Saturday, July 16, 2005

Paraphrase II

The idea that poetry cannot be paraphrased is, to my mind, a sound one. I think Kasey has been doing a good job of showing us what is at stake. I especially like his point that something can of course be learned by paraphrasing. Getting students to paraphrase Shakespeare is a perfectly respectable critical activity.

Paraphrasing, Kasey says, is somehow related to the 'propositional content' of a poem. This leads me to the following suggestion: poetry cannot be paraphrased, but poems can. I take 'paraphrasing' always to be a matter of writing a series of prose sentences that say 'what the poem says' in other words (prosaicly rather than poetically). One thing that is necessarily lost in paraphrase (or only accidentally retained) is the prosody of the poem, and I would add that along with this (but not just because of this) its poetry is also lost.

Poems do have propositional content but that is not what poems are essentially 'about'. In fact, the problem here is that poems are not essentially (only accidentally) about anything. They find themselves willy-nilly representing things and people along the way, but that is not what they are trying to do. They are acts of pure presentation.

A paraphrase can summarize the presentational 'effects' of a poem. Pound's suggestion to read for 'phanopoeia' (imagery), 'melopoeia' (sound), and 'logopoeia' (argument) is one useful example. So you can image a paraphrasing that amounts to a catalogue of effects presented as a series of propositions.

Suppose a poem casts a red wheelbarrow on your visual imagination. Well, a paraphrase might describe the wheelbarrow in greater detail, indicating how it works, how many wheels it has (one), the handles, the principle of the lever it is based on, etc. This paraphrase may also cast a red wheelbarrow onto the visual imagination. But it will be a different wheelbarrow. It will also have been less efficiently projected into your imagination, i.e., it will have been less poetic.

The paraphrase is about the poem and about a wheelbarrow. But the poem is not about the wheelbarrow. Indeed, much talk about the wheelbarrow may actually be an interpretational error, for "this is not the thing. In the galvanic category of-- The same things exist, but in a different condition when energized by the imagination," as Williams says. Nothing depends on the wheelbarrow or the chickens; what is at stake is the image.

A paraphrase is like the map that is never the territory, except when it stops being a map. It will often have too little of one kind of detail and too much of another. Paraphrasers often wonder whether they shouldn't just quote the whole poem, but then remember that they are trying to draw attention to parts of it for specific reasons.

A paraphrase says what a poem does, but it does not do it. And only ever partly.

The next step is to show that this holds also for philosophy.

1 comment:

Phil said...

Hi Thomas! It certainly has been awhile, but I am beginning to explore my ideas about poets and the importance of philosophy (and philosophic subscriptions). I have revisited "paraphrasing" on my blog, intending to separate the poem from paraphrase, and involve the poet's philosophy as the paraphrasing material.

-All the Best!