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The Doctor's Examination

Saturday night and I get to play. Back in '02 I wrote a series of essays on poetry for an ezine, fifteen or so. Kat's Q&A thread and a comment Chris has made concerning her current preoccupation with language brought to mind one of the essays. It's got a couple of ideas I've already presented to the board, but, in the context of the whole, I'll take a chance at repeating myself. Caveat emptor, however. MS has some length to it, three and a half pages. The reader is going to have to be interested in the topic to tread on. Almost forgot. The philosopher cited is a Scottish philosopher by the name of R.W. Hepburn.


The Doctor’s Examination

(By way of wrapping my knuckles, the editor of this series of essays, all too generously called “Musespeak,” writes in response to the first draft of this month’s article: “Your focus seems to be a continuation of your quest for THE elusive definition of poetry. I think you have a valid theme in that, so may I suggest you rework this one with a tighter focus. “ He was right, of course. And thanks to him the chance reader is now saved from a pretty bad specimen of writing. He was also right about a certain obsessive quality with the “elusive definition of poetry” on display here. But I suspect that, in his capacity as co-conspirator, the obsession is shared. And so I dedicate this month’s article to Orkie 44. Thanks Tom.)

How does philosophy view what poets do? One philosopher/poet of fifty years ago, Walter Kaufmann, maintained that, in its first days, and in order to secure for itself an ontop position, philosophy needed to discredit poets as several times removed from knowledge, even as liars. Certainly this was Plato’s position, that “creator of science” who, as a young man, was not only a lyric poet but a darn good one. But he banned poets from his ideal city-state, his Republic. Kaufmann felt there was something a bit specious in Plato’s condemnation of poets. It seemed to him that because poetry was the older of the two disciplines, and because, in a traditional society, poets are viewed as holding positions of moral authority, in order to secure a place for itself, philosophy started out needing to slander the poet’s office. I don’t think there can be any question but that Kaufmann had a valid point. And that, for another two thousand years or so, philosophy tended to view poetry as the bastard child in the family, the one kept in close but nervous regard. Perhaps it was because, as the ancients understood, poetry’s first condition is an “inspired madness.” Maybe, even, that Plato’s real target was the Sybil, the woman of the oracle divining futures, giving unwanted warnings, advising nations, and with whose office poetry still keeps in close, bloodline connection. Maybe Plato, who did so want to be an advisor to powerful movers and shakers, wanted to swing his audience to his particular corner of the court.

On the other hand, the Southern Agrarian poet, John Crowe Ransom, called the German Idealist philosopher, Immanuel Kant, poetry’s “staunchest defender.” And it does seem to me that Kant understood that poetry is at its most germinal when it has no truck with abstractions or with other-worldly, out-of-the-body projections; that what distinguished poetry is not its imitations or even its representations of experience, but that its crucial, non-replicable value is in its capacity for discovering the numinous energy in what is here and now, what gives the seizure and the shiver, the tell-tale goose bumps. At least, this is how I read his critique when he says aesthetic objects please freely, being “purposive” without having any necessarily “practical”, even moral value. Ransom was using Kant to support his own bias, which was that poetry is based in nature and not in the urban-centric, world transforming experience of skyscrapers, ribbons of pavement, the endless stretch of suburbia, and slumming alleyways. And for sure Ransom was a reactionary, a rear guard action kind of soldier. After all, the New South has long since given itself over to the city experience, factory farming, and the money market. But if what Kant says is true, if poetry is at its most potent when making sensual a pre-cognitive insight into the nature of things, coming as it does from a philosopher, maybe even philosophy has reversed itself, has for awhile been leaning into poetry for a lead or two; which of course, and in fact, has been the case since Kant.

But I want to have some fun with the question: how does philosophy view what poets do? The Oxford Companion to Philosophy is at hand and there is an entry devoted to the subject. It can’t be such a waste of time to take stock of how outsiders view a familiar, sometimes all too familial, ken of things. After all, the UN arbitrates internecine, ethnic or tribal conflicts. And marriage dynamics sometime benefit from the intervention of an observer when the two parties have started to cancel each other out. So how does the current summation of philosophical thinking view what poets do?

“No satisfactory single-concept theory of poetry has been produced: a poem is not essentially a representation, or essentially expression, or essentially a formal or “organic” unity.” I love this. Said differently, philosophy admits it cannot reduce poetry to any single construct determining of the whole. Aristotle was the first to recognize as much when he said the metaphor is the one thing that cannot be learned or taught: “But the greatest thing by far is to be master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilar.” If only poetry critics and theorists would recognize the same and stop pretending there exists a template somewhere for what makes for the successful poem.

“It (poetry) certainly expresses, but it also can transform, the emotions of ordinary life, and display emotions with more than usual precision.” Probably the statement most nihilistic is when a poet says, ‘but art is just expression.’ My goodness. Giving someone the finger after getting cut off in heavy traffic is an expression. If poetry is not more than the simple expression, if it is not in some wise transformative, if it does not carry all the way over from poet to reader and immediately involve the reader co-responsibly in the thing expressed why waste the paper that once was a living tree? Similarly, if a poem deadens the senses, if it fails to excite the soma, why clutter up the already busy airwaves with more background noise?

