The Poetic Imagination

Authored by: Ernie Lepore , Matthew Stone

The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature

Print publication date:  December  2015
Online publication date:  December  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415889728
eBook ISBN: 9781315708935
Adobe ISBN:


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At least since Aristotle, poets, and their translators and critics, have held steadfast to the idea that poems resist either paraphrase or translation. Philosophers, cognitive scientists, and linguists (with a few notable exceptions), however, either ignore this skepticism or dismiss out of hand the idea that it is anything special to poetry. Interestingly, pressed with the data, they concede that poetry interpretation and translation must respect more than meaning preservation; it requires attention to form. But this merely restates the skepticism. Further, philosophers have assumed that if a poem has a meaning—whether it be conventionally determined or merely intended (speaker meant)—this meaning can surely be put into various forms—in the same language or in a translation. This idea is foundational to the very way in which philosophers (and linguists) think about meaning—whether semantic or pragmatic. In what follows we will try to reconcile these two groups by challenging an assumption common to them both, namely, that there is for any poem some specific meaning, beyond the literal meaning of its words, that is either conventionally or pragmatically determined; and in addition we will try to show why so many have been misled into embracing what to most philosophers and cognitive scientists would seem to be an almost mystical claim about the words of poetry being untranslatable and unparaphrasable. To these ends, in this chapter, we will first register some remarks on the poetic imagination—by which we mean, a specific kind of interpretive engagement that poetry demands of its audience (that distinguishes it from the other sorts of literal and figurative speech). To a first approximation, we will defend the view that a poem invites us to interrogate the diverse and particular relationships of form and meaning that it manifests, and to allow our efforts to prompt new or unexpected insights. In Section 1, we draw on discussions from a variety of critics to describe in more detail the interpretive engagement we have in mind.

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