new perspectives on poetryOverview

Contemporary theories of metaphor, hermeneutics, brain functioning and complexity suggest that the metaphorical use of language gives us a fuller understanding of ourselves than the abstract and general expositions of science. Poetry is not simply an individual creation, therefore, but a responsible and informed exploration of our responses to a larger world.


If large parts of current literary theory — Structuralism, Poststructuralism, linguistics, linguistic philosophy, Freudian and Lacanian psychology — are unsatisfactory, then we should perhaps return to less contentious ground and see man as a social animal. {1} What purpose does language serve? To communicate, to represent the world in a comprehensible manner, to rehearse important actions and their outcomes. Psychology underlines these obvious truths. Anthropology observes that art not rooted in primary needs could not possibly survive in societies that live so close to extinction, where anything extra is unaffordable. Nor would art flourish in the affluent west, where there exist more immediate means of gratification. However we conceive it, art appears as a primary human need: it is not merely play, free expression, or social recreation. No tribe, however primitive, has been found lacking in artistic expression, and no rough-cut philistine is wholly indifferent to his appearance or surroundings. The arts may not always be sophisticated, not high arts, but then the whole question of art has been bedevilled by such distinctions — fine art versus applied, high versus popular, the authentic versus kitsch. {1}

What Is Literature?

The Oxford Concise Dictionary raises the issue immediately. Literature, says the dictionary, is writing whose value lies in beauty of form or emotional effect. Nothing about truth or social value. Nothing about how such beauty or emotional effect is to be judged. In its early day as an academic subject, English Literature was little more than connoisseurship: genial essays that offered rational enthusiasm for certain authors and their works. Of course it was impressionistic, and under the influence of New Criticism, the study of literature passed from a recreation to a profession and finally to an industry. Social history, biographical details, author's intentions and moral impact of a work were set aside, and literature came to be a body of information that said very astute things about a selected number of books, plays and poems. But there was still no theory as such, no closely argued rationale that allowed a line to be drawn between contemporary literature and non-literature. The canon of good books was the touchstone: what students had to read, and other work be compared against. How such a canon was constructed was not very clear, except that the works had to be difficult to read, and remote from any practical application.

A reaction was inevitable once the postwar education boom came to an end. {2} Other professions could fight their corner, and so why not literature? Did the study of English Literature make the world today a more fascinating, meaningful and morally accountable place? Did it help students to write better themselves, and give them the tolerance and flexibility needed in a changing world? Did it enable them to see through the coercions of authority, and the blandishments of politicians and advertisers? Very few argued so. Even fewer wished to have a definition of literature, for all that their pieties at obscenity trials could seem empty posturing. {3} But continental academics did have theories, often of left-wing persuasion, and those theories gained influence when well-meaning but unfocused academics and their students were marginalized by education cuts.

What had academics been producing? Increasingly they wrote analyses for other academics in a style that bore no relation to the works studied. Their language passed insensibly from the technical to a metalanguage that only fellow specialists could understand. Eventually the style turned in on itself. The more radical critics asserted that nothing of any finality or objectivity could be said in any language whatsoever. If previous criticism was dull, it was generally clear, but the new radical criticism took pleasure in illustrating and exaggerating the very opacities claimed to be present in all language. {4}

But the strategy was not entirely nihilistic, nor seeking to strengthen their tenure prospects. However negatively, it did raise the difficulties of truth and meaning in literature, and suggested that what was said was contingent on how it was said. It would not do to talk about a literal language, an ordinary, everyday exposition from which all other usages are a departure. A plain style dates from the seventeenth century, and its currency has been increased by universal literacy and the needs of science, government and bureaucracy. But a plain language is not a literal language. Even the individual sciences used their own styles — not only in terminology but in sentence construction, vocabulary and rhetoric. A standard English was a fabrication, existing by virtue of social agreements, the work of grammarians and compilers of dictionaries. Rationalists who employ Chomskian deep grammar approaches to establish a "basic meaning" overlooked the features of language encountered by Anglo-American schools of philosophy — its polymorphous, creative and ad-hoc nature, the way we continually paraphrase across individual usages.

But there is a deeper matter. Language is often figurative. {5} Long use has deadened us to this obvious point, and many professions, notably administration, law and the sciences, resist this truth. Etymologies are ignored. Usages are policed: by the refereeing and reviewing of books, papers and articles, and by agreements between like-minded people who employ a common language to do so. Freelance writers learn this quickly, and even scientists must adapt their style to the publication concerned. Philosophy is very technical, and employs an academic style lacking the fine distinctions the arts are continually making.

