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New Meaning and Poetic Vocabulary: From Coleridge to Jackson Mac Low

Barrett Watten
Poetics Today
Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 147-186
Published by: Duke University Press
DOI: 10.2307/1773431
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1773431
Page Count: 40
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New Meaning and Poetic Vocabulary: From Coleridge to Jackson Mac Low
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Abstract

This essay charts the development in American modernist and postmodern poetics of the use of preestablished, nonauthorial "poetic vocabularies" for literary composition. While the Coleridgean concept of "poetic diction" is normative and hierarchical in its separation of appropriate and inappropriate lexicons for literature, "poetic vocabulary" is both open-ended and critical, allowing the "new meaning" of jargons, dialects, idioms, and technical senses into poetry. The emergence of "poetic vocabulary" may be discerned in a historicist reading of the Coleridgean account of "poetic diction" that extends Paul Hamilton's account of the criticality of the term desynonymy toward Coleridge's synthesis of the demands of "new meaning" in experimental poetry with his call for a readership of "suitable interpreters" who would preserve distinctions between terms. This Coleridgean synthesis directly influenced the conception and articulation of BASIC English by I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden, who wished to reduce the vocabulary of English in order to create a universal second language that would be transparent to the "new meanings" of science, industry, and commerce. Ogden and Richards's experiment in modern linguistic hygiene was quickly noticed by modernist practitioners of experimental poetry, and in 1932 the expatriate journal transition published a translation of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake into BASIC English, thus placing side by side "the simplest and most complex languages of man." The American poet Louis Zukofsky, inspired by BASIC's delimited vocabulary of 850 words, in turn made literary works using preestablished vocabularies, such as his early experimental text "Thanks to the Dictionary." Zukofsky also wrote a critique of Ogden and Richards's BASIC and continued to use delimited vocabularies in his experimental texts. The postmodern American poet Jackson Mac Low directly incorporated the 850-word BASIC vocabulary in many experimental texts; vocabularies such as BASIC become the "source texts" that, through the application of compositional rules, yield the "target forms" of Mac Low's poetic work. This movement from "source text" to "target form" is reenacted in the reading and production of Mac Low's works according to the careful instructions of his prefaces. Mac Low's work identifies an ethics of reading as well as a notion of community with the arbitrariness and constructedness of his pregiven poetic vocabularies.

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