Tag Archives: process and reality

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.

Process, Reality and Maximus

Annette Lamballe 2/01/13

Sunrise over the Channel from our garden. Annette Lamballe 2/01/13

Looking at the wordpress dashboard gizmos, I now realise that I haven’t blogged since August which (for me) is a very long time indeed. This was a conscious break to get away from the poetry blogging mentality and to do Other Things. These are ongoing works in progress in both the creative and political ends of my life and I’ve recently begun to polish/refurbish the arduity project primarily because people like it and it gets a consistent level of traffic that I know I can grow.

Whilst doing other things I’ve been reading Langland and other middle English stuff and engaging with bits of philosophy. This wasn’t deliberate (I’m supposed to be immersed in the more arcane parts of social policy) but I fell across ‘Selves’ by Galen Strawson which tackles an aspect of one of the creative collaborations that I’m involved in. This prodded me into another attempt at Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ which, in turn, has caused a bit of a re-think of Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus Poems’ which I’ll outline here.

I’ll start with ‘Maximus’, regular readers will by now have gathered that I think this is one of the greatest poems of the 20th century and one of the most accomplished. Olson was a great fan of the above mentioned Whitehead tome and it is possible to read ‘Maximus’, at least in part, as a working through of the Whitehead thesis. I don’t intend to spend too much time on the intricacies of ‘Process and Reality’ but I do want to quote two bits that might put ‘Maximus’ in a slightly different light.

Before we go any further I do need to confess that I’m yet to complete my reading of ‘Process and Reality’ and some of what follows is loosely based on/in argument with what others have written. The following are the first and ninth of Whitehead’s 27 ‘Categories of Explanation':

That the actual world is a process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities. Thus actual entities are creatures; they are also termed ‘actual occasions.

and

That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process.’

It strikes me that these two require a fundamental shift in our current ways of thinking because they indicate that, instead of thinking of things as fixed and reasonably stable objects, we should be thinking of everything in terms of an ongoing process of becoming. The issue I want to raise is whether ‘Maximus’ reflects the very radical nature of this shift or presents a poeticised position which is at least one step removed from Whitehead.

I’m going to use ‘Oceania’ from the third volume of the sequence because it is a brilliant and technically accomplished poem but also because it contains at least two overt references to the Whitehead project.

The poem is ‘about’ Olson walking around Gloucester’s harbour in the early hours of the morning and writing and making a note of the time as he writes and describes what he sees. It’s lyrical and fiercely intelligent and manages to make the technically difficult feel effortless. ‘Oceania’ begins with:

                  OCEANIA,
                           the Child
              of the Moment of Mind 
              and Thought


            I've seen it all go in other directions
            and heard a man say why not
            stop ocean's tides
                              and not even more than the slow
            loss of a small piece of time, not any more vibration
            than the small wobble of the earth on its present axis

         no paleographic wind will record these divergent
         and solely diverse animadversions - some part also of emotions
         or consciousness........

So, we appear to start with an exploration of the temporal and the cerebral and end with a reflection of what Whitehead says about the importance/centrality of feelings. There are however a couple of areas of ambiguity- what has been seen to ‘all go in other directions’ and which ‘animadversions’ won’t get recorded?

Later on the poem has:

       As a stiff & colder 
       wind too, straight down
       the river as in winter
       chills  cools
   the night - people had sd

   earlier they'd hoped
   wld have been a
   thunderstorm  I had sd no
   the wind's still
   where it was 

       Excuse please  no boast
         only the glory of
               celebrating

       the processes
         of Earth
              and man.

This can be read as a straightforward reiteration of the first Explanation above but, given the radical implications of this and the rest of the principles of ‘Process and Reality’ it does feel a bit thin. I’m saying this because I’ve previously read ‘Oceania’ as one of the best examples of philosophic poetry that we have and now find myself a little disappointed at it’s lack of daring. The poem does elucidate both the principle of process and the consequent focus on the relational but it doesn’t give full voice to what is really revolutionary about what Whitehead appears to insist upon- that it’s a fundamental error to think in terms of objects rather than of the potentiality of events (becoming).

Some might argue that the first few lines are a stab in this direction but they’re too vague and I’m still reading them as a nod towards the notion of the past always existing in the present which isn’t the same. I need also to state that this is my own readerly (rather than expert) response and one that is based on the beginnings of my understanding of all things Whitehead. I do however think that it does throw into sharp relief the problematic and endlessly convoluted relationship between poetry and philosophy.

I read philosophy because it can enable me to think about things in different ways and to confront challenges to my current beliefs. For example, I’m having this intensely enjoyable readerly argument with Galen Strawson on the singleness of the self. I don’t get this level of challenge from poetry even though, at its best, it does aim at a kind of accuracy, rather than truth, about how it is to be in the world. The difference between the two is that poets can/should use ambiguity whereas philosophers have this need to be absolutely clear about what’s being said- even when they’re acknowledging the ambiguous and provisional nature of things.

