Symbolic Action and Dialogic Social Interaction in Burke's and the Bakhtin School's Sociological Approaches to Poetry

Don Bialostosky, University of Pittsburgh


Burke and the Bakhtin School both proposed sociological approaches to poetry. Both start from an unsituated word for which they construe a situation. For Burke, the poet responds dramatistically to the scene of writing; for the Bakhtin School, the poem's speaker responds enthymematically to assumed social values and understandings.

Scholars have noted similarities between Burke and Bakhtin since Holquist and Clarke's 1986 biography of Bakhtin, and there is good reason to think of them together. Margaret Zulick posted an online chronology that reminds us that they were born two years apart in the last decade of the nineteenth century and that they led engaged intellectual lives through more than half a century in the wake of the Russian revolution.  In 2004 she published the only extended essay that treats them together, a discussion of their views of ethics and aesthetics.  Though their lives were radically divergent, both pursued lifelong intellectual inquiries and wrote voluminously over decades without the support or the constraint of conventional academic degrees, disciplines, or careers. Both developed their ideas in dialogue with friends and colleagues. Burke's dialogues are richly chronicled by Selzer and George; Bakhtin's are so intricate that he has been both credited and discredited with authoring texts published under colleagues' names so that it is now common to meld them in a Bakhtin School.  Both the Bakhtin School and Burke wrote in response to major movements in the thought of the twentieth century, Marxism and Freudianism in particular, and to other major philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, and Kant figure for both of them.  For both, literary texts were crucial points of reference in inquiries that ranged well beyond the disciplinary boundaries of literary criticism.  

Both wrote what they represented as sociological approaches to poetry, Marxism-inflected responses to the formalisms and Freudianisms of their divergent situations (Voloshinov 93ff; Burke, Philosophy, 102, 284, 293, 303).  Neither, however, has become the titular guiding light of a school of poetic criticism.  Burke's account of poetry, as a recent essay has shown, is a footnote to the New Criticism that "went the way of the footnote, sliding almost unobtrusively from the margins of the page to the edges of history," though this essay brings it back to the main text and the historical center (Vrijders 537).  Poetry in Bakhtin's account has been taken by all but a few critics as nothing more than a reductively diminished foil to the novel, though a few, myself included, have seen promising loopholes through which a dialogic sociological poetics might emerge (See Wesling).  One may reasonably wonder why it is worth comparing their thoughts on this topic now.    

As Vrijders' article makes evident, the New Criticism and its footnotes remain salient topics of historical inquiry, but they are also at least in the U. S. continuing influences on how students in the schools and colleges are taught to read poetry.  Burke's account of poetry as symbolic action articulates a practice familiar in pedagogical reductions as symbol-hunting (see, for recent evidence, Scholes); it has also received influential theoretical elaboration in Fredric Jameson's first level of interpretation as "symbolic act" in his Political Unconscious, which, though it acknowledges Burke, overshadows him with Marx (76-81).  The Bakhtin School, most frequently brought by critics to the study of the novel, has not yet had its day as a poetic theory or pedagogy, but I believe it can offer a defensible and teachable alternative to the New Criticism and its footnotes—a sociological poetics that also accounts for poetry's formal features and enables a rich close reading of social interactions in poems.  Burke's claim that his poetics is also "sociological" and also takes those formal features into account prompts a Bakhtinian like me to engage with his version of the sociological, for perhaps the central Bakhtinian insight is that

No living word relates to its object in a singular way: between the word and its object, between the word and the speaking subject, there exists an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme, and this is an environment that it is often difficult to penetrate.  It is precisely in the process of living interaction with specific environment that the word may be individualized and given stylistic shape. ("Discourse" 276)  

In this case, I will sharpen the profile of the Bakhtin School's sociological poetics by comparing it with Burke's and at the same time bring out some of the distinctive features of Burke's poetics.  Burke's approach, we will see, focuses on reading the poet's response to the situation in which he writes, while the Bakhtin School follows the unfolding social interactions of the participants in the implied situation represented in the poem.

