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Posts Tagged ‘Johnson’

There is somewhere a lost legend of the first fisherman who spoke of, and lamented, ‘the one that got away’.  But it is sure that many a fisherman has not only repeated the telling of that legend, but has lived it.  Many a fisherman has lost the fish he thought was secure on the line.  Lost?  Indeed? But surely Izaak Walton had it more true.  “Brother,” he said, “Ye never lost what ye never had.”  For, indeed, that fish was never yours to lose ; the fish is not yours until it’s in the bag.

Well, fishing was ever a pastime for optimists.  But is it as Johnson once said? “Fishing is a game played with a stick and a string ; with a fish on one end and a fool on the other.”  Perhaps optimists are fools ; but, if they are, then they are holy fools.  For optimism attests to a profound belief about the nature of the world.  And it attests also to something profound about human nature.  For people are creatures that hope.

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Nobody has ever defined, for general use, what poetry is.  As was noted in very early writings, a word cannot be defined except for the purposes of a narrow technical discussion.  As Plato said, “Don’t tell me what a word means ; tell me how you use it.”  Dr. Johnson was to come to realize the truth of this opinion when he came to write his dictionary.

So, if we cannot say in a word what poetry ‘is’, how do we recognize it when we see it?

This points to the crux of the matter.  For anything merely seen is almost devoid of meaning.  If I see a poem on a page it is not, in one strict sense, a poem at all ; it is merely ink marks on a piece of paper.  If I am to see those marks as poetry, I must first understand that they are symbols ; then I must interpret them as words ; then I must interpret their meanings, and then understand them to be poetical.

Similarly, if I hear a poem being read aloud, I must understand that the vibrations in my ear are symbols which must be interpreted as words, and then judge them to be poetical.

So a poem is not a thing that exists independently of the human mind and its consciousness.  It follows, therefore, that a poem is not ‘seen’ as such but is recognized as such.  The reader, or listener, brings his own knowledge (or memory) to poetic meaning.

It seems to me that many important consequences issue from these realizations.

This blog first appeared here :-

http://my.telegraph.co.uk/jamie_macnab/blog/2008/10/27/what_is_poetry

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