I came to poetry fairly late; that is, I was probably a senior in college before I could read it with anything like enthusiasm. This was a direct result of studying Wittgenstein with James Guetti (1937-2007), an eccentric, disgruntled Professor of English at Rutgers University. Jim’s passions seemed to be gambling (horses, cards, dice), fishing, writing, and drinking. (A former football player at Amherst College, he also loved sports, but you didn’t bet on sports, because that was unsportsmanlike.) Yet somewhere along the way—after 1980, to judge by his published work—he added Wittgenstein to the mix of his obsessions, culminating his 1993 University of Georgia Press book, Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, whose publication fortunately coincided with the period during which I studied with him. Would I have become a poet without encountering this man, and through him, Wittgenstein? I’m inclined to say no.
Wittgenstein, of course, wrote very little about literature and even less about poetry. His efforts were principally directed toward clearing up philosophical dilemmas brought about by linguistic confusions. Most often, these confusions result from misleading analogies between different meanings of the same word. This conviction is so strong throughout his later work it compels him to devote much attention to the word “meaning.” His most famous remark on the subject occurs in Philosophical Investigations:
For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.(§43)
The second half of this remark is misleading out of context, for the overall thrust of Wittgenstein’s discussion in this portion of the Investigations is against the picture of meaning as primarily a matter of names and things. Implicit here is a critique of Saussurean linguistics in making the signifier/signified model the paradigm of meaning. He’s not suggesting such a model is never an appropriate explanation of meaning, but rather that it only sometimes is. Naming is only one way we use words.