This comparison could be traced through many texts in both oeuvres, but I will confine my inquiry here to a smaller set in which it is opened and elaborated.  Valentin Voloshinov, a close collaborator of Bakhtin's, introduced an explicitly Marxist sociological poetics in response to Russian formalism and to psychological criticism in his 1926 article "Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art," an essay published in English translation as an appendix to, but that originally preceded the publication of, Voloshinov's Freudianism: A Critical Sketch.  Nearly thirty years later Bakhtin wrote an essay translated as "The Problem of Speech Genres," which, though not called "sociological" or Marxist, repeats key points from Voloshinov's essay and connects the language of literature with everyday language of social interaction.  Burke posited a sociological criticism in his 1938 essay "Literature as Equipment for Living," in a journal "closely identified," Selzer and George tell us, with" the League of American Writers" a year before he spoke at the third American Writer's Congress (199); Burke invoked the epithet "sociological" again to name his approach in the long title essay that opened The Philosophy of Literary Form in 1941, in which he also republished "Literature as Equipment for Living."  In the "The Philosophy of Literary Form" the neo-Aristotelians, with whom Burke included the New Critics, play the formalist part that focuses on the internal structure of the poem to the exclusion of its situation.

Any sociological approach to poetry will offer some way to relate the words of the poem to some understanding of its situation.  Both Burke and Voloshinov open their arguments with the case of an unsituated word and then build their argument by constructing the word's situation.  Burke begins "The Philosophy of Literary Form" writing: "Let us suppose that I ask you: 'What did the man say?' And that you answer: 'He said "yes."'  You still do not know what the man said.  You would not know unless you knew more about the situation, and about the remarks that preceded his answer" (1).  Voloshinov opens his account of discourse in life in this way: "Two people are sitting in a room.  They are both silent.  Then one of them says "Well!" The other does not respond.  For us, as outsiders, this entire 'conversation' is utterly incomprehensible.  Taken in isolation, the utterance 'Well!' is empty and unintelligible" (99).

Burke never fills in a specific situation for the "yes" but immediately posits that "Critical and imaginative works are answers to questions posed by the situation in which they arose.  They are not merely answers, they are strategic answers, stylized answers.  For there is a difference in style or strategy, if one says 'yes' in tonalities that imply 'thank God' or in tonalities that imply 'alas!'  So I should propose an initial working distinction between 'strategies' and 'situations,' whereby we think of poetry . . . as the adopting of various strategies for the encompassing of situations" (1).   He is moving fast here, and there is already a lot to unpack, but I want to note that Burke presumes the "yes" to be a relieved or disappointed answer to a question, a response to a prior utterance of a particular kind, and not a fist-pumping celebratory evaluation of victory or an affirmative orgasmic outburst.  And he takes the tonal variations he imagines as indicative of strategies or styles without yet saying what the difference might be, what ends the strategies might be directed toward or what persons or decorums the styles might bespeak.  As the argument develops, we will learn that the focus is on an individual speaker revealing through recurrent stylistic patterns unconscious strategies that respond to a prior situation or conscious strategies that aim to affect a future situation.

Voloshinov explicates his "Well!" as already "expressively intoned" with "indignation and reproach moderated by a certain amount of humor" (9).  Even with this determinate tone, however, the situation of its utterance still remains indeterminate, and he goes on at some length to narrate a story that fills in its requisite unspoken shared determinants in the "extraverbal context" that make the utterance intelligible.  He identifies three factors: "(1) the common spatial purview of the interlocutors . . . , (2) the interlocutors' common knowledge and understanding of the situation, and (3) their common evaluation of that situation."  In this case "both interlocutors looked up at the window and saw that it had begun to snow; both knew that it was already May and that it was high time for spring to come; finally, both were sick and tired of the protracted winter" (99).  The focus here is on the shared natural and social conditions necessary for an evaluative utterance to make an intelligible common evaluation of a present situation for its speaker and listener.

