Abduction in poetry

Abduction in poetry

Let us consider the following text.



It is the English translation of a Dutch poem by J.Bernlef (pseudonym of H.J.Marsman), a contemporary Dutch avant­garde poet. For the sake of my argument I will talk about this short text as if it were the original version.

The word Door in this text is a title, because of its place. The words push and pull can both be considered as verses. The whole text is a poem. My jumping to this conclusion is the result of my perception of several phenomena that I take for Indices for poetry. Each text is accompanied by internal or external Indices concerning its nature, that is to say Indices by which the author of the text lets us know how he wants us the text to be taken. Peirce has said that each text is accompanied by at least one Index to indicate that the real world is meant or not. We may reformulate this statement as follows: each text is provided with Indices that inform the reader about its fictional or non-fictional nature, its literary or non­literary nature, etc. These Indices may be text­internal or text­external.

In Door we can find several text­internal Indices for poetry: a sophisticated arrangement of the words over the page (like verses, embedded in much white), and alliteration. The name J.Bernlef is an external Index, and so is the context, the set of poems by which Door is surrounded in the book or the literary review where the poem can be found. These other poems are like the friends one goes with to a stadium to see a football match. The characteristics of the whole group contribute to the determination of one’s individual identity in special circumstances. If one is with a group of hooligans, one has a fair chance of being taken for a hooligan, at least by external observers. When sitting together with yuppies and drinking white beer and eating dimsum in particular Amsterdam café’s, one will easily be taken for a yuppy. Texts are subject to the same semiotic contagious effect: if surrounded by poems, a text is most probably a poem itself.

My coming to the conslusion that Door is a poem is the result of the functioning of one of my personal mental expert systems (department of Literature) that is provided with knowledge like J.Bernlef is a poet, a sophisticated display of lines on the page makes a text a poem, a text surrounded by poems is most probably itself a poem. So my mind is able to put in action an inferential mecanism. Some simplified models for these ways of functioning are:

Index ‘Bernlef’

* This text is written by Bernlef
* If a text is written by Bernlef, it is a literary text and may be a poem
* This text is a literary text and may be a poem

Index ‘sophisticated display of words’

* The display of the words in this text is sophisticated
* If in a text the display of the words is sophisticated, the text is a poem
* This text is a poem

Index ‘surrounding poems ’

* This text is surrounded by poems
* If a text is surrounded by poems, it is most probably a poem itself
* This text is a poem

We may substitute to the preceeding models by one single model:

* This text shows traditional Indices for poetry
* If a text shows traditional Indices for ‘poetry’, it is a poem
* This text is a poem

All these inferences, which generate the conclusion Door is a poem are of the deductive type. As the traditional rules are present in the mind of someone familiar with the characteristics of traditional versification and have neither to be tested nor discovered, the Arguments are all of the type of deductive deduction. The conclusion Door is a poem has a very low uncertainty­value. We feel pretty sure that Door is meant to be taken for a poem.

This is so because the rules implicated in this Argument are generally accepted rules, that we may call given rules. These rules, ‘given’ by knowledge, experience and training, are part of our poetic competence. The psychological vectors in it are first of all an ability to handle a specialized knowledge about poetry, fixed in rules and habits, an ability to apply the rules and make use of the habits in an adequate way. But besides this, capabilities of generalizing and of guessing play an important role. These capabilities are related to the amazing and wonderful capability of readers of poetry to create and establish their new personal rules.
2. Rules.

The need for new rules is triggered by intriguing phenomena which are considered as signs, in order to find an explanation for their presence.

In the poem Door such signs (Indices) are the trivial character of the linguistic constituents and their reference to the trivial situation where we find the last two Push and Pull as words, connected to a situation where door is not a word but a thing. Traditionally speaking, nothing seems less poetic than the door and its inscriptions Push and Pull.

The triviality creates a tension with the traditional Indices for poetry I have been talking of. The triviality­signs may be considered as Indices for non­poetry. The combination of traditional Indices for poetry and of Indices for non­poetry has an antinomous character and creates a kind of psychological tension in the mind of the reader. He has to give an answer to the question: is this poetry or is it just a joke?

The correct answer is: this is a poem that is a joke. This is a very apodeictic way of putting things, that can only be justified by finding some rule which finds its place in some Argument of the abductive type. We may imagine these Arguments as follows:

* The poem is funny
* Door is a funny poem

If a text shows the antonimous presence of Indices for poetry together with Indices for non-poetry, it is a funny poem. Door is a text that shows the antonimous presence of Indices for poetry together with Indices for non-poetry.

The poem is a ready made (un objet trouvé).

* Door makes use of a combination of a thing and words, as they are found in every­day liffe.
* If a poem makes use of a combination of a thing and words, as they are found in every­day life, it is a ready made, un objet trouvé.
* Door is a ready made, un objet trouvé.

