Difficult Poetry and Philosophy

This may take some time, I’ve been writing about ‘The Maximus Poems’ the arduity project and I really wanted to talk about the influence of Alfred North Whitehead on the work but didn’t because I feel that this may deter first-time readers. Since then I’ve been giving more than a little thought to the complex relationship that poets have with philosophy. It seems to me that writers of difficult poetry are, in part, difficult because they are dealing with fundamental issues and in this there is a big similarity with philosophy.

The issue becomes more problematic when we consider the exact relationship between the two. Olson is relatively straightforward in that ‘Maximus’ can be read as a reworking of ‘Process and Reality’. We know that this was one of the most thumbed and annotated books on Olson’s shelf and that Olson referred to it as his guiding light. So, it would appear that Olson’s view of our perception of time and space was informed by Whitehead and this conceptual framework was used to shape ‘Maximus’. The next question to be asked is was this a conscious thing – did Olson deliberately set out to write a poem about the world according to Whitehead or was the work so ingrained under his skin that this had become his reading of the world?

The situation gets more complex with other difficult poets, a straight line can be drawn between Henri Bergson (via T E Hulme) and the early work of Pound and Eliot. On closer inspection however this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. In terms of form Bergson may have been influential but Bradley is certainly more influential on Eliot in terms of content. It would also be impossible in my view to point to any straight lines influencing Pound.

Then we come to the Heidegger problem. I’ll leave aside my previously stated view that Heidegger was wrong about poetry and consider instead his  well-documented influence on the work of Paul Celan.  The relationship was never an easy one as Celan could never forgive Heidegger’s studied silence about his Nazi past but it is clear that Celan read Heidegger from the early fifties on over. As a lifelong reader of Celan, I’ve looked for traces of the existential Heidegger in Celan’s work and they aren’t apparent.  I’ve also read long and learned essays that purport to show me that they are apparent yet I’ve never been convinced. What can be said is that there is a lot of mysticism in Celan’s work, as there is in Heidegger’s later output but we also know that Celan was an enthusiastic reader of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Unpacking these various threads in Celan’s notoriously resistant verse is almost impossible.

J H Prynne’s debt to Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Marx and others is fairly well-documented but again we have the problem of many ‘influences’ coming together in different ways. I’m currently giving priority to Merleau-Ponty but this is only because I’m reading him and his thoughts on perception seem to tie in with the way that I read Prynne. The socialist perspective clearly comes from ‘Capital’ and the notion of poetry as truth stems from Heidegger (amongst many others).

As a (weak) practitioner, I try and write poetry that makes sense of the world but I don’t do this with any particular philosophy or ideology in mind. I do however acknowledge that the way that I live my life is formed by a cognitive map that has many influences. My understanding of the way power works is informed by Foucault, my reluctant comprehension of how culture functions is informed by Bourdieu, my personal relativism is influenced by Richard Rorty, my sense of place I get from Henri Lefebvre and I wish I could write like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida. I’m currently writing a long poem about the atrocity that was Bloody Sunday and no doubt all of the above will ‘inform’ what I write but even I couldn’t begin to sort out the strands.

So, poets write about fundamental stuff and sometimes take from philosophy a framework for thinking about their subject. Undertaking an objective analysis of that ‘influence’ is however immensely difficult and often a waste of time


6 responses to “Difficult Poetry and Philosophy

  1. “What can be said is that there is a lot of mysticism in Celan’s work, as there is in Heidegger’s later output.”

    Ouch, you see Heidegger as a machine producing mystical output? Makes me wonder why you would waste time reading his work at all.

    I haven’t studied many of his books – mostly Die Technik und Die Kehre, his lectures on Hoelderlin and his Parmenides study.
    But if there’s two words I wouldn’t use for these texts, it would be output and mysticism.


    • Deborah,

      Thanks for this, I do have a habit of throwing out gratuitous one-liners that I need to correct. My justification for the ‘mysticism’ tag comes from a reasonably careful essay by Otto Poggeler entitled ‘Mystical elements in Heidegger’s Thought and Celan’s Poetry’ which I read more for what it said about Celan. Poggeler’s argument is complex but he does point to the influence of Meister Eckhart on Heidegger’s work. There’s also a book by John D Caputo that is quite good on this.
      I’ll concede that ‘output’ isn’t entirely appropriate – would ‘work’ be any better?


  2. Hi John,

    The word ‘work’ popped up in my comment, so I can’t really criticize you on it – but in all honesty, I don’t know whether it’s any better.

    Now that you mention it, Dr. Gerard Visser wrote a much appraised book on Meister Eckhart and Heidegger as well, though I have to admit I haven’t read it. It’s just that, saying that something is mystical is often either a way of discarding it without even trying to understand it or immunizing it against criticism.


  3. Writing? Thinking? Analysis? Thought? I’ll give this further consideration.
    I wasn’t being perjorative about mysticism, I find it fascinating but I do think that the various strands may be too complex for my small brain.


  4. I am writing because I am so glad to find serious thinking on a blog. I am not an academic–and not in the mood for the rigors of the academic life, but I like to think in a casual forum. I am glad to have found you. I am going to dig deeper into your blog now. Thank you for posting.

    • This started out as a way of simply writing about what I was reading- and it still is. My only commitment is to try not to descend too far into the depths of what passes for lit crit and to keep things reasonably helpful to other attentive readers.

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