Burke goes on in Philosophy of Literary Form to articulate the factors in the situation of a poem dramatically as the situating of an act.  Anticipating the dramatism of Grammar of Motives, he considers "literary acts as placed upon a scene" (xviii) and "poetry, or any verbal act . . . as symbolic action" (8).  Later he sums up, "We have drama and the scene of the drama.  The drama is enacted against a background. . . . The description of scene is the role of the physical sciences; the description of drama is the role of the social sciences. . . . There is an interaction between scene and role.  Hence dramatic criticism takes us into areas that involve the act as 'response' to the scene . . .[and] the acts of other persons become part of the scenic background for any individual person's act" (114-15).  Again a lot to unpack here, but a question arises for me regarding how scenes peopled with "the acts of other persons" remain the scenic object of the physical sciences when they would appear to have become socialized and, as Burke's first remarks about words answering earlier words would suggest, dialogized.  In drama, the other actors on a stage are not merely part of the scene but part of the action and verbal interaction, but Burke's incorporation of them into scene appears to objectify them or at least to put them on a different plane from the primary actor whose motives he attends to.  Burke addresses this difficulty by "equating 'dramatic' with 'dialectic'" so that a text responding strategically to a situation must be considered "as the answer or rejoinder to assertions current in the situation in which it arose" (109), but this dialectical addendum still radically limits the kinds of prior utterances to assertions and the kinds of responses to answers or rejoinders.  Burke's account of situation in these terms becomes not just dramatic but philosophical, concerned with claims and counter-claims and the movement of discussion toward the next level of claims.

Voloshinov articulates the situation of the poem enthymematically rather than dramatically not as an act of a single agent but as an utterance in verbal interaction between a speaker and a listener.  He writes, "the extraverbal situation is far from being merely the external cause of an utterance—it does not operate on the utterance from outside, as if it were a mechanical force"—a formulation with which Burke would agree.  "Rather," he goes on, "the situation enters into the utterance as an essential constitutive part of the structure of its import.  Consequently a behavioral utterance as a meaningful whole is comprised of two parts: (1) the part realized or actualized in words and (2) the assumed part.  On this basis, the behavioral utterance can be likened to the enthymeme [a form of syllogism one of whose premises is not expressed but assumed]" (100).  The situation is partly explicit in the utterance and partly taken for granted by participants in it.  He goes on to say that the assumed part is socially shared, different for intimates and contemporaries than for people separated by time, social position, and way of life.  Something like Burke's "scene" recurs in Voloshinov's assumed "shared spatial purview," but this formulation makes it not the background against which an observer sees Burke's actor but the world on which the interlocutors themselves look out and notice the same thing.  The rest of Voloshinov's assumed situation, the unspoken common knowledge and common evaluation of it, are part of the interlocutors' shared social experience, going without saying and informing the terse utterance that brings them together in a way that "resolves the situation, bringing it to and evaluative conclusion" and joins them as "co-participants who know, understand, and evaluate the situation in like manner" (100). 

Poems as utterances double the communication situation of everyday discourse by adding the situation of the representing poet to the situation of speaker represented in the poem.  At the latter level poems inscribe utterances between a speaker and a listener in a situation they share with one another.  As scripts made by the poet representing those utterances, however, rather than immediately spoken and heard utterances they cannot "rely on objects and events in the immediate milieu as things 'understood' [by readers] without making the slightest allusion to them in the verbal part of the utterance. . . . Much that could remain outside the utterance in life must find verbal representation"(106) or remain ambiguous to the reader of a poem.  Nor can the reader be presumed to share knowledge and evaluations that the speaker could share with his or her immediate interlocutor.  Footnotes and critical inquiry become necessary where in everyday utterances a nod of shared understanding might have been sufficient.  Finally, the speaker's evaluative intonation is perhaps the most important element that is lost when the spoken utterance becomes a written script.  In spoken communication intonation prompts the listener to share the evaluations of the topic or the hero—the person or personified thing it represents; in poetic texts the evaluation must be communicated by choice of words, the manner of the utterance's unfolding, and the rhythm and formal elements of the versification.  Texts are silent, and their intonation and indeed their meaning must be actively co-created by the reader from textual features.

