Friday, March 11, 2016

Attridge and Staten 9: Reading, Meaning, Techne

Of course, I can’t help but reading Attridge and Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation (2015) against my own sense of the current state of literary studies. And that sense leaves me with a bifurcated view of their project. On the one hand, I agree we need a criticism that gives detailed attention to the text, which their minimal interpretation certainly does. On the other hand, I don’t think we can get there from here.

They offer minimal interpretation as a way of getting at how poems are made, as a way of unveiling the underlying techne. But just how does it do that? Their project is problematic from their first example, which they assayed in 2008, William Blake’s The Sick Rose. They set out in search of a “bare bones” (my term) and literal account of the rose, the worm, and the storm such that one might embody it in a short film (again, my characterization). But they find that a difficult and problematic project, a difficulty they continue to explore in their second effort, Emily Dickinson’s I started Early. Figurative language seems to resist their desire for interpretive minimalism – but where is the resistance, to minimalism or to interpretation?

In any event, what does this tell us about how poems are made? Surely they are not proposing that (figurative) poets start with some literal situation, such as could be neatly captured in a minimal interpretation, which they then transform, perhaps in stages, perhaps at once, into a poetic text strewn with figures and laid out in meter and rhyme as the aesthetic impulse requires. I would assume that poets work in terms of the kind we see in the final text, that there is no “literal” situation among the tools and materials that constitute poetic craft. Thus it is not clear to me in what way a minimal interpretation reveals poetic techne.

And then we have the various comments on prosody that figure in their accounts. The sound of a poem, its rhythm, the rise and fall of intonation, rhyme and alliteration and so forth, all contribute to one’s experience of the poem, but those things do not “cash out” (my term) in interpretive terms, whether minimal or maximal. But surely they belong to the craft of poetry, the techne.

For the most part, the prosodic effects they pointed out were local, but in my discussions of three of the poems I looked at – Langston Hughes, Lenox Avenue: Midnight, Emily Dickinson, I started Early, and John Milton, At a Solemn Music – I identified prosodic features that were global in scope. They cannot be accounted for by appeals to meaning, yet they must somehow affect our experience of the poems. Is there more to poetic experience than meaning, of whatever degree? Does the craft of poetry exceed categories of meaning?

I am thus suggesting that, even as Attridge and Staten assert that minimal interpretation is a means of revealing techne, that techne is in fact more expansive than, exceeds, and is different from (interpreted) meaning. There is thus an unacknowledged tension between meaning and techne that pervades their work – at least so far as I have surveyed it in these few notes. This tension shows up at the end of their introduction where they invoke cognitive science – Noam Chomsky, the notion of reverse engineering – but implicitly reject the terms in which the cognitive sciences investigate language and the mind.

I have, for years, been of the belief that that is where we are going to have to go if we are to understand how poems, and other literary works, are constructed [1]. And that task, I fear, is one for a generation or two of scholars and will require its own technical language. Some terms of that language no doubt exist in current work in these newer psychologies, but I suspect that many terms, perhaps ultimately the most important one, have yet to be developed.

That discourse will necessarily be a discourse of and for sophisticated intellectual specialists. And it won’t be a kind of “reading”. But then, in what sense is minimal interpretation a kind of reading? Minimal interpretation, like any interpretation governed by the canons of Theory in whatever form, is a secondary activity that takes place at some “distance” from the text. It is neither a reconstruction of nor an extension of one’s direct experience of the text. It is a distinct mental activity, with its own ends and means. Depending on the critic and the occasion it may – I conjecture – play a role in shaping the mind so as to be more receptive to the text in direct reading. But that is different from delineating the craft through which the text. came into existence.

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[1] Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2005, Article 060608. URL: Download:

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