This Issue of Double Dialogues was spurred by two disparate events. The first related to my attendance at a group of Melbourne and Geelong poets giving a reading of their work devoted to the theme of “light on our darkness” in Melbourne, Australia, in June 2015. The second, at a time of ruthlessly imprisoning refugees in off-shore concentration camps by Australia, was a haunting recollection of the Chinese proverb, “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” It was this proverb that led to Diana Devora Redhouse’s image of a candle in barbed wire which was chosen as Amnesty International’s first Christmas card in 1963.
Following the acceptance by the seven “local” poets, I approached two translators and asked if they could suggest and work with three or four non-English-speaking poets whose work also connected with “Lighting Our Darkness,” be it aurally or lexically, metaphorically or thematically. Collectively, the sixteen poets in this Issue give us an arresting glimpse of an inter-generational group of English-, French-, and Polish-speaking writers from two continents. Whilst moving us between the implicitly political and the intensely personal, the quietly meditative and the violently aggressive, the momentarily fragile and the patently visceral, they confront us with both the traditional and the experimental reaches of their craft.
What follows avoids any attempt at paraphrasing the contributions of the sixteen poets. Nonetheless, readers will find biodata does accompany each poet. The “local” group was also given the opportunity in the limited time available to pen a “Reflection” with reference to contributions submitted. Instead of summaries, the following essay focuses upon the demands of reading poetry captured by metaphor and exemplifies concepts raised with short excerpts from the “local” poets (English being the primary tongue of the editor).
Acknowledgement must be made here of the generous, unstinting work of both translators, Dominique Hecq and Ryszard Reisner, as well as the value of a preliminary discussion had with editor and poet, Alex Skovron, and, last but not least, a constructive review of the editor’s initial draft by Elissa Goodrich.
Despite the opening remarks, it has been left open to our readers should they wish to contextualise metaphors of light and dark in terms of the reactionary times endured by these poets, many of whom, as Spinoza (1677: Part Three, Postulate 59, p. 187) once said, have been “like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds…not knowing [their] outcome and fate.” Or whether, in the words of Paul Celan, readers come to see our poets as the
Efforts of those who, with man-made stars flying overhead, unsheltered even by the traditional tent of the sky, exposed in an unsuspected, terrifying way, carry their existence into language, racked by reality and in search of it (1958: 35).
Lighting Our Darkness
Metaphor, A Meditation in a Minor Key
A.R.C. Centre for the History of Emotions (University of Melbourne) & A.D.I. European Philosophy & History of Ideas (Deakin University)
One wet early winter’s evening in Melbourne 2015, a group of poets began a reading of work devoted to the theme of “light on our darkness” to a small but attentive audience. As lights in the auditorium faded, there was a moment before the first words were spoken when a shaft of light entered through a tiny hole, passing a small object in its path, before falling upon a nearby screen.
It seemed that we had entered the darkened room of Francesco Maria Grimaldi, a seventeenth-century priest, mathematician, and physicist. There, as recorded in his posthumously published 1665 treatise, Physico-Mathesis de Lumine (Book One, Proposition One, pp. 1-11), he realised, light did not travel in a rectilinear path; rather, on passing through a hole, it assumed the shape of a cone. The silhouette on his white screen revealed to Grimaldi that where there should have only been shadow directly behind the object, the area was invaded by light; where there should have only been light, curious dark marks appeared. As school children the world over know, Grimaldi called this phenomenon diffraction.
Yet what exactly light is eludes us. At times, it seems so breath-taking, at other times so transitory; so dazzling and so dim; so far and so near; so harsh and so soft; so solid and so transparent; so steady and so pulsating to include but a few of our more common spatio-temporal metaphors. Metaphors redolent of light and dark, of course, have long been associated with poetry ever since the ancient Hittites, Hellenes, and Hebrews alike. No doubt each of us has his or her favourite: for example, as Macbeth plots the murder of Banquo in the thirteenth scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1605/1606), how he says in the presence of his wife:
Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale! Light thickens
And the crow makes wing to the rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse (3.2, ll. 49ff.)