The reader's role differs from Burke's to Voloshinov's models. Postulating that poems are strategic acts of poets in scenic situations Burke focuses on the poet as strategic agent whose poem enacts his or her strategy; this orientation makes reading the poem the occasion to infer what that poet-agent is unconsciously (when the poem is read as dream or wish) or consciously (when it is read as "prayer" or communicative act) trying to do and why.  Poems for Burke are occasions to discover  "the motivation, or situation, of the poetic strategy" (78) for "situation is but another word for motives" (20).  This is a discovery reserved for the psychologically oriented critic who is in a position after the completion of the work to observe the patterns of interrelation and image the poet "could not have been conscious of" (20) in writing or for the rhetorical/dialectical critic to read formal and stylistic features of the work as designed toward convincing the reader of its claim. 

These strategies become "equipment for living" valuable to readers as well as poets insofar as the situations that motivate them are "typical, recurrent situations" (293), the sort of situations Burke says sociological criticism aims to name and codify (301).  Proverbs, the type of utterance Burke turns to in both essays, are prepackaged, memorable responses to recurrent situations to which they may be repeatedly applied.  They 'have a word for" social situations that frequently recur (293), fulfilling the terms of the critical approach he calls the "chart."  Poems, Burke speculates, might be thought of as "complex variants and recombinations of such material as we find in proverbs" (3), strategies for encompassing and addressing more complex but still recurring situations such as those we call tragic and comic.  The Burkean sociological critic reads poems to discover and explicate the situations they respond to and the strategies of their writer's responses to them; the members of the audience, since the play is still the paradigm here, may simply enjoy going through a performance of feelings and attitudes, devised by the poet, to prepare for or get over such situations in the course of their lives.  Poems can strengthen us to face and relieve us from having faced recurrent situations of love, loss, guilt, and other existential emotions without our critical awareness of their patterns or functions or genres.

Claiming that poems are textual scenarios of verbal social interactions of represented participants that condense and depend upon unarticulated social evaluations, Voloshinov imagines a reader who attempts to bring the poetic text to life as an utterance by discovering signs from which to co-create its evaluative tone and follow the unfolding social relations of its speaker, listener, and topic or hero.  Because the lyric poem is his model instead of Burke's drama, actors have not already realized these tones and relations of participants on stage, and the words on the page guide the competent contemplator's co-creation of them.  "Every instance of intonation," Voloshinov writes, "is oriented in two directions: with respect to the listener as ally or witness and with respect to the object of the utterance as the third, living participant whom the intonation scolds or caresses, denigrates or magnifies.  This double orientation is what determines all aspects of intonation and makes it intelligible" (104-5)Further, "The author, hero, and listener . . . are to be understood not as entities outside the artistic event, he goes on, "but only as entities in the very perception of an artistic work, entities that are essential constitutive factors of the work.  They are the living forces that determine the form and style" (109).  These intrinsic participants are, as Bakhtin would later put it, "on a common plane" ("Discourse" 291), not like the acts of Burke's persons other than the agent, part of the "scenic background" (115) of that primary agent. 

Indeed, Burke's model of motivational variables—terms of the pentad are already incipient in these essays--focuses on that single agent and gives no formal place to the other actors whom the primary actor answers and addresses.  Burke is clearly alert to dialogic interactions, even in his opening anecdote of the "yes" conditioned by "the remarks that preceded his answer" (1), but neither here nor in the pentad does he add a precedent speaker or an addressee to his dramatistic terms.  His inquiry into motives reads the poem for the psychology of the poet or the strategies of the poet-rhetor, the actor whose strategic act, unconscious or conscious, is the poem, while Voloshinov's inquiry co-creates the text of the poem as an unfolding social interaction among its represented speaker, listener, and hero.