The transgressive element here is that the combination of these kinds of abduction subvert implicit traditional assumptions that poetry is a serious matter and should stay away from the triviality of things encountered in daily life.

If the reader is familiar with the possibilities of modern poetry, these abductions are of the type of inductive abduction; the rules are ­ as in the examples of deductive inference in relation to this poem ­ given, i.e. available in his mind. If the reader is untrained, if he has no expert system concerning modern poetry, the rules are created rules. In this case the abduction is creative abduction (innovative abduction, abductive abduction).

While the deductive inference enables the reader to go forward in the text, the abductive moments forces him to stand still, look back and search for a hypothetical explanation of this puzzle: why is this a poem, notwithstanding the presence of Indices of non­poetry? He may rely on a fundamental Argument:

Poetry leaves space for fun

* Door is a funny text
* If a text is funny, it may nevertheless be a (funny) poem
* Door may be a (funny) poem

In combination with other Arguments this may become:

* Door is a funny poem.

3. Deduction in poetry.

No reader of poetry can do without inferential procedures of the deductive type. Deduction is forward reasoning. It is forward reasoning in this sense that fact and general rule come before the conclusion. Deduction is: semiotically constructing the future. It is inferential law and order.

Proceeding exclusively along the lines of deduction would be extremely boring and contrary to what poetry fundamentally is: a beautiful riddle, a seductive challenge for the mind and the soul. Abduction is the inferential tool that introduces the reader into the space of poetry. Abduction is reasoning backwards towards a hypothetical explanation. The explanation needs a rule. The guess at the riddle is in the application of a rule, whether it be appropriate or not. The question whether the rule is appropriate arises when it is a given rule, and still more when the rule is invented, in a process of creative abduction. The specificity of the creative Argument is in the fact that no rule whatsoever is available. Abduction has the lively smell of anarchism. Other may say: chaos. Peirce would say: Firstness.

Of really good poetry we may say that it creates its own, specific, internal poetic rules. We may think then of the author as somebody who introduces these rules implicitely as something new and personal in his poem. This is only half the truth. The reader meets the author halfway, in discovering the new rules that allow him to give an interpretation to the poem.

This is how the reader can start to familiarize himself with poetry, with poetic specificities in general, with the specificities of certain poets and certain groups of poets. He does so by discovering, establishing and internalizing general rules along the lines of induction.

If a poem shows characteristics of the type A,B,C, it is a poem of X. If it shows characteristics of the type L,M,N, it is a poem of Y. Exemples: if a poem is a sonnet and tells about nostalgia for the countrylife in Anjou, where it is better to live than amongst the worldly splendours of Rome, then the poet is Joachim du Bellay, but if the sonnet tells about a trip to see the bridge near Zaltbommel and about a woman singing psalms on a boat on the river Rhine, the poet is Martinus Nijhoff.

If a poem shows the characteristics P,Q,R, it may be designated as belonging to a particular genre, to a literary movement (lyrical, romantic, etc.). Example: if a poem tells about the culture of oranges, it may be called didactic, but if it tells about unhappy love, it is lyrical.

Peirce suggested that we have a trained instinct for reasoning. We have, I think, also a trained instinct for understanding and appreciating poetry. Knowledge, common sense, memory, allow us to march forward from word to word, from verse to verse, from meaning to meaning. Deduction leads us forward, towards some sort of intellectual understanding. Our sensibility enables us to progress from poetic asset to poetic asset, from one thetorical trick to another, from iconic sign to iconic sign, from beauty to beauty. Thus deduction brings us to some conclusion, which may be an emotional approval (or refusal).

Our poetic instinct forces us back to the poetic secret. That is the abductive road, that leads to the soul, be it the soul of the poem, of the poet, or of the reader. In training our poetic instinct, we take part in the great games of literary theory and the history of literature, by applying existing general rules. And, of course, we create our personal rules that we integrate in our personal expert system. It is conceivable that one of these rules, if formulated by some literature­professional, sooner or later finds its place in literary textbooks.
4. Reality and fiction.

Themerson wrote:
Words about words
are about words
but words
are about the rest of the world

And even words about words about words
will not reach you
without that part of the world
which isn’t words.

This is a poem that I love very much. It is interesting to find out where my positive reaction comes from, what is the main cause of my satisfaction. I will try to find out in the poem itself.

Themerson’s poem makes intellectual understanding, by means of deduction, possible beyond too much doubt. Nevertheless it is a riddle, because it contains an amusing trick. The whole text consists of one long sentence in which the word word seems to be the dominating element. It appears 8 times on a total of 35. Nearly one word out of four is: word. But there are curious oppositions: words about words versus words about the rest of the world, and words about words about words versus that part of the world which isn’t words.

