The Poetic Image: Iconic Relations between Form and Meaning in Spanish Poetry


Adela Robles-Sáez

Doctor of Philosophy in Romance Literatures and Languages

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Dru Dougherty, Chair

Does literary meaning reside in the text, or is interpretation the prerogative of the reader? Some literary theories claim that the text generates meaning, others suggest that they have as many meanings as readers. I propose a more organic approach to this issue. Meaning construction, transmission, and retrieval are cognitive problem-solving operations, in which both the linguistic material and the reader’s knowledge of the world serve as guidelines to re-create the conceptual structure that underlies the text, and to draw pertinent inferences related to the reader’s life. However, because cognitive mechanisms are equal for all human beings, only inferences produced in accordance with them are valid. A text guides to several possible meanings, and the reader chooses those that optimize the processing of information.

Language resembles thought iconically. The process of association between form and content or between two concepts is a regulated and describable process, and those regulations are not arbitrary, but a direct result of how our perceptual apparatus is designed. Therefore, the relation between language and thought is naturally motivated. Naturally motivated form/content units are perpetuated by convention and can be imposed onto new concepts in order to save processing time.

I apply these concepts to three distant manifestations of Spanish poetry: medieval romances, Góngora’s baroque poetry, and Lorca’s surrealist poems. In them we see that the octosyllabic line is one of the most motivated lines for the expression of poetic meaning. Poetic lines can also be organized in higher-order units designed to ease the transmission of information.

The minimal motivated poetic sign capable of transmitting the motivated expression of an emotion is a poetic image. In it, an emotion that has been conceptualized maximizing all human cognitive resources is expressed by a conventionalized but motivated poetic unit that minimizes the loss of information by guiding the reader closely in her interpretation.

Poems are composed by combining poetic images. The reader approaches each poem with predictable expectations derived from convention, and, using definable cognitive tools, finds associations between the linguistic and conceptual structure of the text first, and then between the conceptual structure and its possible interpretations according to her own experience.