I thought I would start talking more about my PhD here. I’m not entirely sure why I never have before – desire not to bore you? – but with just a year remaining before I need to prove if I deserve a doctoral title or not, I thought I would begin tracing more often here my “development” . . . and also, on occasions, ask for help. These thoughts will thus be very personal, erratic, and probably simplistic. Really, my apologies in advance. That’s, in part, why assistance is needed.
So, my PhD is more or less a study – two parts literary-critical/theoretical, one part sociological – of the damaging use of poetic “sincerity” as an evaluative and/or normative criterion by many (usually conservative) poetic movements in the corpus of 20th century European and American poetics. After this initial, attempted demolition-job, I then attempt to ask whether “sincerity” needs to be abandoned altogether, or whether it could not be profitably reformulated according to notions of Zukofskian or Celanian “perceptive sincerity”, which, replacing the old Romantic, anti-rhetorical model of “expressive sincerity”, would perhaps avoid falling into the same expressive antinomies and paradoxes.
Anyway, that’s the brief run-down of this 550-page bastard. I need help though with the current chapter, which is an overview of the “origins” of notions of the sincere in Western poetics, which actually proves to be predictably crazy (in that sometimes sincerity is associated with inspiration and at other times techné, sometimes as being beyond intention and at other times the pure product of intention).
To be brief, then, it’s the notion of poetic intentionality which is really causing me some grief. I think it’s an extremely complex question. Firstly, it’s clear to me that Wimsatt and Beardsley, in The Intentional Fallacy, are correct in rejecting the value of intention as an evaluative criterion for critics, after the fact. (It doesn’t seem to matter whether Eliot intended x or not, as all we have is textual evidence, and this textual evidence is more reliant and coherent than any statement of x as intention etc).
But what about an intention - "sincerity" for instance, whatever we may mean by that term - which would form a directive criterion for poets, both conservative and avant-garde? That’s where the issue becomes more complex. We all read, for instance, diverse poetic manifesti. We find them interesting. We generally feel that reading Projective Verse or Sincerity and Objectification influences and helps in our understanding of a poet’s work.
But if intention does not really function as an evaluative criterion for critics, in what way should we read poets’ statements of their intentions? It seems to me that manifesti are much more revealing than critics’ generally disingenuous use of intention in their descriptions or evaluations. It’s a different thing. But why is it different? One, the poet’s, is an intentionality before the fact, but not necessarily any more coherent or revealing of what a work actually does, or the traits it exhibits.
All well and good . . . But the discovery that the works of Ern Malley or Araki Yasusada were perhaps written according to different intentions than those we first thought, ineluctably changes our vision of the work (though it does not in any sense mean we have of them a more negative vision. I happen to like Malley’s poems a lot, for instance, but I would say that I like them more because I know they were a hoax. For others, it may be the contrary). In any case, the texts don’t seem to stand apart, in an entirely separate universe, from the ethos of their authors.
But let’s bring the discussion back to everyday life for a moment. In the typical models of analytic philosophy of language, intention plays a crucial role. If I ask you, for instance, in a well-known example, « Have you seen the latest David Lynch film ? », I could be [a] simply wanting to know if you’ve seen a particular film, [b] sarcastically implying that you are not « up » with contemporary culture, or [c] trying to find out if you were really where you claimed to be last Sunday night. And you, as my interlocutor, will often have to guage the semantics (the meaning) of my question by making an interpretation about my intention according to the given context of this particular speech-act (we have just been talking about how not « up » you are with contemporary culture, for instance, so you choose [b], and tell me to get f*****).
But what happens when we supplant this entirely Searlian situation into poetics ? Let’s say Louis Zukofsky puts into “A” – an entirely plausible idea actually, ignoring for a moment the anachronism – the sentence « Have you seen the latest David Lynch film ? ». In this case, with no clear interlocutors or contextualization, we don’t have much of an external context by which to gauge the phrase’s “intentionality”. Why has “Zukofsky” said this? As Wimsatt and Beardsley point out, it doesn’t seem to matter, as well as it being rather impossible to know. What matters here is the impact of this phrase on the textual functions surrounding it, etc., a position which makes us all, again, good little poststructuralists. (Or we admit that the thing we call “Zukofsky” is just a Foucaldian “fonction-auteur”, which comes back to more or less the same thing).
