Poetry and philosophy could be described as two modes of intervention in language that seek to reinvent what human discourse means or can do, and so to reinvent what it means to speak and be.
The one, poetry, would speak a beyond of language in language for the sake of contacting things: to make language “itself” a thing, to give it the weight of a body; or to bring “things” directly into language, to give bodies the power and flow of a voice. The other, philosophy, would speak a beyond of the concept through concepts for the sake of altering language, where language is understood as our basic “medium” of thought: to give body to concepts and to weigh that body; or to think what remains unthought in the concepts that guide our normal ways of thinking, our relationship to reality, world, and others. Poetry would affirm an outside of language in language, in the name of joy, that elevates language into a unique sphere of expressive life, while philosophy would affirm a strike on language, in the name of justice, that integrates language into thought’s struggle for the future and for peace.
One might account for the sparkle of poetry and the alarm of philosophy in this way. Poems would be like lightning strikes, philosophy the laborious thunder coming after, the one surrendering to the speed of ungraspable realities, from love to anger to grief, affirming sensation and the singularity of experience, the very mystery of earth and birth, while the other submits itself to a sedulous investigation of that speed, endeavoring to bring the lightness of sense into thought’s clarity, tragically aware that ultimately it cannot be grasped. Both would undo the “naive evidence” of the world as it is given, normalized, and prescribed by prevailing uncreative modes of discourse, yet in opposite directions: poetry amplifying that naivety, celebrating innocence and its fervor, such that the world appears afresh in its ever-renewed inaugural emergence; philosophy engaging that naivety as both its enemy and its resource, drawing from it without stalling content with it, sustaining it alive in a way that contends with the passage of time and the ordeal of history.
They would seem almost incompatible: what remains intolerable for poetry (explication, labor, analysis, mediation) would be philosophy’s wellspring; and what remains intolerable for philosophy (plays on words, unbridled inspiration, spontaneity, intimation) would be poetry’s. And yet both would be urgent interventions, the one reinvigorating language as tangible and tactile vehicle for emotional life, tending toward singular and irreplaceable experiences; the other reinvigorating thought as a material operation capable of remaking history, tending toward universalization and peace. But both would be destined to redesign our bodies and recalibrate our minds. And they would need each other–not to be each other’s answer, but to communicate the full range of experience, the syncopated rhythm of life and thought. To communicate what it means to communicate as such: to reinvent it.
I have retained the conditional tense here (“would be…”) because of course I do not believe in a simple bifurcation between poetry and philosophy. Although I can’t deny that these names represent different things, two “genres” with different modes of expression, it would be foolish, especially today, to believe in any natural division of labor between the two. I’m playing on it here to illuminate some features, but also to emphasize the need to imbue the one with the other: not so much poetry with philosophy and vice versa, but spontaneity with mediation, inspiration with thought, and so on. Thinkers and poets both “divine and anticipate,” they both use language to question the automatic course of things and to ready us for unprecedented events, encounters, pivots, and perils. In so doing, they re-destine humanity beyond its merely instrumental purpose, and first of all by treating language as something more than a tool. That is the common aspiration of their intervention: to rework language such that we may teach ourselves how to “pay a different kind of attention,” which amounts to relearning what it means to be and share a world, remembering always that what counts for beauty counts for politics and vice versa.
What we “need,” then, is an agile poetry coextensive with daily speech, a careful philosophy coextensive with daily thought. But while the task must reach into the most minute aspects of daily life, we still have to learn what we’re called to do from those who came before us. What do they tell us? What do they ask us to receive? What do they ask us to give? The answers here are not univocal, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. Their difference is the gift of plural tendency, a diversity of ambition in which they invite us to share. Because although each teaches us something unique, I believe it is their desire to reach that unites them. That desire is a quasi-universal, and they invite us in unison to cultivate it.
For before and beyond everything they say, they speak to us. They address us as irreplaceable and call us to discover it. That could be the irreplaceability of a feeling or a moment, as in poetry, or the irreplaceability of a thought or a trajectory, as in philosophy. But they never ask us to emulate them. They call us to make it our own, and so to re-direct it into our own rarity. Re-direct me, take me with you, abandon me, it matters little, they seem to say, so long as you reach, believe, and live outside your caricature. At stake is always a reinvention: of language, of things, of life in common, of the future. And so of them, of the very beings from whom we learn to live, who call us. And so of us, who are still learning to live, who are still learning to receive and to call.
This could be an awakening to the truth of what is already there, or it could be a refusal of what is with an eye to its total transformation. Poetry or philosophy, it’s always a question of being-reaching, of letting oneself be reached, for it is our landscape and light to rediscover, it is our responsibility to love. The weight of time and the exposure to the other is ours. The re-destination of humanity is for us–to express and to think, to breathe and to sing. Joy and justice, the rhythm of your rhythm in ours.