The other difference is one of brevity. ‘Process and Reality’ runs to 353 pagtes of densely worded text, Strawson’s ‘Selves’ weighs in at 425 pages, the UK press is at the moment bursting to the seams with the latest dismal assault on the welfare state which J H Prynne brilliantly encapsulates as “great lack breeds lank / less and less” which manages to combine elements of Rawls and most of Marxian philosophy at once but does so without finding fifty different long-winded ways to say the same thing.

In conclusion, ‘Oceania’ is a shining piece of delightful brilliance in it’s own right but it isn’t philosophy because the two activites will always be different.

Poetry and the profound

I’ve spent today trying to get the honesty / puppy dog, tail beating enthusiasm balance right when writing about ‘Triumph of Love’ and found myself describing one poem as ‘genuinely profound’. I then realised that I wasn’t completely clear on what this particular adjective might mean even though I am prone to throw it out with some frequency.

On further reflection, it’s one of those words that I have a personal definition of which might in fact differ from the ‘real meaning. It then struck me that we expect profundity from ‘serious’ poetry as if poetry that doesn’t have this quality is somehow diminished or less important. This might not be an entirely Good Thing’.

I think that I take profound to mean somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world. On the other hand, the closest that the OED gets to this is “of personal attributes, actions, works, etc.: showing depth of insight or knowledge; marked by great learning” which doesn’t quite hit the mark because ‘depth’ doesn’t always equate with ‘truth’.

I probably need to be more specific, I was referring to poem LXXVII which contains these lines:

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

Hill is referring to the lasting damage done by the countless deaths that occurred during WWII and ‘mute-howling’ is an accurate / true description of what has been experienced in my family through successive generations since the Somme offensive of 1916. So, it is profound for me because it describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound as well as almost perfectly phrased. You will note that I’m gliding over the ‘self’ bits because they don’t, to my ear, carry the same level of truth even though they may be learned and erudite reworkings of whatever Gerald Manley Hopkins might have meant by ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’. I readily accept that this whole self mularkey has / holds / carries more than a degree of accuracy and truthfulness for Hill, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all for me.

I’ll try and give another example of the profound at work, in ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton depicts Satan on his way to Eden and describes his logic in choosing to do evil. This description ‘fits’ with my experiences of working with disturbed young offenders and the thought patterns that lead them to do Very Bad Things, is brilliantly expressed and is therefore profound.

It occurs to me that there are very few examples of profundity in the poetry of the last hundred years. The ‘Four Quartets’ are an example of a poet attempting profundity but missing the mark and resorting to a weird kind of quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo instead, ‘Crow’ again aims to be profound but is let down by the device/conceit and the variable strength of the language used.

The most obvious candidate for profundity is Paul Celan and there are a few poems where the match between truthfulness and eloquence is made- I’m thinking of ‘I know you’ and ‘Ashglory’ in particular. I never thought I’d say this but there are times when Celan can be too concerned with ‘truth’ / ‘accuracy’ and the language almost disappears into itself. There might be a debate to be had about whether the price of extreme profundity is, simply, too high.

The price of extremes seems to lead naturally into a consideration of the profundity quotient present in the work of J H Prynne. The two phrases that immediately spring to mind are ‘grow up to main’ from ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ and ‘lack breeds lank’. The first of these (probably) relates to the demographic pressures that influenced the Ulster Loyalist’s participation in the peace process. It’s a pressure that is also felt in Israel and other parts of the Middle East so it is both accurate (true) and widely applicable but it is still incredibly terse. The second comes from ‘As Mouth Blindness’ which was published in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and is a comment on the fact that the poorest members of society always suffer the most during a recession and/or a period of austerity. As an ex-Marxian agitator, I think this is a bit self-evident when compared with the first and also loses out because it is so compressed. Of course, the Prynne project is not concerned primarily with the profound but is much keener on describing things as they are and mostly succeeds in this aspiration in ways that other poets can only think about.

I think I need to do down the learned or erudite aspect of profundity a bit more. Sir Geoffrey Hill’s brief discussion of Bradwardine’s refutation of the New Pelagians is immensely scholarly and (selectively) accurate but it can’t be applied to the vagaries of the 21st century and is therefore unprofound.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence does have moments of great profundity especially when Alfred North Whitehead’s work on process and temporality is illustrated or exemplified by the magical descriptions of the realities of life in Gloucester. In fact, ther is an argument to be made that Olson’s combination of intellectual strength and technical skill make him the most profound of the Modernist vein. To try and show what I mean, this is a longish extract from ‘OCEANIA':

     As a stiff & colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of
celebrating

the process
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and
Jeremy Prynne

And the smell
of summer night
and new moan
hay
And the moon
now gone a quarter toward
last quarter comes
out

Regardless of the fact that the rest of this poem is just as beautiful and understated, regardless of the reference to Prynne, this ticks all my boxes for profundity. Whitehead’s later work on process is complex, demanding and radical, his ideas are also eminently and universally applicable, Olson’s example of how the Whitehead thesis works in real tangible ongoing life is a technical masterpiece as well as being both lyrical and combative in equal measure. In short, Charles Olson did profound to perfection and continues to put the rest of us to shame.