I resume here an old preoccupation: the distinction, intersection, or border between philosophy and poetry, both of which remain passions in my life.* The specific question I will grapple with in the following is: what is specific to poetry’s vocation? How is poetry’s vocation to be rigorously distinguished from philosophy’s?
I begin with the intuition of a threat: poetry in its essence is constantly jeopardized by an over-proximity to philosophy. The poet’s own proximity to philosophy is variable and not the crucial factor here. What matters is rather how the poem is often ‘belittled’ into being the carrier for some psychological or social message, some form of philosophical ‘wisdom’ split between folk common sense and lecturing. Take for example, “Season to Season” by Clive James (The New Yorker, Jan 2018):
I have been fooled before, and just because
This summer seems so long, it might not be
My last. Winter could come again, and pause
The sky like a taped tactical descent
Of pocket paratroopers. Things to see
Could happen yet, and life prove not quite spent
But still abundant, still the main event.
The trick, I’m learning, is to stay in doubt,
Season to season, of what time might bring,
And patiently await how things turn out.
Eventually time tells you everything.
If it takes time to do so, no surprise
In that. You fold your arms, you scan the skies,
And tell yourself that life has made you wise,
If only by the way it ebbs away.
But still it takes an age, and after all,
Though nearly gone, life didn’t end today,
And you might be here when the first leaves fall
Or even when the snow begins again,
If life that cast you, when this all began,
As a small boy, still needs a dying man.
This poem poses almost no obstacles to a smooth reading. Nearly all the metaphors are general: summer is long, time is slow, arms fold, sky is scanned, life ebbs away, and so on. One easily envisions a man contemplating his chances of ever seeing snow again. It articulates an experience of growing older in a universal way and is loaded with wise sayings mixed with playful suspicions and reflections about the circularity of life in proximity to death. It narrates an ‘oversight’ of life as a totality and desires wisdom about that totality. It even teaches care for the self, an dignified way to deal with expectations, doubts, deceptions, and waiting. One could argue, then, that this poem is shaped entirely by the philosophy it expresses; its goal to philosophize about the meaning of life, time, and self. Poetry here is an tool for dwelling in the realm of practical life wisdom. The only line that pushes in a contrary direction, that does not offer itself immediately to easy comprehension, is the comparison of the sky to a “taped tactical descent/ Of pocket paratroopers.” Regardless of its quality, this is the only ‘strange’ image in the poem. It stands apart. It will be my argument in what follows that it is in such moments that the specificity of poetry can be discerned and differentiated from the otherwise philosophical message the poem offers.
Now take another example, “The Burden of Humans” by Michael Lavers (New Ohio Review, Fall 2017):
The grass just has to wave, the birds just have
to sing. The grapes don’t wonder what light is;
the light just lights them, and the grapes grape back.
The golden oaks just shed their summer dresses
on the lawn—but you? You have to read
Spinoza in the garden while the light
is good. You have to keep your focus as
the motorcycles scream out of the purple hills.
You have to sweat, and laugh, and weatherproof
the bedroom windows, and remember
names and dates, the town where your parents met—
Milk River or Swan Hills?—and when they died,
you have to sweep the kitchen floor and then
define the good, the true, the beautiful,
or try, because azaleas can’t see themselves,
the squirrels are busy, and the ferns have closed.
The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose,
but in a language only you can read;
you have to know that all things pass and perish,
and that what you’ve said is finite, but continue—
as if grand exceptions might be made—
raking the leaves, stacking the wood, hoping
the child falls asleep against your chest,
hoping the blizzard swerves, knowing the wreckage
of the present will be gathered but
not soon, and not by you, because you’re in it,
there somewhere, under the sheet of snow.
Aside from the gap this poem introduces between human nature and nature as such (“the grapes grape… but you have to read,” why? because you see yourself), the ratio of poetry to philosophy is not so different. Phenomenological description outweighs poetic utterance by a factor of about 20 to 1. The poem is carried by what it says, which is something broad and wide about life, death, and perseverance. For as any poet knows, writing a poem is very often all one can do to persevere and make sense of the “wreckage.” But one could again object that the poem is only serving the purpose of encouragement and self-steadying (exercise might do just as well), that poetry has again become only a tool to help one face life and death without breaking. Yes, isn’t poetry always that? But philosophy is also such a tool, or at least it is caught up in similar dramas. The poem’s final lines read like a philosophical bottom line. Where exactly is the poetry here?
For the sake of argument, then, let’s say that the first poem has only one poetic utterance: “[winter could] pause/ The sky like a taped tactical descent/ Of pocket paratroopers.” What constitutes it as poetic, or as attempting to be poetic, is the alliteration and the unfamiliar, unexpected, somewhat confusing image. One might have hoped that, in a poem otherwise bereft of novel visuals, this one would have served the poem like a point of strong emphasis, one that summed up or at least supported the philosophy. Alas it is not. In my view it is a throw-away line, not poetic but only ‘signalling’ poetry in a poem that is otherwise a proverb arranged in verse. One could even say it describes the intervention: the line that signals ‘this is poetry’ swoops down tactically, it is pulled out of the pocket to launch an attack on sky and winter. Predictably, the seasons are unaffected and turn over. Philosophy is enough to understand them, and poetry is little more than an ornament.
