Saturday, January 21, 2006

poetry as thinking, the poem and truth

The conversation has gotten so complex and interesting that I don't see any point in summarizing any more, but wanted to pick a couple of threads out of the tapestry: First, Ben's lovely last post, which seems slightly to revise his first comments (or at least to recast them within a reception framework), and which quotes a passage from a Derrida interview I hadn't seen (I assume that's in the recent Fordham UP collection of JD's Celan writings, Ben?): "As I see it," Ben writes,
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 reading, also."
Second, there's Eric's "challenge" for me to present some "touchstones in that argument for truth as a primary value to poetry" (an argument, by the way, which I didn't necessarily endorse, but claimed was "at least as old and interesting as the argument for pleasure detached from truth-value"). Okay then:
•Aristotle, Poetics: "Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars."

•Julius Caesar Scaliger, Poetics: "Imitation, however, is not the end of poetry, but is intermediate to the end. The end is the giving of instruction in pleasurable form." (of course adapting Horace here)

•Giacopo Mazzoni, "On the Defence of the Comedy of Dante": "If, therefore, one has to reason about the end of this poetry, it can be definitely said that as an imitative art its end is the correctness of the idol, but that as recreation its only end is pleasure."

•Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Criticism":
True wit is nature to advantage dressed;
What oft' was thought, but ne'er so well expressed;
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.

•Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare: "Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.... This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has 'mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies, by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions."

•William Blake, "A Vision of the Last Judgment": "The Last Judgment is not fable or allegory, but vision. Fable or allegory are a totally distinct and inferior kind of poetry. Vision or imagination is a representation of what eternally exists, really and unchangeably."

•William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads: "Aristotle, I have been told, has said that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature."

•John Keats to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817: "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination – What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth..."

•Emily Dickinson: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant..."

Phew! Maybe I'll add to this at some point – one could certainly add "Heidegger on poetry, passim," and bunches of Emerson – but that's more than enough for now. Take that, pleasure-boy! You gonna quote Oscar Wilde now, & tell me he's righter than all these heavy guys? (Tho of course Wilde was very rarely wrong...) I suspect one of the things that's going on in this discussion of truth in poetry (discussion #3 or 4, that is) is a kind of fuzziness as to what we mean by the term itself – to put it in its baldest terms, what Keats means by "truth" is doubtless rather different from a positivist or hard scientific definition of "truth," though probably closer to a Heideggerian notion.

More later...


Big Ben said...

Hey I don't remember saying those things, but you can check out my latest poem at my blog!

Anonymous said...

Did I revise? Shifted perspective is what I'd rather say. (What's peripheral to vision depends on where the head is turned!)

And yeah, the Derrida interview is in the Fordham UP book.

On another note: I've begun to take ED's "Tell all the truth but tell it slant" as a brief for lying. Well, lying is too strong. But if philosophy and rhetoric are engaged in struggle, then ED is definitely on the side of rhetoric.

Ben Friedlander

Josh Hanson said...

Just to throw in my one-and-a-half cent:

Yer quotes are invariably classical or nineteenth century. Isn't this dichotomy of "truth and imagination" a bit outmoded? Or, can we say, more problematized than these quotes would have us believe?

I myself am drawn to Oppen's goal of sincerity.

Anonymous said...

You come across the darn'dest things when you're playing rock-paper-scissors by yourself...

On Truth vs. Pleasure
Seems to me you'd solve your argument by setting truth=pleasure, thus poetry=(among other things)that place wherever truth is pleasurable (in some way?)and/or pleasure truthful(why wouldn't it be?), and in fact a process thereby, perhaps of theorizing, in which a proposition A may (or not) become A', which we can all agree (which is pleasant) is a true and inevitable thing.

Enjoyed your quotes.

cheap viagra said...

I disagree with you. I know that poetry is associted with thinking but it is more related with a feeling something that you want to print on the paper.