Monday, May 07, 2007

A beef with poetry?

Sending the latest freed man on a prose errand?
(Image from Wikipedia)

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,
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,
[. . .]
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.

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:
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.
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:
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.

Vallicella concludes:
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.

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At 6:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not very or overly learned in philosophy. I've read around, but I would remain silent in any conversation that gets indepth into schools and comparing/contrasting big names or obscure ones in the history of philosophy...

That disclaimer said --- it seems to me philosophy is (in at least this way) the same as any branch of science - it ends up breaking apart or breaking down existence into kernals it tries to then reassemble into an increasingly coherent whole. And like some of the sciences (Hawkings comes to mind), philosophy gets carried away with itself into believing it can unlock the mystery of it all - that it can create "a system" by which all is explained. I am not saying philosophies are bad or useless. Mankind's advantage (or disadvantage) is that he has the mental and intellectual capacity to "understand" his environment and adapt to it or adapt it to him. But, we should also understand the tendency to overreach.

This touches on poetry too. I can't say with confidence that Stevens would agree with this, but some poems/poets make a point of telling us reality is beyond our grasp - (perhaps sublime?) - and the poet does not send us off to dig through dusty books with black ink on parchment covered in funny little, repeated shapes (the alphabet). The poet sends us off to explore the physical and/or mental world that surrounds us.

The blog entry below is a very short version of theme I once wrote about for a college course:

Wasn't the Transcendentalism movement in the US (following the Romantic Movement in England and Europe) about breaking free from the text and perhaps even a textually-inclined mind to experience reality as it is - which is beyond human understanding - regardless of what the philosophers and scientists believe they can codify?

I took at look at James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as touching on the same theme. There are a few scenes in the book where the young would-be poet has an epiphany. A common element in the scenes is that - the young poet is distraught with trying to capture in the language of poetry all the ideas that are bouncing all over his head as he does what he believes a poet is supposed to do - be a philosopher, a person who understands the world far better than us mortals - and capture that understanding in language, but he fails and fails again - except in the epiphany scenes - where Joyce has the prose of the novel itself break down. In one scene, while walking on the beach wrestling with his poetic/philosophical demons, he comes across a moment where the distant joyful banter of kids his age playing on the beach couples with a vision of a (real) beautiful girl standing elsewhere near the water, and as he tries to capture the essence of that scene in poetry by putting words together in his mind, the sublimity of the moment crashes through and takes him beyond the words into the real moment at hand - which Joyce shows by having the text in the novel become incoherent and ultimately broken off into (if I remember correctly) just a series of dots....

It is like Thoreau on the boat in the middle of Walden where he throws the burning piece of wood in the air with red sparks flying about, reflected in the water, where it comes crashing down in a hiss as fire meets water: a moment that helped him transcend the limits of language into a greater, silent understanding of being, but as such, something Thoreau could not recapture in poetry or prose to share with us as a whole.

I think Wallace Stevens' The Idea of Order at Key West is dealing with these issues too:

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.

The song and water were not medleyed sound

Even if what she sang was what she heard,

Since what she sang was uttered word by word.

It may be that in all her phrases stirred

The grinding water and the gasping wind;

But it was she and not the sea we heard.

I've said language itself is ultimately a debilitating but useful tool of man: no two objects are identical. Even if by some miracle two were exactly identical in shape, size, and atomic structure -- they would be divided in at least space: if they occupied the exact same space, they would be one tree - not two...

But, to better understand and manipulate our world, we use a word "tree" to symbolize both trees and all trees, and we expand our vocabulary (definitions) to fit different categories of trees. There is no question that each of the trees exist without our language. Our language simple tries to create order to enhance our understanding of what makes a tree a tree and not a dog.

I think Stevens, Joyce, Thoreau, and others use language in a way not to send us looking in prose texts for a philosophy that can contain the whole. They want us to recognize unity is sublime and centered on the individual beyond an understanding that can be vocalized or codified.

Didn't the Metaphysical poets aim at something roughly similar?

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, USink, for the lengthy but on-topic comment. I'll be interested in Bill's response if he does respond. He has told me that he'd like to respond, but he is a very busy fellow, so he might not -- or might not for a while.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is a link to the chapter in Joyce's novel I was talking about.

I can't dig up my hardcopy, and it has been over a decade since I read it, but I believe the print copy breaks the text down more than what they showed in this internet draft. As I remember it, the print version had dashes --- and dots ... it used to fragment the scene just as much as Joyce did with the words.

Anyway, the online version (which I skimmed quickly) still shows much of what I was talking about -- the young (hormone-driven) aspiring poet being teased into the sublime by real, physical life only to attempt to capture it in words (and mental images) only to find he can't capture it (or fulfill his other lust)...

At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 5:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, USinK, for the link. The chapter has some extraordinary images. I guess that I need to re-read this book -- or maybe for the first time (though I thought that I'd read it already).

By the way, the original link worked fine.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a somewhat lengthy quote from 2 parts of the book that I found particularly interesting in relation to words, meaning and physical reality.

-- To return to the lamp, he said, the feeding of it is also a nice problem. You must choose the pure oil and you must be careful when you pour it in not to overflow it, not to pour in more than the funnel can hold.

-- What funnel? asked Stephen.

-- The funnel through which you pour the oil into your lamp.

-- That? said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?

-- What is a tundish?

-- That. The funnel.

-- Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.

-- It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra, said Stephen, laughing, where they speak the best English.

-- A tundish, said the dean reflectively. That is a most interesting word. I must look that word up. Upon my word I must.

His courtesy of manner rang a little false and Stephen looked at the English convert with the same eyes as the elder brother in the parable may have turned on the prodigal. A humble follower in the wake of clamorous conversions, a poor Englishman in Ireland, he seemed to have entered on the stage of jesuit history when that strange play of intrigue and suffering and envy and struggle and indignity had been all but given through - a late-comer, a tardy spirit. From what had he set out? Perhaps he had been born and bred among serious dissenters, seeing salvation in Jesus only and abhorring the vain pomps of the establishment. Had he felt the need of an implicit faith amid the welter of sectarianism and the jargon of its turbulent schisms, six principle men, peculiar people, seed and snake baptists, supralapsarian dogmatists? Had he found the true church all of a sudden in winding up to the end like a reel of cotton some fine-spun line of reasoning upon insufflation on the imposition of hands or the procession of the Holy Ghost? Or had Lord Christ touched him and bidden him follow, like that disciple who had sat at the receipt of custom, as he sat by the door of some zinc-roofed chapel, yawning and telling over his church pence?

-----The scene comes as kind of an aside in the book. It wasn't something that stood out much in the reading, but then at the end of the book where you are reading what is supposed to be Stephan's daily journal ---

April 13. That tundish has been on my mind for a long time. I looked it up and find it English and good old blunt English too. Damn the dean of studies and his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us. Damn him one way or the other!

With an author like Joyce, I don't think many things are by chance. The whole book is full of reverences to language, meaning (real or invented), physical/emotional/mental reality, and the young hormone driven would-be poet trying to capture the sensations of reality into poetry - and failing.

I couldn't find the scene in the train where his poetic effort obliterates the female his age that started his fantasy. The book starts, I think, with him trying to understand the word "ivory" as a small school boy, and it leads him to a girl's hands - I think it was...

At 4:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

USinK, thanks for the added material. I really will have to re-read Joyce's Portrait. That passage speculating how the English Jesuit had come into the Roman fold is fascinating.

Jeffery Hodges

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