It’s no surprise that when I called his bluff, Norman came up with a lovely example of thinking in verse by William Bronk. This from The World, the Worldless:
The Nature of Musical Form
It is hard to believe of the world that there should be
music in it: these certainties against
the all-uncertain, this ordered fairness beneath
the tonelessness, the confusion of random noise.
It is tempting to say of the incomprehensible,
the formlessness, there is only order as we
so order and ordering, make it so: or this,
there is natural order which music apprehends
which apprehension justifies the world;
or even this, these forms are false, not true,
and music irrelevant at least, the world
is stated somewhere else, not there. But no.
How is it? There is a fairness of person too,
which is not a truth of persons or even, we learn,
a truth of that person, particularly.
It is only fairness stating only itself:
as though we could say of music only, it is.
It’s hard to argue with that. One of the things that makes this piece so successful – and it’s characteristic of much of the best of Bronk – is the way it explicitly plays off of the structures and rhetoric of conventional prose argumentation – that is, it’s quite explicitly a “thinking” poem, a poem which begins as an epistemological/aesthetic argument, then flexes that argumentative structure into a kind of insight that would not be available in conventional prose. I see it as a more discursive cousin to one of my favorite of Zukofsky’s short poems, a piece that encapsulates his own epistemological thinking – #21 of Anew:
Can a mote of sunlight defeat its purposeIf one were looking for less austere examples, poems more invested in the color & gaiety of language, one could throw out Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as a text in which “thinking takes place within the rigors of form,” thereby becoming “not merely a description of ideas but an enactment” thereof. Ben Friedlander throws in Dickinson as an apt representative of thinking in verse, and rephrases what Norman has said quite felicitously: “poetry moves forward as thinking (and this is also true of post-Romantic philosophy) precisely by responding to the promptings (and coming to terms with the limitations) of the words that would register its movement.”
When thought shows it to be deep or dark?
See sun, and think shadow.
I can’t say I agree with him on his remarks on form, however – “What constitutes the promptings of language is where form comes in, but form in the ordinary sense is to my mind (so to speak) a subsidiary issue” – unless I’m a bit more enlightened as to precisely what Ben means by “form in the ordinary sense.” I confess to being something of an old-fashioned formalist – not that I believe you (yes, YOU! Caruthers! In the back!) should be writing iambic pentameter, but that I believe some degree of form, shape is if not of the essence to poetry than at least at the base of the art form. Things like a metrical frame, lines and line breaks, rhyme, sound patterning, word counts, mesotics, lipograms and the like are not merely the corporeal bodies that encase an inner "form" of poetry – the formally arranged poem is its body. That is, I smell platonism when you dismiss or subcontract out the discussion of "form in the ordinary sense," Ben. Please, tell me I'm misunderstanding.
Jane responds that he agrees with all of us, & that none of this is news, which is true enough. One of my points of course was that the assertion that poetry is a sort of thinking is a truth often asserted & rarely demonstrated; but another was that the situation about which Jane originally complained (ie an overreliance on Baudelaire & Hölderlin as exemplary figures in theoretical readings of poetry) might be usefully expanded: that perhaps part of the problem is theorists' overreliance not merely on particular exemplary figures of the lyric tradition, but on the lyric tradition conceived in a particular, very canonical manner – or even on the lyric tradition period, to the exclusion of a whole boat-load of other sorts of poetry: narrative, dramatic, discursive, philosophical, etc. I'd argue that it's only by a rather savage stretch that one would want to call the Bronk poem above a "lyric" at all, or by the absurd reduction of the term "lyric poem" to something like "poem less than two pages long."
Ben chimes in again with a comment that puts its finger on a lot of what's at stake:
I don't know if anyone doubts that poetry involves thinking. The problems arise when one wants to make a claim about the status of this thinking. Is it necessary, for example, for philosophers to take account of poetry's formulations and solutions to the classic philosophical problems (about knowledge, being, ethics, etc.)? If the answer is yes, then does poetry need to accept correction from philosophy—or is this the importation of an irrelevant standard? Is thinking central to poetry's task (as it is to philosophy's)? If so, what do we make of those writers we love—Rilke comes to mind—whose language is beautiful and thinking is crap? Also: if we do accept this or that poet's work as an instance of thinking, are we then obliged to adopt a position with regard to its conclusions? Or is this a possible difference from philosophy?– a comment which, as Eric points out, wheels us right back to the ancient issue of "truth" and "pleasure." (Whenever Eric hears the word "truth," he reaches for his pleasure pistol / love gun...) (And when he evokes the "Baraka Zone," he reminds me of that Heidegger post from yonks ago that I still haven't finished .) But I can't quite sign on to his enlistment of poetry tout court under the banner of pleasure: "it strikes me that while poetry may offer some of the pleasures of thinking--of argument, of theory, of essay, in the root sense of the word--it does so precisely in the name of pleasure, rather than in the name of truth." For the nonce forget Sidney & Coleridge (tho recall that important word "immediate," and recall that even as Wordsworth writes of the pleasure of metre in the Preface, he sees it ultimately as the spoonful of sugar that gets down the poem's truth), and ask yourself: did Bronk write that poem to give you pleasure? Does that poem propose pleasure as its ultimate end? In some sense, are we not traducing the poem by using it simply as an instrument of pleasure, however intellectually refined that pleasure may be?
I know this could go on indefinitely, and could easily end in parody – does Heidegger read Hölderlin for pleasure? I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn! You! yes you, Selinger! Out of the Republic! – but I think the argument for truth as primary to poetry is at least as old and interesting as the argument for pleasure detached from truth-value. That is, poetry that thinks demands to be taken seriously as thinking, even if that thinking is cast in forms that we tend to aestheticize and thus exempt from evaluating on the basis of truth. (Back to Bob's disinterested aesthetic.) Basta for now.