Thursday, January 19, 2006

more on poetry as theory

Phew! That last post elicited a storm of comments (well, what counts as a "storm" for this humble blog):

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 purpose
When thought shows it to be deep or dark?

See sun, and think shadow.
If 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.”

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.


Anonymous said...

My statement about "form in the ordinary sense" is probably indefensible as poetics, but in practical terms I do see rhyme, rhythm, line length, stanza shape—that stuff—as subsidiary to the poem's performance as thinking. Central to my pleasure, yes, and central to the poem's performance of emotion (which, to preempt the obvious complaint, is not the opposite of thinking, but does not have to be understood in order to be effective). Rhetoric is, of course, another story. Likewise those formal properties of language that propose new meanings through sound (puns, homonyms) or the rearrangement of letters (anagrams, spoonerisms). That's all I meant by my comment, Mark. But to put the point more starkly: Insofar as we take the poem as an act of thinking, everything except its interpretable meaning must be subsidiary.

And before Eric reaches for his gun (pleasure, keyboard, whatever): The very fact that a poem refuses to limit itself to interpretable meaning—indeed, the fact that it draws attention to this refusal, if only by breaking the line as all verse does—has to be taken into account. The poem is thinking that refuses to limit itself to being thinking. Is not that the basis for its argument with philosophy?

Yeah, I think that's what I meant...mean.

Ben Friedlander

Norman Finkelstein said...

Hi everybody. Don't have a whole lot to add this time around, though the discussion has been splendid. I do wish to point out, however, that in regard to thought, truth, pleasure and so on, it is simply form itself that moves us to recognize or feel that we are in the presence of these, that we are witness to their unfolding. In this regard, I'm an old-fashioned formalist too, very much as Mark describes himself. And I find that the longer I stay in this game, the more I long for a shapely poem.

Anonymous said...

Hi Norman! Before I turn my back to the computer for a few hours to do some actual work, let me ask what you mean by "simply form itself." Because, to be sure, articulation, rhetoric, is what we understand when we understand a thought or follow a line of thinking with understanding, but what we grasp in a metaphor is very different, categorically, from what we feel when we read an elegantly framed quatrain. (The fact that a particular poet's use of quatrain in a particular poem might be recuperable as content is the exception that proves the rule.)

I too long for shapeliness in poetry—and in philosophy too. (One of the reasons I find myself returning to Hume is that he writes so beautifully.) But...I think we make too big a claim for form in the narrow sense (prosody, etc.) when we take its inseparability from the poem-as-utterance as proof that it must be taken into account when trying to understand the utterance (understanding the utterance as poem is something else again).

If what I am saying sounds reductive (it does not to me, btw), then Eric has made his point—that an emphasis on thinking only distracts us from what is essential in verse.

Ben Friedlander

E. M. Selinger said...

When I hear the word "shapely," I reach for my--

Oops! Sorry.

Mark, you haven't shaken me from my pleasure argument yet. You ask me to ask myself whether Bronk wrote that poem to give me pleasure. Ahem. What did we say last week about the "Intentional Fallacy," Mr. Scroggins? The poem pleases me--as sound, first off, and as the shapely simalcrum of an argument. How the heck do I know what Bronk wanted? Why should I care?

"Does the poem propose pleasure as its ultimate end?" I thought we were talking about "immediate" purposes here, not ultimates--but in any case, I'll bite. YES, Mark, it does: the pleasure of "fairness" most crucially. Fairness of language (och! that's luvely!); fairness as judiciousness; fairness as that which draws us into belief in some natural order, into which we somehow fit, if only through perception, etc. In short, this poem aims to have me experience its ideas, or the movement of thinking through those ideas, and to experience this in a complex but pleasurable way. In this sense, it really IS a "lyric" poem. I sing along with it, as surely and wholeheartedly as I sing along with Grace Jones's "Use Me" or the Replacements' "Kiss Me on the Bus." (It's an all-80s weekend at my house. You bring the New Coke.)

What Ben calls "the very fact that a poem refuses to limit itself to interpretable meaning—indeed, the fact that it draws attention to this refusal" seems also to be an instance of the poem-as-instrument-of-pleasure. Precisely because poetry asks pleasure first, it may work by an aural or visual or other non-discursive logic, even as it pretends to be working through an argument or other rational procedure. If it sounds good, it is good, as Duke Ellington says--with this addition, that when the poem sounds good, it can provoke us into thinking previously unthought or unthinkable ideas, all of which dangle on the slim thread of some pleasure.

Now I understand that philosophy, too, will do this: work by puns, for example, in Heidegger, in Emerson, in Cavell, and elsewhere. The difference would be that such an argument, to work as philosophy, ultimately MUST have some other foundation, some other proof, some othe way to sway us. Otherwise it's just clever, and linguistically limited. ("Thinking is thanking" sounds a lot less convincing in French, just as "dreams plus evolution equal revolution" sounds a lot more so.)

In poetry, though, such slim threads are plenty--indeed they may be all we really ask. Why? Because all we're asking is the pleasure of credence, whether provisionally (I try the idea on for size) or for the timespan of the poem (I try the character of this speaker on for size).

