The linguistic turn is as old as poetry itself. What Seamus Heaney
calls the ‘suggestive etymology of the word “verse”’ (Preoccupations,
1980), has been frequently remarked. Derived from the Latin ‘versus’,
a turning, it refers, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to the
turning at the end of each poetic line. The unintentional ambiguities of
this last phrase indicate that poetry also represents a different kind of
turning, which carries to extremes a process implicit in the slippery
duplicity of all language. Pun, paronomasia, metaphor and metonymy,
double entendre, the linguistic turning of one thing into another, effect
in poetry, as in everyday discourse, a perpetual translation of experience.
Etymologically, indeed, the Greek ‘metaphor’ is virtually a
synonym of the Latin-derived ‘translation’, a carrying over or across
of meanings from one place to another. Such a transfigurative or
redemptive function, the conversion of events into the abstract
medium of language, creating a new and possibly renewed version of
things, has been ascribed to poetry ever since the Renaissance Neoplatonists
sought to rescue it from the odium Plato bestowed on it,
expelling it from his Republic as a lying discourse, a dangerous corrupter
of the truth. Renaissance literary criticism is full of play on the
trope of a language that, in Sir Philip Sidney’s famous words, converting
and contraverting Plato, substitutes ‘a golden world’ for
‘nature’s world of brass’.
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