Why Poetry Is Not Technology:

The Inexplicability of Metaphor

Community College Humanities Association
New Orleans
1 November 1997
Len O’Brian
Mesa Community College
Mesa, Arizona

Posing the topic, "Why Poetry is not Technology," implies at least some confusion about the relationship between poetry and technology, the possibility of construing poetry as a technology, the possibility of controversy between those who see poetry as technology and those who don't. This possibility might appear remote: In any ordinary sense of 'poetry' and 'technology,' poetry is not a technology. Poetry is a form of literature, literature is not a technology, and therefore poetry is not a technology. The reasoning would seem obvious. In the late Twentieth Century, it isn't, not even to poets.

Robert Pinsky, United States poet laureate, writes in The New York Times (Op-ed, 10 April 1997), "The conventional notion is that technology and poetry are opposites, but poetry is itself a technology: an ancient technology.… " Did Pinsky say, 'Poetry is technology,' we might gloss the pronouncement as metaphor, albeit pedestrian metaphor. That option seems unavailable since Pinsky says, 'Poetry is a technology,' thereby paralleling poetry to sonic imaging in medicine, computerized design in architecture, and laser systems for the destruction of satellites. Apparently, Pinsky believes that poetry is a technology, literally.

I will argue that he is wrong. Granted, there are ways in which poetry may be used technologically, for example as a device of memory, and ways in which technology can be so broadly defined that any human effort to achieve any end becomes technological. But essentially, poetry is not a technology; to suggest that it is, without careful qualification, misleads. Basically, I think that Pinsky is wrong.

Nevertheless, he reveals important insights about our lives and poetry. Indeed, it is the wisdom in Pinsky's editorial that renders his confusion of poetry with technology ironical; for Pinsky argues, and argues eloquently, that poetry addresses those dimensions of our lives that mystify inevitably, elude us ineluctably. He fails to see that the assertion of such a ministry of the mysterious contradicts his classification of poetry. This poet's confusion, I suspect, reflects a wider, cultural confusion of these times, in which technology is so rapidly coming to do so much, that we mistakenly imagine that everything that humankind is doing, humankind is doing technologically, and we thereby depreciate, even if covertly or inadvertently, the softer sciences and the higher arts.

This argument, first, defines the two crucial terms; second, examines a poem that posits a more accurate relationship between poetry and technology; third, hazards a controversial account of the metaphysics of metaphor; and concludes by returning to the wiser aspects of Pinsky's counsel.

A Semantic Argument

The claim under discussion classifies poetry as one of the technologies. The adequacy of the claim can be evaluated, in part, by clarifying the words, 'technology' and 'poetry.' Our definitions must not be overly broad. If we define 'technology' as, say, the application of all human knowledge, insight, and intuition to all human problems and endeavors, we wax vacuous. The following definitions are reasonably delimited.

Technology: The application of knowledge to (generally practical) tasks with the intention of completing the tasks.

Poetry: The application of knowledge to (generally axiological, emotional, aesthetic) tasks, which, in principle, cannot be completed.

These definitions leave much unsaid. For example, technological knowledge typically is mathematico-physical; poetic knowledge involves distinctive properties of language whereby poetry might be distinguished from philosophy, psychology, and the visual arts. But the definitions should serve, since we seek to delineate the relations between poetry and technology.

These definitions accord with actual lexical definitions of 'poetry' and 'technology;' but they identify facts about the ordinary applications of the two words that dictionaries typically ignore. Ordinary applications of 'technology' and 'poetry' differ in that technologically addressed tasks, in principle, can be completed, poetically addressed tasks cannot. When I place a calculator and checkbook on the desk, I intend to balance the checkbook. I hope to do it tonight. Eventually, I will get it done. On the other hand, if I place a book of poetry on my desk and begin to read, I don't "hope to do it tonight." Nor will I ever "get it done," as I will with the checkbook. Rather, I anticipate a process that, if the poetry is good, need never end. With the checkbook, at some point I may as well put the calculator away because the task is completed. When, at night, I stop reading poetry, it will be because I'm tired or have some other task to attend to, not because I've completed a task. Similar contrasts obtain, mutatis mutandis, with poetry and computers, poetry and internal combustion engines, poetry and drip systems for our lawns. In each instance, we enlist technology to complete a task.

It might seem that the calculator and book of poetry resemble one another more than this account allows. After all, we put the book of poetry aside, later pick it up again; we put the calculator aside, later pick it up again. Both are tools that we use recurrently, thus it is not the case that technology applies to tasks that can be completed whereas poetry does not. The mistake here consists in confusing the incompletability of tasks that constitute a series with the incompletability of the series itself. Our reading of poetry constitutes an essentially incompletable series as does our recurrent us of the calculator. But any task of reading poetry is incompletable, by contrast with most uses of the calculator. A calculator, for example, subtracts $50.41 from $107.23 and tells us, with finality, that our checkbook contains $56.82. End of the story. Where, however, do we find the end to the meaning of even such a short poem as this one by Margaret Atwood?

You Fit Into Me

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

The meaning of the poem is inexhaustible.

Thus, poetry is not technology, given our usual application of the two crucial terms. Consideration of the lexical meanings of the words suffices to show that it is not. But if poetry is not technology, what is it? The metaphysics of metaphor will help to begin to answer that question; but before broaching metaphysics, our thesis will gain support from what might be called the poetry of poetry.

