What do poets do again?

Donatus, writer of a fourth century Latin grammar that was wildly popular throughout the middle ages, took most of his example sentence from poetry, especially Vergil -- including for things like "barbarisms" and "solecisms", things which one, in theory, shouldn't do -- he found it all in Vergil and other poets.

Of all the things poets are supposed to do, to classical and medieval thinkers, this seems to be the one they talk about least: Poets discover and work out the ways language works. And yet, in the grammatical texts, that is all poets do, all they have done. And even a crazy poet like Ennius, who broke all the rules, will be remembered, if for no other reason than he did things which no other poet had thought to do.


  1. Ron said...

    Well, isn't the argument over "what is poetry supposed to do?" pretty much the contentious split between (post-)Language(-oriented) poetry and the (to use Silliman's term) School of Quietude: that is, where the former group sees poetry as a working laboratory in which to work out the mechanics of language, communication, and text-based social relations, and to use that understanding to deploy text in new ways; while the latter group sees the language as a means to the end of exploring and recording ineffable metaphorical and self-consciously emotional moments (the "lyrical")? Perhaps the point of your post is to suggest the classical mode (which many Quietudinals might claim to be direct heirs to) might really be closer to the avant?  

  2. Chris said...

    I've been meaning to apologize for how poorly written and thought this entry is. I am using my brain so much in school that I have little ability left to think.

    So, I hardly want to suggest that the classical/early medieval model for poetry was this and only this, the exploration of language. In fact, classical writers come off mostly as SoQ-types, but their use by grammarians suggests that there is something else going on, rarely explicitly commented on.

    But yes, the point of my post was to (badly, and perhaps obviously) point out this other tradition, of poetry as the laboratory of language, rather than the working out of ecstasy or emotion or whatnot, and wonder how aware people were of this conception of poetry and its use, such as it is, or whether there was an active discussion of it that simply didn't "win" the battle to be kept on the record.

    But I don't want to suggest any oversimplified picture -- poetry works for many purposes, acknowledged, unacknowledged, or unacknowledgeable, for various people.  

  3. Ron said...

    I also found myself thinking after making my comment yesterday that poetry might work as a language lab even for those, like the SoQ, who aren't trying to do so or even in some half-hearted way trying not to break some kind of paradigm. [Insert handwave-y invocation of Derridean language-uses-us-to-write-itself here]  


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