Wednesday, May 13, 2009

no ideas but in things

It seems (to me) like people always mention Willam Carlos William's statement "no ideas but in things", and talk about whether they agree or disagree with it, whether he was "right" or "wrong". However, it always seems like they give as vague an explanation for the mantra as the mantra itself. This always leaves me skeptical as to what they're actually disagreeing with.

, drawing some distinctions ("poetry" deals with "people", "philosophy" with "things"). I can't say I'm a big fan of drawing some absolute line of separation between "poetry" and "philosophy". I mean I'm interested in the "idea" for the purposes of thought experiments. See where it can go. But I'm wary of "trusting" in such an arbitrary distinction.

I appreciate Thomas going into more detail as to his interpretation of the mantra though. Here, I think I'm going to do the opposite of what it seems like most people do when they bring up "no ideas but in things": I'm going to talk about what I think he meant, and be vague about whether I agree or not. Actually, I don't have to be vague, I just don't know whether I agree or not.

: : :

From Paterson:
—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!
: : :

I've always kind of taken "no ideas but in things" in context of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. While I'm pretty sure Williams had never heard of Benjamin Whorf, I've noticed a few people around that time that were working with the basic idea that Worf was articulating. The language model Williams was working with certainly has some in common with Whorfian linguistics. I just mean this in the simple sense that "the world of ideas" (our thoughts) is controlled by "the world of language".

Not sure if this next part is an extension of the Whorfian model, but with Williams "the world of Things" and "the world of Words" are the same. All a system of interacting perceptions and assumptions.

The most practical way of demonstrating what Williams might have meant is to examine language when it tries to refer to "ideas" that are not "things". For instance, concepts like "nothing", "absence", and "inability". These are all extended metaphors. We can't refer to what we "mean" directly, only through the context of their corresponding "thing" ("no"thing, "ab"sence, "in"ability). Because of this, certain paraphiers of the metaphor get carried along into these concepts of negation and we begin to talk about them as if they were the thing that they are negating: "having" nothing; "possessing" an inability; "sensing" an absence.
In the model Williams seems to be setting up ideas come from words, and words are (and come from other) things.

In this model, language is a complex system of metaphors, each word "referring" to an object (or percept) in the material world (for instance "to kick). Each word, as it references, becomes an object and percept itself, and other words form to describe and categorize it (for instance, the word "ability" which contains a conglomeration of concepts including "kicking").

Things move in this direction: First there is a foot, then words for foot and things that the foot does. After this there are words that categorize these other words ("motions", "abilities", "movements". Then we have the word "foot" that describes measurement, referencing merely the length of the foot. And then still further, we have the a "foot" in poetry (meter) which both references the connotations of "measurement" and "walking". The word foot then is used in many different contexts, each squeezing out particular connotations of the original percept.

From Spring and All:
So long as the sky is an association
is recognized in its function as an accessory to vague words whose meaning it is impossible to recover.

So, Williams is saying that all of our "ideas" and concepts and thoughts derive from, and are affected by, this system of things and words.


Thomas also writes "Williams was not actually writing down the things he saw; he was writing down the ideas in his mind". I think it's worth noting that Williams would have disagreed with this statement.

From Spring and All:
What I put down of value will have this value: an escape from crude symbolism, the annihilation of strained associations, complicated ritualistic forms designed to separate the work from "reality"...

...The work will be in the realm of the imagination as plain as the sky is to the fisherman--A very clouded sentence. The word must be put down for itself, not as a symbol of nature but a part, cognizant of the whole--aware--civilized.
For Williams, poetry was not a presentation of thoughts, nor even a presentation of perceptions. It was "its own thing" entirely. It was a taking-part-in this world of things.

1 comment:

Thomas Basbøll said...

Some stray thoughts. I'm not quite sure how they bear on the things you're thinking about:

Williams would say: there are so and so many different kinds of snow and, not but in them, different ideas about snow.

Whorf would say that the vocubulary for snow was adjusted to practical interests.

Of course, there are just as many different kinds of snow in Maine as in Greenland. There are just as many different things. And, if I recall, the current wisdom is that there are just as many words for snow (slush, sleet, snow, powder ... etc.).

This post touches on some of these issues. How words are real things.