These oppositions can be related to the following fact of life. Intellectuals, especially lovers of literature, spend a great deal of their life in a ‘world of words’. That is: reality generated by words. What is more, this world generates feelings, emotions and reflections in relation to that fictive reality. People may shed tears over the fate of Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina or laugh about what happens to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, while ignoring everything about the joys and sorrows of their immediate neighbours, who are part of the ‘world which isn’t words’. In this conception it is the ultimate function of literature to make us more sensitive for the ‘world that isn’t words’. This is valid for poetry as well as literary prose. But poetry has an extra: it makes us more sensitive to the possibilities and beauties of language, this marvellous tool by which the word­made world of fiction is created.

Language is a sign­system among others, and it has, as other sign­systems, the power of giving access to reality. In our postmodern days, this conviction gives birth to an intellectual attitude that shows a tendency to deny the existence of boundaries between fictive worlds and the real world. It is true that the new media, like film and tv, confront us with two realities: the purely manipulated virtual reality of fiction, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the partly manipulted non­fictive reality of news and information. We consume these realities in the context of the non­fictive reality of our life. That is: a more or less tangible reality, a close and warm reality, a real reality, lived from outside and from within, a reality of pain and pleasure, a skin­to­skin­reality, to which our our thoughts, feelings and dreams are intensely connected.

It is true that boundaries between these worlds are vague. It is wise ­ and very Peircean ­ to accept a general principle of unavoidable vagueness. Acceptance of that principle of vagueness could save us from the plagues of fanatism, dogmatism and of rigid doctrinary attitudes. Nevertheless it is absolutely necessary to accept the fact that there are boundaries, otherwise the way is open to complete manipulation. The success of visual advertisement is in the exploitation of the manipulative possibilities offered by the wiping out of boundaries between the real and the fictive.

The opposition that exists between the different worlds can be translated in basic semiotic terms. We may say that semiosis starts with interpretation. This point of view reduces the importance of the real world; with this concept one may even say ‘I do not know what the real world is’ or ‘I do not see any difference beween the real and the unreal world’. This attitude has an attractive aspect for people who do not like to intervene in difficult problems in real life and in the real world: it legitimates a turning away from responsibility.

For the sake of argument, I will call the former attitude realistic and the latter nominalistic. Themerson, by the structural (statistical) characteristics of his poem, stresses the importance of words and of the world of words, while the structure of the poem the world that isn’t words is the climax of the sentence) gives priority to non­verbal reality. Thus, Themerson places himself on the side of the realists; the message in this poem is an anti­nominalistic one.

I think that I love this poem most of all because I have a preference for the realistic attitude and abhor nominalism.

I love literature. I love the worlds in words literature creates. Iwan, Dmitri and Aliocha Karamazov are dear friends to me. But I have a basic belief in the reality of the world I live in, in its priority compared to other possible worlds. In other words, my heart says yes to Themersons message. My analysis leads me to this hypothetical explanation for the charm Themerson’s poem had immediately for me. This is the fundamental abduction of the lover of poetry, and a justification for the pleasure we may even find in words about words.
5. The meaning of poetry

It is often some hidden iconicity that gives a poem its beauty. Iconicity constitutes its secret seductive power.

In Themerson’s poem it is the plethora of the word word that is an Icon. It makes the reader feel how suffocating it can be, if there are too many ‘words about words’ or even ‘words about words about words’. Themerson’s choice for an extremely simple, non­metaphoric, vocabulary in this poem is iconic too. The persuasive power of simplicity is: the message is simple.

I think that iconicity is the essence of poetry. It is the element of Firstness in the poem. Where is Firstness, is the ‘smell of freshness’, as Peirce called it.

Beauty is not enough to make a good poem. There must be some challenge to the mind, some puzzle and some subversive element, like in Bernlef’s Door; that explains the laugh it asks for. There is a third condition: the poem must provoke some existential response, be it agreement (the poet says what the reader feels) or the opposite (the poet shocks the reader in his most sacred convictions). I realize that it is an oldfashioned thing to say: the poem must contain some message in which a personal ‘engagement’ reveals itself. Georges Bataille was right when he called literature communication. There is no communication without a message. Even in the smallest poem there is a message. The message in Door is: poetry can be found on the two sides of a door.

© Aart van Zoest, Februari 2001

1. The Dutch original of Bernlef’s poem:
2. The poem is to be found in: J.Bernlef, ‘Achter de rug. Gedichten 1960-1990’, Amsterdam, Querido, 1997
3. Themerson’s poem is to be found in: Stefan Themerson, ‘On Semantic Poetry’, London, Laberbocchus Press, 1975
4. For Peirce, see his ‘Collected Papers’
5. For more about abduction in poetry, see: A.J.A.van Zoest & J.C.A.van der Lubbe, ‘Inference switching in the interpretation of poetry’, in I.Rauch & G.F.Carr (eds), ‘Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Berkeley 1994’
6. This essay has been earlier published in Ernest W.B.Hess-Lüttich, Jürgen E.Müller & Aart van Zoest (eds), Signs & Space, Raum & Zeichen, Tübingen, Gunter Narr, 1997