“Language use” (as distinguished from “language”) is a choice of some words and communicative elements and quite naturally a suppression of others–for reasons of clarity, or at least for the effectiveness or efficiency of the communication, no matter how much remains ambiguous, as it always does, in all of our talking and writing. In what we say and write, we give each other recognition, even amid hostile interaction, as belonging to the same language-using group, as sharing certain communicative codes of everyday life–street slang, beauty salon lexicons, business buzz words and office talk, football fan language, hip-hop rhymes, academic manners and terms of discourse, politically coded terms and tactics of talk, vocabularies of medicine and conventions of therapeutic speech, etc.
Although there are counter-examples against what I am about to say, nevertheless there’s still use in the old thesis that poetry is a kind of language-use that especially “turns” language–by tropes, syntactic surprises or deviations from the expected word order, use of sound, use of particular kinds of words, etc., in such a way that what would have been suppressed or repressed or rejected or overlooked is actively brought into play, instead. There are lots of different kinds of “figures” that do these things—figures that we use all the time in everyday speech, but which we notice much more in poetry, for the reason that poetry is the space within which we are invited to use them more. (Poetry, we might say, is the invitation to use language that is more “turned” for various reasons–to give a special kind of emphasis and power to what is said.)
Repetitions of sound, various uses of the line and stanza, a playing with the forms and roots of words to create repetitions and puns, and other devices are among the ways in which language in a poem says to the reader: “Hey! I’m a poem!” All these devices are, to put this simplistically, like the dogs in the old Far Side cartoon whose barking has been decoded, at last, by a mad scientist’s device that shows that every barking dog up and down a street is saying the same thing as the mad scientist passes by on foot while wearing his scientific headphones: “Hey!” “Hey!” “Hey!” The great difference between poetic devices–tropes–and the cartoon dogs, though, is that “Hey!” is only the first of several things that each device is typically saying. (And in fact, those who own dogs–and cats–know that they too have real vocabularies, and say different things at different times.)
What is brought into play (extra, unanticipated meaning) makes one feel that the usual suppression or repression or prohibition or control of certain words, of the expression of certain ideas, thoughts, feelings, has been lessened or even defeated. What was not yet said, or not said often, is finally said—at least in part–even if only provisionally, for lack of our being able to say almost anything definitively. This is a mark of poetry.
So whether by means semantic, syntactic or structural, an effect of fresh saying (so the poet hopes, so the reader hopes) is created—often by means of an associative or intuitive process rather than a logical one (or, OK, a logical process: that too is possible, and usually is ornamented or made rhythmical, or both, in a way that logical argument is not usually expected to be). Perhaps a repeated sound links together a pair of lines or thoughts that are related in other ways, too; or binds together two lines otherwise so unrelated as to seem to fly apart (such rhyming of apparently disparate utterances began to be used conspicuously in the nineteenth century in European languages, but it was probably always there, in poetry; there’s also something like this, as I understand, in the ghazal in Urdu and other languages; and I have been told that such rhyming is not at all uncommon in Russian). Thus something (extra meaning, the meaning with which the language has now been charged) is created and communicated at the same time that the feeling of avoiding the expected is conveyed. (What’s usually expected is a suppression or repression or rejection or sheer play for the sake of getting the words right in a wrong way, so to speak. And who would want a surgeon to play with words in an ambiguous way while calling for an instrument, or an attorney, while in court, or a soldier, while at war? Poetry isn’t everything; it’s just something inherent as a possibility in language, something that permits a movement of thought, feeling, spirit, that otherwise is not possible.
Play, emotional and intellectual power, pleasure, and freedom or liberation from the expected–these are four of the many aspects of what happens to or with language in poetry. One implication of these four would be that stricture or laboring (two different opposites of “play”); passivity, vagueness or weakness of expression (opposites of “power”); dullness, unpleasantness, clumsiness, lack of precision, and maybe even pain (opposites of “pleasure”); and constraint or manipulation of thought and feeling or a perceived threat against thinking or feeling (opposites of freedom and liberation) might characterize some (not all) non-poetic language. At least, these opposites reveal what is not so often found in good poetry. I don’t think this is a matter of taste, or of different aesthetics. In its own terms, according to its own customary practices, over the last 5,000 years and more, perhaps all or most good poetry embodies these values. In contemporary poetic practice in many cultures, anything at all can be named, signified, described, portrayed, evoked, or imitated. What I’m trying to get at is the manner in which poetry uses language, no matter what the words mean semantically or how they point to things referentially.
Now, I do not mean to imply that non-poetic language is necessarily unpleasant because it must lack these poetic aspects; in prose, too, in our time, everything is permitted. In a writer like Samuel Beckett the prose is thick with poetic devices. It’s rather that the positives in my first list are what I think poetry makes possible to the greatest degree, in our language use.
Since language use, especially in poetry, is always leaving traces of choice, suppressed or repressed alternatives, etc., poetry always has always gotten to the slipperiness and contradictoriness of language before scholars and critics and literary theorists, and poetry in fact even invites them to do what they do when they analyze; and even invites them, I think, to chastise the poet or the poetry for not saying what they want to hear.
Poetry does not hide from clarity in obscurity, or hide from obscurity either; it just keeps proliferating meanings, even in its clearest, plainest statements, and it keeps proliferating structures of meaning, that make use of poetry’s possibilities of saying several things at once. So poetry is always adding meaning to itself anyway–usually in a pleasurable way, for those who get pleasure from such language use–and poetry often identifies for the close reader even (or especially) what the author did not consciously know he or she was doing, however deliberately he or she did it unconsciously. (It’s important to realize that this revealed unconscious content is not only personal and psychological, but also social, cultural, political.) Also, poetry tends to use all the many functions of language, not only and not necessarily mainly the representative or referential function (“signifier” and “signified”).
So in addition to naming things, poetry reproduces, in varying degrees and proportions, other things we do with language that don’t depend entirely on the meanings of words: being with someone, showing others that one is present and who one is, controlling other people with words, pleading or praying to divinities, and more. Here’s one convenient sorting of these functions into seven categories (different analysts of language functions come up with different schemes), quoted from Catherine Garvey, Children’s Talk (1984):
The linguist Michael Halliday observed his young son during the period when his vocalizations were assuming consistent phonological form and when he began to exhibit clearly an intention to communicate by means of these forms. Halliday was able to distinguish seven different functions, or uses, of his son’s talk, which he took to be models of the child’s conception of what talk is for. The first notion to emerge is that of talk as instrumental, a means of satisfying wants or needs. Another function is regulatory: the child discovers that others seek to control him by talking and that he can also control the behavior of others. The child also senses that one can establish and maintain contact with others by talking; he recognizes the interactional function. The child also expresses his individuality in talking; he asserts himself and his own sense of agency, for talking is a field of action in which he can make choices and take some responsibility. Thus talking has a personal function, as well. The heuristic, or learning, function, is exemplified in the perennial questions “why?” and “what’s that?”; the child finds that he can use talk to learn about and describe his world. And talking serves the imaginative function of pretend, which may overlap with an aesthetic function (although Halliday does not dwell on this possibility) as the child realizes that he can create images and pleasurable effects by talking. Finally, the perhaps the latest use of talk to appear, is the representational function, or talking to inform. Adults, when they think about language, regard it as a means of expressing propositions or as a means of conveying information. They view this as the primary function of talk, but it is hardly the dominant use for the child.