Now for the thick thought. “Distinctive of poetry at its best is an ‘all-in’, maximally dense, simultaneous deployment of linguistic resources – sound and rhythm as well as sense, the bringing-together of numerous strands of meaning, through metaphor and other figures, through ambiguities (often unresolved), controlled associations and resonances, allusions: all of these contributing to a well integrated, unified effect.” Similitude of fleshiness is what comes to mind here. A little cosmos created, something standing on its own, a living thing bodied forth, vibrating, pulsing all by itself, no longer needing its creator for the attached, referential, meaning, and what constitutes a depth experience. What also comes to mind is the synergy created when the whole of a thing, in this case a poem, is greater than the sum total of its parts. (This last sentence bears repeating.) In the various online poetry venues I’ve noted unschooled poets who know diddly squat about the craft’s technical stuff, but who frequently manage to raise on the screen something larger than the sum total of a poem’s parts. I do not always notice the same germination in us more accomplished, and practiced, poets. I also wonder if, as with the metaphor, this “maximally dense, simultaneous deployment of linguistic resources” is something that can be taught or acquired through practice. More than once I have watched how a poet who has followed all the rules and listened to the advice make a sudden, untrackable leap, producing a thing livid and energetic, and who can never again settle for anything less.

“A poem is not a disposable wrapping for a detachable and re-expressible message.” This should not require comment. Except to say workshop instructors should tattoo the sentence on some visible part of their body. Actually, one thought does come to mind. If a poem is not a “disposable wrapping,” if the gestalt of the thing bars it from being “re-expressible,” then the dividing line between prose and poetry is not just qualitative but discrete. And if that is the case then poetry makes for a manner of thinking distinct from what the prose model requires. In the abstract, the logic of prose is the same no matter the form, be it expository essay or novel. And the rule is determined by syntax of sentence structure, which is linearly constructed. The logic of poetry, however, is associative. (Once again Aristotle was the first to discover as much.) And it was the English poet, Robert Graves, who especially ran with the idea that poetry has as its rule of procedure thinking by association. He called it “analeptic thought.” To me this is one of those extraordinarily liberating discoveries. If poetry cannot be judged by the rules governing prose, if it is not a “disposable wrapping,” if, in fact, it is an entirely different species of literary animals then it has to be measured by standards specific to poetic expression. The prose master has no place here. And the prose standard does not apply. But let’s face it. Poetry has for long figured as the ugly duckling on the literary pond. The swan still gets measured, dissected, and analyzed through duck eyes.

“Now, this emphasis of the thing-like integrity of a poem makes for suggestive analogies between poems and non-linguistic artifacts (a vase, sculpture, or melody)…” Thinginess is how Theodore Roethke qualified the genius of what the German poet, Goethe, produced. Probably with some exaggeration, late in life Goethe told that literary wannabe, Eckermann, that he could only create with a thing of his creation in front of him. Hyperbole or not, there is a valuable lesson here that one ignores at great peril. If thinginess is an attribute of a successful poem, and if a poem’s success is, to some degree, measured by its “thing like integrity,” then poetry must have truck with what is always sensually apprehensible. Maybe this is what T,S. Eliot was getting at when he talked about the “objective correlative” of a poem, or how it is the emotion of a poem is best carried over when stuck inside the poem’s object(s).

There is one more passage to cite and mull over. “Poetry is forever fighting against the pressures and seductive powers of ordinary language to falsify experience in easy, slack cliché. Poetry feels itself often up against the ‘limits of language’, and forced to modify, maybe do violence to, normal syntax.” This is the stopper. Arguably it is the first condition of poetry. Of course the art is much more than this, being, as it is, a depth experience. (My personal bias inclines towards viewing poetry, at its best, as a reenchantment of the perceptual world, what is here and now.) But why fault a philosopher for sticking to the basics, thereby clarifying a situation. Anyway, this is where one realizes that poets are responsible to the tradition viewed as a thing-in-itself. And that poetry’s first duty is to reenliven the language, to constantly reinvent it, in order to clarify the larger situation of experience. Chaucer did by creating idioms that brought the language out of its Old English literary standards and embracing the new, what scholars call Middle English. Certainly Shakespeare did when he pushed against the limits, in sonnet especially, but also in blank verse, of everything expressible about the human condition. So did a favorite Elizabethan of mine, the minor poet Sir Walter Raleigh, whose insistent worldliness anticipated much of what would not be found on the literary scene for several more centuries. And so did Dickinson, Hopkins, Pound, Cummings, Dylan Thomas, and a glorious litany of other Moderns, all of whom, for the sake of discovering language means more responsive to an unprecedented ken of conditions, took a chance and stepped out of the comfort zone of poetry’s symposium. But Keats stated the proposition more effectively, while giving the lead. It is in his letter to his brothers where he is thinking about Shakespeare and coins his famous phrase. “Several things dove tailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration.” But it also seems to me Keats is suggesting this “capacity for being in uncertainties” does not come easily to poets. If it did, and after all, Shakespeare would not stand out for remark. And who has not, for the sake of a well-turned poem, felt the urge to falsify the experience itself through these same linguistic resources? Maybe too this thing of negative capability, of standing in uncertainties, of pushing against what is comfortable and known for the sake of a reenlived language is the proper context for what Keats was after in his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn. Maybe he meant there cannot be one without the other when he said:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


Last edited by Terreson, Jul/26/2014, 2:23 pm
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