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Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate
What is it that distinguishes poetic language from ordinary kinds of utterance? We probably wouldn't listen to poets if they weren't any better at using language than we are. But then poets have always striven to speak the "real language of man," or, as T. S. Eliot put it, "Every revolution in poetry is apt to be [...] a return to common speech." Accordingly, we wouldn't listen to poets either (at least poets seem to think so) if they wouldn't use language the way we do. In the history of poetics, the question of poetic language has frequently been addressed in what one might call economic terms. Sir Philip Sidney points out that the (musical) nature of verse demands "the words [...] being so set as one cannot be lost, but the whole woorke failes," which implies not only that there is, ideally, one right way of choosing and placing words but also that there is a right number: too many or too few words would destroy the work. This seems plausible and may provide an answer to our initial question: whereas most of us need too many or use too few words to make a point, poets get the number exactly right. But in practice, things aren't perhaps quite so obvious. For what about the fact that poetry (and other forms of literature) is frequently elliptical? Only think of Emily Dickinson's fragmentary syntax, which often lacks the function words that might establish a coherent utterance. And what about the notion that literary art deletes, condenses and compresses elements of language, that Dichtung is Verdichtung (as Kafka and others put it)? But there is also the contrasting notion that literature, and poetry in particular, is marked by an excess, superfluity and redundancy of words and other elements of language. There are not only baroque ideals of style with their emphasis on copia verborum, there is also Keats's dictum that poetry "should surprise by a fine excess," or there is the notion held in pragmatics that the effect of an utterance which is not primarily due to the proposition put forward but to a wealth of "weak implicatures" (such as attitudes, feelings and states of mind) should be called poetic.
One way of resolving these apparent contradictions would be to consider the question of "too little" or "too much" not in absolute but in relative terms. An aphorism may have too many words and a Victorian novel may lack the very words needed for a reader to regard it as a success. But this leaves us with the tricky question of decorum: what is the idea or purpose to which a particular number of words is appropriate and by which we measure the verbal economy of a literary work of art?