Saturday, April 25, 2009

Poetry: Reflections from the Milton List

Choose Your Muse
"Muses Sarcophagus"
The Nine Muses and their Attributes
Marble, 2nd Century AD
Found by Via Ostiense
(Image from Wikipedia)

A discussion about the distinction between prose and poetry has emerged on the Milton List. The discussion began when someone noted that "poem" in the seventeenth century could include works that we would now call prose. Carrol Cox, one of the list's older scholars, wrote:
I would use "poem" that way. (I think in ordinary usage "poetry" and "poem" differ somewhat.) A poem or a fiction is a "made thing," a verbal artifact. (I wouldn't use it for movies.) I would also use it for many texts that the Renaissance would have called "history." Tillyard in his book on the "English Epic" included Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is a beautiful artifact as well as a science text, and I don't see why "poem" could not, in some contexts, include that. "Work of literature" is awkward, and the best single word for it is "poem." There's a tragic rhythm in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, and an epic sweep to Rusell's Human Knowledge.
James Rovira responded:
The question of what is or is not poetry has a long and distinguished history, of course, but doesn't it tend to follow two currents?
-Plato's distinction between poetry and philosophy, which emphasizes content rather than form.

-An emphasis upon form rather than content.
The question seems to me to get particularly confused when we try to blend these two types of responses. Those who emphasize that poetic form makes poetry can recognize occasional poetic qualities in Wittgenstein's Tractatus but would never call it a poem -- which would be a rather strange poem indeed because it includes calculus. If math is poetry then everything is poetry and the word itself ceases to function at all. Those in the first camp would exclude the Tractatus from poetry simply because it is philosophy. Both camps would also exclude history from poetry unless it were written in verse form.
I joined the discussion at this point:
Jim, while I generally agree with your critique of Carrol's use of the term "poem," I found much to admire in what Carrol said.

Anyway, concerning your remarks on Wittgenstein's Tractatus:
"Those who emphasize that poetic form makes poetry can recognize occasional poetic qualities in Wittgenstein's Tractatus but would never call it a poem -- which would be a rather strange poem indeed because it includes calculus. If math is poetry then everything is poetry and the word itself ceases to function at all. Those in the first camp would exclude the Tractatus from poetry simply because it is philosophy."
Did he use calculus in that work? I haven't read it in a while. At any rate, when I read it in German back in 1986, I had to read it slowly, and I was struck by Wittgenstein's choice of a numbering system that began with one and ended with seven. As I read the opening line, "1. Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist" ("1. The world is all that the case is"), I realized that Wittgenstein was 'creating' a world in seven days, and on the seventh day, he rests: "7. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen" ("7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent"). There's a sort of poiesis to that.

I once wrote up a brief summary of my views on Wittgenstein's biblical allusion (and possible numerology), for I was interested in the way that he was subverting the logical-positivist endeavor even in a work where he seemed to be applying its principles, but that has gone missing in my many moves over the years as a gypsy scholar.
The discussion then segued into a series of posts in which James Rovira cast prose into 'ironic' poetic form to show that it does not work as poetry:
Maybe the poetic qualities of Wittgenstein's Tractatus would be more evident if I broke his lines up as poetry?

"Thus I do not
write

'f(a,b).a=b',
but 'f(a,a)'
(or
'f(b,b)');
and not
'f(a,b).
~a=b',
but
'f(a,b)')"
James later added:
Yes. The fact that a philosopher can talk about poetry intelligently (or say intelligent things that we can apply to the study of poetry) does not mean he is writing poetry when doing so.

Forgive me, let me correct myself:
Yes
The fact that
a philosopher can
talk about poetry
intelligently
(or say
intelligent things that
we can apply
to the study of
poetry)
does not
mean
he is writing
poetry
when doing
so.
About this 'poetry', I noted:
Jim, what I find interesting in the . . . is that you have taken prose and changed it into poetry by imposing a recognizably poetic form onto it. We are forced to read it as poetry -- perhaps bad poetry, but poetry nonetheless.

This doesn't quite disprove your point, since the form is a distinction between prose and poetry, but it does put offer a different perspective on things.
And there the discussion stands, for now.

But further opinions are welcome, so amuse yourselves to death.

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4 Comments:

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

This is such a complex question. We (readers) assume that poetry and prose are distinct. But they are blurring more and more into one another. The hybrids, however, are rarely successful as they are neither flesh nor fowl; a feeling that suggests we can clearly define the cow and chicken...I'm not so sure that you can "impose" a poetic structure on prose and create a poem. Having said this, though, a lot of bad free verse does exactly that! Paradise Lost, The Four Seasons, The Prelude, a lot of sustained poetical works using blank verse have the qualities of prose. But they have something more, especially PL, namely an intensity of method.

 
At 10:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree. Imposing poetic structure on prose usually results in bad poetry. Is bad poetry still poetry? It certainly lacks something poetic.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 10:59 AM, Blogger James Rovira said...

Thanks for posting this conversation, Jeffery. Didn't I include a later response in which I recast Wittgenstein's drawing of a cube into poetic form and came up with a straight line?

I should correct myself, however -- I should not have said that W. used calculus, but that he used formal logic.

 
At 11:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome, Jim. As for the later developments at the Milton List, I don't recall them.

Thanks for the other explanation, about calculus . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 

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