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Opinion Poetry, Medium And Message: Beyond Translation


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Image: Guru Angad adapting the Gurmukhi script

Poetry, Medium and Message

Here is a question that has been confounding or even infuriating poets for eons.

So what is your poem about?

(If you happen to personally know any poets, you may even have empirical evidence of this.)

That frustration has little if anything to do with the supposed stormy temperaments of poets. It rather derives, at least partly, from the fact that the question, simple as it may appear, is one that in fact has no satisfactory answer.


In “The Well Wrought Urn” — that well-known and well-wrought book of literary criticism — Cleanth Brooks described what he called “the heresy of paraphrase.” The main idea — that efforts at paraphrasing poetry into prose fail in ways that parallel attempts for prose do not — was not new. It has been generally agreed upon since Aristotle. This skeptical thesis was championed in the first half of the 20th century by the New Critics as well as by their guiding spirit, T.S. Eliot, who, when asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” from his poem “Ash Wednesday,” responded, “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.’ ”

Eliot’s implication was that repetition is the best we can hope to achieve in interpreting poetry. Translators of Rimbaud likewise lament that because French is soft, melodious and fluid in cadence, English and other non-Romance languages are unsuitable for translation. The poet E.E. Cummings went further, claiming that even the visual impact of the typography of his poems renders them unparaphraseable.

It is easy to conflate words and their articulations.

Contemporary philosophers and linguists have either ignored such skepticism or dismissed it out of hand. The idea that an unambiguous word might mean one thing in a news article or shopping list and something altogether different in a poem is not so easy to embrace. How do we figure out what a poem means if its words do not carry familiar learned meanings? And further, isn’t this skepticism vulnerable to the following simple refutation: take any expression in any poem and introduce by fiat a new expression to mean exactly what the first one does; how could this practice fail to succeed at paraphrase or translation? Though such substitutions can change the aesthetic, emotive or imagistic quality of a poem, how could any of them change meaning?

Despite the simple refutation, the heresy of paraphrase remains compelling. Anyone familiar with Roman Jakobson’s or Vladimir Nabokov’s lamentations over translating Pushkin into English will feel its force. But can their irresistible skepticism concerning poetry translation and paraphrase be reconciled with the obvious logic of the simple refutation?

There is a way out, but to find it one must first attend to a crucial but universally ignored distinction between linguistic expressions and their vehicles of articulation: to this end, consider two individuals both of whom know English but one only speaks while the other only writes. For them, communication is impossible even though they share a common language.

Since each expression requires articulation for its presentation, it is easy to conflate words and their articulations. (Many philosophers and linguists have!) And, of course, more often than not, the linguistic sounds or marks with which we articulate our language make little difference to our intended message. It usually matters little if at all to our grasp of what someone says whether he speaks or writes. But if you reflect upon the distinct possibilities for presenting language, it’s easy to see how what normally goes unnoticed can take center stage.

For instance, typing the word “brick” in italics (as in “brick”) obviously draws attention to a particular presentation of the word, not to the word itself. But it is one of many. The word might have been spoken, rendered in Braille or even signed. Surprisingly, in this instance, a moment’s reflection ought to convince you that no other articulation could have been used to make this point in this way. In short, that “brick” is italicized cannot be said out loud or signed or rendered in Braille. In effect, the practice of italicization allows the presentation of a language to become a part of the language itself.

If poems too can be (partly) about their own articulations, this would explain why they can resist paraphrase or translation into another idiom, why, for example, substituting “luster” for “sheen” in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” breaks the bind between its lines, and thereby, alters the poem itself.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken —
The ice was all between.

Since synonym substitution in a poem can change meter or rhyme, etc., to the extent that poems are about their own articulation they prohibit paraphrase and translation. Accordingly, as with other forms of mentioning, any effort at re-articulation inevitably changes the topic. Here’s another illustration of the point. Although Giorgione — Big George — was so-called because of his size, Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco was not, even though he is Giorgione. This is possible because the “so-called” construction is partly about its own articulation. Change the articulation and you change the claim even if substitutions are synonymous. These sorts of considerations expose what’s misguided about the simple refutation.

The language of poetry is not magical, nor even distinct from the languages of other discourses; they are identical.
Of course, we can introduce a new expression to mean exactly whatever an old expression means but since poems can be about their own articulations, substituting synonyms will not result in an exact paraphrase or translation. To do so requires not only synonymies but also identical articulations, and only repetition ensures this end.

