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Charles Altieri on Jami Bartlett, Jennifer Ashton, and John Gibson

Editor’s Note: In this article, Charles Altieri responds to Jami Bartlett, Jennifer Ashton, and John Gibson, whose essays can be found in Issue #4.

I was asked to comment on essays by Bartlett, Ashton, and Gibson. I found it refreshing to see such ambitious and lively efforts to use philosophical concerns as a means of entry into the quite close reading of literary texts. Such a framework helps reduce the danger that close readings will be arbitrary or absorbed by intricate patterns whose significance is at best marginal. These three powerful and intense essays are nothing if not focused on important and timely claims, with orientations that demand careful attention to the steps of the argument.  Moreover, their power is such that, in the first two essays at least, I came to doubt my own abilities as a thinker because I could not always keep up with the swift moves on which the essays turned.   So in what follows I have to recognize that I may simply misunderstand some of the arguments, for which I apologize in advance, as I apologize for the aggressive defensiveness that tends to accompany my being forced into humility.

I will claim that Bartlett and Ashton seem mirror reversals of one another. Bartlett proposes that vagueness is a determining problematic for Stendhal’s style, but she fails to provide any clear index of what counts as vagueness in a literary text. Ashton, by contrast, invokes definitional rigor in domains where she probably should admit a great deal more indeterminacy— or, at least, gradations in our vocabulary for relations between meaning and experience in works of literature. These polarities then seem to me to set off Gibson’s terrific essay, since he has a powerful grasp of how philosophy might begin to talk about poetry while recognizing where language can only serve as an inadequate or partial index of what is available for experience in certain kinds of writing.

For two thirds of the way I felt Bartlett’s lively and keen prose was presenting the most attractive and incisive account of Stendhal’s fiction that I have encountered. She has a lively sense of how self-consciousness is idealized in his fiction. And she is stunningly precise on how his treatments of his fictional agents move “from character to soul and back again, oscillating between but also packing into each the ground that belongs to the other.” Through her eyes, we see that control as inseparable from what might called an oxymoronic absolute, in which “unfinishable precisification could pin its openness on the promise of closure.” As is evident simply in these quotations, Bartlett’s prose is itself apt tribute to Stendhal’s. Each sentence seems to provide something approaching an overdetermining precision. Yet these sentences produce a cumulative effect of an ideal of intensity gone slightly mad in its willingness to cultivate abstraction as a means of establishing significance for the details that fascinate her.

Since I can’t be confident that I am following Bartlett’s argument, I will have to make up my own case for what she sees as the role of vagueness in Stendhal, then hope that argument captures at least the bare outlines of what she is claiming. Because desire is so powerful a force in Stendhal’s fictive worlds, the novels rely more than most novels on the technique of “circumscription” that enables fiction to play the desire for control against the various dynamic forces that resist control and make self-consciousness a domain for adventure. Circumscription is focused on mapping the constantly shifting border between the soul and its others. One location for these others is the capacity of the psyche to become absorbed by the energies in situations and conflicts that the agent cannot control; another is the presence of other persons who constantly threaten to violate any border self-consciousness tries to establish. By recognizing the force of such otherness, circumscription holds out two promises: that one can produce the maximum focus for self-consciousness in a given moment, and that characters can establish continuity among burning moments in their lives. Ultimately circumscription allows us to see character as a kind of geological structure from which we can separate the alien matter that accumulates around it. (I think Bartlett could use as an analogue for Stendhal’s geology of character the classical idea of character as virtu in tension with what allows it a place in social life.)

Vagueness matters because it provides the literal operation of what refuses to succumb to circumscription, and hence to any sense of character as that approximates mastery. The desire for stability of self-consciousness is challenged by a constant need to be as precise as possible about its situations. But “precisification” seems both necessary and doomed because the very effort to be precise creates further arenas of a vagueness consisting in the constant emergence of relations that in both their nature and their treatment turn out to provide only “indeterminate extension.” That indeterminacy is ultimately the space of those others that the characters struggle to delimit. The desire to establish mastery continually encounters what is “peculiarly and positively deficient in semantic meaning.” This deficiency is not all negative because it continually thrusts characters like Julien into situations that they cannot quite comprehend. Then they get to manifest what in character seems a force in nature as it struggles to grapple with cultural factors that may be only a mere screen for their passions.

