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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World

In an essay titled “Will the Humanities Save Us?” (available on the New York Times website) Stanley Fish asks himself “of what use are the humanities?” and concludes “the only honest answer is none whatsoever.” [1] Now Fish, who attained academic superstardom by being entertaining and provocative, would not be appearing in a general publication like the New York Times were he not willing to become all the more entertaining and provocative. His motives and authentic opinions are, however, irrelevant to the value of his challenge to the profession of letters either as poet or critic.

Poets, even more than professors, are sufficiently embattled in twenty-first century America that they rarely feel the need to justify their pursuits, even to themselves. Further, the elevated spirits of artists, encouraged by two centuries of contempt for bourgeois philistines, have led to grandiose if largely unreasoned and unsupported claims. It is salutary now and then to glance at the foundation on which one stands. The question “Why read poetry?” is a serious one.

For some pleasure is sufficient motive, but most readers have believed that poetry delivers a kind of truth as well. But what truth? How does it relate to the scientist’s truth? the priest’s truth? the truth of everyday life?

1. poetry as the fount of knowledge

To the ancients, there was general consensus about the supreme value of poetry. [2] In his Poetics, Aristotle makes the celebrated claim that “poetry [indeed, the argument applies to art in general] is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history [meaning facts],” as “poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” [3] Usually taken to mean that poets possess a higher, even “vatic,” vision, giving them privileged access to Truth, and thus the ability to prescribe dogma, values, and ethics, this view has been popular throughout history. How could poets “teach and delight” in the Horatian formula used also by Sir Philip Sydney [4] and by vulgar Marxists among a host of others, had they not greater knowledge than their readers?

This tradition has been dominant for millenia. For instance, in the 16th century, Sydney argued that poetry leads to virtue. In the Romantic era, Percy Shelley, though widely considered a libertine and revolutionary, insisted that poets are the source not only of moral and civil laws but also of science.

Could centuries of reliance on poetry to educate youth, in both character and cognitive skills, be wholly mistaken? Not only did the ancients trust that Homer was sufficient as a professor of theology; he also offered courses in ethics, etiquette, history, geography, seamanship, war and virtually every other topic of interest to his audience. For millennia in China the Confucian classics formed the heart of all academic study, while in India the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were thought to contain everything worth knowing. Parallels exist around the world: both illiterate and literate peoples considered poetry to be an epitome of knowledge.

Both Sydney and Shelley cited what they knew of the historical and anthropological data in their defenses. According to Sydney all learning was originally couched in verse so poets are “Fathers in learning” possessing “hart-ravishing knowledge”. “Since, then, poetry is of all human learnings the most ancient and of most fatherly antiquity, as from whence other learnings have taken their beginnings; since it is so universal that no learned nation doth despise it, nor barbarous nation is without it.”
All the fruits of culture: science, philosophy, morality, and civic virtue, are derived from poetry. Poetry is, in Sydney’s words, “directed to the highest end of the mistress knowledge . . . in the ethic and politic consideration, with the end of well-doing, and not of well-knowing only:” The poet will “imitate both to delight & teach, and delight to move men to take that goodnesse in hand.” Poetry’s  is defined in moral/spiritual terms: “the finall end is, to lead and draw us to as high a perfection, as our degenerate soules made worse by their clay-lodgings, can be capable of.”

Shelley likewise finds poetry’s origins no later than the origins of humankind. “In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful.” To him poetry is the source of the arts, of law and civil society, and even of the category that Sydney dared not fully include: religion. After all, Shelley says, “all original religions are allegorical, or susceptible of allegory.” Poetry is “at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all.”

The idea that poetry produces knowledge is to such an extent normative that I will offer only a single further example: Keats, not generally regarded the most intellectual of poets, defines his goal in poetry as knowledge: “I mean to follow Solomon's directions of 'get Wisdom -- get understanding.’” [5]

The use of poetry for all forms of knowledge in antiquity and in oral cultures could be purely mnemonic, of course, and the claim for poets as inculcators of morality is considerably more dubious. Centuries of moralistic edicts against singers and actors, and ever-popular anecdotes of poets with lives less tidy than the average would imply the opposite.

Devotees of poetry in higher education have struck Fish as no more moral or more sagacious than other mortals; rather he asserts that their only special skill is in the understanding of texts. To demonstrate, he permits himself a well-turned explication of a line by George Herbert, only to note the utter uselessness of his acumen. “The satisfaction [from the interpretation of poetry] is partly self-satisfaction,” he says, “ – it is like solving a puzzle – but the greater satisfaction is the opportunity to marvel at what a few people are able to do with the language we all use.” For Fish, then, a taste for poetry resembles fondness for crosswords or appreciation of Olympic runners, having nothing to do with either wisdom or ethics.

