The whole fabric
Word-music is a factor in poetic composition, but it is not what makes poetry. The same is true of imagery, word-pathos, “criticism of life,” and dynamic” phantasy. Sound and sense, implication and suggestion, derivations and metaphorical meanings, grammar, accent, dialect, strong and weak word-forms—all are materials out of which the elements of poetry may be made. But those elements are as non-discursive as the painter’s perceptual objects, the musician’s sonorous moving forms, the dancer’s virtual forces. They are created, i.e., are illusions achieved by abstracting semblances from the actual world, and then composing these sheer appearances into new forms that mirror the logic of feeling.
The nature of literary creations is most readily illustrated in a simple experience with words that probably everyone has encountered: that a perfectly familiar fact seems perfectly terrible when stated a certain way. I do not mean in a certain tone of voice, but with a particular turn of phrase. Surely everybody has at some time been told: “It sounds so awful when you put it like that!” Or: “When you say it that way, it seems silly.” Or: “He made it sound simply wonderful.” One does not protest that the fact is so awful because of the presentation, but only that it seems, or “sounds,” that way. But one might say quite truly: “When you put it like that, it’s an awful thought!” The thought is awful, although the proposition remains just what it was. And here, I believe, is the principle of all literature, which is most evident in lyric poetry. Poetry asserts propositions only as thoughts. The same proposition may be thought in countless ways, and each way has its own emotional value. The proposition, which might be expressed in logical symbols, is related to the thought as a physical object is related to a visual form that portrays it. The thought is what the poet’s way of stating the proposition creates; the thought is a poetic element.
Our actual thoughts chase each other in haphazard fashion, so that their complete form rarely develops. We think and act without taking stock of the way events and phantasies, beliefs and proposals and expectations really present themselves; yet such experiences constitute our personal history. Like all actuality, that history is only half perceived, and half intellectually constructed. For practical purposes we do not need to remember an unbroken past, but only to reconstruct salient moments, that mark successive stations in the progression of events known as our “life.”
Literary art, by contrast, creates a completely “lived” piece of experience. The piece may be very small, like the brief thought that constitutes a lyric such as:
A slight disorder in the dress
Giveth to youth a wantonness—
But it is a thought really seen in its passage, followed through from its whimsical rise to the final pronouncement of taste that closes it. The idea is fully entertained, without being foiled by the incursion of other, perhaps more important thoughts; and it seems to be entertained actively, at the moment, though it was written more than 300 years ago. The reason is that it is the semblance of a thought; that is why we read it as something essentially timeless. The present tense, which is characteristic of lyric poetry, is really a “historical present,” for it makes no reference to the actual situation of the poet, but to an envisaged piece of life. In that context, events and acts seemingly take place as they do in actuality—but only seemingly; the experience of them is virtual, and the form of the illusory occurrences is as much simplified, organized, and composed as a picture. But such illusory events are not discursive propositions. The propositional material has been transformed into experiential elements in a created semblance of life.
This total semblance is, I think, what critics often refer to as the poet’s “vision.” I can find no other justification for that word. In the framework of the present theory, however, it is perfectly justified. A poem is essentially and entirely a creation; the words beget virtual elements, that exhibit forms of sensibility and emotion and thus carry a meaning beyond the discursive statements involved in their construction. But the meaning is not something to be read “between the lines”; it is in the lines, in every word and every punctuation mark as well as in the literal content of every sentence. The whole fabric is a work of art.
Suzanne Langer, The Primary Illusions and the Great Orders of Art