Helen Vendler on Poetry and Paraphrase

As is often said, but as often forgotten, poems are not their paraphrases, because the paraphrase does not represent the thinking process as it strives toward ultimate precision, but rather reduces the poem to summarized “thoughts” or “statements” or “meanings”.

11 responses

  1. The British poet-performer Alice Oswald provides what she calls ‘an excavation’ of the Iliad, an extended piece of verse she publishes (and also reads publicly) as “Memorial.” She gives us not a paraphrase of a poem but in some way a new poem that is a comment on the old poem, a ‘comment’ that brings it alive in a way no academic paraphrase could. I guess there are probably many ways of responding to a poem other than the sort of paraphrase Vendler has in mind that strips the original of life. It would be a disaster if we had to choose between deadening paraphrase and silence.

    • yes more in the way of a style of “critique” that offers the reader a moving glimpse (taste as the kids say) of what the work offers to those who are open to it, rather than critics who just use works as illustrations of their own pet/preworked theories, and for g_dsake more than just a “like” or not…
      I think in pop culture Marcus Greil excels at this:

  2. sounds like most student papers/assignments (including a lot of dissertations) in the US, we need amplifications not reductions.

    • That’s a great question. I suspect it has to do with the fact that the poems that touch us most deeply also deepen our understanding. We want to be able to express that deepened understanding, but repeating the poem seems not the way to do that, so we grasp at paraphrase. (As Witt suggests, we take proof of understanding to be producing what was understood in language other than the language of what was understood.) What do you think? What is it that invites paraphrase?

      • When I looked at my question after I posted it, it actually struck me that it was a silly one. It was too quick. The whole line of thought was too quick and disorganized. Is crying even the most useful object of comparison?

        The question came to me as I was thinking about Ed’s remark, and I was trying to think about the kinds of responses we might have to poems, and what was (grammatically) proper, and what was improper. And then I got angry with poems, because they seemed to me to be a bit aloof—as if they were making a statement in a conversation but no one was allowed to answer. Like an oracle. But then it occurred to me that it must be very painful and lonely to be an oracle—flesh and blood, a Cassandra. And then I thought there was something right about the idea that it is wrongheaded to paraphrase poems, just as it is wrongheaded to paraphrase a burst of laughter, say, or crying—that is, it would be comical if in response to someone crying I was to say: “So you mean to tell me you’re sad, right?” and not because it is obviously true. And then the comparison between poems and crying was formed in my mind, and I wrote the question.

        I don’t know how to answer it. Is it perhaps partly because some poems are attempts to come up with a new kind of self-expression, a new kind of crying or laughing? — To find a new way to cry would be to find a new way to be human. – I don’t know. My thoughts are racing.

      • in general I don’t think that it is the potential deepness that leads to this but rather a more general mindset of a kind that is uncomfortable with things being less than obvious/normal/plain, reducible to more of the same old same old if you will.
        Not unlike the kinds of pressure/feedback profs will soon face from students who want their assignments to come with very explicit/detailed how-to instructions before the lectures/readings even really begin.
        a sort of puritanical/conservative populism perhaps?


  3. Ah ! We’re the thinking or reflecting animal, and also the laughing and crying animal. We don’t paraphrase laughing or crying but we respond sensitively (or insensitively) to it. Sometimes the laugh or cry is contagious. A poem can work like that — elicit a sympathetic gasp, laugh, or cry. Along with the thinking-out that deepens understanding. We don’t paraphrase movies or stage productions, yet we laugh, weep, and gasp pretty much prior to any attempt to make our understanding explicit. Paraphrase and detached commentary hasn’t a place for laughing and crying.

    • yes, poems were/are varieties of virtual experiences long before computers were even dreamed of.
      reminds me to read more Santayana:
      “We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.”

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