What poetry does to philosophy.

I’ve been putting this off for weeks but have decided that now is the time. The berowed view that poetry and philosophy are incompatible has undergone some more waning but I’m now drawing a distinction between poetry that sets out as its main objective to ‘do’ philosophy and poetry that sets out to do Other Things that might have a philosophical component somewhere near the surface.

I’d like to consider first the nature of the poem and the nature of the philosophy tract. I accept that this is a very broad brush stroke but poetry is usually a compression whereas philosophy is usually an expansion. I’m making this distinction even though my reading of philosophy is quite sparse but it does seem that there’s a long windedness in terms of refuting all other philosophies before putting forward your own view.

Of course there are some poets, Lucretius, Pope and Jarvis spring to mind who are equally long-winded but most go the other way. Paul Celan and Edmund Spenser work by compression as does Charles Olson but in different ways and with different results. With regard to all of these, there is one element that I’d like to get out of the way before proceeding: the line between God and Truth aka between theology and philosophy. I’m taking Martin Buber, the Neo-platonics and Alfred Whitehead primarily as philosophers even though theologians have made extensive use of their work.

I’d like to start with Spenser’s Cantos of Mutabilitie Which Frank Kermode referred to as the best philosophical poem in English. As the title suggests, it has change and time as it’s subject and this is one of Spenser’s recurring themes especially in The Faerie Queene. Essentially ‘Change’ puts forward the arguments for the priority of mutability over fixity and then Nature demolishes this with:

   I well consider all that ye have said
      And find that all things steadfastnes do hate
      And changed be: and yet being rightly wayed
      They are not changed from their first estate;
      But by their change their being doe dilate:
      And turning to themselves at length againe,
      Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
      Then over them Change doth not rule and raigne;
   But they raigne over change, and doe their states maintaine.

   Cease therefore daughter further to aspire
      And be content thus to be rul'd by me:
      For thy decay thou seekst by thy desire,
      But time shall come that all shall changed bee,
      And from thenceforth, none so more change shall see.
      So was the Titanesse put downe and whist,
      And Iove confirm'd in his imperiall see.
      Then was that whole assembly quite dismist
  And Natur's self did vanish, whither no man wist.

As a long-standing Spenser fan, this makes me want to jump up and down with delight because it’s supremely accomplished as poetry yet also manages in eighteen lines to express a fundamental aspect of 16th century philosopphical ‘truth’. Each stanza has one crucial and brilliantly crafted line, the first hinges on ‘dilate’. Bert Hamilton glosses the line with:

i.e. expand as they fill their natures, showing that change is not random but purposeful (see N.Frye 1990b: 160-161) acting in accord with the Pauline concept of sowing a natural body to raise a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15. 36-44). It is not circular, then but spiral in returning creation to its beginning.

This may be the case but I can’t help reading Ficino on God’s dance of joy into ‘dilate’ primarily because it seems a more logical and less complicated ‘fit’. Anyway, it is at once both plain and gloriously compressed and serves as a counterpoint to Spenser’s view of the world in continuous and relentless decline.

I think I need to note the extensive and frequently tiresome critical debate about the relationship between these Cantos and the rest of The Faerie Queene which is an argument without any facts. I will however set out the subtitle from the first edition of Mutabilitie which was published in 1609

   Which, both for Forme and Matter, appeare
      to be parcell of fome following Booke of the
               FAERIE QUEENE,
             VNDER  THE  LEGEND
                     OF
                 Conftancie 
              Never before imprinted.

‘Appeare’ is the tell-tale verb and we should leave it at that because we will Never Know.

The next act of compression comes from Paul Celan:


   ILLEGIBILITY
   Of this world. All things twice over.

   The strong clocks justify
   the splitting hour,
   coarsely.

   You, clamped 
   into your deepest part,
   climb out of yourself,
   for ever.

I’d argue that what we have here is a struggle with philosophy, an incredibly dense working of the major strands of 20th century thought with it’s concerns about perception, temporality and personal responsibility in the shadow of the Holocaust. Of course, many argue that this is too dense, that the distillation is too great and falls into meaningless and psuedo-mystical babble but this seems to miss the point entirely. Throughout his writing Celan is concerned with very Big Things indeed and explores the challenges inherent in living any kind of purposeful life when surrounded by our many violences and absence of thought.

