Poetry and the Possibility of Paraphrase

The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 79 (4):428-439 (2021)
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Abstract

Why is there a long-standing debate about paraphrase in poetry? Everyone agrees that paraphrase can be useful; everyone agrees that paraphrase is no substitute for the poem itself. What is there to disagree about? Perhaps this: whether paraphrase can specify everything that counts as a contribution to the meaning of a poem. There are, we say, two ways to take the question; on one way of taking it, the answer is that paraphrase cannot. Does this entail that there is meaning mysteriously locked in a poem, meaning that cannot be represented in any way other than via the poem itself? If that were so it would have profound implications for poetry’s capacity to convey insight. We suggest reasons for thinking that the entailment does not hold. Throughout, we connect the traditional debate over paraphrase, which has largely been conducted within the fields of philosophy and literary theory, with recent empirically oriented thinking about the communicability of meaning, represented by work in pragmatics. We end with a suggestion about what is to count as belonging to meaning, and what as merely among the things that determine meaning.

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Jacopo Frascaroli
University of Turin

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