Tuesday, January 17, 2006

poetry as theory

Norman Finkelstein, not usually irascible, seems fed up with Heidegger & his children: "What if," he comments,
we were to hold criticism and philosophy in abeyance for a while and instead consider the claim made by some poets, including a number with whom you are quite familiar, Mark, that poetry is in itself a way of thinking. At issue then is not primarily what is "theorized" about poetry, but what poetry itself "theorizes." Furthermore, the fact that this kind of thinking takes place within the rigors of form makes it not merely a description of ideas but an enactment of ideas. If nothing else, this practice makes us take poets more seriously as thinkers and makes us read poetry more closely. What we discover, I think, is that poets tell us as much about poetry, as an art and as mode of thinking, as do "theoretically-inflected" (or infected) critics.
That's undeniably elegantly put, & with a gun to my head I'd have to agree with it lock, stock, 'n' barrel. But...but... Yes, poetry is indeed a way of thinking – but only sometimes. Without going into the whole history of the conceptual distinction between poetic "knowledge" and other sorts of intellectual activity (Wordworth's "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, where he proposes poetry's opposite to be not prose but the "language of science," is one foundational document), I think you'd have to agree that in a great deal of poetry, while there may be mental activity of one sort or another going on, often it's a stretch to call it "thinking," much less "theorizing." Indeed, reminded of the roots of theory in "speculation" (or more literally, the "looking at" something), I'd be inclined to think that it's rather the exception for the poem to engage in the sort of self-reflexive mental activity that one could call "theoretical."

But let me play devil's advocate for a moment: What you've just said can be read as a high-horsical defense of poetry – even an old-fashioned defense of poetry – by a poet fed up with the self-aggrandizing claims of theorists and critics: in itself a pretty old genre, no? We have all heard such claims before, and most of them coming (perhaps paradoxically) from poets who themselves wrote criticism and works of prose poetics. Can you give me one concrete example of how a poem, thru the "rigors of form," "enacts" an "idea"? (I think I have a pretty good one myself offhand, but you da man making the claims, so you have to go first!) My point is not that you're in any way wrong or off track, but that such claims about "poetry" and "thinking" are easy to throw around but difficult to demonstrate – tho it's crucial that they be demonstrated, so that the large claims made by some poets – not just claims about poetry and thought, but claims about poetry and political praxis – can be fairly assessed.

I'm inclined to believe, in a rather old-fashioned way, that the theory "done" by poetry and theory "about" poetry are two different things, and serve different purposes. The use-value of a theoretically engaged reading of a poem – its exchange-value is probably nil – has to be something different than whatever theoretical insight one might gain from the poem itself. Different – and not superior to – and by no means displacing the poem itself – but at its best valuable, & not to be lightly dismissed. Susan Howe on Dickinson's "My Life had stood a loaded Gun"; de Man on Shelley's "The Triumph of Life"; Poe's "Philosophy of Composition" on "The Raven" (the latter a case in which a manifestly nugatory poem generates an endlessly suggestive piece of theory).


Norman Finkelstein said...

OK, Mark, for the most part you've called my bluff, but I'm still glad I got to play the provocateur, given your rich response. Only some poets engage in the kind of thinking I described yesterday, and lots of poets, including some I like, don't seem to have an idea in their heads. Nor am really all that fed up with Heidegger, theory and poetics; I have less of an appetite for such work than I once had, but maybe I'm just getting lazy. Then again, I had the honor of studying poetics and religious hermeneutics with Geoffrey Hartman in 2003 and it was closest thing I'll ever experience to the rabbinic paradise where we get to study Torah with Moses while Ha-Shem, the Rosh Yeshiva, smiles and nods. Even last night's grad class on Russian Formalism and New Criticism was fun.

But since you've challenged me to produce a poem that enacts an idea, well, here you go:

The Nature of Musical Form

William Bronk

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.

Granted, this is an extreme example by a master of the mode, but we may as well see the creature in its purest form.
What say you?