2. poetry against reason

The fact is that poetry betrays a deep internal vein of contradiction concerning its truth value, a dialectic absent from history or science or business records. Fish’s challenge has been inscribed in poetry’s written records as long as they have existed. Every imaginative work, after all, is a work of fiction and therefore, in a sense, a lie. Every lyric might be prefaced by the words, “Once upon a time a person might have said . . .” Though poets’ experience is linked to their writing, the idea of simple mimesis or reflection is inadequate to represent the relation between life and art. Even in letters, histories, and memoirs the author edits and selects and mythologizes and fabulates. Black marks on a white page can have only a highly-codified symbolic relationship to trees and stars and flesh.

Poets themselves have often disparaged truth and reason. Thus Hesiod said the muses told him they could lie, and they could also speak the truth. Sydney provides the inverse formula, saying "the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth." For Shelley poetry is allied with “imagination” in a polar opposition to reason. He observes that poetry and religion alike are “allegorical, or susceptible of allegory, and, like Janus, have a double face of false and true.” The witty and illusionless Earl of Rochester ridicules reason [6] after identifying himself as “One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man,” and goes on:

Reason, an ignis fatuus in the mind,
Which, leaving light of nature, sense, behind,
Pathless and dangerous wandering ways it takes
Through nature’s fenny bogs and thorny brakes,
Whilst the misguided follower climbs with pain

Poetry has often been associated with magic or madness; when it does produce “truth”, that truth, though sublime and lofty, is often said to be ineffable or unreachable by reason. [7]

3. what is knowledge?

To determine the truth value of poetry it would be useful to be able to discern truth values in general. Every reader of Descartes knows that he sounds much more convincing when casting doubt than he does when striving to reconstruct the natural and supernatural worlds with which his readers were familiar. From Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna to Hume and Bishop Berkeley, many have questioned the certainty of even the most widespread convictions, and, more recently, post-structuralist thought has made a reflex of deflating received ideas.

Gorgias the sophist, one of the greatest masters of words in classical Athens, was a thorough skeptic. He maintained [8] that nothing exists; second, that should anything exist, it could not be known by human perception; and third, that were anything known to one person, it could not be communicated to another. Yet, to this same Gorgias, the word is “a great thing,” divine, universal, the source of love for humankind, “potent like a drug.” Those “deceived” by poetry are nobler and wiser than the “undeceived.” [9] Those who heard him were moved as by “magic incantations.”

Though such self-doubt might seem to lead to a dead end, both intellectually and pragmatically, later skeptics in the Pyrrhonian tradition developed this questioning of one’s own subjectivity into the concept of εποχη, or suspension [of certainty or belief]. This need not lead to inaction (indeed the very word skeptic means an active questioning, considering, “looking at” in the mind), but rather to a provisional truth based on experience, [10] fully cognizant of the limitations of the human sense apparatus and of reason, persuasive for the present, but ready to yield whenever a more likely answer rustles in the underbrush. This practical strategy resembles the method not only of meditation, but also of science, of much Buddhist thought, and, I think, of poetry.

While from later antiquity until the Renaissance, the Christian thought police limited the philosophers’ options, making true skepticism unavailable for over a thousand years, in Asia certain Buddhist thinkers (following an early Hindu tradition) insisted on questioning the reality of observed phenomena and at the same time of the perceiving subject. Nagarjuna’s “middle way,” rejecting both a conviction of the reality of everyday experience and likewise their dogmatic rejection [11] provides a theoretical parallel to Sakyamuni’s rejection of asceticism and sensuality in behavior. A tangled forest of speculative commentary rose with roots in the Heart Sutra’s insistence "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." According to this view, which has been compared with the discoveries of quantum physics, [12] what we ordinarily take to be reality is neither real (substantial) nor unreal (empty). Without considering the exact formulations which reached super-subtle detail in the lively debates of Buddhist scholars (not to mention the physicists), a broad consensus developed among Mahayana philosophers that agreed that, though reality can be neither affirmed nor denied, the thinker finds in this conclusion no cul-de-sac but rather the initial step marking a route toward enlightenment.

As an example, Tung Shan questioned the Heart Sutra which states, “There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind.” He suddenly felt his face and asked the teacher, "I have eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and so forth; why does the sutra say there are none?" and thereupon set out on his advanced studies. His own teaching practice was based neither in intricate logical structures nor in meditation and sutra-chanting. Tung Shan, very like a poet, would confront the mind with an image which, for the receptive consciousness, could precipitate enlightenment.

The process remained free of both supernaturalism and positivism. In an anecdote asserting the uses of the useless, “Ti ts’ang Kuei-ch’in asked, ‘What is the purpose of your wandering?’ and Fa-yen said, ‘I don't know.’ (This stupor, this stupidity is utterly fruitful.)” [13] Specifically the lack of knowledge, the “stupidity,” becomes an aid to bring one closer to the liberating truth.

