An interpretation of "Fish's Night Song" poem from 1905

Above: Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “Fish’s Night Song.”

Heinrich Plett in Literary Rhetoric, points out the obvious: “the referentiality of this isographemic configuration is polysemous.”

Fish's Night Song


  1. This was originally a German poem; Fiches Nachtgesang. It was translated by Max Night.

    1. It looks like they left it in the original German in this version (apart from the title). It’s much better that way; you always lose something in a translation, no matter how good it is.

  2. Heinrich Plett … points … “the referentiality of this isographemic configuration is polysemous.”
    Right. Right. I was wondering when someone else would notice that.

  3. How the hell is this configuration isographemic?

    Or polysemous for that matter, beyond a kind of evocative alingual ambiguity?

    I must be missing something.

    Edit: hm, now I click the link and read the short spiel, it actually makes perfect sense. Except for ‘isographemic’; that just sounds like wank.

    1. A grapheme is an  element of language, the prefix iso- generally meaning “equal”. So since these things can’t be said to be graphemes since they aren’t specifically language, or to be picto or ideograms, since they are in fact a form of poetry and not specifically representing an image or idea, then “isographemes” makes enough sense to be understood.

      So there. A couple seconds of thought about it would have told you that it was far from “wank”, but I guess you just wanted to feel better than the author of the study. 

        1. Detailed academic philosophy requires specific terms. Where would we be if people had translated Heidegger’s “Dasein” instead of leaving it alone and simply taking the word as a new word into English. 

          People who complain about this sort of detailed terminology, and people who call things “wank” are generally, with an almost 100% rate of accuracy, people who are unfamiliar with any sort of detailed work in criticism or philosophy.

          Isographemic is fine to me. Knowing the roots of the words tells me everything I need to know about this argument. Any other term would probably require more unpacking.

  4. I love that I can right click each one of those words, get the definition in a few seconds, and then understand perfectly well the point that the overly clever idiot was making – it looks a bit like writing and you can interpret it in a bunch of different ways. 

  5. As a PhD student in literature, I used to totally agree with the general hate-on for the complex language used in critical articles about literature, thinking of them as “overly clever idiots”, as has been observed above. As I come to slowly be able to read these articles and understand them, I have come to a realization that critical articles meant for professors and advanced students of literature don’t necessarily have a responsibility to the general public to make themselves simple and legible. 

    We don’t expect that molecular biologists will write articles about their research that are comprehensible to the general public, except as a secondary task. BoingBoing has highlighted a number of ways in which scientific research is made accessible to the general public, but I don’t think that they’ve ever suggested that “Dance Your Dissertation” should be one’s primary means of communication. In the same way, criticism on literature (while sometimes perfectly accessible) is meant for a specialized and highly trained audience. The goal of this work is to advance the study of literature (which is an esoteric goal, I know), and also to further the understanding of professors and teachers. 

    It is part of a professor’s job to understand their field extremely well. Plett’s statement, taken out of context, looks ridiculous when contrasted against everyday language, but it is using a specialized vocabulary that invokes a number of different schools of thought that would not be present were he simply to say “it looks a bit like writing and you can interpret it in a bunch of different ways”. The word polysemous, for example, which means “having the potential of containing multiple meanings”, invokes the philosophical/linguistic school of Semiology which was created by Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure asserts that a sign and a signifier (such as a word and the object that the word signifies). 

    I understand the argument that academics also have a responsibility to make their work accessible. However, in a critical journal like Literary Rhetoric, this is not the place. That is the place for a community of thinkers to communicate in the language they have created for themselves.

  6. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^O^^^^^




  7. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^O^^^^^ 
                                                         polysemous? _ <  

    1. No, it’s not polysemous. It’s schematic-representational, as well as contextually polemic. Not quite overdetermined.

  8. “Why did this pompous ass say that these compounds are isomers instead of much more simply saying that they’re both composed of a single molecule in different configurations. What a jerk!”

    If you’re saying an analog of that, you’re not in the intended audience of the specialized journal Literary Rhetoric and not only didn’t recognize the denotation but also missed the contextual meaning. For example: I can’t say the word “misprison” without summoning up that buffoon Harold Bloom.

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