Which gave the larger share of the facts — the figurative or the literal, art or philosophy? Presumably the latter, since literature had long given up any claim on truth. But when Anglo-American philosophers looked carefully at logic, linguistics and social usage for a coherent substratum of argument, something independent of formulation, that substratum seemed not to exist. Even in their own terms, employing supposedly literal languages, there were gaps, inconsistencies and contradictions in all things — not only in everyday thought and action where they could be expected, but in mathematics, science, logic and mathematics. A hopeless endeavour, therefore, as some continental philosophers have asserted? Not at all. The sharp insights of Wittgenstein, and the careful proofs of Gödel and other logicians, showed why this must be so — why language cannot judge itself, why all systems of thought are interconnected but lose something authentically human when transposed into abstract notation and general use.


Does that throw us back on pluralism, where truth is confined to individual systems of thought, and therefore something only relative? {6} In some ways. There must be grave doubts as to whether truth can exist according to the hopes of the Anglo-American philosophies, as a concept abstracted and applying invariably across all possible worlds. But that does not sanction solipsism or complete relativism. The Poststructuralists who assert that language constitutes reality, and that we are born into a system in which words refer only to other words, overlook too much — the continual refinement and modification of language as usage meets practical difficulties, the way language reflects understandings and moral realities of its users, how it is shaped by the resistance of individual creation to wider social truths. They forget what one of their own forebears, Heidegger, insisted — that we are thrown into a world of physicality and social behaviour, where meanings have to be lived, not simply thought about. Individualism takes us only so far. Private languages are unworkable, for originators and others.

What then? Hermeneutics stresses the continual adjustment we make in interpretation, how each sentence must be assembled to make a coherent whole, and the assembly then checked against the constituent parts. Such a procedure, which we follow in bridging social usages, takes into account not only abstract meaning, but an individual's experiences, affections, character, social and historical setting. Gadamer talks of the dialogue between old traditions and present needs. Habermas criticizes the grey language of science, which alienates man from his better nature. Truth is not grounded in evidence but consensus, and languages are shared ways in which societies understand themselves. Is there no one correct interpretation of some act of speech or writing? Clearly not, though Ingarden suggests we examine literary texts for the acts of consciousness that they preserve, which we must partly reanimate in reading.

Brain Functioning

Advances in computers, communications and experimental psychology have naturally focused interest on the brain. How does it operate? Where lies its intelligence, consciousness, powers of speech and imagination? Much of the brain operates beyond consciousness. And much we do not know. But what is certainly becoming evident is that understanding is not restricted to the head, but is spread throughout the nervous systems, which are in turn related to all levels of body tissues. The brain does not operate like a simple computer {7} but has complex information-processing loops and multiple feedback mechanisms. Brain activity is astonishingly varied, employing physical, chemical and electromagnetic processes. Far from inert, the brain is an active and developing organ, repairing damage, growing new functions as the need arises. Moreover, its memory is phenomenal, though much is not immediate accessible, or well explained by present theories.

Given this, the brain could not escape behaving in a complicated manner. Mental activity need not mimic brain structure, of course, any more than a computer program faithfully follows the hardware layout. But brain structure must play some part in constraining and enabling human activities of intelligence, perception, speech, body growth, etc. And that means something of the unpredictable and strange nature of complex systems. Brains probably develop self-organization, and may operate counter-intuitively, exhibiting emergent properties. {8}

Experiments support these expectations, and suggest why the physical world is so mysterious once we examine areas where the classical picture enshrined by common sense — stable systems, completely known and controllable — is no longer applicable. Furthermore, if sensory perception and understanding are not only interrelated but have developed piecemeal in answer to biological needs (as seems only too likely), then we have possible reasons for gaps and inconsistencies in our modes of understanding. Simple cause and effect models, which unfortunately most writers still see as science, are outmoded and limiting. By and large, there is no simple overarching rationality of the sort that logic, mathematics and philosophy have sought. There can't be. Those great perplexities of science {9} — how fields of force can have no material existence but still create matter, why symmetry preordains the existence and properties of subatomic particles, what laws really are — must inevitably escape everyday categories of thought. Even if the "primary world out there" were indeed simple and rational, we could not possibly understand it in that way, not with our intellectual equipment.

Paradoxically, therefore, science, which once seemed so irrelevant or antagonistic to art and the human passions, now offers very different perspectives and opportunities. Our perception are never "raw", since the human animal needs to make sense of things. For artists, who must be aware of the larger dimension, who recreate a social reality with a telling significance and immediacy, there can be no escaping some understanding of current scientific work. Remain with a commonsense nineteenth century outlook, and the work will be stale and repetitive, which is indeed how it appears to a shrinking reading public. Poetry is still read for the pleasure of seeing of words deployed well, but this is recreation, specialist entertainment rather than knowledge.