Bartlett’s engagement with vagueness comes to a climax in an appropriately very long paragraph. I cite first most of the first part of that paragraph:

The Geology of Morals” describes approaching as a prediction of the circumstances under which the granite of a young man’s character is made manifest. …Stendhal is in fact developing a theory of vagueness itself, of the nature and treatment of relations of predicates with indeterminate extensions. His diary is littered with them. After some under-specific descriptions of his brilliant achievement of perception he writes, “I was wearing a waistcoat, silk breeches and black stockings, with a cinnamon-bronze coat, a very well arranged cravat, a superb frill.” The cinnamon-bronze coat pulls focus because it is strikingly overdeveloped and vague at the same time, and also because it marks a shift in Stendhal’s descriptive process in the passage. The facts of his waistcoat are objective and declarative—the breeches are silk and the stockings are black—but neither description allows for nuance. By contrast, the “well arranged cravat” and “superb frill” contain highly subjective judgments, but judgments that are stabilized and communicated by convention. In-between, the cinnamon-bronze coat points to a kind of painstaking specificity, and at the same time the impossibility of combining terms in a coherent, repeatable or otherwise communicable way.

The paragraph goes on to specify why the description fails in its effort to precisify what tends toward vagueness, even if we can imagine a red coat washed so many times that it becomes “cinnamon-bronze”:

Theories of vagueness seem not merely to allow for, but to depend upon the kind of precisification that Stendhal seems to be encouraging us to perform. In this case, it is not quite the logic that is fuzzy, but the object. Insofar as Stendhal throws the cinnamon-bronze coat into a heap of clothes that are more or less sufficiently described, he seems to be trying to define something that is itself unclear, not being deliberately cagey about its description. Thanks to Stendhal’s description, we can imagine a continuous gradation of colors, such that, on either side of a particular color lies a color that is distinct but not discriminably different from it, and thus, for any acceptable precisification of or a word like “cinnamon-bronze,” there would be shades of cinnamon-bronze that were not discriminably different from shades that were not cinnamon-bronze.

One can always produce a standard by which any practical observation seems insufficiently precise. But because it is always possible, the attribution of vagueness does not seem to have much use as a concept for literary criticism, apart from dramatic situations where the vagueness is strategic and influences the plot or dominant emotion in a scene. Vagueness is devastating in practices where standards of precision have been developed so that one can resist ambiguity and establish extensional or logical relevance. But when we are concerned primarily not with empirical description but with dramatic conditions of enunciation, determinations of vagueness can only be based on practical judgments about what characters or readers might be doing or intending. And in such judgment situations, we learn to make do with vagueness so long as there is some sense of fit or mutual understanding that allows us to go on as if we and the text understood each other. There is no authority to determine what is vague beyond how the agents judge their mutual encounter. So we have to admit that in these practical cases vagueness is almost entirely a matter of pragmatics and not semantics per se. And as such there is no theory of vagueness possible in ordinary language; there is possible only pragmatic observations that something is lacking which some speaking or responding agent “should” have provided.

This pragmatic flexibility is evident in the way I think most of us would mark differences between Bartlett’s first and third examples. And, more important, as we focus on these differences we also see the possible literary significance of emphasizing pragmatics rather than semantics in relation to vagueness. In the case of the “cinnamon-bronze” coat, I think the issue may be of interest to theorists of vagueness but not to readers and critics. Bartlett notes that the characterization fixing the coat appears more precise than the rest of the passage if we let ourselves be governed by considerations of descriptive adequacy. The only way the instance could be significant in a novel, or even in Stendhal’s own life, is if some character made a point of wanting further “precisification.” Otherwise readers are likely to rest content with the level of description an author provides. They will try to see imaginatively into the world they are given. But the situation is quite different in her example of Julien’s efforts in the seminar to embrace a “pure nothingness” that is simultaneously detachment and despair. This is Bartlett’s description of the passage where Julien laments his retaining “the air of thinking” and so is worsted “by the coarsest peasants” in his group:

Not-yet, nearness, and readiness are all vague, absent-center relations—they generate a passage as long as this one, not by negotiating between two bivalent polarities, but by describing the asymptotic haze of approach that seduces Julien ever toward indeterminacy. … This is a clear case of the generative powers of vagueness, and not simply as a characterological tool. Because Stendhal overgenerates conflicting representations of events and characters, he elicits different parts of a vague relation from his readers, a much more dynamic and intuitively “right” understanding of the role vagueness plays in language—from denoting and ostension to borderline relations—than Greenough’s minimal theory. The ignorance that so clearly motivates Stendhal’s descriptions stems from a series of investigations into the nature of perception as a kind of circumscription.