The second poem, while equally full of the philosophy of everyday life and finite keeping on, increases the count of poetic utterances but not by much. I count two (discounting the motorcycle’s scream and the blizzard’s swerve as remaining essentially descriptive): first, the golden oaks that shed their dresses (traditional metaphor), and second, by far the most interesting line:
The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose,
but in a language only you can read.
Now, unlike the other lines in both these poems, here is the first one that gives me pause, making it to me the only genuinely poetic utterance we encounter here. It is also, in my view, no accident that it is in iambic pentameter, whereas otherwise neither of these poems cares all that much about meter. My intention is not to interpret this utterance, but only to point it out as the only line that requires some manner of active interpretation at all. The rest are, in the end, obvious, and we nod our heads in agreement. But this image stands out: The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose. We can immediately imagine the crimson vibrancy of bud with snow on the ground behind it, the bud’s petals fringed with crisp, burgeoning outlines of white ice encroaching on organic life and enveloping color itself. We sense the sting of the tattoo inscribed, its promise of painful and permanent alteration. For unlike natural frost which thaws, this frost speaks, or rather sermonizes. Its soundwaves burn image on corporeal flesh. And, finally, we know that whatever design we see on this rose is a language, a sermon to hear or an image to decode, indeed both: audible and visible, inseparably, as in poetry. Not the universal language of nature, mind you, or a pattern for which a science of fractals could give the formula, but a language of singularity, a language only you can read. Poetry is: frost’s sermon tattooed on the rose.
Whereas the first poem draws nothing but oddity from its unfamiliar image, this poem uses it for a strong juxtaposition. There is a unity to the one especially poetic line in relation to the other literary and descriptive lines that surround it. Indeed, it justifies its singularity, its standing alone among the other happenings in the poem. In comparison to the tattooed sermon―put there singularly for you to read, unlike Spinoza, who only requires “good lighting”―everything from raking the leaves to the child asleep on your chest pales mundane. From the poetic perspective, all other beings and activities, from the squirrel busy with its nuts to the human who must remember dead parents, are buried under a sheet of snow, not gathered together but lacking wholeness, conquered by cold. If there is some faith that, despite being buried, the “wreckage of the present” can be gathered, one suspects this faith was awakened by the sermon on the rose that, amid all this philosophizing, alone spares language from it too being buried.
The heuristic at play here is the following: wherever a philosophical idea or reference can be clearly discerned or deduced from a poem, it ceases to be poetry. This does not prevent a genuinely poetic line from provoking us to philosophize (as the line about the rose perhaps does), but nothing immediately translates it into something graspable or commonplace. The pause is essential here and it signifies an instance of falling-silent, a silence within the stream of activity and discourse (as the emergence of frost makes no noise). Put more strongly, the poetic line, without remaining silent, refracts silence into language and throws a wrench in the gear of philosophical, worldly, practical wisdom.
Admittedly, philosophy will not cede its place so willingly. Given that its task is to integrate every form of knowing, the poetic utterance obliges philosophy to check its premises and test its understandings against it. In a sense, the frost’s sermon cancels out all the lectures, curses them to ‘mere speech’ with its icy and invisible print. What is somewhat ironic, then, is that these ‘poems’ by and large overwhelm this nascent silver of poetry with what are, in the end, philosophic generalities. But who could dream of a poetry that avoided the latter entirely? As Valery put it, a poem cannot be all poetry.
We are, perhaps, on the way to an adequate definition of poetry if we call poetry the abandonment of generality (in itself paradoxical, given that poetry’s material is common) for the sake of singularity (singular address, singular image: a language only you can read). But these examples demonstrate how difficult it is to escape philosophical generality since these are nothing less than the generalities of being human, the ideas whereby we understand self and world. Philosophy preoccupies itself with them continually. If poetry, by contrast, seems to suspend this imperative―at least for pause of a breath-turn―it does not for all that abandon the desire to know. It is only that its mode of saying what it knows becomes… unfamiliar, unnatural, strange. Better yet, it describes a pure desire to know, held on the verge of as-yet unknown universals, such that its utterance flows seamlessly back into mystery. Following Keat’s phrase, it is a negative capability, the capacity to dwell in the unknown and stay there. The ideal nature of such a discipline strikes us as impossible to maintain. This contributes to the incongruity between its result (poetic utterance) and everyday life realism, in other words, the difficulty of poetry. Thus, even by the end of this poem, human generality storms back in, not the winter storm but the storm of human reflection: you are “there somewhere,” you are “in the wreckage,” you are “buried under snow.”
