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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 151-163

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Defining "Poetry"

Robert B. Pierce

SINCE TERMS ARE THE TOOLS of literary study, it is important to keep these tools in good condition, above all by having clear and functional meanings for them. Notoriously, many critical arguments about texts are in fact differences about terminology, and many confused arguments are built on vague or arbitrarily used terms. Few have been the subject of more critical worrying and infighting than "poetry," 1 and few are more disparately defined. Definitions that are fuzzy or tendentious confuse many a discussion of poetry, and in particular they often narrow our response to the rich variety of the texts in front of us by silently imposing a view of what poetry ought to be. I would like to suggest that a Wittgensteinian approach to meaning can cut through a lot of the difficulty that surrounds the term. The refined understanding of the term "poetry" will result in a certain demystification, but it will dissipate only a false mystery based on confusion, not the real mystery of depth and richness that poetry can offer.

What does it mean to approach this issue as a Wittgensteinian? The main principle is that the meaning of a term is its use, the way people deploy it in their speaking and writing, the work that it does. 2 A word does not have an essential core of meaning of which the various social uses are approximations; rather those social uses are the meaning. Thus meaning is a social phenomenon, and the way to determine it is to [End Page 151] look outward at how people use a term, not inward for some presumed mental essence that the term designates. Meaning is conventionally divided into reference and sense. What the term "poetry" refers to is a group of publicly visible things in the social world that we call poems, but there is no distillation in the mind that is the essence of poetry, the sense of the term. Of course we have a sense of the term that controls its range of reference. That sense is made up of our bases for calling one thing poetry and not another: the qualities that incline us to see a text as a poem. Wittgenstein would call these defining qualities criteria. The crucial fact is that they are determined by social processes and so are available to public inspection, not hidden away to be discovered only by introspection.

Another observation about what it is to assign meaning to a term is important here. If someone asserts that "poetry" means X, he or she can appropriately be asserting that in fact the offered definition describes how people use the term, or else he or she can be suggesting how the term should or will be used in a specific discourse, that is, offering a definition proposal or stipulative definition. In the latter case the proposer needs to show the utility of the change from ordinary speech for his or her purposes. That is of course what literary critics do when they specify meanings for a term like "tragedy" or "irony" that are different from common usage. It is not that Wayne Booth's way of talking about irony uses the real meaning (both his and the ordinary senses are perfectly real since both are socially used), but that his is more useful for literary criticism than the general usage because it is more precise and nuanced. 3

Thus it would make sense to begin defining "poetry" by looking at how people use the term and in particular how it is used in literary discourse. However, though I will pay some attention to what critics actually say and write, I would like primarily to offer certain proposals for refining our use of the term so as to avoid confusion and vagueness. It is not that this investigation will be approaching the real meaning of "poetry," which I have suggested is an imaginary goal, but that it will propose a use of the term constituting a vehicle for talking and writing about poetry that...


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