or, generations later, how the second of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ four “dark” sonnets of 1885 begins with:
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hoűrs we have spent
This night! What sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
However, rather than indulge in such musings, let us turn our attention to the role of metaphor at the very level of language, of the medium, in which poets work. Amongst the highly influential, albeit contestable, linguistic hypotheses to emerge over the past two or three generations is the projective principle propounded by Roman Jakobson. As many readers would know, Jakobson sees six “constitutive factors” operating within any act of verbal communication. First of all, the speaker or writer, the utterance or text, the listener or reader share a “fully or at least partially” common code or set of conventions governing the particular language being used (1960: 66). Furthermore, the speaker or writer and the listener or reader need to establish or maintain contact by way of “a physical channel or psychological connection” whilst the utterance or text operates within a context “either verbal or capable of being verbalized” (or, in admittedly more “ambiguous” terms, whilst the “referent” of “the message” is being imparted) (1960: 66). More pertinently here, each of these six factors—speaker or writer, utterance or text, listener or reader, context or referent, channel or medium, and code or convention—supposedly “determines a different function of language” (1960: 66). Jakobson depicts his “corresponding scheme” (1960: 71) of functions along the following lines:
[via speaker or writer]
[via listener or reader]
Although Jakobson assigns a sole function to each factor, he does not construe an act of oral or written communication as a stable process which manifests only one single function or which operates only along the tripartite axis of speaker-utterance-listener or writer-text-reader. Indeed, if any one of the six factors determining one of the six functions were absent, then, whatever else might happen, on Jakobson’s reckoning it could no longer be an act of communication. By contrast, an act of verbal communication shifts through “a different hierarchical order of functions” such that the verbal structure or organization of an utterance or a text “depends primarily on the predominant function” to which we are being oriented (1960: 66). The poetic function comes to the fore when the orienting “set (Einstellung)” focuses upon the medium “for its own sake,” all other functions operating in a “subsidiary, accessory” manner (1960: 69).
Several consequences follow in the wake of foregrounding the poetic function. The poetic applies equally to an entire verse play as it does to wordplay (be they double entendres or puns, palindromes or homophones) and slogans (“veni, vidi, vici” or “liberté, égalité, fraternité”). Firstly, different genres or types of text “imply a differently ranked participation of the other verbal functions along with the dominant poetic function” (1960: 70). For example, as Jakobson (1960: 70) rather selectively claims, epic, focused upon the third-person (the “he,” “she,” or “it”), mainly combines with the referential function; lyric, focused upon the first-person (the “I” of the speaker, writer, or narrator), principally involves the emotive; and exhortation or persuasion, supplication or prayer, focused upon the second person (the “you” or “thou”), explicitly involves the conative. Hence, when reading the seventh “couplet” of Ann Vickery’s “Holding Court”—
I am not done yet. I am not done
Meeting all your targets…—
or the concluding lines of Maria Takolander’s “Diurnal”—
My son in his highchair
looks into a silver spoon—
or the last invocation in Lyn McCredden’s “Fig Tree”—
When all knowing disappears,
when fears grip,
you smile the seasons at me—
or when, albeit satirically, Cassandra Atherton in “Plum(b)” begins to explicate—
Once I was called a “goo-goo-eyed” vegetarian. Which basically means I won’t eat anything cute…—
each excerpt (as distinct from genre) respectively manifests the emotive, the referential, the conative, and the metalingual function, but, as Jakobson would insist, in the service of the overarching poetic function of each poem.
Secondly, “by promoting the palpability of signs” comprising language, the dominance of the poetic function “deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects” to which they refer (1960: 70). However, it does not “obliterate the reference” so much as “makes it ambiguous (1960: 85). In other words, Jakobson concludes, we encounter a “double-sensed message” with “a split addresser,” “a split addressee,” and “a split reference,” the ambiguity of which becomes an “intrinsic, inalienable” feature of “any self-focused message” (1960: 85). (Note, here, “message” does not seem to be used by Jakobson as a synonym of “content” or “topic,” “purpose” or “theme” as such.) So, to quote the closing lines of David McCooey’s “Darkness Speaks”—
Don’t look at me; I don’t compose
—the “I” is not David McCooey; the implied “you” being admonished is not the present writer reading the poem; and reference to “any kindertotenlieder” need not actually refer to the posthumously published 1833/1834 poems of Friedrich Rűckert on the death of two of his children. Despite appearances, dealing with ambiguity here, as Paul Ricoeur argues, is not merely a cognitive matter; it equally calls upon our imagination and feelings.
