The Heresy of Paraphrase
Published on August 1, 2011 6:13 pm.

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The NYTimes holds forth on the heresy of paraphrase:

So what is your poem about?

[The] frustration [associated with that question] has little if anything to do with the supposed stormy temperaments of poets. It rather derives, at least partly, from the fact that the question, simple as it may appear, is one that in fact has no satisfactory answer.

Why?

In “The Well Wrought Urn” — that well-known and well-wrought book of literary criticism — Cleanth Brooks described what he called ‘the heresy of paraphrase.” The main idea — that efforts at paraphrasing poetry into prose fail in ways that parallel attempts for prose do not — was not new. It has been generally agreed upon since Aristotle. This skeptical thesis was championed in the first half of the 20th century by the New Critics as well as by their guiding spirit, T.S. Eliot, who, when asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” from his poem “Ash Wednesday,” responded, “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.’ ”

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