Poetry and the Scope of Philosophy

“to write in ignorance and without regard for the philosophical horizon, a horizon punctuated, gathered together or dispersed by the words that delimit it, is necessarily to write with facile complacency (the literature of elegance and good taste). Hölderlin, Mallarmé, so many others, do not allow us this.”

This is a continuation of the ‘scope of poetry’ piece that was posted a couple of weeks ago. The above is a quote from Maurice Blanchot in “The Writing of the Disaster” translated by the wonderful Ann Smock. Regular readers will know that I’ve been having a battle entirely in my own head with Simon Jarvis’ view on poetry and philosophy. In the broadest terms, Jarvis is of the view that poetry is good at ‘doing’ philosophy and that constraints of metre and rhyme can be beneficial in this regard. In the recent past I’ve taken the view that poetry shouldn’t attempt to do philosophy and that the two should be kept separate. I have held to this because I think the Jarvis position tries to make poetry grander and more powerful than it actually is.

Blanchot is a staggeringly brilliant writer and ‘The Writing of the Disaster’ is his most staggering work and I’ve been carrying it around all this year more because of the political implications of how he expands on Levinas and our responsibility for the other rather than his literary endeavours. The notion of writing with ‘regard for the philosophical horizon’ seems to me much more reasonable than the idea of poetry producing philosophy. I’m not entirely clear that to write without regard for philosophy will inevitably lead to ‘facile complacency’ but I am happy to concede that important poetry is made in part as a response to aspects of the philosophical horizon. Both Prynne and Celan have more than a little regard towards Martin Heidegger and Prynne’s long standing admiration for the work of Merleau Ponty can be seen as an integral component of his practice. I would argue that both are more about responding and actualising philosophical thought rather than creating it.
In one of my glibber moments I expressed the view that poetry is better at doing theology than philosophy. I now need to modify this because I’m no longer clear where the difference lies. 20th century Jewish philosophers like Buber and Levinas have both managed to ride both ‘horses’ at once and in doing so have incorporated theology into philosophy and vice versa. This matters to poetry because Celan referred to Buber as his ‘master’ whilst also being an avid and attentive reader of Heidegger.
I now want to return to the Jarvis argument in a little more detail. I’ll begin with a confession- I haven’t read ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ except for the introduction. My excuses are as follows:

  • I don’t like Wordsworth;
  • Life is too short;
  • I have read and continue to read Jarvis’ own philosophic songs with some degree of attention;
  • The arguments with regard to metre seem too complex for my small brain;
  • There are many other books competing for my attention.

Really rather feeble I know but I reconcile my self with having listened to last year’s lecture and the fact that I’ve read the introduction more than once. In that introduction Jarvis quotes approvingly from a letter written by Wordsworth on the process of doing philosophy by means of poetry:

When in his character of Philosophical Poet, having thought of Morality as implying in its essence voluntary obedience, and producing the effect of order, he transfers, in the transport of imagination, the law of Moral to physical Natures and, having contemplated, through the medium of that order, all modes of existence as subservient to one spirit, concludes his address to the power of Duty in the following words . . .

Jarvis is right to emphasise “in the transport of imagination” as the key element here in describing how one of our greatest poets thought that this should be done and is also correct in saying that the above provides a recipe that allows poets to go where philosophers can’t. My fundamental question is whether this transference produces philosophic poetry or whether it results in an odd hybrid which fails to do either poetry or philosophy very well.

I’ve recently written about ‘F subscript zero’ and intend to do so again in the near future. In that piece I was critical of Jarvis’ polemic against Derrida. I don’t intend to repeat myself here but I do feel the need to quote the rest of the passage as an example of neither being done very well. The first two lines begin with a tick but the html for such an entity is too complex for my non-technical head:

not know left from right
hung for a sheep as lamb = immanent critique
since every break must bridge
in this One atheology what is
in truth as different as life from death

I obviously don’t know enough about Adorno to wax lyrical on the significance of “immanent critique” in this particular context except to say that I don’t think it works as poetry. I’ve already said what I think about the philosophic ‘argument’ and I think this section tries to ride both horses but fails. I still think however that the poem is important and one that we should all pay a little more attention to.

I’d like to turn again to the Blanchot quote and reiterate his point about ‘having regard’ to philosophy which I think poetry does and the best poetry operates with the philosophic horizon in mind but Blanchot is not suggesting that poetry should attempt to become philosophical in the way that Jarvis and Wordsworth suggest. The use of scope in my title is intended to echo the scope of poetry, just as we stand within the scope of verse so poetry stands in the scope of philosophy but it also stands in the scope of love and desire and many other phenomena which stand outside philosophy’s versions truth and fundamental knowledge.

I’d like to finish with a quote from Celan’s notes which for me, as a reader and practitioner, provides a much more accurate picture of what poetry has the potential to be about:

that’s why the poem, in its being and not through its subject matter first – it is a school of true humanity: it teaches to understand the other as the other, i.e. in its otherness, it demands brotherliness with respect before this other, in turning towards this other, even where the other appears as the hook-nosed and misshapen – in no way almond-eyed- accused by the “staight-nosed”…

The poem as a school of humanity which teaches understanding of the other in its otherness, I may have read too much Levinas of late but this strikes me as a much more accurate and relevant notion of what good poetry can and should be about.

Incidentally, Gillian Rose and Pierre Bourdieu have provided much wittier and more telling critiques of Derrida. In prose.

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