E. M. Selinger said...

My goodness, that's a lovely poem.

As a bear of very little brain, at least this afternoon, I won't weigh in on the broader topic--although Norman, I'm going to write about you as a thinker-in-poetry in another week or so, at which point I'll say more.

For now, I'll just thank you AND Mark (belatedly) for introducing me to Bronk.


Anonymous said...

I hope you (all of you) are able to continue this conversation. It is a kind of teach-in, on a topic that is significant, I think, quite apart from one's love or distaste for continental philosophy, and quite apart from one's stance in the long-running battle between poets and philosophers over which representation of thinking best accommodates the mind's capacities (or is best-suited to accommodate truth). To put Norman's point about form a little differently: 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. 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. Oh, and my own favorite example of thinking in poetry is the work of Emily Dickinson.

Ben Friedlander

jane said...

I agree with everyone! Which is actually just to say, I'm not sure how much of this is news. Poetry is a kind of thinking itself? Who doubts it! And I think it's useful to level the hierarchies; if the idea that philosophy is a higher order of analysis than poetry doesn't satisfy, neither does the AWP-favored idea that poetry is a primary object to which critical thinking is either parasite or servant. I think we could say that an analytic account and a poem are both — differently — spaces for consciousness to inhabit, and have encounters, and run along different courses than those to which they are accustomed, and come to know some of their limits as limits, possibilities as possibilities.

But they're still different. The possibilities of consciousness after reading Les Fleurs du mal and "Charles Baudelaire, Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism" are substantively different. The latter is neither parasitic nor servile; it takes Baudelaire as a set of facts, like architecture or labor relations are sets of facts, for thinking about modernity, and when I'm in it I can think modernity better.

By which I mean, even if I accept Norman's initial claim — which I do, and have for years; it seems obvious to me — then the very leveling of the relationship between lyric poetry on the one hand, and analytic writing that takes lyric poetry as its object on the other, means that neither can displace the other. So the latter category still wants attending to, without ever diminishing poetry's capacity to allow, produce, and model consciousness. My little essay (still partial; I get to Celan and Apllinaire, you've foreseen the shape exactly, Mark!) remains interested in trying to understand the implications of and reasons for taking certain poets as the objects of historical thought...not toward defending or critiquing poetry, but as a way of having more and other historical thought.

Anonymous said...

Jane: 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? And...I could go on.

What you say about Baudelaire and Benjamin's Baudelaire is certainly true, but that doesn't resolve the deeper issue. My experience of reading Heraclitus is substantially different than my experience of reading Heidegger's Early Greek Thinking, but both are part of the history of philosophy. Hannah Arendt's wonderful books The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind have no trouble presenting narratives in which thinkers who produced radically different kinds of texts are brought into dialogue. Moreover, if philosophy departments are able to incorporate Nietzsche and Kierkegaard in their curricula, there's no insurmountable reason for excluding—if they prove useful—the letters and poems of Emily Dickinson. I'd venture to say, in fact, that it's precisely the differences between poetry and philosophy that make the question of the former's status as thinking so significant.

But, your essay, I'm guessing (and it's an educated guess!), will likely show that we would answer this question (about status) in more or less the same way.

Ben Friedlander

E. M. Selinger said...

Maybe I'm just terminally old-fashioned, too, folks, but 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. That is, while I may enjoy watching a set of ideas thought through by a poem, I don't particularly care whether those ideas strike me as true. Nor does it bother me when the poet turns around and contradicts him or herself between poem and essay, or in another poem, or elsewhere in the same one, even. That's part of the fun of reading someone like, oh, maybe Norman Finkelstein. No?

There are limits to my indulgence, of course. As a poet enters "The Baraka Zone" (let's call it) between poetry and politics I may get a little edgy. But by and large, I see no reason to toss out Sidney's "The poet nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth," or even Coleridge's "A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its *immediate* object pleasure, not truth." Theory and philosophy tout court do seem to me still to be proposing truth as an immediate object--unless I'm hopelessly out of date here?