The elusiveness of poetic meaning

Ratio 22 (4):398-420 (2009)
Various aspects of poetic meaning are discussed, centred on the relation of form and content. A C Bradley's thesis of form-content identity, suitably reformulated, is defended against criticisms by Peter Kivy. It is argued that the unity of form-content is not discovered in poetry so much as demanded of it when poetry is read 'as poetry'. A shift of emphasis from talking about 'meaning' in poetry to talking about 'content' is promoted, as is a more prominent role for 'experience' in characterising responses to poetry and its value. It is argued that the key to poetic meaning lies less in a theory of meaning, more in a theory of poetry, where what matters are modes of reading poetry. Content-identity in poetry is said to be 'interest-relative' such that no absolute answer, independent of the interests of the questioner, can determine when a poem and a paraphrase have the same content. Interpretation of poetry need not focus exclusively on meaning, but on ways in which the experience of a poem can be heightened.
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DOI 10.1111/j.1467-9329.2009.00442.x
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