I just can’t see Julien’s problem as stemming from general ignorance or specific vagueness or, for that matter, from anything involving the perceptive order. Why not just accept Julien’s own rationale—that the air of thinking makes it impossible to choose only one absolute form of life? Then we can see that Julien’s “failure” is not because he cannot perceive precisely but because he cannot will the object of that precision. Julien’s refusal to commit stems not from what Julien can’t see but from what he does see—that there are alternatives to “pure nothingness” and that his fantasies require pursuing them. It is true that the way of pure nothingness fails to engage Julien’s attention—not because it is vague but because it is not compelling. (Can you imagine a more precise version of Christian ascetism that would be compelling to Julien?) Julien is a great character in part because he exemplifies a condition of will increasingly aware that it cannot produce the heroism it imagines yet cannot return to the definite forms of life of the past because they seem so utterly limiting. For Stendhal the novel seems to play out of what happens to the romantic spirit within a realist sensibility. The world of semantics plays at best a very minor role in this historical drama.

Ashton offers a cultural critique of another kind of vagueness—that produced by the lines of thinking that culminate in post-modernist contrasts between meaning and experience. For once one seeks experience as one’s goal in encounters with art, one is condemned to the privacy of what happens to one’s own sensibility. There is no content to be shared; only effects to be fleshed out:

As I have argued elsewhere, language poetry and postmodernism more generally have been marked by a tendency to conflate the meanings of poems with their effects, the post-language-poetry tendency we see in Armantrout transforms a poetics of indeterminacy into a Stevens-like poetics of uncertainty, although, as we’ll see, it involves a more radical (and I would argue, a more implausible) skepticism than anything Stevens could have imagined.

She is witheringly right about how Steve McCaffrey’s ideas about homolinguistic translation completely exemplify the desire to collapse meaning into experience.  (Perhaps one could say that McCaffery seeks a version of meaning that is indistinguishable from experience–hence the desire for b to return to a).  One might even say that the villain is the effort in the experimental tradition to correlate meaning with aesthetic force, so that Ashton can be seen as offering an important statement of why poetics has to return to the domain of rhetoric, which studies meanings and not experiences.  But I don’t think separating experience from meaning is a useful model even for much contemporary writing.  And it does not help the return to rhetoric because rhetoric depends on the possibility of imagining that experience is partially a matter of meaning. Or, to put the case  the other way around, certain kinds of meanings are as much aspects of what we experience as they are independent forces fixed by determinate intentions. Obviously there are significant differences between Armantrout’s poetry of hesitant refusal of mastery and, say, Pound’s utter faith in the capacity of language to produce significant extensions of the world of fact. But I think the difference lies in contrasting ways the poets envision the ways meanings might enable kinds of experience.  Ashton’s way of opposing experience and meaning seems to me way too sharp, too eager to impose versions of meaning derived from arguments about discrete intentionality that gives shape to a discreet utterance. She could profit from more tolerance for vagueness or at least blurred edges between concepts. One probably cannot limit “meaning” to determinate intentions because one also has to recognize conditions of meaningfulness that create questions about intentionality in the first place.

I am not sure why Ashton seems so insistent on meaning and experience being so sharply opposed. There is certainly a historical moment, some aspects of postmodernism, where experience is explicitly opposed to determinate meaning. But not all postmodernists make this separation, and the reasoning that sustains the separation seems challenged in the dimension of its power to persuade.  And Gibson shows how there can be general talk about poetry that breaks down those oppositions. Meaning and experience need not occupy the same plane because there can be experiences of meaning that brings force and pointedness to what one understands. One can also resist Ashton’s binaries by simply looking at the practical consequences of her using them. Notice the contrast here between Armantrout’s cautious and qualified statements and the conceptual assertiveness Ashton forces upon her. More important, Ashton seems bound to grant a certain kind of epistemic demand authority over poetry, since it seems that only empiricist philosophy and science would be so systematically suspicious of “experience.” Experience becomes something that is opposed to “meaning” because meaning can be independently described while experience is a matter of how subjectivity is deployed. Experience in that sense is the undoing of meaning: it forces what might be objective entirely into the domain of subjective intensities.  But I am by no means sure that experience is a matter only of subjectively appropriating meaning, except in the tautological sense that there must be a subject for there to be experience.  This need not entail that experience is only subjective.  And even in those cases where experience does not link one mind to another, there is no reason why states with different orientations need be seen as in opposition to each other.  The two conditions do not occupy the same plane and so both can be present.  Similarly, feeling and thinking are clearly distinct, but the distinction does not entail our having only one of these states.