Voloshinov's model of the internal participants in the poetic utterance includes the addressee and the topic/hero but, like Burke's model, lacks the speaker to whose prior utterance the speaker of the poem responds.  The utterance he starts from, the "Well!" is seemingly unprovoked by a previous remark. It is, as he notes, an utterance with "no immediate verbal context" (102).  Bakhtin's essay on speech genres adds this fourth participant to Voloshinov's trio of them by calling attention to the "dialogic overtones," signs in the language of the poem (and other kinds of utterances) that reflect "others' utterances and others' individual words."   These overtones appear not only in the insertion of "others' utterances and others' individual words" into another's utterances but also in "many half-concealed and completely concealed words of others" and in gestures toward unspecified prior utterances such as apology or self-correction or argumentative defense (92).    

Quotation of and answers to the words of others not only indicate the speaker's relations with the prior utterances of others but also introduce parts of the textual utterance that "are analogous . . . to relations among rejoinders in a dialogue" though contained within the unfolding utterance of one speaker.  They are among "the various transformed primary genres" that Bakhtin says "play out the various forms of primary speech communication" in "secondary genres of complex communication" like literary works (98). In such genres, "within the boundaries of his own utterance the speaker (or writer) raises questions, answers them himself, raises objections to his own ideas, responds to his own objections, and so on.  But these phenomena are nothing other than a conventional playing out of speech communication and primary speech genres" (72).

Bakhtin's claim that complex secondary genres are composed of simpler primary genres, such as the question, the rejoinder, the apology, the assertion, the giving of directions, the greeting, the farewell, the invitation, the request, the boast, the command, or the anecdote is comparable to Burke's hypothesis that "complex and sophisticated works of art [could be] legitimately considered somewhat as 'proverbs writ large'" (296).  Both Bakhtin and Burke start from discursive models of what Burke calls "typical recurrent situations" (293) to propose general theories of complex poetic utterances.  The differences in their models are revealing.  Burke's proverbs articulate responses to typical social situations or relations that recur across a variety of settings, such as consoling, foretelling, getting your own back, giving in, or anticipating.  They sound like memorable and reusable utterances that enact the functions of Bakhtin's primary speech genres.  Burke projects that more complex works would similarly address themselves to such functions in more complex and more difficult to name situations.  Poems for him work like proverbs, and Burke invites critics to discover the patterns of relations that reveal the strategies they too symbolically enact.  For Burke; "Sociological classification . . . would derive its relevance from the fact that it should apply both to works of art and to social situations outside of art" (303).

Bakhtin, by contrast, sees primary speech genres of everyday situations as the elements from which complex secondary genres are composed, but he does not propose that literary genres perform primary functions.  They are secondary speech genres that may incorporate or imitate both primary, everyday genres and secondary genres from other spheres of communication—military, commercial, scientific, technical, or rhetorical.   They share with all complete utterances the common property that they are shaped to enable the possibility of some kind of response, but the response is specific to their being a "literary-artistic event," not an event in "everyday life."  Transfer of genres and styles from discourse in life into literary discourse "alters the way a style sounds . . . but also violates and renews the given genre."  Utterances from life incorporated into poems "lose their immediate relation to actual reality and to the real utterances of others" and "retain their significance only on the plane of the [poem's] content" (62) 

The sociological poetics of Bakhtin and Voloshinov thus treats discourse in poetry as derived from but not reducible to discourse in life.  They call attention to the origin of poetic language in the genres of other social spheres of communication but insist upon poetry's transformation of those genres and redeployment of them to aesthetic ends.  Burke's sociological poetics, on the other hand, treats poetic works as coded and complex versions of everyday language, reducible to motives similar to those in simpler proverbial versions of discourse in life.  Bakhtin and Voloshinov treat the poem as an enthymeme that depends for its intelligibility on the reader's sharing or reconstructing its unspoken premises and tones.  They invite co-creation of the intimate and hierarchical social relations among the implied participants in the poetic utterance, the speaker, listener, hero, and precedent speaker.  Burke, by contrast, focuses attention on the poem as the poet's dramatic act in a scene.  He invites the critic to discover from patterned relations of terms in the poem the poet's psychological motives and unconscious strategic response to the scene of his symbolic act or his deliberate rhetorical communicative strategies.  

