Linguistic definitions of poetry, and of literature generally, predominate in our age. This means that in defining literature–incidentally, why do we need to define literature, anyway? who bothers to define rain?–the first move is sticking out your tongue. This approach links thinkers as diverse as the structuralists, on the one hand, and Joseph Brodsky, on the other, a great poet closer to metaphysics than to science.
It’s a tricky problem, and an immensely important question. If literature were nothing more than its linguistic material, then it would be only a refined amusement for educated people, something along the lines of crossword puzzles for the elite. It must be admitted that a fair number of so-called literary works don’t go much beyond this, though they don’t lack for enthusiastic readers (the creators of crossword puzzles also can’t complain about their popularity, or so it seems to me).
In his marvelous book on Saint Augustine, Peter Brown says: “In deciding for a ‘life in philosophy’ Augustine didn’t renounce a barren culture rooted in literature. Just the opposite–he worked to battle and equally powerful and self-conscious late Roman way of life.” Let’s keep in mind this one phrase, “a barren culture rooted in literature.” The late Roman context is clearly important here, but we also glimpse a broader truth in Brown’s comment: any culture based solely on language, and on literature conceived as a linguistic exercise, as rhetoric, must finally grow dry. Like philosophy, literature must keep asking itself the ultimate questions. Otherwise it becomes mere literature! (And philosophy will be mere philosophy…)
Literature occupies a highly ambiguous position. It is–at least potentially–the queen of culture, a grande dame, a transforming experience, a shock, a revelation. But it falls from these heights with the greatest of ease to become pure gamesmanship, a conundrum, a showcase for linguistic sleight of hand. Sometimes in even a great poet’s work you may stumble across a sudden drop into mere language, rhetoric, even idle chatter.
I would rather read poetry that attempts “revelation” and fails than poetry that contents itself with “mere language.” I’m not speaking of schools, here. Vacuity haunts formalist/free “mainstream” verse as much as post-avant/conceptual/fill-in-the-blank “innovative” modes. In fact, our inability to engage, in criticism, the content of poetry is what makes so much current criticism useless at best, and at worst, an insult to the intelligence. It is, I think, a side-effect of the infatuation with linguistics, which has labored long and hard to empty language of its human content in favor of quasi-mathematical relationships, abstracted signs, “operations.”
It’s understandable that poets have been drawn to this intellectual farce. (By “farce” I mean the genre that achieves absurd humor by presenting the forms of social interaction emptied of their meanings.) The obsession with linguistics relieves the pressure poets would otherwise feel to say something new and insightful; it smoothes the road to tenure by appearing to validate poetry in a “scientific” way; it accommodates the snappy quips required to alleviate the deadly boredom of poetry readings; and it eliminates all risk of offending grants committees, which are trained to respond to rhetoric over content.