What if poetry knew something so profoundly counter-intuitive that no poem could not take fright at its prospect and run for cover in a more common wisdom? If it knew that you are not there somewhere, that you are not in it―not buried? That far from the cyclical natural world, far from the animals with their duties, far from human concern and worry, there is in the universe of being: frost’s sermon tattooed on a rose?
No doubt, only philosophy would turn this poetic utterance into an ontological question. In itself it only contingently provokes such reflection, not necessarily. “The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose” is not a thesis statement. It is non-propositional, non-sensical. It does not accord with any accepted paradigm of objectivity. Accusations of poetry’s nonsense and redundancy come, predictably, from those philosophies and logics that need to dismiss such singular utterances as ‘mere poetry’ in order to restore thought and knowledge to the realm of generality. That this implies a violence and disrespect against poetry is obvious, but it does something worse still: it forecloses the possibility that the poetic utterance might be true. Unlike ‘scanning’ the sky, unlike time ‘ebbing’, unlike ‘screaming’ motorcycles, this metaphor refuses reduction to any simpler idea or to any sensory experience. It does not admit substitutions. It solves only its own formula.
We return to the basic problem. Philosophy and poetry share a territory: ideas and images; imagined ideas and ideal images; words, their connotations, and the play these allow; graphemes that are sounds and sounds that are graphemes; concepts and categories of understanding; and most importantly, the voice and its memorable vessel. For poetry is not, save metaphorically, written in ice―at least not from philosophy’s justifiably rational perspective. Nor is it illegitimate for philosophy to seek to understand the poetic utterance with its own concepts. Only we must recognize the difference in registers and, at a minimum, never take poetic utterance for a philosophical thesis. It is this rigor that, in active interpretation, is hardest to maintain, since it means bearing silence at every step of reasoning and honoring the pause that rips us from generality and explanation and carries reflection beyond the limits of propositional discourse.
The above thoughts are more hypothesis than thesis. As stated, I am trying to isolate the specificity of poetry’s use of language as distinct from philosophy’s. Obviously, in any concrete case (any poem, any philosophy) there is a mixture of both. So already I am dealing with idealities or concepts. The reality of poems is something quite different and from that I would never wish to detract.
A philosophical idea can be dressed in poetic utterances. Early on in my reading life, I was most attracted to poems that contained philosophical insight and depth. I still am. Those lines where an epiphany or radiant declaration burst forth were my favorite. That is how I originally came to philosophy, when I realized these were my favorite parts of the poetry I was reading. And now, having come far in an understanding of philosophy, it has become difficult to see where it does not reach, where it does not overwhelm. I now return to the question of poetry to free myself from my own original attraction. For I am not content to see poetry as garment or garb, as merely an alternative to philosophical exposition that does the same thing, express ideas, differently.
Perhaps it is conflicting to approach poetry as a philosopher trying to discover where poetry has nothing to do with philosophy, where it perhaps does something philosophy simply does not do or hasn’t done yet. The idea is to register these findings for and in philosophy, to respect a poetic truth in and against philosophy’s. I have no idea what this means, but my intuition is that, at the most basic level, it entails taking language beyond the form of the proposition and propositional logic. I base myself on intuitions gathered from Celan, who defines [Dichtung] as pause, suspension, breathturn [Atemwende]. It is the specificity of that that I am after. This is largely a personal question, an attempt to understand why, in my own poetry, I feel drawn to high levels of abstraction that resist the lyrical voice and disrupt conceptuality as much as possible.
The poem argues from silence or draws us into it. Philosophy in comparison is voluble, argumentative. It explains, clarifies, deduces, defines, classifies, defends. I see the strength (even the hegemony) of these operations and so the search for what might resist them intrigues me (though this resistance itself forms an argument). As far as the poems shared above go, “The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose” seems to me the only line that is not philosophically obvious―the one whose argument is most difficult to understand. That doesn’t mean the rest of the poems aren’t poetry or aren’t poetic! Not at all. I’m not interested in analyzing literature or chopping up works of art just for the sake of it. The project is philosophical, meaning it deals in concepts necessarily delimited from others in some fashion. I accept that it is probably vexed from the get-go.
Where does poetry makes its unique intervention? When is it not merely the vessel for expressing philosophical ideas? To summarize: poetry’s invention takes place, first, at the level of language in the mode of obscurity, disruption, strangeness (regarding syntax, word choice, flow, etc.). This unsettles philosophy as it struggles to control it. And not just academic philosophy but philosophy as the basic matrix for our daily understandings of self and world. My research comes from a dissatisfaction with philosophical ways of coming at the poem that reduce it to a packet of metaphors or a vehicle for transmitting messages. Yet to honor the disruption of a poetic utterance is not so easy.
Can the poetic idea be expressed philosophically at all? If philosophy would like to express it, won’t it be obliged to be written as a form of poetry? My personal writing successes on this level are few, but my original essay, Sparing Language, tries.