Metaphor and Schema

But the larger suggestion, obvious but consistently overlooked, is that aesthetic language is not simply beautiful and affective, but the language closest to our human functioning. It is the most authentic, most expressive, most precise, most — if truth be returned from its abstract sense — truthful. The reductive approaches of the sciences employed in linguistics, for example, are not more precise for being more abstract and general: they are simply more abstract and general. Indeed they are not even more general: results have been as varied as the theories employed — more so, in fact, as schools of practitioners have split over interpretation differences. The whole matter of semantics has become more complicated the closer examined. Meaning has not resolved into objective clarity, but seems to depend on procedures and assumptions adopted, as though on the initial conditions of a complex system.

Given, however, that man makes models to understand the world, and that the brain structure imposes constraints on such understanding, one school of linguistics has concentrated on the processes that lie behind figures of speech. It has asked what is going on when we employ metaphors, tropes and rhetoric. Findings are still very tentative, but it appears possible to model experience as schemas. These are constructions of reality that employ sensorimotor processes to anticipate actions in the world. Our minds are richly interconnected with schemas, and through them we perceive, act, react and consider. Sometimes we use logic, but more often our understanding is via analogical frames of schemas, i.e. partial and approximate. There is no absolute truth for human beings, therefore, but only a truth relative to some understanding. And that understanding involves categories that emerge from our interaction with experience.

Intimately associated with schemas were metaphors, which reflects the fact that language is largely built of dead metaphors. But metaphors do not decay into linguistic counters but stay active processes in understanding, grouping areas of experience. Even the legal world is not immune to their influence, indeed no thought or language can be. Metaphors organize experience, express it in a certain way, and largely create our response to the world. Neurological writing employs metaphors from computer science and telecommunications. Perception employs mirrors of reflection and moulders of experience. Social analysis uses metaphors from mechanical regulation, meaningful relationships and system theory. And so on. None of these is an empty play on words. Each has to accord with the beliefs and tacit rules of the discipline concerned. And on a larger scale, our own personal metaphorical constructs have to be in harmony with the expectations of the society we inhabit.

Depth Psychology

But some metaphors — the more fundamental and significant — do more than shape experience and understanding: they extend throughout civilization with a seeming life of their own. The fundamental patterns of our psychic functioning, say depth psychologists, are archetypes — entities through which events are deepened into experiences, and then amalgamated into myths, these being an emotion-laden assertion of man's place in a meaningful world.

Many aspects of human belief and activity then begin to make sense. Religion is a sacralization of reality: an emotional welding of identity which consolidates and stabilizes that identity. Jung conceived a collective unconscious that underlay the controlling myths of a society. Somewhat similar is Rupert Sheldrake's morphic consciousness, the notion that things in the world, animate and inanimate, have a race memory, so that even the laws of nature are only matters of inanimate habit, and may evolve. {10} Conceptions are not abstractions, not pure thought, but encounters with the world through figurations that lie deep within the brain, are perhaps what Husserl sought in his phenomenology. The newer sciences fasten together the many strands of continental philosophy to preserve the primacy of individual experience, which Existentialism emphasized, in its nihilistic way.

Emergent Systems

Where is the relevance to poetry? In this: that literary forms are not as arbitrary as Modernism and Postmodernism suppose. The new science of complexity shows that natural systems with any interlinkage of parts and feedback mechanisms create islands of stability and self-similarity in a sea of unpredictable, chaotic behaviour. And these islands appear naturally, as a property of a system which behaves in toto quite differently from the isolated properties of the constituent parts.

Literary forms are the products of long centuries of trial and error, and survive to the extent they are "found to work", i.e. fulfill the needs of expression, relevance and pleasing shape. Anyone can tinker with the forms, and most poets do, but there is no merit in originality as such, only in achieving forms and styles which work better. Most changes will be for the worse, creating poems which are intriguing but also arbitrary, obscure and unsatisfying. Postmodernism was right to stress the need for contemporary relevance, but wrong to overlook the larger demands of art. Everyone experiments, ordinary citizens no less than scientists, but mankind has naturally codified the approaches which more generally lead to successful results. Scientists follow rules of procedure. Writers extend what has served before. Tradition is inherent in both. {11}


Poetry is currently a minor art, popular only with its practitioners, and then somewhat variously regarded. Many writers perversely avoid the very things that might make their work more accessible: popular subject matter, an aptness of expression, craft that develops styles that are widely known and loved. Certainly the Romantics and Symbolists embraced some very dubious theories, but there was always a compensating beauty of form, something not evident today. Modernism's hostility to society, its withdrawal into private concerns, the cultivation of novelty and difficulty simply for their own sakes has reached its natural conclusion. Never was so much poetry written as today, and never has its readership been so exclusively poets themselves, and sometimes not even them.