Many who do accept the brilliance of this material insist on imposing the work of Martin Heidegger as the main philosophical thread and equate the ‘mystical’ quality the poetry with Heidegger’s later work. This seems to overlook other influences far removed from and (in some cases) directly opposed to all things existential. Martin Buber’s concerns with the demands of and responsibility for the Other are also very much present in the above. As with Spenser, I don’t want to examine the acres of critical pondering on this but I would like simply to point out that poetical philosophy, in the hands of genius, can be a more profound and provocative exploration of Truth in all its manifestations.

I’d like to finish with Charles Olson’s frequent nods to Whitehead’s Process and Reality in his Maximus series. In the past I have expressed the view that the work in its entirety can be seen as a transcription of Whitehead into poetic form. I’d now like to amend that view, Process and Reality was clearly a central aspect of Olson’s view of the world and this is apparent in parts of the sequence but there is much more of Olson the man here than there is of philosophy, even his clearest expositions are made by using himself and his everyday experience to make the ‘point’.

So, the best poetry adds other dimensions to philosophy because it can distil and intensify. This does not mean that poetry is in any kind of privileged position with regard to Truth but it does mean that it can, on occasion, push the conversation a little bit further.

26 responses to “What poetry does to philosophy.

  1. Since it’s my birthday I’ll open my mouth. You write: “I accept that this is a very broad brush stroke but poetry is usually a compression whereas philosophy is usually a compression.” I don’t know, but I don’t believe you meant to write this. Nevertheless, in my experience it’s true. Philosophy is hard to read because it’s as compressed as Celan is. Just try any sentence of, say, Heidegger, or Deleuze, or, going back a little, Kant’s 1st critique, or Hegel’s Logic. Of course, they’re not lyrics, but still. Think about how similar the ancient and medieval commentaries on Aristotle are to the Glossator, for example. Every sentences opens and opens and opens … out. I think poetry and philosophy are siblings myself.

    • John, you’re right as usual, only excuse is that it was before breakfast this morning and (as usual) I failed to proof-read before pressing the button. I did intend to write ‘expansion’ and will now do so. I might take your point on Deleuze but Heidegger proceeds in a very ponderous (and not that difficult) way until he reaches his ‘point’. Haven’t read Kant, have a personal rule never to read Hegel. I was going to make an exception of Aristotle this morning but decided against. The broad brush is – in order to have cred philosophers feel the need to demolish other arguments before presenting their own, poets tend to skip the demolition and express their own view. Thanks you, as always, for taking the time to respond> Happy birthday,
      John

  2. Thanks, John, for the birthday wishes. One quick point: neither Kant nor Hegel spent much time demolishing other views, really, most of their philosophizing was spent presenting their own systems. Curious: why the No Hegel rule?

    • Initially felt that I ‘should’ read Hegel and then tried to but was intimidated by the density of the text. Kept trying over a few years but to no avail. Decided about 10 years ago to stop trying- now feel much better.

  3. nathaniel drake carlson

    As Seferis said in something I was reading recently, “Poetry does not express truths in the scientific meaning of the word, nor does it discover philosophies and life theories; it uses science and the philosophy of others, if it needs them.”

    And elsewhere in Philip Sherrard’s discussion of Seferis in his book The Marble Threshing Floor: “The poet is not only someone who makes a beautiful or convincing pattern of words, the possessor, that is, of a specialised technique. Certainly, he must have such a technique. But a technique is, or should be, a means of expression, not an end in itself. That is why the poet must also be something of a philosopher, a seer, one who seeks to divine some meaning in the world and in human life, and to express this in words. But to this end, he differs from the conventional philosopher in that he conducts his inquiry not so much with his reason, as with that far more perceptive faculty, his intuition. This is the poetic faculty.”

    • Yes, I think the Seferis quote is a much better and more coherent way of saying what I was trying to say. This formula certainly ‘works’ for me- thank you for bringing it here- where’s it from? With regard to Sherrard, v suspicious of the notion of intuition and don’t understand what a poetic faculty might be.