Ashton’s eagerness to make meaning objective and experience subjective ultimately invokes an epistemic framework for our uses of language: either they tend toward some form of objective verification or they just elicit subjective associations.  This is probably what drives her essay toward Stevens, the poet whom many critics think obsessed with a divide between the fictive and the real.  But I think this perspective imposes a uniformity on Stevens’ career that is not sufficiently attentive to the changes in attitude it dramatizes during WW II, when Stevens devotes himself largely to exploring alternatives to the domination of epistemic inquiry in his society. The main alternatives involve the weaving of notions of experience into notions of meaning, hence the importance of separating Stevens from what were to become distinctive postmodern attitudes.  Stevens’ essays in particular try to show how there can be critiques of “truth” that do not result in idealizing subjectivity but in recasting what kinds of reality effects are possible as aspects of our shared imaginative lives.

I risk matching Ashton’s assertiveness, so I will turn to what seems concretely problematic in her specific claims. The following paragraph summarizes her efforts to make McCaffery’s ideal of homolinguistic translation stand for the Postmodernist sensibility (and in the process also absorbing all of Modernism into the critical shibboleth of the heresy of paraphrase):

We can see more clearly now what might be at stake in raising the question of paraphrase in this context. If the heresy of paraphrase is that by losing the form of the text you lose experiences that are crucial to the meaning of the text, then a paraphrase that could somehow keep all that experience of the text would look like a kind of solution. In the case of found poetry, you certainly have a way of keeping all the experience of the text because you keep all of the form of the text. The fantasy of the link between found poetry and translation seems to be the same fantasy as Higgins has for the allusive referential—that you can somehow keep the experience of a even when the movement to b involves a lot of “activity upon the source text.” If I can always feel a when I’m reading b, withb I haven’t lost, much less violated, the experience of the source text. If the heresy in the heresy of paraphrase was that the paraphrase gave you the meaning of the text without the experience of it, the triumph of the homolinguistic translation—basically also the triumph of found poetry—is that it gives you the experience of the text without the meaning of it.

First, I do not see how found poetry is in any way a paraphrase—it just is a piece of language that one asks to take as poetry. There is no effort to state something in a different way. In fact what claims to be found poetry does not alter the language of the object text, so I don’t see where paraphrase could enter. Found poetry has an exact commitment to meaning, but then it absorbs the target meaning into another framework, a framework in which we experience that meaning as if we had to identify with the framing rather than the original assertion.  Second, if one understands found poetry as I do, there can be no parallel between it and translation—inter-language or homolinguistic. Translation does not foreground an attitude toward found material but presents an effort to clarify what is going on in one text by providing another that claims the first as it target, or guide, or—for McCaffery—its inspiration.

Perhaps the source of my problem, if not of Ashton’s, is the use of abstractions like “meaning” or “experience” as if they were isolated Platonic entities with only one cogent meaning.1 I think it is much more reasonable and workable to imagine that there is little reward to isolating one kind of state as experience and another as meaning when we are talking about literature. The distinction may hold with some kinds of meaning that have to ward off all affects in order to preserve sheer unequivocal description. But in other domains meaning conditions experience: how Achilles is described as standing on the ramparts influences how we experience his status as hero. And experience conditions meaning whenever we allow affective states and expectations to quicken the pulse as we process semantic information; especially when one wants to preserve the sense of a while rendering the subject’s engagement with b. Indeed, one might say that it is because these two attributes so diversely condition one another that is dangerous to talk of each in isolation. Baroque experiences of how meanings take on force are very different from those in modernist ascetic art, so why isolate terms without being concerned for how they provide aspects under which one another appear?