Seizing upon Jakobson’s above-mentioned notion of split reference, Ricoeur similarly contends that the poetic refers to reality through a “complex strategy which implies…a suspension and seemingly an abolition of the ordinary reference attached to descriptive language” (1978: 153). After all, to return to McCooey, can darkness ordinarily speak? This referential shift, Ricoeur continues, not only paves the way cognitively speaking “for the emergence of a more radical way of looking at things,” but also, imaginatively speaking, “contributes concretely…to the projection of new possibilities of redescribing the world” (1978: 154). Furthermore, feelings “accompany and complete imagination as picturing relationships” by extending their “deeply rooted operation” of “insert[ing] us within the world in a nonobjectifying manner” (1978: 156). Because Ricoeur regards feelings not merely as bodily or sensory states nor simply as inner affective states, but also as “interiorized thoughts,” they are not contrary to thinking; rather, they are “thought made ours” (1978: 156). Consequently, split reference shapes ordinary or first-order feelings as much as it does ordinary or first-order cognition and imagination. Through the “poetic transposition” that takes place “by means of poetic language,” readers’ “literal feelings,” or “feelings of the first order,” become simultaneously transformed (1978: 157-158). Indeed, such a transformation was first depicted about 329 B.C. by Aristoteles in his Poetics [Peri poietikes] (1449b24-28) when introducing the purging or purifying or clarifying (katharsis) of the audience’s emotions of compassion and fear in response to tragedy.
Thirdly, according to Jakobson, the poetic function possesses another “indispensable” feature: it centres upon “the two basic modes,” the double relationship, that permeates our use of language, “selection and combination”:
The selection is produced on the basis of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity (1960: 71).
Here, Jakobson in effect gives us a gloss upon the continual intersection of open-ended associative and constraining syntagmatic relations within language culled from the reconstructed synthesis of lectures between 1906/1907 and 1910/1911 by Ferdinand de Saussure. De Saussure sees these two relationships not only as “indispensable to the workings of a language” irrespective of its specific functions, but also as corresponding to “two different forms of mental activity” (see Bally, Sechehaye & Riedlinger 1955: 121). Although less pre-occupied with the psychological dimension, Jakobson, like de Saussure, attends to how the intersections of both relationships operate as much at the morpho-phonological level of distinctive sounds and cluster of sounds (e.g. /a/, /n/, /t/, /i/ and /anti/) as they do at the lexico-syntactic level of words and clusters of words (e.g. /antidote/ and /antidote against poison/).
Finally, Jakobson declares that the poetic function “projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination,” but not vice versa (1960: 71). Alternatively, as expressed by Henry Widdowson, the projective principle characteristic of the poetic basically functions to “combine what is kept separate…and separate what is combined” (1975: 57), the very mechanism of metaphor itself. Hence, whenever items from the associative or selective axis of language are “superimposed” on the syntagmatic or sequential axis of language, then, according to Jakobson, the poetic function demonstrates how poetry and its metaphors reveal their “symbolic, multiplex, polysemantic essence” (1960: 85). For example, as Marion May Campbell begins the eighth part of “if not in paint” with
here the dancers are intent
outside the sense
of drifting litter
& stagger in the ticking
light the fitful wind
we are saturated with an associative welter of similarities and differences—not only lexically (“intent…drifting…stagger…ticking…fitful”), but also of crisscrossing alliterative and assonantal patterns—which become sequential constituents of the passage itself. Yet, we are still left wondering if the meaning of the poem is ever reducible to the meaning of its language. Campbell’s “if not in paint” may well be about what its individual lines or combination of lines are not. What it, or any other poem in this Issue, is about far exceeds the meaning of its raw linguistic material. If for no other reason, it is here we need to read metaphorically—to grapple with multiplicities of aboutness, so to speak—rather than literally or descriptively only.
Instead of addressing the poetic and referential functions in light of the foregoing, Jakobson is more concerned to uphold the unique standing of the poetic function. He asserts that no other function can appropriate its task. Anticipating objections to the unique status of the poetic, he grants that the metalingual function “also makes a sequential use of equivalent units when combining synonymic expressions into an equational sentence” (1960: 71), exemplified by such logico-linguistic definitions as “bachelor” is an unmarried male of marriageable age. Nevertheless, the metalingual function remains the very opposite of the poetic. Why? Because, in Jakobson’s words, “in metalanguage the sequence is used to build an equation, whereas in poetry the equation is used to build a sequence” (1960: 71).
