A beef with poetry?
My friend Bill Vallicella has a beef with poetry ... or maybe just with the occasional poem that sends a line or two on that prose errand that John Ciardi reportedly -- perhaps in How Does a Poem Mean? -- warned against.
Vallicella chooses "The Latest Freed Man," a poem by Wallace Stevens, to make his point:
Tired of the old descriptions of the world,I've not read this poem by Stevens, nor could I locate it online to read in its entirety. For the source, Vallicella cites The Palm at the End of the Mind (Knopf, 1971, pp. 165-166), but I don't plan to order this since I already have too many unread books groaning in their lonely multitudes upon my burdened shelves.
The latest freed man rose at six and sat
On the edge of his bed. He said,
"I suppose there is
A doctrine to this landscape. Yet, having just
Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist,
Which is enough: the moment's rain and sea,
The moment's sun (the strong man vaguely seen),
Overtaking the doctrine of this landscape. Of him
And of his works, I am sure. He bathes in the mist
Like a man without a doctrine. The light he gives --
It is how he gives his light. It is how he shines,
Rising upon the doctors in their beds
And on their beds . . ."
And so the freed man said.
It was how the sun came shining into his room:
To be without a description of to be,
[. . .]
Anyway, Vallicella acknowledges that:
Stevens is a very good poet indeed. And like most good poets, he knows enough not to send a poem on a prose errand, to borrow an apt phrase from John Ciardi. So one will look in vain for a clearly stated philosophical thesis packaged poetically.So far, so good. However, remarks Vallicella:
There is nonetheless philosophical content here. Speaking of the sun, Stevens says that "The light he gives -- It is how he gives his light." The light is its giving: the being of the light is its appearing. The appearing of the light is not the appearing of something that does not appear or is irreducible to its appearing; the appearing of the light is its being.Despite all this light, I remain in the dark, for I understand neither Stevens nor Vallicella. I would need to read more of the poem, more of Stevens, and more of what Stevens was reading before venturing an opinion on this specific line. Vallicella suggests that:
This is the phenomenological conception of the phenomenon as found in Heidegger and Sartre. It points back to Husserl, but even more so to Nietzsche. In the Twilight of the Idols, we read:Yes, perhaps that's what Stevens was getting at, if there's any true world left after having "Escaped from the truth." But what's Vallicella's specific beef? This:The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one!The true world and the apparent world are the same.
To come directly to my beef with poetry: what's the ultimate good of suggesting momentous theses with nary an attempt at justification? Of smuggling them into our minds under cover of delectable wordcraft?This isn't so much a stated beef as a loaded question or two. Vallicella implies that Stevens has in fact sent this poem on a prose errand from which it never returns with the proper -- or properly formulated -- exposition. We are left with a lacuna, an ex-position -- or better (worse), an x-position. With nothing.
I suppose that I could reply to Vallicella that Stevens is inviting us to fill in the 'x-position'. That we are to provide the justification ... or not to. Do we want to play this language game, or not? I don't think that Stevens is 'smuggling' -- the man was too proper and legally minded to act the role of smuggler ... except, perhaps, as one too smug in his opinions. But I don't sense that in Stevens.
I'm not convinced, anyway, that Stevens has sent his poem on a prose errand, for he stops well short of attempting to demonstrate the truth of claims made in his poem. Indeed, poetry is not a medium readily suited to a rigorously logical demonstration of truth. Analytical philosophy of the sort that Vallicella is very good at requires that language define its terms very strictly and stick to those definitions. Prose can do that. But poetry? Poetry usually plays with language in ways that preclude the sort of rigor that analytical philosophy expects.
Poetry is a delightful adjunct to a civilized life, but philosophy rules. It would be very foolish, however, to try to convince any poet of this.Rules what? The way to expository truth? Yes, if one is writing essays, I'd tend to agree. Philosophy does that far better than poetry. But Vallicella's critique of poetry is a bit like dismissing jazz because it doesn't prove any mathematical theorems.
Okay, I exaggerate. But so does Vallicella.
But if Vallicella would like to read a poem that does go off on a prose errand from which it returns, then I invite him to read John Milton's "logical epic," Paradise Lost.