Years of teaching Wallace Stevens in conjunction with Wittgenstein have taught me to try to posit an “as” in conjunction with abstract terms like “meaning” and “experience.” “Experience” becomes “experience as” a certain kind of reader or as a certain kind of agent with specific orientations of consciousness. And meaning becomes “meaning as” a certain kind of statement in a certain kind of discourse. We just use different senses of meaning when we talk about propositions on the one hand and gestures and poems and suggestions or hints on the other. After all we submit certain kinds of meanings to empirical tests while with others we are concerned less with accuracy than with suggestiveness or sharpness of articulation. In some conditions—call them avowals like “I am in pain”—we recognize a sharp asymmetry between first person agency that we need to register to make sense of an expression and third person modes of inquiry that have to deal with what everyone can observe but only at a distance. In the first case, we typically process avowals by trying to sympathize so that we can approximate sharing the experience. In the case of third person meanings, we are likely to try to come to an agreement about what everyone in principle can observe.

I get most upset when Ashton’s argument leads her to invoke Wallace Stevens as a skeptic suspicious of all meaning.  Although she so cleverly contextualizes this view that I am not sure what she would assert on her own, she seems to align herself with the Stevens of supreme fictions:

And although this new interest in Stevens has functioned not exactly to recruit him for metonymy, the critique of his commitment to metaphor (which can be found in the work of poets from Frank Bidart to Rae Armantrout to Jennifer Moxley) has, I’ll argue in the second half of this paper, functioned to produce a skepticism that goes beyond the Language poets’ enthusiasm for the explosion of meaning into an “unlimited freeplay of dissemination” and for systemic indeterminacy. It has been instead through something like a radicalization of metaphor rather than metonymy that meaning as such has come to be understood not as inherently indeterminate but inherently false, and that truth has come to inhere in the refusal of holding any beliefs at all.

Against this statement I invoke perhaps Stevens’ keenest statement on the relation between experience and meaning.  It occurs in a review of Paul Valery’s Eupaulinos.  There Stevens imagines Valery hearing “the voices of the speakers and” watching “the movements of the dancers at one and the same time.” Notice now the use of “as” to bring together the experience of voice and movement with the work of understanding:

… As his interest in what is being said grows greater as the discussion approaches its resolution, and as the absorption in the spectacle grows
greater with his increased understanding of it and because of the momentum toward the ultimate climax, he realizes, for the first time, the excitement of a meaning as it is revealed at once in thought and in act.2

The work done by “as” here also suggests the importance to late Stevens not of metaphor, but of simile–because simile makes possible poetry’s keeping the actual world open for imagination. Metaphor for Stevens after 1940 seemed too bound to image and so incapable of dramatizing the powers of mind not just to seek new names but to alter our understanding of names. Metaphor promised a stability of reference that threatened the desires of imagination to maintain the freedom to experience changes as it looked at things first one way then another. But this is not a general skepticism about meaning. Rather it is a specific sense that meaning in poetry can be open to shades of experience that cultivate mobility rather than stability. Stevens term was “resemblance” or what I call the aspectual dimension of our encounters with the world that honor the force of imagination as a continual possibility for modifying the shadings of phenomena—not because nothing is true but because so much is possible within experiences of meaningfulness.

It is not surprising that Stevens would appreciate how meanings work in poetic prose. It is surprising to me how thoroughly he brings that awareness to bear in his writing about the ways truth functions in philosophy and in poetry. One could cite several passages in Stevens’ lecture “A Collect of Philosophy”3 but this remark may be the most apposite for our discussion (as well as the best evidence for Stevens’ skill in dealing precisely with how philosophers formulate concepts):

It may be said that the philosopher probes the spheres or sphere of perception and that he moves about therein like someone intent on making sure of every foot of the way. If the poet moves about in the same sphere or spheres, and occasionally he may, he is light-footed. He is intent on what he sees and hears and the sense of the certainties about him is as nothing to the presences themselves.4

No trace of skepticism here.5 Yet Ashton might say, “But that is only prose.” We have to turn to the poetry where Stevens might put a little more distance between the work of imagination and the ideological needs for the poet to be a responsible inquirer into truth. And through Parts of a World, Stevens poetry flirts with disappointment if not skepticism with the ways his culture poses the role of Truth. But even by 1938 he uses this skepticism toward received models of truth not to claim that all is illusion, but that there are other aspects of meaningful experience that promise a different positive model for how meaningfulness can be experienced. These are some lines Ashton does not cite from “The Latest Freed Man,” the concluding poem in her sequence:

…Yet having just
Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist,
Which is enough: the moment’s rain and sea,
The moment’s sun (the strong man vaguely seen),
Overtaking the doctrine of this landscape. Of him
And his works, I am sure. He bathes in the mist
Like a man without a doctrine. The light he gives—
It is how he gives this light. It is how he shines, …