Amongst his scheme’s conceptual flaws previously detected—see, e.g., Goodrich (1997: 59ff.)—it is worth noting the implications of Jakobson’s unwitting concession here. For all his elevation of the poetic function of the textual factor, he has actually conceded that it, as much as the metalingual function, depends upon a writer’s use of them. Yet how are we to know that use without taking into account authorial intentions and readers’ reception and interpretations of them? Need it follow that when Campbell writes “here the dancers are intent” she realised the sole intention that the poetic ought exclusively to act as her superordinate function? By contrast, is it not also possible that her use of the poetic aimed to balance two or more functions, whether in complementary or in oppositional but non-hierarchical ways? Furthermore, even an initially ambiguous stretch of writing as in the fifth part of her work—“she strokes / the keyboard”— reveals more than one process confronting readers (although it may well be progressively disambiguated as the text unfolds). If its wording alone proves ambiguous, we may need to wrestle metalingually with the code or codes licensing it (“strokes” as in caressing or wiping? “keyboard” as the keys or levers of a typewriter or a piano?). However, do we not also draw upon the implicitly or explicitly depicted context, a context pertaining not only to the text, but to its author and readers alike?
now she strokes
the keyboard of the palette
with a tenderness she can’t relay
if not in paint
Obviously we have been questioning the more textually stringent approach favoured by Jakobson, although his projective principle does provide linguistic insight into the transformative re-organization of much poetic language. Yet, in conclusion, metaphors cannot simply be divorced from the complex interactions between writers and readers. Such interactions remain the case even when readers in this era of technological reproducibility are tempted to presuppose the apparent fixity, mechanical and electronic iterability, and high degree of translatability of the textual medium itself. Metaphors, in written poetry as much as oral poetry as well as their crossover point in performance poetry, gain what James Ross (1992) calls “semantic contagion” interactively. To elaborate briefly, Ross regards semantic contagion as a “regular” phenomenon in which “[w]ords adapt in meaning to other words…which combine with them or are within syntagmatic reach,” thereby “creating new affinities and oppositions” (1992: 145 & 147). Witness the final stanza of Antonia Pont’s “that part”:
do you remember that day
that screamed-yellow day
walking feet bare
in the cold creek
near the house of Bertolt
Just as we can transpose a single word such as “screamed” into actions (she screamed insults), emotions (she screamed angrily), and utterances (she screamed, “Damn you”), so, too, can we talk of a “day” being coloured with increasing metaphorical reverberations (a grey day, a blue day, a black day). By compressing the two within a nominal phrase—“that screamed-yellow day”—our poet has transformed them. Its dominance or foregrounding for readers emerges as words and phrases, metaphorical and other, are “pushed…to the edge of unacceptability” (Ross 1992: 157).
Aristoteles (329 B.C.). Poetics, tr. Ingram Bywater, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), Vol. 2, pp. 2316-2340
Bally, Charles, Sechehaye, Albert & Riedlinger, Albert (ed.) (1955). Ferdinand de Saussure: Course in General Linguistics, 5th ed., tr. Roy Harris (La Salle: Open Court Publishing Co., 1986)
Celan, Paul (1958). ‘Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen,’ in Collected Prose, ed. Beda Allemann & Klaus Reichert, tr. Rosmarie Waldrop (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1986), pp. 33-35
Goodrich, R.A. (1997). ‘On Poetic Function: Jakobson’s Revised “Prague” Thesis,’ Literature and Aesthetics, Vol. 7 (October), pp. 54-66; also accessible at: http://openjournals.library.usyd.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/download/5256/5962
Grimaldi, F.M. (1665). Physico-Mathesis de Lumine, Coloribus, et Iride… (Bologna: Vittorio Bonati, 1665)
Hopkins, G.M. (1885). ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,’ in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W.H. Gardner & N.H. Mackenzie, 4th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 101
Jakobson, R.O. (1960). ‘Linguistics and Poetics,’ in Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska & Stephen Rudy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 62-94
Ricoeur, Paul (1978). ‘The Metaphorical Process as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling,’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Autumn), pp. 143-159
Ross, J.F. (1992). ‘Semantic Contagion,’ in Frames, Fields, and Contrasts: New Essays in Semantic and Lexical Organization, ed. Adrienne Lehrer & E.F. Kittay (Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), pp. 143-169
Shakespeare, William (1605/1606). Macbeth, ed. R.S. Miola (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004)
Spinoza, Benedictus de (1677). ‘Third Part of the Ethics: Of the Origin and Nature of the Affects,’ in A Spinoza Reader: The “Ethics” and Other Works, ed. & tr. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 152-197
Widdowson, H.G. (1975). ‘The Nature of Literary Communication,’ in Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature (London: Longman Group), pp. 47-70