Pensées on the mechanics and magic of poetry

The study of poetry is a study of both the mechanics and the “magic” of words.

What do words do when they make meaning? We can map and analyze some of it (the mechanics), and some of it will remain a mystery (the “magic”).

To read a text well, you have to attend to both how the words work, and how the words refer to things beyond themselves.

The liminal space between a word and its meaning(s) is one key place where the “magic” happens.

The transformation of a word when it is severed from its original context and placed in an alien environment is a second key place where the “magic” of poetry happens.

To read the Bible well, you have to attend to both the mechanics and the “magic” of the words.

Therefore, studying poetry should make you a better reader of scripture. The skills learned in reading the former will spill over into your reading of the latter.

This is, of course, not all there is to reading the Bible. In mysterious cooperation with (and sometimes contradicting) our labor, the Holy Spirit acts in freedom and speaks to us through scripture.

It is a mistake to conflate the “magic” of words with the revelation of the Holy Spirit. This was Coleridge’s mistake in the Romantic period.

All the same, I still strongly suspect that there is something super-rational about words and the way that they mean meaning.

On Naming Unknowns

“It follows therefore that we can give a name to anything in as far as we can understand it.”
Thomas Aquinas, ST Ia, Q. 13, A. 1, co.

For Thomas, naming is preceded by understanding. But what if there is a second kind of naming, a naming of unknowns? This kind of naming is more algebraic, where the name is a placeholder for the unknown thing, until more knowledge is received about the thing in question. The best part about this kind of x-naming is that the name chosen will accrue extra layers of meaning over time as more and more is learned about the unknown thing.

I’ll take this one step further. Anytime we name anything, we are naming something that is at least partially unknown to us. Therefore, every act of naming is at least partially algebraic. Any time we use that word, we are plugging it into several larger equations of meaning, including the sentence, the paragraph, our lived lives, our shared cultural memory, etc. As we provisionally “solve” other parts of the equation of meaning, we attach more and more provisional meaning to a word which may have originally meant only “x = unknown.”

I’m sure many, many people have said this before me, but I don’t know what the terms are for this kind of x-naming. Do you know what it’s called? If yes, please tell me.