Burke scholars are familiar with Burke's demonstration of how he would read a poem in his essay "Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats," and I will not try to summarize it in a journal aimed at them.  Burke's reading, as Vrijders rightly says, "offers highly divergent ways of entry for the aspiring critic, including biographical, psychoanalytical, and especially historical, none of which can be excluded in advance from the domain of critical scrutiny" (545).  What I will note is that the poem is especially well-chosen to illustrate the dialectical side of Burke's dramatic reading, ending as it does in lines that can be taken as a thesis that he can read as transcending opposing terms found earlier in the poem.  Burke's final review of his reading, too long to quote in full here, outlines a series of transcendences and movements from lower to higher levels.  These sentences in the penultimate paragraph will suffice:

 The transcendent scene is the level at which the earthly laws of contradiction no longer prevail.  Hence, in the terms of this scene, he can proclaim the unity of truth and beauty (of science and art), a proclamation which he needs to make precisely because here was the basic split responsible for the romantic agitation (in both poetic and philosophic idealism). ("Symbolic Action"462)

The biographical, psychoanalytical, and historical readings repeat this dialectical pattern in transcending different opposing terms that bespeak the poet's thoughts in response to his bodily condition and to the ideological contradictions of his time.

I will offer a Bakhtin-School reading in contrast, though the poem poses some challenges for such a reading.   It focuses on the relation of its speaker to the personified hero-urn and the figures on the urn but shows no evidence of a listener outside that relationship to whom the speaker addresses himself, and the only prior speaker it evokes is the urn itself, imagined as an "historian/ Who canst thus express a flowery tale" that the speaker asks to be told.  And even the hero-urn itself is a work of art whose relation to the speaker we may not readily think of as a social relation.

But we need only think for a moment to realize that our encounters with works of art are socially organized interactions of persons with what are taken to be the works of other persons made to invite and reward our attention.  The places we encounter such works, and the attitudes with which we approach them are social through and through.  Works of ancient provenance like Keats' urn enjoy in his society and ours hierarchical superiority to their observers and require extra effort to recover the unspoken shared understandings and values that made them intelligible to their original communities.

I have said that, according to the Bakhtin School, poems too are silent texts that call for co-creative reanimation to make them sound, but they usually at least name their participants and their interactions with words that provide clues to the situation they address.  Keats' urn offers visible figures with no words to situate them.  His speaker's first address to it relates it to quietness and silence as bride and foster-child but still attributes to it the capacity to express a tale.   He immediately turns to inquire into who the characters in the tale are and which of many classical stories it might be narrating. 

There is of course no answer, and the second stanza responds to the sight of silent pipes and timbrels by declaring their silent melodies preferable to actual melodies addressed "to the sensual ear."  The poet-speaker suspends his inquiry into the tale being represented to comment through this stanza and the next on the suspended animation of the figures on the urn, repeatedly contrasting their permanence with losses experienced in the world of time and sensation.  "Comment" is too mild a word, however.  Repeated adverbs, "never, never, " "For ever . . . For ever . . . For ever, "and adjectives "happy, happy. . . happy . . . happy. . . happy, happy," bespeak intensities of response on the speaker's part (and show no effort at artful variation on the poet's part that would distract us from the speaker's intensities) that call out for a tonal reading.  The figures on the urn have what the speaker of the poem seems intensely to lack--enduring youth and love, unflagging desire, and immunity from death.  But the speaker's repetitious modifiers seem to celebrate their having what he doesn't have rather than to begrudge their having it. As Keats' speaker in "Ode to a Nightingale" declares, "Tis not through envy of thy happy lot/ But being too happy in thine happiness."  But this identification with the unchanging happy figures on the urn sharpens the contrast with the final lines of the stanza in which he starkly and unflinchingly articulates the painfulness of "breathing human passion."

The speaker's emotional response to this scene here reaches its low point, and the poet has him turn to another scene on the urn whose sacrificial piety and solemnity seem like a response to the recognition of human mortality and unfulfilled desire that ends the preceding stanza.  The speaker again inquires about the identity the figures and the town from which they have come and again receives no answer. He evaluates the town, this time with the single adjective "desolate," a far cry from the multiple happies of the stanza before. 