So it seems we have one way of acting for communicative speech-acts (judging meaning from intention and context), and another for poetic/artistic/symbolic speech-acts (judging meaning much more from an internal semantic web). Many analytic theorists reject this Barthesian and Foucaldian and Derridean position, and say that we judge poets’ intentions constantly, even if we are unaware of doing so, in part because we are so used to judging intentions in our everyday use of language, and also in part because without intention, some argue, there is no way of determining meaning at all.
So the primary problem also comes back to the question of how is poetry different from other forms of language? It’s clear that we don’t need to “react to” every affirmation in poetry, as we usually need to with affirmative statements in everyday speech-acts. This fact actually leads John Searle, in his rather infamous essay on fiction and Iris Murdoch, to posit that poetry and fiction does not, in reality, affirm at all in the way communicative speech-acts do: that it contains no “truth content”. (I should note too that I'm aware that Searle's use of intentionality is based on its specific meaning in phenomenology and philosophy of the mind, or "the relation between mental states or meanings and their associated objects"). But if a poet says we should go to war, or not go to war, does this not have the same status of affirmation as other speech-acts, merely because it is in a poem? Or does the poet simply momentarily adopt, as Searle seems to suggest, the "voice" of affirmation, in what Searle calls “pretend affirmation”?
Interestingly, Searle doesn’t seem to have an adequate answer to the problem of the difference regarding intention in communicative speech-acts, and non-intention in poetic speech-acts: he famously just classifies affirmations made in fiction as being “pretend affirmations” (though this notion has no moral or disparaging implication in Searle).
(With this sense of “intentionality” in Husserlian phenomenology in mind - intention being what’s situated between consciousness and its ever-present object - I’m wondering if this would not be, strangely, useful in the context of poetics? Are there any phenomenologists out there?)
To give some practical examples of the dilemma: a poet like Auden, mid-way between avant and conservative traditions, provides us with a fascinating example of the problematic, ambiguous relationship poets in the 20th century often manifest regarding intention. For instance, Auden is capable of claiming, albeit shamefacedly, this:
« A statement which I must say I’m ashamed at ;But also, and almost in the same breath, this:
A poet must be judged by his intention,
And serious thought you never said you aimed at.
I think a serious critic ought to mention
That one verse style was really your invention,
A style whose meaning does not need a spanner,
You are the master of the airy manner. »
« If a poet writes a poem in the first person we neither know nor care if he be actually telling the truth about himself; we only ask: “Could this have happened to or been felt by someone? »Also, in spite of all the early, personal prescriptions Louis Zukofsky made for his work, here is his conclusion later in life, in line with his influence by Spinoza:
« With the years the personal prescriptions for one’s work recede, thankfully, before an interest that nature as creator had more of a hand in it than one was aware. The work then owns perhaps something of the look of found objects in late exhibits — which arrange themselves as it were, one object near another — roots that have become sculpture, wood that appears talisman, and so on : charms, amulets maybe, but never really such things since the struggles so to speak that made them do not seem to have been human trials and evils — they appear entirely natural. » (Prepositions 168)
So anyway, I sincerely hope some of you may have some thoughts regarding this: anything, really, which may help to orient me in this terrain. What do you think generally about the notion of poetic intentionality? Does it appear, as it does to New Critics, entirely useless, or, more in the analytic tradition of the philosophy of language, is it still of importance in poetic discourse?
Also, do you find value in poetic manifesti ? Do Projective Verse and Sincerity and Objectification contribute to/and or influence your understanding of Maximus and “A” respectably? If so, how might we understand the difference between poet’s intentions in manifesti, and critics using intention as a criterion?
And what does intention mean to you - if anything - in your own poetic praxis?