So, Mark, although I agree that "poetry that thinks demands to be taken seriously as thinking," what say we take it seriously for the pleasure involved, rather than for the ideas themselves?

E. M. Selinger said...

Questions, afterthoughts, etc.

1. What are some of the touchstones in that argument for truth as a primary value to poetry? I could use a primer.

2. When we take poetry of thinking (there must be a single word for that in German) seriously as thinking, what do we do with those thoughts, if we're not evaluating them on the basis of truth. I proposed pleasure, but hey! I'm a languid, frivolous man. (Don Diego, c'est moi.) WWZD? (That is, what would Zorro, or Zukofsky, or even Zcroggins, do?)


Norman Finkelstein said...

Hello Ben (and everyone else)! That's a good question. Figures of speech work on us differently than rhyme, or meter, or stanza structure, or even the appearance of the text on the page. So yes, "what we grasp in a metaphor is very different, categorically, from what we feel when we read an elegantly framed quatrain." Perhaps the former is closer to knowledge (or truth), the latter closer to pleasure (or beauty). (What do you say, Eric? You're the designated expert on pleasure!) But broadly speaking, the experience of the poem comes to us through form--makes the stone stony, as Shklovsky says. In the Bronk poem I offered, the propositional syntax, the measured quatrains, the repetition, the colloquial but abstract tone (Bill's signature style), even the way so many of the lines end with two one-syllable words--well, it's through all that we apprehend the thought and "fairness" in equal measure.

Sometime I feel that though form is rationally analyzable on one level, it approaches a sort of inarticulable mysticism on another. And Bill nails it: "as though we could say of music only, it is."

Anonymous said...

I agree with this, Norman, and sympathize with your last few sentences.

As I see it, we must choose between saying (a) poetry is thinking and every aspect of the poem helps to perform it, or (b) poetry is thinking, but the poem as a whole is always more than that. The first rationalizes the poem tout court and constrains us to name all its varying effects "meaning." The second forces us to confront the limitations of thinking, to accept that there are experiences of language that refuse thinking's assistance.

Apropos of this second claim, here is Derrida from an interview in his book Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan (referring to his reading of the poem "Grosse Glühende Wölbung," in an essay that engages the work of Gadamer):

"One can inventory a multiplicity of meanings in a text, in a poem, in a word, but there will always be an excess that is not of the order of meaning, that is not just another meaning.... Rhythm, caesura, hiatus, interruption: how is one to read them? There is, therefore, a dissemination irreducible to hermeneutics in Gadamer's sense.... [N]ot only does this not discourage reading but, for me, it is the condition of reading. If I could prove something concerning a Celan poem, could say, as many people do, 'See, here is what it means'—for example, it is about Auschwitz, or Celan is about the Shoah (all obviously true!)—if I could prove it is that and only that I would have destroyed Celan's poem. The poem would be of limited interest if all it amounted to was what it meant, what one believes it means. I try therefore to make myself listen for something that I cannot hear or understand, attentive to marking the limits of my reading in my reading. This comes down to saying: Here is what I believe one can reconstitute, what that could mean, why it is captivating and beautiful and strong, while leaving the unsaid intact, inaudible. That will, moreover, authorize other readings. My reading is modest and does not exclude many other readings of this poem. It is an ethics or a politics of reding, also."

Ben Friedlander

E. M. Selinger said...


Many thanks for that! A memorable counterpoint to readings--including those I've done, and teach students to do--which want to bring every element in the poem under the umbrella of either meaning or mimesis.

Mike Heller said...

Very interesting, irresolvable discussion. Isn't it of the kind that Talmudic rabbis are always warning against? But Aristotle thought poetry superior to philosophy, I think, because it brought forth more concrete "truths" lived by the poet,lived by the poet's readers. The Germanic tradition, Heiddeger, etc. seems to enact this idea, so that Heideggerian thought rather than governing interpretation or understanding of Holderin's poetry, seems to be beholden to it. I'm speculating here, but then wouldn't "pleasure" (as opposed to the "pleasures" of particular aspects of a poem, its rhythms, its imagery, whatever) be in the realization of all the elements that made for the concretization, for its truth-feel.
As for the "lyrical," one way I've suggested in a number of essays is to see its occurrence where the codifications of philosophy can no longer contain the feeling-thought. And isn't this lyrical "poetic" quality what often distinguishes much contemporary philosophy, Derrida and Wittgenstein particularly, from previous philosophical enterprises? Aren't the thought-margins of such writers essentially poetic in this sense?

Henry Gould said...

Maybe another way to view these conundrums is as follows:

Thinking - reasoning - is always a search with a particular end in mind : a conclusion, a defensible argument, a fact, a truth.

Art - including poetry - by refusing to demand assent to any specific conclusions - is, paradoxically, a stimulus to thought, and thoughts, in their most profound & pleasurable form.

Thus a poem is, in a way, like a human being : irreducible. There's always more - & not just in Derrida's sense of an excess. A poem has a kind of substance & substantiality - as, not so much a delimited set of thoughts, but as a source of thought.

(I'm coming late to this delightful chit-chat, so hope I'm not repeating someone else here...)