In The Language of Paradox, Cleanth Brooks takes on the language of poetry, stating that at its core poetry is the language of paradox. Brooks bases his position on the contradictions that are inherent in poetry and his feelings that if those contradictions didn’t exist then neither would some of the best poetry we have today.
Using works from Wordsworth to Shakespeare Brooks shows how the only way some ideas can be expressed is through paradox. His best example of this idea is from Coleridge’s description of imagination,
…reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects, a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order…(Brooks 40)
Brooks points out that while it is an eloquently worded statement it is also a series of paradoxes. He argues that since poetry spends its time trying to explains ideas and emotions as intangible as the idea of imagination it too has to use paradox to best convey those thoughts.
Brooks bolsters his argument on the use of paradox in poetry through a close reading of John Donne’s “Canonization”. He says that if it were not for paradox Donne’s poem would either come across as not taking love seriously or not taking religion seriously.
Since the poem does neither, Brooks concludes that Donne is able to use the discordant image of two lovers giving up the physical world for their love and through their sacrifice achieving sainthood only because of the paradox that the imagery of their love and that of their religion generates.
I agree with Brooks to a point, poetry is filled with paradoxes as a way to convey emotions or sentiments that aren’t so easily expressed through a single train of thought but have to encompass many contradictory ideas to begin to describe that emotion or sentiment.
His example of Coleridge’s response to what imagination is, is an excellent example of his hypothesis. However, the Coleridge example also undermines his premise in that paradox is not just the language of poetry or literature but the language of life. In everyday life we find ourselves trying to explain something, an idea, event, an emotion that is not easily explained by simple, straight-forward terms but requires a series of contradictions or paradoxes, if you will, to properly convey their meaning.
There is no reason why poetry shouldn’t be any different and I think the radical tone of the chapter, this idea that he is creating a new and previously un-thought of way to look at poetry, is unfounded and hardly revolutionary.