Poetry and resonance

In his recent book of essays Charles Taylor discusses poetry and resonance. This reflects his long standing interest in how “speech, linguistic expression, makes things exist for us in a new mode, one of awareness or reflection” (pg 56). What does this mean? It is a rejection of the view that words acquire meaning by designating things we already experience. It is an assertion that words make new experiences possible:

Well, wind would be there for us, even if we had remained pre-linguistic animals; we might seek shelter from it. And breathing would be there, as we gasp for breath running.

But spirit? Not that gift, that rushing, that onset of strength to reach for something higher, something fuller. This sense of the force of the incomparably higher only takes shape for us in the name. Spirit enters our world through language; its manifestation depends on speech. (pg 57)

On this view, poetry comes to be seen as performative, possessed of a capacity to create new meanings through establishing new symbols. What is at stake here is the “poet’s straining to find the right word” (pg 57) and what this ‘rightness’ constitutes. Is it a circumvention of linguistic constraints in a subjectively pleasing format? Is it an experience transcending language but nonetheless inner? Is it human nature or the human condition? Is it God?

Taylor sees modern poetics as existing between subjectivism and objectivism, understanding its goal as being “to manifest hitherto inaccessible reality and possibilities of being” (pg 58). This sees poetry as an event, in which words open up contact with something higher or deeper, making something manifest that was not previously present. Previous speech or experience prepares us for these possibilities, manifesting in actuality as resonance: “this new word resonates in/for us; that the word reveals what it does is also a fact about us, even though it is more than this” (pg 60). It speaks to us because of those aspects of our character which are not just part of us but present in others as well.

However modernity poetry does not (could not?) make reference to established public meanings in the manner of earlier poetic traditions. This creates the possibility of ‘opening new paths’ and ‘setting free new realities’ but also the risk that “language may go dead, flat, become routinized, a handy tool of reference, a commonplace, like a dead metaphor, just unthinkingly invoked” (pg 60). The possibility of resonance rests on the contrast between ordinary descriptive speech and poetic language. If this disjuncture is lost then so is resonance, with poetic expression becoming mere word play in the face of the everyday. In such a case, we lose something communal because “the resonances which matters are those which link speaker and hearer, writer and readers, and eventually (perhaps) whole communities” (pg 61).

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