      • nathaniel drake carlson

        The Seferis quote is from A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951. As to intuition: well, I suppose for Sherrard that likely would be the poetic faculty. But that idea of a poetic faculty is also a way of describing a foundational mode of comprehension, similar to what is described in Kimon Friar’s essay “Myth and Metaphysics”. I would think that would align broadly with Sherrard’s concept or understanding of intuition. And I think it’s important as well to know what Sherrard means by intuition. It’s something far more expansive than just an amorphous “feeling”.

      • Still suspicious, what does he mean by the ‘i’ word? I think it is more specific than ‘feeling’ but still don’t find it helpful.

      • nathaniel drake carlson

        Actually, in respect to “poetic faculty”,I should have noted that Sherrard quotes Shelley from A Defence of Poetry: “The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for the want of the poetic faculty, proportionately circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.”

      • This makes things a bit clearer but I’m still suspicious of the term because I don’t see how the adjective and noun go together, is there such a thing as a poetic faculty and what might it consist of? I understand that it’s the kind of thing that poets have said through the centuries but it does strike as being about self-justification rather than fact.

  4. Tell me, have you taken a look at Richard Rorty’s perspective on this issue from philosophical side of the fence? It seems similar to me, but it’s been quite some time since I read Rorty’s poetry stuff so I may be completely wrong.

    • Thank you, yes somewhere along the way Rorty managed to get under my skin and his philosophical side of the fence has been a bit of a thread for me. Not sure that he’s too successful at reading novels but I’m in agreement with his ‘point’ especially on notions of Truth and pure knowledge.

  5. I’m wondering why you’re so cautious about the ‘i’ word, it seems very important to many poets. Are you familiar with Polanyi on tacit knowledge? To me that immediacy of intuition seems very important.

    It also makes me think about Wittgenstein’s liking for say Tagore and yet proceeding in his own way, maybe he’d have drawn a line of difference. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and then wonder, as maybe you sometimes cause me to come back to (I mean to argue another view to you, but in a grateful way), if in fact the relationship is unbound and can work in any way for any poet or philosopher according to their style, or in comparison of different poets and philosophers – I just mean maybe any relationship is possible. I find Heidegger to have a kind of poetry to his ponderousness. Was it he who suggested poets should read philosophy and philosophers poetry? (can’t remember if not he then who)

    • I think I’m more sceptical than cautious, I have problems with this notion of unfettered immediacy because I don’t think the brain works like that and I think that many writers appeal to intuition when they can’t describe what might be going on. It’s also a quality that makes poetry too poetic for its own good.
      Re the quote, each should read the other but neither should try and write as the other.

  6. I see, thank you about the quote. Each to their own of course and I appreciate what you said about different types of poetry.

    I don’t want to be tiresome, but I do wonder if a certain type of intuition may in fact be a very deep sort of way of knowing, a sort of mixing of understanding with the world, (and following having taken in ways of knowing) not fettered though by a need to be right, perhaps wholly subjective but wholly appropriate for a person at that moment. Sometimes this may even be deluded I suppose to get that feeling and be wrong, so a need to be careful with it. I wonder this about Celan (not the deluded bit) , that he took in views of the world and then responded with a fine concentration of feeling having dwelt on them and on the world and his world, a reduction in a chemical sort of sense but full of the world at the same time. I only wonder, I have much to learn.

    • I think there are very deep ways of knowing but I don’t think these arise out of nowhere from an immediate and context-free experience/perception. This is simply because (perhaps stupidly) I don’t understand how that ‘works’. Immediate experience, which can give important and lasting insight, seems to be grounded in the already-established view that we have of the world and develops from that background even though it sometimes feels like a bolt of lightning. Celan said on one occasion that his work was ambiguous because he saw ambiguity in everything and one of the challenges for him was to express this multi-faceted aspect in his work.

      • It occurred to me I may be seeming to say poetry and philosophy were interchangeable, I was thinking more of the condensation/expansion axis, any relationship to that.
        I understand about Celan and ambiguity. And from what you say maybe we don’t have a big difference, no things don’t happen out of nowhere, there is context internal and external. I do think that getting to know something intimately can bring this deeper knowledge, whatever it is. I suppose psychological speak may speak of introjecting ideas, giving us context. To me it is then vital to touch the world and not to constrain it with the labels we give it but react given that context and maybe refresh or retune this thinking, or to explode with the thinking and any feeling. I get that idea of exploding with insight or reconnecting inside to outside with Celan, and I get it with the poem you quote, in fact I wonder if that is what it is about partly, the illegible climbing out of itself. At least it’s a possibility I am enjoying thinking about – maybe it is me projecting and I am wrong – of course I feel the internal world is ambiguous so that fits. But lively connection to the world, perhaps what some philosophers call ‘bracketing’, but we’re on the edges of reading I did some time ago, but whilst bracketing still feeling – as important at least as thinking and combining the two.

