Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Friday, April 17, 2015

Synecdochical Fallacy

Gustave Flaubert
     "I should rather be skinned alive than exploit my feelings in writing. I refuse to consider Art a drain-pipe for passion, a kind of chamberpot, a slightly more elegant substitute for gossip. No, no! Genuine poetry is not the scum of the heart."

- Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

     "News flash: poets don't have deeper or finer feelings than anyone else, they don't have more insight into personal relationships, they don't understand the cosmos better than ordinary people; they're not philosophers.  They just have a gift for writing."

 - Diana Manister, "The Critical Poet", 2008-06-29

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #151

     Poetry is a mode of speech.

     Sadly, there is a tendency among many to act like those six blind men trying to conceptualize an elephant based on the part they are examining.  Such tunnel vision causes the classic synecdochical fallacy, confusing the subset (i.e. genre) with the whole (i.e. poetry).

     That poetry is a mode of speech is not an opinion, a belief, a guess or an aesthetic statement.  It is an incontrovertible fact.  It is the most basic truth about verse--even more fundamental than its definition as verbatim speech.  Failure to understand this leads inevitably to polemics, provincialism, pseudo-intellectualism and Content Regency.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
     As a mode of speech, verse can be used to express any topic, genre or viewpoint.  It follows that poetry is not¹ "the scum of the heart."  Not all [great] poems are gushers like "Sonnets from the Portuguese 43" or "Do not go gentle into that good night". 

     Contrary to Lewis Turco's peculiar ideolect, poetry is not a genre simply because it has no single "form, content, technique, or the like."  Poems can be fictional, non-fictional, romantic, tragic, comedic, dramatic, or any other topical category.  They may have form or not.  Ditto meter, which we can surmise is a fairly recent addition by asking ourselves how primitive societies could quantify or measure something² until after it existed.

     Poetry is not¹ cryptic (no definitive meaning), vacuous (no significant meaning), obvious (one inescapable meaning) or ambiguous (two or more clear meanings).  Not all [great] poems are multifaceted gems like "The Red Wheelbarrow", amphigouri like "Jabberwocky", dualities such as "Beans" or unidimensional perspectives like "Dulce et Decorum Est".

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
     Poetry is not¹ profound writing.  Those who swallowed this myth need to read better prose.  Let me suggest they start with novelists Carol Shields and Timothy Findley before moving on to various philosophers. 

     Poetry is neither¹ humorous nor humorless.  Paradoxically, in the case of the "Tay Bridge Disaster", it can be both at the same time.

     Poetry is not¹ art.  It can be and sometimes is but, as a mode of speech, it can be put to any purpose, from selling toothpaste to relaying the WORD OF GOD in holy verses.  If you forget this you may end up having to argue that "Thirty days hath September, April, June and November" is prose rather than poetry--those being the only two options.

     Poetry can be any damned thing it wants to be.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
     Avoid embarrassment.  Repeat "Poetry is a mode of speech" like the truism that it is.  Repeat it like a mantra, a catchphrase or a spell to ward off the most ghastly of aesthetic afflictions, Convenient Poetics.

    "Poetry is a mode of speech.

    "Poetry is a mode of speech.

    "Poetry is a mode of speech."

    "Poetry is a mode of speech."

    "Poetry is a mode of speech."


¹ - Not exclusively, at least.  It's like saying "Humans eat gummy bears."  Some do, but until all of us do the assertion, if intended as definitional, is an overstatement and therefore incorrect.

² - e.g. tempi, alliterations, assonances and--much later and only in accented languages--stresses.  All [metrical] verse is poetry but not all poetry is metered;  thus, everyone other than Mr. Turco understands which is the superset and which is the subset.


  1. How 'bout just trying that poetry is the parent of literature, but not necessarily communication? I'm not buying mode of speech. Being that parent, it cannot be trapped so easily, though we often try: literary poetry, spoken word, etc.

    You're spot-on about those who confuse a genre with the whole.

  2. Hmm. Every emerging society would have developed prose before poetry, plain speech and paraphrased myths before recited epics. Chronologically, at least, prose is the parent but, as you suggest, it isn't clear when this storytelling could be considered literature. I suppose the moment when tribespeople began to memorize words, thus giving birth to poetry, could be considered as good a starting point as any for literature.

    As for prose and poetry being modes of speech, it's a simple binary question: a preliterate culture would either preserve the story verbatim (poetry) or not (prose). IMHO, a few commercial jingles should dispel the notion that all poetry is art or literature. Even if we limit the discussion to art forms, prose versus poetry, I'm leery of declaring one superior to the other. They are simply very different ways of conveying thought.

    Interesting question, Bill. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Any artform that I enjoy (poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, music etc.) and is worthy of the term 'art' as opposed to simply 'entertainment', resonates in me with an undeniable truth and that is why I like it.


Your comments and questions are welcome.