This explanation of the heresy of paraphrase differs from the New Critics’ quasi-mystical invocation of form shaping content. Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur, but in poetry (as in other forms of mentioning) the medium really becomes the message. From this, however, it does not follow that the language of poetry is magical or even distinct from the languages of other discourses; they are identical. The words in a Cummings’ poem mean exactly what they do in prose. But because a poem can be a device for presenting its own articulation, re-articulating Cummings while ignoring his versification fails.

Is this what Sartre might have meant when he said the poet “considers words as things and not as signs”? Likewise, Dylan Thomas writes of his first experiences with poetry, that “before I could read them for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone. What the words stood for, symbolized, or meant was of very secondary importance — what mattered was the very sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and quite incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world.” Thomas might have simply said that his first concern was with articulation, especially sounds — a perceptible property.

Pause and examine these letters as you read them — their shapes are not unappealing. The poet concurs. But, unlike ordinary folk, the poet wants to draw the audience’s attention to these articulations as much as to the ideas the words so articulated express. The poet achieves this end through the devices, for example, of rhyme, alliteration and sundry others. Unintended, rhyme or alliteration and other mishaps and distractions are often rectified by re-articulation, perhaps with different pronunciations of the same words or with different words or linguistic structures that convey the same content. In such circumstances, the discourse is decidedly not about its own articulation. With poetry it is different.

As W.M. Urban noted, the poet does not first intuit her object and then find an appropriate medium in which to articulate it. It is rather in and through a chosen medium that the poet intuits the object in the first place. The philosopher Suzanne Langer once wrote, “though the material of poetry is verbal, its import is not the literal assertion made in the words but the way the assertion is made and this involves the sound, the tempo … and the unifying all-embracing artifice of rhythm.”

Given this, what might poetic effects achieve? Poe’s “The Raven” is an over-the-top case, but a clear one. The poem is partly about sound and its effects on thought, and words and meter are chosen to evoke the sounds themselves, as well as the words: ”the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain..” The repeated rhyme is also important, by the time the raven first says “nevermore,” the pattern is established, so that the raven’s pronouncement arrives with a sense of finality and inevitability which echoes or mirrors or just helps the reader appreciate the way thoughts of death and loss have taken over the narrator’s mind — the bleak obsession that is the theme of the poem.

Brooks and the New Critics would have us believe that what is at work is somehow magical. But there is no mystery here.



  • Sri Guru Angad Devji Distributing Baal Bodh among children.jpg
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ੴ / Ik▫oaʼnkār
Dec 21, 2010
spnadmin ji thanks. Great article. Hence literals are a very perverse and at times in-effective way to understand Gurbani (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book all written in musical and poetic renditions) too when translated into English.

As a result, whenever I attempt such, I try as much as possible to put myself in the mindset and context even though this is also no sure way but at least a slightly different way. Any comments on such an approach knowing that none can be perfect. Is it possible to hit a possible jackpot (Punjabi to English with different words and vocabularies for possible matches) as the words in the languages in translating don't have same origins and some can be perfectly translated and some much less so.

Any comments.

Thank you.


May 10, 2010
Ancient Greece
Poetry is one of the strongest (if at all not 'the' strongest) medium of human expression. Scriptures and general poetry have a two sided relation, the scriptural descriptions may be borrowed into poetry, or the horizon may well be expanded by the direct scriptural translation through poetry. I remember that a genius as great as John Milton borrowed (in 'Paradise Lost') directly from the Biblical books frequently, and the same way, Alexander Pope copied the same from Milton, the same passages traveling here and there (and what is interesting is that they were all bestsellers). The same has been attempted numerous times in Punjabi poetry(from Guru Granth Sahib) by contemporary Punjabi poets, with only a few attempts being successful, the rest being only quoted prose-like, not even poetry.
Well, though slightly off topic, I suggest a poetic translation of our own scripture, or the Milton-like rendition,(though I wonder if it could ever be done deliberately, because geniuses are born and not made, they say). Many of the Sikhs during the period of Gurus were poets, and composed in Raagas, the message being a close explanation of Gurbani, and at some other times the sheer 'overflow' of imaginative thinking.
......I didn't mean to bore the SPN'ers, but that is how I am, building permutations and combinations everywhere.


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
I want to express thanks to both of you, Aristotle ji and Ambarsaria ji. I was hesitant to post this article. More hesitant to include the picture of Guru Angad ji. The connection with SGGS is not part of the article, but always there. My decision, to post and let members make the connection. You did so and did it so brilliantly. Thanks.



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