A 2011 book on conceptual poetry titled conceptualisms claims

Note: there is no aesthetic or ethical distinction between word and image.

They seem to define "images" as what manifest to create a symbol, as well as what is abstracted from an allegory to build to it.

Note that allegory differs from symbolism in that symbolism derives from an Idea, while allegory builds to an Idea. Images coagulate around the Idea/Symbol; images are jettisoned from the allegorical notion.

symbolism allegory

So perhaps we can call the image [at least of a symbol] its "sense", as described in the SEP article on Frege.

Frege suggested that in addition to having a denotation, names and descriptions also express a sense. The sense of an expression accounts for its cognitive significance—it is the way by which one conceives of the denotation of the term.

My question:

  1. If an allegory does not build to an image then what is its meaning?
  2. Is it true that aesthetically and ethically the words that make a symbol [and / or allegory] are the same as its sense?
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    As a matter of neuroscience, the claim is patently false (unless there's context you've left out about what the content of the image is). Words heavily activate linguistic regions, while images that are not strongly language-associated (i.e. not a picture obviously described by a single word) do much more weakly. See for instance journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00163/…
    – Rex Kerr
    Aug 23, 2014 at 19:47
  • i can't promise i didn't leave anything out. i think the link i pasted is complete tho...
    – user6917
    Aug 23, 2014 at 19:53
  • Can you edit in some examples of conceptual poetry or some of the big names; I'm only familiar with conceptual art a la Duchamp. Aug 23, 2014 at 22:56
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    @Kerr: image in poetry is not the same as image as in picture; for example take the movement called imagism which favoured 'precision of imagery and clear, sharp language'; one understands this more clearly by recognising the major poetic movement preceding this - symbolism - which was a european movement; the image here is the symbol sharpened in definition; for example Blake uses the image of a rose to stand for england, the maiden & maidenhead, and as a rose; when Yeats uses the same symbol in his own way its enriched by reference to its predecessor Aug 23, 2014 at 22:59
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    Similarly ones understanding of Ginsberg Howl is enriched by recognising that it is a riposte to Whitmans mythic Leaves of Grass mediated by Lorca, as well as recognising that he's borrowed techniques from the Calcuttans hungrylists (he spent some time in Bengal); Aug 23, 2014 at 23:11

1 Answer 1


Allegory in its most general form is an extended metaphor that runs throughout a work; whereas an image is localised. Neither depends on the Idea - they are affective rather than intellectual. Ubuweb positions Conceptual poetry on the Idea in opposition to Romanticism with its positioning on the Emotion.

Alan Davies poem a an av es belonging to the Language poetry school starts off as:

an anemone or we cones careen

warm venom veers on eve

sonorous moves nor arrears

and ends

concave saver screw concur

rare enamor renew ass masseuse

cure uncommon seamen excursus

It starts with sentences that gesture to the traditional structures of of poetry - sentences and alliteration and ends with just bare words it appears placed at random.

He states, in his essay, Notes on Conceptualism that

Conceptual poetry is mainly about unearthing neuroses in the minds of the people who make it.

By far and away / the most common of these is obsessive-compulsive disorder.

But mitigates this (self)-accusation by asking:

The neuroses unearthed in the process of making conceptual poetry / might (also / or alternately) be neuroses in the language.

Indeed can language induce neuroses? One could imagine several interesting but unethical experiments to test this proposition.

So, to your questions:

If an allegory does not build to an image then what is its meaning?

An allegory that is without meaning isn't an allegory; one might as well ask suppose the colour red is not red; For example, Spensor explicitly allegorises his major work The Faerie Queene around Christian themes of sin, virtue and redemption; or one could consider Robinson Crusoe who implicitly allegorises the Protestant work ethic (a la Weber) as well as the biblical Genesis; or for a more contemporary example King Kong allegorises the racial experience of America (from a white perspective) and Ellisons Invisible Man which does the same (from the black perspective).

Is it true that aesthetically and ethically the words that make a symbol [and / or allegory] are the same as its sense?

No - neither ethically or aesthetically. A symbol, such as the Rose in Yeats who drew on European symbolism to craft a new poetic idiom out of the folk and myths of Celtic Ireland - the uncreated conscience of his race. One cannot identify the symbol Rose with the word Rose; as one can verify by checking a good dictionary; The symbol Rose is its sense; it is a new sense of that word that is built by reference to his ouevre.

Frege was interested in the logical structure of language and its relation to the world of facts; whereas Conceptual poetry, building on its roots from Dada is exists:

in order to distort reality.

and not to reflect it as in a mirror without the mediating human conscience; ie the logical reflection of Wittgenstein.

The distortion of reality is more aligned with Kantian idea of the apperception of reality; and thus the phenomenological tradition.

A good reference for all the aesthetics of this is the book The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism by the Art Critic & Classicist McEvilley.

  • it does seem to me that symbolic images are senses
    – user6917
    Aug 24, 2014 at 1:37
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    Sure; that is what I said - 'the symbol Rose is its sense'; but its not a sense that can be found in a dictionary; Yeats rose is not the rose in my vase; its not related to the world of facts. Aug 24, 2014 at 1:39
  • hmm ok. do you think the quote that sparked the Q "there is no aesthetic or ethical distinction" is about allegory alone? seems almost biblical...
    – user6917
    Aug 24, 2014 at 11:42
  • As you point out they are marking out a definition that differentiates them from Romanticism & Classicism where there is always an aesthetic and ethical distinction; it was one reason why training in Rhetoric was sought out from Sophists in classical Greece; by stripping aesthetic & ethical content out of words you reduce them to bare words; one might say you turn the word from a linguistic sign to a visual sign; in the poem that I quoted from Davies its quite easy to see that there is a 'formula' to his poem; and it would be Aug 24, 2014 at 17:25
  • quite easy to write a programme that generated an infinite number of variations of the same; not only in English but in any language you care to name; something that you can't do for Todesfuge by Celan which starts 'Black milk of daybreak we drink it come evening/ we drink it come midday come morning we drink it come night/we drink it and drink it' which is definitely about something - the Holocaust. Aug 24, 2014 at 17:30

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