It was how he was free. It was how his freedom came.
It was being without description, being an ox.
It was the importance of the trees outdoors, …
It was everything being more real, himself
At the centre of reality, seeing it.6

I love the fact that vagueness itself becomes an aspect of celebrating what can be present. Stevens is not without irony here—in the title and in the concluding line of the poem—but this is an irony that qualifies the situation rather than dismissing it as illusion: others have also thought they were free, so one has to tread cautiously in celebrating this new focus on manner. Wariness cannot prevent the text from suggesting that it is wise to celebrate even how the actual world can seem continuous with the passions of the self.

I hate the fact that I so much prefer the tone and patience and modesty of Gibson to the work of two of our brightest literary critics. But I persist in my idealization because I want to provoke discussion of what I see as the problem that many of the best younger literary critics seem driven to prefer the display of intelligence to the testing of the validity of the ideas used for that display. Our critics move very quickly through vast ranges of material. This takes a great deal of intelligence. But it also risks wasting that intelligence because the work tends to override the texts’ capacities to make themselves heard on what might be considered something close to their own terms. Such work visibly claims more than it can establish, as if one aspect of the process were to make risk itself a mark of distinction for criticism, like Lowell’s poet-skier. This judgment binds me rhetorically to treat Gibson’s essay with considerable abjection. So I am very pleased that it seems to me to deserve that stance. The best I can do is isolate aspects of it for praise and then at the end suggest minor modifications.

I love most about Gibson’s essay its clear sense that most lyric poetry involves a mode of meaningfulness that requires us to talk about the suggestiveness of situations rather than the pointedness of discreet assertion. By treating meaning as destination rather than beginning point, Gibson offers the most concise and elegant role for criticism that I have encountered: criticism is not an academic exercise but the full commitment to a mode of responsiveness that is aware of how to reconcile “the communicative force of poetry… with the unconventionality and sheer inventiveness of its language.”Gibson proposes to honor what critics call the materiality of poetry, but as means and not end, as invitation to experience but not yet the judgment of how it attaches to meaningfulness.

Gibson bases his sense of meaning as destination on two basic principles which I think are brilliantly developed. First he makes a telling contrast between “sentence meaning” and “work meaning.” This allows him to separate the “meaning-space” of poetry from the entire domain of decoding sentences and specifying how metaphors do their concrete work. (He does not address the ways in which poets project their works as extensions of the logic of metaphor in order to preserve the concreteness of lyric discourse.) There is the interpretation of sentence meaning, and there is the separate task of construing the meaning of what gives force and point to the relations between sentences. One could say that this model affords a rationale for the heresy of paraphrase that does not depend on any special condition of poetic language. It depends only on an established practice of seeking something beyond the capacity of sentences to convey descriptions or respond to practical situations. Gibson shows how critical imagination can elicit a world for these sentences to inhabit by interpreting their relation to each other as based on work meaning. The opposite of paraphrase is not quite sheer “experience” but attention to how this other level of meaning can take hold. Critics need not content themselves with decoding messages or characterizing intricate experiments in elaborating plays with textural features of language. They characterize possible worlds by expanding the space of an imagined situation.7

Gibson’s second way of characterizing meaning space is distinctive to verbal art. He characterizes “semantic descent” as a series of steps in which each provides a little more of the world that language implicates, and a little less of language about language. I see the concept as kin to Richard Wollheim’s idea of critical activity as “seeing in” to what paintings come to represent. Thus “Juliet is the sun” becomes not just an example of the logic of metaphor but a statement asking us to imagine what Juliet and the sun might have in common: we ask how the sun can bear “a kind of meaning for us” that is other than simply “linguistic in nature.” This level of meaning consists in the set of associations, connotations, resonances, values, and so on that any object that matters in our form of life will have. The metaphors of semantic ascent and descent capture nicely the structures of embedding characteristic of our language use, and it recognizes the range of experiences that this use can convey or make present. And this figure of descent beautifully explains how our expectations for coherence and clarity change at each level. When we turn to the worldliness of the metaphor, our “experience” need not be described by resolving it “into a coherent image of, or claim about” the tenor: “It is enough to place [Juliet] in the imaginative space created by the image of the sun and allow her to linger there for a moment, framing our thought of her in productive and, ultimately, meaningful ways.” Because of this space of significance developed by semantic descent, criticism becomes largely a matter of tact in fleshing out how work-meaning frames the relations between these resonances and values. So the critic can embrace aesthetic attention to the specifics of “how” the work unfolds and still avoid any trace of formalism: art is a means of combining and re-orienting imaginative spaces that attach us to features of the world.

