Before writing was invented...

Huh. Joan Houlihan has been thinking about poetry since before I was born. She edits things, she wins awards, she's written a few poems herself. But in the miles of research she's doubtless undertaken in that time she's never encountered the idea that there is no firm boundary between poetry and prose? (Not to mention speech and writing... that's a whole other can of worms.) No physicist could write columns on current issues about space exploration if she'd completely missed or disregarded the bulk of writing on the topic done over the last thirty years. I agree wholeheartedly with Scott's post, I just have a few things to add:

Theorists like Gee and Hymes (see my first post: Gee. That's cool.) argue that ALL speech is based on rythms, emphasis, patterning. It's not "myths and truths of a culture" that are necessary, it's the patterns of language itself. It's the forms of language (along with, completely bound up with the meanings) that perpetuate themselves through any discourse.

There's also been a lot of writing (see Bakhtin) about the privileding of poetry over prose or 'normal speech,' which I think Ms. Houlihan is pretty clearly guilty of. I personally see this (and most authoritative moves that instruct us in how language SHOULD be used) as a move made by people who think that they should be in charge of the language. Joan is afraid that the apparent simplicity of poets like William Carlos Williams will ... wait for it... inspire other people to attempt writing poetry. The last thing a real poet needs is more competition.

I would argue, along with Scott, that this prosing of poetry is one more way of revealing the complex processes of encoding and reading that go into all uses of language. Houlihan writes, "We are told to kneel and stare at this specimen of dead lines laid out in its little coffin on the page, and declare it alive. What do we say?" Does she really want to be told what to say? Does the poem have to be declared alive? Sometimes things in coffins have more meaning than when they're walking around telling you what to think of them. (And, if we needed a clue, the WCW poem that she cites is tellingly called, "This is Just to Say")

There are, additionally, thousands of examples of the impracticality of the distinctions that Houlihan founds her argument on. Stanley Fish points out in Is There a Text in This Class? in the essay "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One" that readers presented with a text called "a poem" will precede to read it as a poem. Further, he stresses that analysis is not secondary to reading, but that introductions and titles such as "poem" irreversibly influence the very way we read. If you believe it's a poem, it's a poem, and you'll find poetry in it.

Here's my Big Thought for the day: All language is idiomatic. Meaning (poetic or prosaic, connotation, tone, metaphoricity, symbolism) is determined completely by usage. I think I should credit Wittgenstein with that idea. From the effectiveness of poetry to the linguistically necessary expectations that allow conversation to function, any usage of language only has meaning (and form?) because we are looking for it.

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