world within
    certain rather important rules of logic, to a more fluid
    examination of meaning which he came to see as being
    derived from consensus among the users of language.
    Hence, the relevance of Frost's interest in speech and
    the experience of the spoken vernacular.

  3. October 30, 2014
     Jaime Robles

    Hi Garrett, Speaking of Wittgenstein and poetry: you might find
    interesting my article on The Fortnightly Review about Wittgenstein and
    some practitioners of visual poetry:
    Jaime Robles

  4. October 31, 2014
     J.R. Paradiso

    As a grad student during the late '60s in the Dept. of Philosophy at UW-Madison, I took Robert Ammerman's Wittgenstein course.

    As memory serves, confessing that I don't remember what I ate for dinner, it was rumored that Ammerman, as a student at Cornell, late-strolled into Wittgenstein's guest lecture.

    Wearing the costume of the day -faded work shirt, wheat jeans, corduroy jacket with tethered elbows- he sauntered to the first row.

    During Wittgenstein's lecture, he frowned and shook his head side to side like a ping pong ball during a championship contest.

    Post Wittgenstein's lecture, the Chair of UW's Philosophy department apologized to Wittengstein for the student's unacceptable behvior.

    "No apology necessary," Wittgenstein replied, "he was the only one who understood what I was talking about."

    On Wisconsin!

  5. November 2, 2014
     Manny D. Williams

    Why does everybody (most poets and literary theorists) still insist on Wittgenstein's basic behaviorist and utilitarian/externalist models of language?

    Also, Saussure never wrote anything himself and reducing Sausseurean linguistics to "naming" is a bit off the mark. I mean if language really is use, then its certainly not a 'langue' sitting out there in the world somewhere. Yet I find this fundamental fact about languages is impossible for people to grasp, because they think things like "English" exist as stable entities somewhere in the world, rather than in our throats and brains.

  6. November 3, 2014

    I am ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED to have found a "window in my
    library of mind" into the world of greater minds. As you
    might expect, I have "met" many of them in my constant
    search for "meaning", and recognize it to be a massive
    struggle for a small mind - a mere few kilograms in
    weight, mostly consisting of a mushy tangle of long
    nerve fibres ticking any neuron with which it happens to
    comes into contant. But I digress.

    I'd simply like readers to know that even I, a lifelong
    inventor/engineer, even I think about matters of meaning
    and often reflect that the greatest gift from the master
    brain-maker is the ability to CHANGE one's mind.

    Barrie Gilbert
    Member, US Academy of Engineering
    Life Fellow, IEEE etc.

  7. November 3, 2014

    It's funny I stumble across this amazing essay; Just two weeks ago in my
    Contemporary Poetry class we were discussing Robert Creeley, and this
    clearly resonates with the idea explored in "The Language" and "The
    Pattern"... Breaking down language into its most primitive form, and
    understanding that a word only derives power because we give it such:
    the connotative and denotative powers. Language is an emptiness we
    fill... Great essay, Garrett!

  8. November 4, 2014

    “Writing is not speech, but both use sentences, and thus sentence-sounds
    —which is to say that written sentences need to be sayable, not merely to
    be elegant or effective but simply to be understood. Sentence-sounds, in
    other words, aren’t meaning but are intimately bound up with our
    understanding of sentences.”

    Language is an essential, eminently useful, dead tool. As with an artisan’s
    tools, some rhetorical devices are sharper than others. Tools are there to
    be used. When a given language is not used [has outlived its usefulness] it
    does not die. It rusts. Like the tools of a deceased carpenter.

    The effectiveness of a language depends on the proficiency of the user.
    Both speaker and listener. Writer and reader. Every language in use is
    honed, polished, endlessly embroidered upon and subjected to highly
    imaginative poetic licence.

    But nobody speaks the way they write. Not in any language. It is well-nigh
    impossible to distinguish on an oscilloscope [digital speech graph] where
    each spoken word begins and ends. Typically, such a graph looks more
    representative of a stream of continuous sound, than what we associate
    with high definition elocution. We notice immediately when someone is
    reading from a prepared script, rather than speaking ad lib. Because we
    are all lazy speakers, slurring our words, running them together,
    mumbling, sniffing, grunting and humming and ha-ing.

    The well-known discriminatory difference between written and spoken
    Chinese applies equally to every language. German that is not written
    strictly according to the ‘Rechtschreibung’ is literally painful to read. But
    nobody in Germany speaks that way. The highly trained television news
    readers on Tagesschau, as on the BBC, are instantly recognisable for their
    faultless clarity of diction. But nobody speaks like that in private. Not even
    Mrs Windsor. [She always reads everything, very, very carefully.] Not
    forgetting the ubiquitous teleprompter at every ‘wide-ranging’ news
    conference, from Abu Dhabi to the White House.

    However, the huge differences between written and spoken language only
    become obvious when they are specifically pointed out. Of course, there’s
    the expected wide variation in pronunciation, pitch, intonation, inflection,
    accent and mood. But then there are also numerous regional dialectical
    variations. Not to mention individual speech idiosyncrasies, that regularly
    amuse and irritate the practitioners of all language groups the world over.
    None of that can be clearly conveyed in the printed text. The ambiguity
    inherent to every language knows no rules of grammar and syntax, when
    it comes to the human voice.

  9. November 4, 2014
     Rob T.


    "We can only marvel at the laughable error people make--believing that they speak about things. No one knows precisely what is peculiar to language, that it concerns itself merely with itself. For that reason, it is a wonderful and fertile mystery. [...] If only one could make people grasp that the case of language is similar to the case of mathematical formulae--they constitute a world for themselves-- they play with themselves alone, express nothing other than their wonderful nature, and precisely for that reason they are so expressive--precisely for that reason they mirror in themselves the curious play of relations in things."

    from Novalis, "Monologue", 1798.

    Bet that kinda blows your mind. But since the text was written pre-20th Century, that must completely invalidate it.

  10. November 5, 2014
     Annie Finch

    Garrett, i was pleased and intrigued to see this piece, and I have to
    agree with you. My father Roy Finch was a philosophy professor who
    devoted most of his career to writing on Wittgenstein, so I grew up on
    these concepts--and poetry was never far away :) All best, Annie

  11. November 5, 2014
     D. J. Roberts

    "...Action ...was, he claimed, ripped off and made into a film called The Gambler.... I can’t say whether or not this is true, but how many stories about gambling English professors who end up owing money to the mob are out there?"

    Did Guetti specifically claim that James Toback, the screenwriter, ripped him off? Toback says that the story was based on himself (a gambling professor of literature), with a bit of Dostoyevsky tossed into the mix.