What is the cultural role of poetry? Poets challenge the conception of language as a tool to attribute a unique meaning to each individual aspect of reality. What if we could reinvent a polymorphic language to access a reality that carries multiple meanings at a time?
The term “poetry” comes from the ancient Greek poieîn, which means “to create, to produce”.
However, what is poetry capable to produce?
Poetry shows the unique feature of giving unprecedented meanings to reality.
In most cases, human language – the way we describe reality – follows rational rules. Rationality trains our mind to associate a unique meaning to each individual object we may perceive and subsequently abstract from the world.
Let us now take “pen” as an example of object. In human comprehension, the word “pen” carries a unique definition: when we pronounce it, we immediately think about a tool capable of writing. We do not think about a pen as an object that shows the capability of writing among other features. The pen is meant to write, nothing more.
Although it may surprise a lot of readers, what we consider as “being a pen” does not fulfil the entire essence of that particular object.
Better said: the word we use to indicate an object does not coincide to it. That word can only grasp a minimal part of its true nature, giving to it only a specific – and therefore insufficient – meaning.
Now the issue is problematic: if the object we call “pen” is not solely a pen, what else is it?
What is the complete essence of every part of the world we experience?
We don’t know.
Along this line, the famous Gertrude Stein’s verse is emblematic:
“The rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (1).
In this attempted definition of the object “rose”, the linguistic limitation becomes evident. By the repetition of the word “rose”, the poet desperately tries to reinforce its significance, but every repetition does not add new content to the definition. The concept behind Stein’s intuition would be to finally be capable of saying that “the rose is simply itself”, “the rose is what it is”, but the attempt miserably fails.
Despite the inadequacy of rational language when it comes to describe the true essence of things, we have to accept that rationality is necessary. These limiting and specific definitions we attribute to different objects are essential to organize the social communities we live in. In order to understand each other, to communicate practically and build magnificent civilizations, we have always relied on standardized and unambiguous semantics. The pen is a writing instrument. The rose is a flower.
However, is this approach recommended to deeply intercept the true nature of things, to get closer to their real truth?
At first glance, we have to face the impossibility to get in touch with reality as it is through the human lens. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant already explained it very clearly, when he made a distinction between phenomenon and noumenon. In simple terms, while in the phenomenon reality is given as perceived – filtered by our senses and therefore just a representation – the noumenon claims to access reality itself – the so-called thing-in-itself – as it was outside of our mind (2). However, by definition, reality in itself is unknowable. We have no idea about what happens beyond human perception of the world, as it appears to us.
In any case, we humans cannot escape the prison of our language. Anything we indicate, define, and conceptualize always becomes a linguistic sign that misses the concrete reality it refers to.
However, although the pure essence of objects is inaccessible, we can challenge the limits that our rational language poses.
For instance, I could write: “the sun is setting behind the line of the sea”.
In this case, the conveyed message is clear and the scene we picture in our mind is unequivocal. However, I could also write “the line of the sea is engulfing the sun”, or “at the horizon, the sun is drowning into the sea”.
To completely understand the last two examples, we must break the logical principle based on which “the sun is the sun, and nothing else”. In fact, now the sun is the star around which the Earth is revolving, but it is also the fiery prey of the watery sea. In the last example, the sun can also “humanly” die as a person incapable of swimming would do.
Exceeding rational limits, poetry restores an original polymorphic scenario in which every aspect of reality assumes multiple meanings.
Indeed, poets redesign the definition of creativity: it is not the ability to make something from nothing, it’s the faculty to resuscitate original buried meanings from the barriers of rationality, putting things together in an alternative manner.
That’s what poets do with letters.
- Stein, G., “Sacred Emily”, 1913.
- Kant, I., “Critique of Pure Reason”, 1781.