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This interview is taken from PN Review 215, Volume 40 Number 3, January - February 2014.

Hearing Meaning and Poetry: In Conversation with Angela Leighton Karen Simecek
1. Poetry without a Message

karen simecek: In your recent paper, 'About About: On Poetry and Paraphrase', you discuss the nature of meaning in poetry and the idea of paraphrase. Poetry's resistance to paraphrase suggests the importance of the non-cognitive features of the work, such as the form, the white space, the sounds, rhymes, rhythms, and so on. What is the significance of these formal features in our experience of the work?

angela leighton: They are hugely important; in fact they are what makes poetry poetry. But I'm not sure that they're 'non-cognitive'. Certainly, these formal features are all busy at work when we read, calling for our attention, often setting one sense against another. The first thing we notice is what a poem looks like to the eye: how long it is, how short the lines are, how it straggles on the page or sits compactly in stanzas. Then we need the ear to hear it, performing the spaces as pauses as we read. And of course rhyme and rhythm also play to the ear, letting us hear the alternative logic of sounds: rhymes which chime across differences of meaning, or the beat which registers the tempo. Then, there's the hand too. Just as the formal layout is part of what we understand in a poem, so too is the feel of it, the thickness of the pages, the size of the volume. Because we read poems more slowly than prose, and we go ...


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