      • sorry — not sure abut my use of bracketing — feeling yes and feeling with the whole self, so not bracketing…..but a putting aside of certainty about the world. I love the Shelley quote above.

      • I think feeling with the whole self is a wonderful way of putting it and something that I recognise that I avoid. Think we’ll need to differ on the Shelley> Have you got the Meridian notebooks?

      • Its getting late so I won’t say much, but think poetic faculty is what poet is appreciating is letting them be a poet, surely, hence very important, it comes before and not just after or alongside. I don’t have the Meridian notebooks, yet. I really should be careful what I say as I am in the process of discovery and need to discover a lot more perhaps.
        I do concede that what can appear natural and flowing and inspired can also come with work, I’ve been reading Dylan Thomas and believe some of his work is a case in point. I learn slowly how good lines may be polished, more haste less speed.

  7. colourinyourcheeksgh Smith

    Sorry but to be out of the blue, but this question – poetry and philosophy – has been something which has been preoccupying me. David Antin says poetry is “thinking outloud” – thinking outloud always involves expansion, at least in the sense that you start at one point and move at another, and if you think about this original expansion, poetry can still be compressive, but it compresses what is original expansive; it strains against its originative – expansive – force. I think the way in which philosophy tends to address precursors formally – which you refer to – is far from standing as the essence of philosophy; it is easy to imagine philosophy without such addresses (and, in terms of method, what is and isnt “easy to imagine” seems to me a good way to think about what is essential about a given thing). Antin’s defintion probably delibrately reduces the difference between poetry and philosophy (he is known an American “poet-philosopher); you only need to look at Plato to see thought being elaborated outloud. In Plato, though, the thought you do get is always anticipative; Socrates asks questions in anticipation of answers, so there is always a question of control. Socrates “commands” the dialogue. In contrast, in poetry, there is no one to be commanded, and language is divested of power – that is why poetry tends to exhibit features of language which are normally invisible – poetry is when, in Heidegger’s terms, “language speaks us”. So philosophy is when thought has an object in the world around which it moves – it is a controlling force (so much philosophy is really pedagogy, in style and content; Heidegger and Wittgenstein are good examples), while poetry cannot be pedagogy; it begins and ends in the self, and if it does violence, it can only do violence to the self. If I am focusing on convergence rather than divergence here its because I think the methodological divergences between philosophy and poetry should basically be taken as given.

    • This is fascinating, and I thank you for bringing to Antin quote to my attention. The problem I have with your response is that this isn’t an issue about essentials or essences but is much more about the very different modes and constraints that both these language practices have accrued over time. My description of the precursors isn’t about whether they occur but that they clearly serve a purpose in philosophy that isn’t required/expected from the poet. I’m not sure how Antin arrives at his definition but he’s wrong because thinking out loud implies a kind of undirected openness that does occur in some work but isn’t the norm and great poetry invariably starts with a plan and follows it through. I’d be happier with thinking and feeling out loud but this still doesn’t encompass the making of the poem and all the skills and technique that such a construction requires.
      The Heidegger quote is one that I don’t understand, it seems to one of his phrases that sounds really important but in fact is quite empty. I’m also of the view that language can never be divested of power, that it is always bound up in what we do and poetic language is just as powerful (but not more) as any other language mode.