A Poetic Argument

Utterances that are false literally may be fruitful metaphorically. Seamus Heaney addresses the relation between poetry and technology in his poem, "Digging."

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots to awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

This poem, in part, concerns the relationship between poetry and technology. The speaker essentially says that poetry is technology: His pen is the spade of his father, and, before his father, the spade of his grandfather. At the same time—here we touch on the nature of metaphor—the speaker knows that his pen is not a spade. True, with his pen the speaker digs in his genealogy, in his own way opens to light his living roots, recalling, in his poetry, his forebearers' curt cuts in the turf. But on this embattled island, the pen is as much a gun as it is a spade; and guns just aren't spades. Moreover, one man's skills cannot substitute for another man's—the men and the skills remain unique. The speaker admits, "But I've no spade to follow men like them." The poem had begun with the neatness of rhyming couplet:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

It ends untidily, trailing off into three lines that are conspicuously devoid of rhyme, the last line evincing determination, resignation, modesty:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

He'll go with what he has. The pen, which is a spade, is not a spade. Such paradoxes comprise the essence of metaphor and, hence, of poetry. They invite our continuing examination, but elude our final comprehension. They initiate rather than terminate epistemic journeys. By virtue of an enduring, suggestive translucence, they distinguish poetry from technology, literally.

A Metaphysical Argument

Lexically, 'poetry' means a form of literature, not a form of technology, for good reason: Poetry approaches axiological, psychological, and aesthetic tasks, which cannot be completed in the same way that we can complete the practical tasks addressed by technology. As readers of poetry, we experience this fact in poetry's resistance to explication. This psychological fact, that poetry resists explication, might be thought sufficient to establish the thesis that poetry is not technology. But the distinction between poetry and technology rests, ultimately, not merely on the psychology of explication, but on its metaphysics. To put the point differently, poems do not merely resist explication; ultimately, they defy it. Poems defy explication because they are based on metaphors, and metaphors are inexplicable in principle.

Consider pens, spades, and the metaphor, 'This pen is my father's spade,' paraphrased from Heaney's poem. Of course, the metaphor can be explicated in practice, that is, we can elucidate it for others and ourselves. We can note that both objects are roughly cylindrical, note that both are pointed, note that we refer to research as 'digging,' that both archeologists and genealogists in some sense 'dig,' and on and on—all with practical benefit to our understanding of the poem. The metaphor is explicable in practice. But if the metaphor is explicable in principle, the two parts of the metaphor—'pen,' 'spade'—must share some property, and it must be by virtue of that property that the pen and the spade resemble one another. But the pen and the spade do not share a property whereby they resemble one another. They do not resemble one another by sharing shape, because their respective cylindricalities differ. Do they share a shape at their working end? Their respective pointednesses differ. Do they share the way they are held by their wielders? One is grasped by both hands, the other by several fingers. In ordinary parlance, we say that pen and spade share various properties, and we imagine that they resemble one another by virtue of these shared properties. But that is the loose talk of workaday literary conversation, not the precise language of metaphysics. Metaphysically, if pens and spades share any properties, it is not by virtue of those properties that they resemble each other. So, by virtue of what do pens and spades resemble each other? By virtue of nothing. They are just similar. That is all.

Mason Myers saw this point 30 years ago (Mason C. Myers, “Inexplicable Analogies,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 22, March 1962, pp. 326-33.). He used our experience of color to make the point. Think of three experiences, that of red, that of orange, and that of yellow. The experience of orange resembles the experience of red more than does the experience of yellow; yet it is not by virtue of any shared properties that the experience of orange resembles the experience of red. The point is phenomenological: If a skeptic notes that orange is produced by combining agents that otherwise produce the experiences of red and yellow, and so red and orange do share a property, Myers would say that the point concerns our experience, not the biochemistry of color production. If the skeptic notes that orange and red share the property of both being colors, Myers would rejoin that yellow has that property as well, so it is not by virtue of a shared property that the experience of orange resembles the experience of red more than does the experience of yellow. The fact is that, in the experience of colors, some resemble others but not by virtue of shared properties. Myers call this kind of resemblance "dyadic resemblance." Back to pens and spades: They resemble each other dyadically.

Myers applied the point to analogical language in theology. We may apply the point more broadly to all metaphors. They are inexplicable in principle because the two parts of a metaphor resemble each other but not by virtue of any shared property. They are dyadically similar. We may elucidate metaphors, explicate them in practice; but we will never elucidate them through the identification of a shared property. Ultimately, metaphors defy explication.

Here we have the metaphysical basis for the fact that poetry is not technology. Technology addresses practical tasks with knowledge that may, sooner or later, achieve completion of those tasks. Poetry broaches axiological, psychological, and aesthetic tasks, tasks that, in principle cannot be completed, through metaphoric knowledge, which, in principle, cannot be explicated.

I have used Robert Pinsky as something of a foil. Ironically, even though, in my view, he confuses the relationship of poetry and technology, his characterization of poetry itself does articulate its essential connection to the elusive, even transcendent, dimensions of our experience.

There appears to be a link between the creative power of the imagination and the power of what might be called "mumbo-jumbo"—a place where formal intensity and opacity overlap. That is, to conceive of something new seems to be linked to an intimate sense of the mysterious—something that is not immediately reducible to paraphrase. (Ibid .)

I add the metaphysical and ethical caveats: Poetry is not reducible to paraphrase immediately, or ever; our lives are not fully edified by any language, literal or poetic, now, or ever. Poetic language reflects all those facts.