In the final stanza the speaker turns from attending to the depicted scenes to look at the urn itself, this time not as a potential narrator associated with silence but as a "silent form," shaped marble "overwrought" with human and natural forms.  The difference between anticipating a "flowery tale" and a "leaf-fringed legend" at the outset and clearly seeing "forest branches and the trodden weed" at the end bespeaks a cooler eye.  He recognizes, I think, that the urn has prompted him to (teased him out of) the thoughts uttered in the previous stanzas and has the capacity to do that not just for him but for "us"--poets perhaps in the first instance, whom he referred to in first person plural ("our rhyme") in the first stanza, or perhaps all humans, with whose plight he contrasted the suspended lives of the figures on the urn and to whom he turns again at the end of the stanza. 

His final evaluation of the urn seems ambivalent, for he finds it cold but also imagines it as a "friend to man" that will endure beyond the sufferings of the present generation and will finally speak not the tale he had originally hoped for from it but the now famous enigmatic, chiasmatic utterance: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  He finally imagines the object which has not answered any of his earlier questions saying something that might be taken as a response to them: "My beauty says all I have to say, and that should satisfy you and every other mortal."  The form of the utterance is of course universal, not the urn's answering the speaker's intimate second person direct addresses in its own first person but declaring impersonally its status and the status of every other beautiful thing as fully sufficient in itself and not calling, as Keats put it in a letter, for any "irritable reaching after fact and reason."  If I were to turn to one source outside the poem in Keats' writing, it would be to the letter on "negative capability" that glosses that phrase with the one I have quoted.  The passage ends, "with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration" (Complete Poetical Works 277).

The Bakhtin-School reading I have invented has followed the unfolding interaction of Keats' speaker with the urn and with his own questions and responses, bringing out the ways "within the boundaries of his own utterance the speaker (and writer) raises questions, answers them himself, raises objections to his own ideas, responds to his own objections, and so on" ("Speech Genres" 72).  Attention to these social interactions and to the participants involved in them is entirely missing from Burke's reading though he declares that "our primary concern is to follow the transformations of the poem itself" ("Symbolic Action" 451).  His attention to the poet's acts in the scene of writing and to the transformations of terms he selects from the poem invents multiple motivated accounts of the poem none of which follow the speaker's utterance and the place those terms have in it. Like the historicist readers who have followed in his footsteps, with and without recognition of his precedence, Burke makes the language of the poem echo, translate, and amplify the language of the scenes that surround it; like the psychoanalytic readers who have taken inspiration as he did from Freud and his followers, Burke makes the language of the poem bespeak struggles within the poet-agent.  What he does not do that a Bakhtin School reading might teach us to do is attend to the language of the poem as the uttered response of the speaker to prior speakers, listeners, topic-heroes, and his/her own unfolding utterance, to attend to the poem itself as a scenario of social interaction that points to a social world of understandings and values beyond itself as it plays out the social interaction of the participants within. 

I hope in this essay that I have met Burke's criterion for demonstrating an alternative perspective to his dramatic one by making an "explicit proclamation [of a Bakhtin School perspective] and illustrating . . . its scope [and merits] by concrete application . . . to poetic materials" (Literary Form 124).  In publishing that claim here, I submit it to an audience likely to put it to the test.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M.  "Discourse in the Novel."  The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin.  Trans Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist.  Ed. Michael Holquist.  Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 259-422. Print.

—.  "The Problem of Speech Genres."  Speech Genres and Other Late Essays.  Trans. Vern W. McGee.  Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist.  Austin: U of Texas P, 1986. 60-102.  Print.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. Print.

—. "Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats." A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing, 1962. 447-63. Print.

George, Anne E. and Jack Selzer.  Kenneth Burke in the 1930s.  Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2007. Print.

Holquist, Michael, and Katerina Clark.   Mikhail Bakhtin.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, UP, 1984. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981. Print.

Keats, John. The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1899. Print.

Selzer, Jack.  Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1996. Print.

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