One caveat: I should be clear that Wittgenstein doesn’t purport to have discovered the essence of meaning in any phenomenological sense. Philosophy for Wittgenstein at this point is dealing with words, not things. Yet too, he isn’t claiming to have found the real meaning of “meaning.” Rather, he’s restricting the term for philosophical use. The active and purposeful sense of meaning is only one of the ways we use this word, and other ways of using the word aren’t incorrect. But these other uses are, again, different in kind from purposeful use and the restriction of the word “meaning” to this latter sense is simply to avoid confusion with them.
Nonetheless, particularly in relation to poetry, Guetti’s remark struck me with the force of a revelation. Indeed, at the time, I probably did take it as something more like a phenomenological statement. But no matter—the idea of poetry as meaningless proved to be the key that unlocked the seemingly impenetrable mystery of the art. Previously, I felt “outside” of poetry; it seemed so full of meaning, but how, as a reader, could you know if you got this meaning, and how, as a writer, did you put it there? What Jim did for me was not so much turn the problem on its head as inside out. For where literary criticism tends to speak of meaning in poetry as internal, something to be “unpacked,” in Jim’s classes, the poem was empty, its words reaching out to possible meanings, much as Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations during a series of remarks on “understanding”:
Hearing a word in a particular sense. How queer that there should be such a thing!
Phrased like this, emphasized, heard in this way, this sentence is the first of a series in which a transition is made to these sentences, pictures, actions. (§534)