Does anyone really care? The literary world is complex: a network of alliances and understandings continually in search of reputation in the cannon's mouth. But even established poets — those winning literary competitions and promoted by leading publishers — often express an ambivalent attitude to the rules of their exclusive club. They pay lip service to the tenets of Postmodernism, but can also be found expressing views not out of place in the eighteenth century. {12} Simple opportunists, taking from all theories exactly what they need? But if theory is disposable, why did Shakespearean England, with only twelve percent of its four million inhabitants able to write at all, {13} not only produce work of a splendour unattainable today, but succeed largely in proportion to expressing widely-held beliefs? {14} Sometimes it must seem that Modernism and Postmodernism have been largely negative in their effects — that its writers, critics, academics and journalists are setting up obstacles to what is a demanding but natural activity, creating an orthodoxy as ill-founded and stultifying as that of the medieval Church. It need not be so. Poetry is not an arbitrary, solipsist, individual creation, but a way of more fully understanding ourselves and the world around.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Richard Shusterman's Popular Art entry in David Cooper's (Ed.) A Companion to Aesthetics (1992).
2. Chapters 9-11 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986) and Chapter 2 of Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature (1990).
3. Kernan 1990.
4. Christopher Norris's Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. (1982), J. Sturrock's Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Straus to Derrida. (1984), Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (1983), Chapter 8 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English (1990), Chapter 11 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986), J.G. Merquior's From Prague to Paris (1986), pp. 29-33 of John Passmore's Recent Philosophers (1985), Roger Scruton's Modern Philosophy (1996), Raman Seldon's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1985), and the works listed on page 65 of Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning (1996).
5. Chapter 13 of Joseph Margolis's Art and Philosophy: Conceptual Issues in Aesthetics (1980).
6. Nicholas Davey's Relativism entry in Cooper 1992.
7. Douglas Hofstadter's Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies (1998).
8. Roger Lewis's Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos (1992) and Chapter 4 of John L. Casti's Complexification: Explaining a Paradoxical World Through the Science of Surprise (1994).
9. A vast literature. Heinz Pagel's The Cosmic Code (1982) is one of many readable introductions to subatomic processes.
10. Rupert Sheldrake's The Presence of the Past. (1988).
11. Chapters 4 and 12 of Peter Abbs's The Polemics of Imagination 1996.
12. Ian Gregson's Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement (1996).
13. Chapters 1 and 10 of J A Sharpe's Early Modern England: A Social History. 1550-1760 (1987).
14. Chapter 9 of E.M.W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture (1943).  

Internet Resources

1. The State of Literary Criticism. Roger Shattuck. Oct. 1995. A plea to return to the study of literature as literature.
2. Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. Kristi Siegel. Jan. 2003. Introduction to types, bibliographies and Internet listings.
3. Hans-Georg Gadamer. Jeff Malpas. Mar. 2003. A detailed Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with good bibliography but few links.
4. Jürgen Habermas. Dec. 2003. Wikipedia article with good links.
5. Roman Ingarten. Amie Thomasson. Jun. 2003. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with bibliography and links.
6. Review, Brains, Minds and Texts. Alan Richardson. May 2001. A Review of Mark Turner's The Literary Mind.
7. Human Values as Strange Attractors. Anthony Judge. Aug. 1993. Simple, non-mathematical treatment.
8. The Fuzziness of Communication A Catalyst for Seeking Consensus. Vladimir Dimitrov and David Russell. 1994. Metaphor, fuzzy logic and similarity to strange attractors.
9. BBS online. NNA. Good listing of papers on behavioral and brain science: abstracts free.
10. George Lakoff. Jan. 2004. Introduction to Lakoff and controversies raised.
11. The Edge of Science. Section of the quirky Transactions site.
12. Morphic Fields and the Memory of Nature. David Pratt. Jun. 1992. Review of Rupert Sheldrake's thought from a theosophical standpoint.
13. Sheldrake Online. Sheldrake's homepage, with articles, reviews and controversies.
14. Rupert Sheldrake's Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. Note on Sheldrake's 1995 book.