Quasi-unintelligibilty (Part 3)
After having wandered somewhat far from the discussion of quasi-unintelligibility in my last post I thought it might be a good idea to revisit the topic before moving forward. I had set out last week to enumerate as straightforwardly as possible some of the elements of Stevens’s “Man Carrying Thing” that appealed to me on rereading it for the first time in a couple of years—specifically those elements of it that provoked some pronounced feeling in me apart from my conscious understanding of them—but even as I set out to do so I realized I wasn’t going to be able to follow through with it, quite. Maybe it’s as true for everyone as it seems to be for me that when it comes time to account for a feeling provoked by an artwork my choices appear to be either to struggle into words an inevitably incomplete attempt to understand that feeling (rather than simply to indicate it) or else to give up before I start, thereby remaining prolongedly in an infant relationship to how it is it seems I feel. It doesn’t seem enough to say “The porter’s smile makes me feel sad.” It’s always “The porter’s smile makes me feel sad because…”—and then I’m off, gone like a beagle let loose from its leash, darting through the trees, the meadow, and onto the highway. The porter’s smile turns out not to make me feel sad for any one reason in particular, but for a complex tangle of reasons I’ll never be able to dig up entirely, but as I set myself to the task of it anyway, I unearth a dozen associated thoughts and facts and feelings having and half-having to do with smiling, or with porters, or with why I value sadness.
To be clear: I’ll admit that there are times when it might be harmless, appropriate, and even healthy to stay anchored in one’s feelings unanalytically, and that bobbing along to the flow of them is an honest animal privilege. But overall I think we humans are obligated to spend time reflecting carefully on what we feel, what its causes and possible effects are—in part because it’s another, rarer privilege for an animal to be able to do so, and we shouldn’t take that lightly, but also because the knowledge and insight such operation stands to yield will benefit not only oneself but all the others in one’s life and other others too. I’ve known people who tend not to think critically about what they feel, who trust in what they feel so completely they are like torrents of themselves. They can carry on all night about the depth and power of their feelings until you walk away or fall asleep, but you can tell they’ve never achieved any critical distance from their feelings, never tried to conceive of their origins and limits, and if they don’t know how to go about understanding their own feelings, they’ll never know what to do with yours, which are probably much more finely tuned. But it’s back up the gangplank for me. My gut says this boat is bound for open ocean, and I have doubts about the water-tightness of the hull of it, and of my own seaworthiness, and rightly.
When I return to the term “quasi-unintelligibility,” I shouldn’t lose track of the meaning of the prefix “quasi,” which is, according to the OED, “resembling or simulating, but not really the same as, that properly so termed.” So that when Vendler tells us, and I agree with her, that Pope appears in An Essay on Man to take pleasure in presenting Enlightenment thought in a quasi-unintelligible manner, what she means is that he only seems to have rendered that thought unintelligible, when in fact closer scrutiny or more careful reflection should reveal it to the reader to be intelligible after all. Pope will revel in “close calls with nonsense,” to borrow a phrase from Stephen Burt, but without ever committing any nonsense per se. In light of the kind of poem An Essay on Man happens to be, which is to say a didactic poem (Voltaire called it “the most beautiful, the most useful, the most sublime didactic poem ever written in any language”), this stands to reason. You would expect a poem whose objective is to instruct the reader, or to refine what the reader already knows, or at very least to appeal to the reader’s appetite for instruction, to present, at all points, material that can, ultimately, be understood, where to understand means “to comprehend; to apprehend the meaning or import of; to grasp the idea of.” And if An Essay on Man challenges the reader’s understanding even as it feeds it, it will serve then not only to add to the store of what the reader knows, but to exercise and strengthen the faculty whereby he or she comes to know things in the first place. At the same time, though, I worry that emphasizing the ultimate graspability of the thought presented in An Essay on Man seems to demote what we enjoy most about the poem (i.e., the ingenuity of Pope’s manner of expression) to a position of servitude to or at least answerability to that which is expressed. Where graspability to the intellect prevails, thought-content is chief. And this would seem to do again what the other symposiasts mentioned in my initial post had seemed so wrong-minded to have done, it’s just that we’d be doing so less obviously.
So what do we do? In that initial post I was eager to assert that “the idea isn’t to break from reference altogether,” but now I’m not so sure. I think that what I meant by that was that the poem should never forsake its ultimately identifiable thought-content, but presently that seems to me to imply that the agreed-upon and primary objective of all poetry is to communicate intelligible thoughts and ideas in an interesting way. That idea constricts my breathing a little, and it even goes against my own practice. Part of me insists, and it has me by the lapels, that there are forms of meaning that are not “intelligible.” So maybe we should hurry up and remind ourselves that what we expect from and value in didactic poetry is different from what we want from other kinds of poetry. The strict didactic or other kind of argument-driven poem will manage to regale us with its intelligible content and delight us with its manner of expression without ever forsaking expression’s service to that content, while the purest lyric will be in service to feeling—that vast, amorphous, less rational grassy territory we should probably never expect to grasp fully with our intellects. We will experience the purest lyric instead as a score of verbal texture, imagery, sense impressions and waves of affect. If there is any thought-content in it, it’s probably obscured or being driven around and jostled in the backseat of a car it can’t remember getting into, poor thing. Then let’s suppose we situate that strict didactic poem on one end of a continuum as we appoint the most radical lyric at the opposite end. What we have then is a scale of intelligibility, with one end of it wholly graspable to the intellect, the other not really addressing the intellect at all. What then?
Nota bene: none of this is revolutionary. I'm well aware of that. Still I find myself progressing through these thoughts as one walks by necessity up a darkened stairwell to get to the landing where a lighting fixture sheds the light in which one hopes to unfold the torn damp paper with all the information written on it. And when we get there, there is no paper after all, only the thought that if we tilt the scale we just imagined in the previous paragraph a full 90 degrees, anchoring the didactic at our feet and allowing the lyric end to rise up into the air above us and shine there at the ceiling, it might then call to mind Zukofsky’s description of his poetics in “A”-12—“Lower limit speech / Upper limit music”—which in turn might recall Pater’s statement that all art aspires towards the condition of music, whose meaning “reaches us through ways not distinctly traceable by the understanding.”
I don’t think we should expect this scale to measure whole poems so much as individual phrases, lines, or passages in poems, although we might be able to get an “overall” reading on a poem, but I don’t know that I would trust it. And often, and perhaps more interestingly, we need to turn the scale on ourselves and our responses to what’s happening at a given moment in a poem. Often when I think of lines or short passages I love, for example Hopkins’s “Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare / of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches / squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust…,” I may know what they’re referring to—here it’s the drying of mud the day following a storm—but it seems to me almost beside the point. At times like these identifiable subject matter seems like little more than a manager to music, a kind of platform for it, or for the excitement it can provoke in the reader, and I have no problem with that. In fact, when I think back to passages of poetry that I love, truly love, they are often lines like these. Lines that made me feel strongly long before I knew what they meant. Like Plath’s “I foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.” The mere idea of having to think logically about that passage for more than 60 seconds—or worse, of listening to someone else “getting to the bottom of it”—makes me want to, in a phrase, foam to wheat, and without understanding what I'm doing with my intellect. There’s still so much left to say. In my next post, I’ll get back to discussing Stevens’s “Man Carrying Thing,” and I’ll do so in depth, and alone, and without wandering.
Timothy Donnelly is the author of two books of poetry, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, and The Cloud Corporation. He earned a BA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MFA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Princeton University. Spencer Bailey, in an article for...