Perhaps Gibson’s case could be even stronger if he were to modify his claims in two ways that I suggest would better meet the theoretical needs critics encounter in their practical work. First  Gibson may occasionally celebrate too much the possible resonance of the worldliness of poetry without sufficiently attending to its demands not only for critical tact but also for critical precision. His critique of master-meanings by which we decode figures may make him too open to the sheer indefiniteness of possible imaginative elaboration of the space the poem establishes:

We frequently experience poetic meaning as a far-off destination not because the meaning of a poem is so deeply hidden in its language but because the kind of communicative act in which a poem engages is extraordinarily complex, beginning with language and words but then soon passing from this into a richly, and at times bizarrely, textured imaginative space, the exploration of which is potentially interminable.

Gibson sees poems as acts of composing imaginative space. But often the fleshing out of imaginative space for poetry requires not just indicating modes of relation but clarifying the specific terms of the performance by which this space takes on a concrete atmosphere or particular urgency to the passion of making. We have to avoid losing sight of the energies of the making in order to elicit the possible significance of the object created. For the best poets typically want their audience to appreciate how the sheer act of articulation itself provides an imaginative order for that space. On one hand, I think of Keats elaborating why Psyche deserves to be a modern goddess; on the other I think of Eliot’s Four Quartets laboring to show how Christian sentences can be meaningful in a world that thinks itself secular.

I suspect my modification simply comes down to a matter of emphasis rather than a theoretical dispute. But I worry because philosophers tend to prefer the sheer worldliness of texts, where they can make judgments, to the diverse and difficult to determine intentional states that govern interpretive hierarchies within that world. In one sense Gibson addresses my worry with his brilliant trope of using two paintings as possible characterizations of an agent’s feeling for his or her own life. Here he enters fully into the expressive aspect of making poetry. But now I think he needs a modification of the theory at the opposite pole from my first suggestion. It is true that much lyric poetry offers “a very precise environment of thought and feeling into which we can place an otherwise formless, indeterminate conception of a life.” Such work charges “aesthetic features with a kind of moral significance: they now come to represent ‘ways of being in the world’; that is, they represent a life as tethered to very different kinds of value and forms of possible experience.” But when I stop applauding this lovely precise generalization, I start worrying that in this aspect of his account lyric poetry becomes too much the affair of giving one’s own life meaning rather than trying out ways to bring certain qualities of the world into an intense visibility that warrants various modes of desire. I think accounts of poetry have to keep making at the center—as the condition of the artifact and as the affirmation of second order states that offer plausible desires to change one’s life:

It was everything being more real, himself
At the centre of reality, seeing it.


1.Ashton finds some support for the division between experience and meaning in “recent affect theory”: “Affect theory thus matches the post-language poetry of writers like Armantrout; where Armantrout gives us propositions without beliefs, affect theory gives us human expression without propositions.” But this is by no means the case with all recent affect theory. She aligns with a particular vitalist tradition that Ruth Leys eviscerates in a recent essay in Critical Inquiry. And there are other current theories that pay much fealty to intentionality and interpretation as aspects of affective states. One could consult Jenefer Robinson, Deeper than Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005) for a summary of these views. And Armantrout does not give us propositions without beliefs.  She offers statements that worry about the degree of belief the assertions can sustain.
2.Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1997), 892.
3.Ibid., 856-862.
4.Ibid., 863.
5.Ibid., 684 for Stevens’s explicit rejection of skepticism.
6.Ibid., 187.
7.Here I think Gibson misses an opportunity to extend work meaning to all expressive acts, and thereby situate poetry in relation to a much broader class of human practices that have the same needs to go beyond sentence meaning. If someone is characterizing how he suffers pain or has a strong feeling, we don’t stop with the individual sentences but read their relation to each other as indices of the nature and the quality and degree of urgency in the feeling. More generally, I increasingly think that we ought replace the arrogant and vague terms “humanities” by a distinction that places the arts and the work of rhetoric within the larger class of expressive acts, with “expression” understood as having its center in display and avowal.  This realm of expression would then be contrasted with language games devoted to providing frameworks for assessing descriptions.