Comparison of Poetic Language Theories: Indian and Western Traditions

Indian theorists developed some concepts regarding the value of poetry and what differ poetry from scientific writing. The concepts include rasa, alamkara, riti, dhvani, and they function to bring up the soul of poetry. The concepts are interrelated and serve as common ground for philosophical view of man and nature and the process of creativity (pratibha).

Alamkara, which means figure of speech in Sankrit, is the principle of poetic beauty. It scrutinized poetic expressions that impress and leave memorable expression onto literary readers. The main classification of Alamkara is based on sound (shabda) and sense (artha). In Natyashastra there are four figures of speech, Upama (simile), Rupaka (metaphor), Dipaka (illuminator) and Yamaka (rhyme). Then the fifth category appeared, called Lakshana although it disappeared slowly.

Kashmir thinker Anandavardhana is a leading commentator on alamkara. In Dhvanyaloka, he analyzed the functions of language and the content of poetry. The key term here is dhvani, or suggestion. It refers to the ‘resonance’ that is built in the reader’s mind about unstated or implied meaning of words.  According to Anandavardhana dhvani is the core of poetry. This expression can be seen in the idiom, form, matter-content and emotional context. The alamkara became denotation (abhidha). A poem’s beauty should meet the following conditions: (a) alamkara should be aimed to suggest rasa; (b) it is born coinciding with the poet’s delineation of rasa; (c) it is natural and simple, and (d) the poet should keep making it effective. The suggested meaning is always more intrinsic than that is stated in the poetry. Rasa can only be evoked by suggestion. All the mental states which give form to dhvani apply to Rasa. Therefore the beauty of poetry is determined by Rasa. Other faculties such as structure and diction come after Rasa. Anandavardhana showed that literary units such as syllable, word, suffix, pronoun, conjunction; also sentence, episode and the whole work can be beautiful when the rasa is observed (Datta: 815).

In response to dhvani theory, Bhatta Nayaka (10th century) rejected the idea that rasa can be inferred. According to him, Rasa is neither located in the character, the actor playing the character, nor the spectator. The relationship between the spectator and the character depends on imagination (bhavana vyapara). What makes poetic experience special is that because it has not only abhidha, but also the power of generalization (bhavakatva). Therefore aesthetic object and subject are freed from individuality, which is called sadharanikarana. Enjoyment (bhojakatva) is another power of language. This power allows the spectator to relish the experience in a poetic creation at the aesthetic level, rather than at the practical.

In Western theory, the appeal of poetry is discussed by, among others, literary critic I.A. Richards. The first experience in reading a poetry is that hearing the sound of the words, and then building up images in our mind. In poetry, words are mostly ambiguous or contain different meanings, and this triggers our mind to work more laboriously. This is the difference between poetry and scientific writing. A poem comprises, what Richards calls, pseudo-statements. The poet utilizes words as his or her interests come into his consciousness in appropriating his or her experience. The functions of words in poetry and words in science are contradictory. In the first case words chosen among innumerable possibilities can better describe something. In science words are limited by logic and therefore must rely on truth. Truth is something that has been verified and accepted. To scientists, pseudo-statements are unacceptable because they regard them as false.

In “Poetry and Abstract Thought”, Paul Valery says that “poetry is an art of language”. Language is a means of communication. It has phonetic and semantic functions. But a poet, with his or her intellect and aesthetics, can transform language into a certain state that will affect the readers. Valery compares poetry and prose by saying that they are like dancing and walking. Unlike walking, dancing has no goal. Its end is in itself. Language in poetry is understood by the reader through its meaning. So the role of a poet is making the bind between the word and the mind closer.

Work Cited

Datta, Amaresh. The Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature Vol I (A to Devo). 2006. Sahitya Akademi.

Richards, I.A. Science and Poetry

Valery, Paul. Poetry and Abstract Thoughts


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