  8. colourinyourcheeksgh Smith

    Well there is certainly an anthropological question, or literary question, about the different ways in which poetry and philosophy are represented / used – culturally – but I have the impression most of the discussion is looking for more general points of difference. Of course, both poetry and philosophy need to be understood as crafts – things which you learn and develop over periods of time – but Antin would say that thinking is no different. People can be better or worse at thinking. What do you mean by “starts with a plan”? I’d agree if you mean that at the beginning the poet has a sense of the ending, but I think that is the same with thought. Assuming what I’m writing now constitutes thought, I have a sense of the horizon – where I’m going, where I’ve started, and what the best ways to get to the end might be. Obviously, I’m not writing poetry, but I think by saying it is “thinking outloud” Antin wants to think about about the way poetry is a dramatic meeting point of thought and language, a kind of struggle between the two (the outloud suggesting significance of language, especially in the form of speech). The sense of improvisation is important too; poets don’t know what they are going to write until they write it; or they don’t know what they are going to think until they think it. But most importantly, I don’t see why thinking excludes technique. Thinking can be very technical; in this it is different from feeling, which I agree has a role to play, but we can assume – following Freud to some extent – that feeling is always, and necessarily operating – usually in the background. I don’t think people can “think aloud” during states of extreme emotion; in extreme emotion, we are “full” of the emotion; there is no space left to think about it, no distance. The Heidegger quote intends to stress the passivity we experience before language; I agree that the words still contain power – that language “contains” power – but the poet is divested of power – only in the sense that something in the poet is passive. This is the kind of passivity we mean when we talk about “receptivity” or “sensitivity”, which really means a passivity of self, a willingness to respond. Heidegger is talking about this passivity of self in terms of language, which I’d say is a prerequisite of language, though, as you say, because poetry is a craft/technique, it is not only about passivity of self, and I don’t of course mean passivity in terms of “lying around all day”.

    • I’m still struggling with this and one of the reasons is that I’m trying hard not to provide a definition for poetry. In this instance I think we might need one to establish our differences. I’m happy to stand by a minimal definition and one that tries to avoid metaphor (because this invariably gets us into trouble. I think (tentatively, provisionally) that poets manipulate or re-frame language in order to make something other or new or somehow different. I think that this is about as far as I can go without falling into less than helpful specifics. Neither Antin nor Heidegger, for example, say anything helpful to me about poetry because their descriptions are not inclusive, poetry isn’t always thinking out loud and Heidegger’s wilful mysticism precludes any ordinary understanding.

  9. colourinyourcheeksgh Smith

    That definition is interesting, because it returns us to literature, and, I think less obviously, to philosophy, especially 20th century continental philosophy. Surely there are novels which re-frame language in order to make something other or new or different? Unless the novel is seen as concerning itself ultimately with narrative and the poem with language. Antin’s definition is important in that it takes the discourse of poetry away from feeling, which I think is important. Its strange how poetry – in an everyday context – is synonymous with “pejoratively sentimental discourse” in a way that, say, modern visual art isn’t (if anything, modern visual is too abstract; but there is no sense that poetry could be abstract) – so its polemically helpful to have a word there which has something to do with thought. I think the association with philosophy is equally helpful in this sense, and the misinterpretation of 20th c. continental philosophy – I don’t think Heidegger is at all “mystic” though that is the usual perception – depends on a pre-established binary difference between poetry and philosophy which makes the continental philosophic work seem “mystic” when it is more aptly “poetic” – as in, it engages with language at a creative and fundamental level. I don’t think the Heidegger quote “language speaks us” is obscure: I am absolutely familiar with a sense of strong passivity which accompanies speaking. More empirically, we often talk of “loose tongues”, or people “not being able to hold back” from saying a certain thing. Compared to ordinary pragmatic actions – going into the garden, digging a hole – there is an extraordinary passivity in talk. As a side note – I have been searching for critically minded UK based poetry blogs for a while and nearly everything I have found turns out be critical minded poetry blogs based in America. I’m looking for them because I am trying to grapple with what is going on today in UK poetry in a somewhat interactive way (I don’t just want to read magazines). If you could point me in any sort of direction, it would be great – both on and offline.

    • In about 1596 the vastly underrated Michael Drayton castigated his fellow sonneteers for there tendency to write ‘ah me’ verse which is shorthand for the perjorative sentimentality that still afflicts poetry today and not just in an everyday context. I really haven’t got the space here to re-run Heidegger and the Turn but in my head there is a significant difference between Heidegger after 1940 and other continentals of his generation or later and it rests on a quality that (according to Gadamer) was inherited from Meister Eckhart. If that’s what the ‘language speaks us’ quip is attempting to say then it isn’t saying it very well and I don’t see how such a premise would work.
      I’ll e-mail you re directions.

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