4. the poets’ truth

Poetry is a similar kind of mental “wandering.” In fact specific descriptive data can have no meaning without their refraction through “the mind’s own light” of human consciousness. I once saw a stack of printouts that recorded collisions of subatomic particles. They looked like CIA messages: pages and pages of numbers in groups of ten. Yet this form of representing reality is no more stylized than our retina’s recording of the full moon. The numbers mean something to the physicist who knows the code, and the moon means something to me because of a lifetime of acquired information about its luminous disk. Chinese poems that seem to record reality directly are in fact heavily intertextual. All meaning is learned, socially-constructed meaning. The miniature solar system atomic structure we see in books is a metaphor, a useful one, no doubt, but thoroughly allegorical in that word’s original sense of saying something in place of something else. Poetry constructs new territories of meaning and fertilizes the fields of long-established significance.

As long as Ultimate Reality cannot be put into words, all language is metaphorical. In a fascinating passage, Sydney says that, if a man is to be praised as wise, he might be called a “Cyrus.” This is thought to refer to a figure that once lived, but as Sydney says, we know the “real” Cyrus only from other texts. Even if one were to have been acquainted with the king from the sixth century BCE, one would gather from him no more than from the texts influenced by his existence, certain symbolic, perhaps misleading clues, a whiff in the air, what might be truth’s tail disappearing around a distant corner.

The “lie,” then, would arise from the literal-mindedness of those who take appearances for reality and miss the point by seeking to eliminate the humanity of consciousness, our proclivity for pleasure, our irrationality, our absorption in sense impressions, our affect, our tolerance for ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox, our obsession with certain mysteries (which may in shorthand be labeled god, sex, death, etc.). The fact is that, as “objectivity” is impossible (and is, in fact, simply another pose), to accommodate such “distortions” affords art a more precise register, encoding more accurate data, not less. For a poet like Sydney “moving [the emotions] is of a higher degree than teaching.” He records the algorithms of mind as concrete exhibits based inevitably on his own consciousness, which may then elicit a sympathetic response from the consumer.

Shelley noted the uncertainty principle arising from the interdependence of subject and object: “All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient.” Art recognizes the true nature of the human consciousness by privileging those elements (catalogued above) that dominate our own minds. In Shelley’s words, poetry “reproduces [or recreates] all that it represents.” This approach toward the “lamp” as opposed to the “mirror” (in Abrams’ terms) requires conditioning thought to make it human, “mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light.”

Donne’s “Busy old fool, unruly sun,” may reflect the experience of a particular morning, waking with a lover, or it may be wholly “fictional.” Historicity is not an issue, just as the historicity of Troy or Jesus or Madame Bovary is irrelevant. These texts are “truer than true;” universality arises not because they express some dogma, but because the mood of a Briton four hundred years ago is a mood I own as well as do all readers with sufficient imagination. The reader’s response to the poem is based on the joy of its rhythms, the clash of its phonemes, the passions shared by author and reader for both an intellectual dance and sexual desire. By saying he could extinguish the sun with a blink and insisting “nothing else is” except for his love-bed, the poet asserts the primacy of subjectivity.

In this way poetry does not deign to attempt dogma or, as they say in the classroom, “great truth.” Art is always tentative, provisional, exemplary, a matter of impressions and expressions: saying “the world could have looked this way at one time to a person whom I can imagine.” This vision, though, may be precise and significant, detailed and beautiful, the nearest human approach to truth, and its revelatory details are available only to the observer with a straight and penetrating gaze. If you wish to learn what’s most important about death, love, and god, will you consult biologists, psychologists, and theologians? The poet’s truth delivers more data but brings beauty as well, which, like grace, hovers, shedding a numinous glow over people and people alone.

This is precisely what Keats had in mind when he wrote the famous letter defining Negative Capability, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” [14] And Shelley, though hostile to Christianity, praises its symbolic restructuring of the world as a creative triumph. Claiming that the Christian trinity is a second-hand appropriation of Plato, he is nonetheless enthusiastic: “But mark how beautiful an order has sprung from the dust and blood of this fierce chaos! how the world, as from a resurrection, balancing itself on the golden wings of Knowledge and of Hope, has reassumed its yet unwearied flight into the heaven of time. Listen to the music, unheard by outward ears, which is as a ceaseless and invisible wind, nourishing its everlasting course with strength and swiftness.” The resurrection here is not the mere physical magic-act of the fundamentalist imagination, but a redemptive work in words, a work the effects of which are altogether real, though stimulated by a fiction. Both the “fierceness” of life, the “iron gates” of which Marvell wrote, and the “chaos,” its frightening unintelligibility, are inevitable. Unable to alter the conditions of existence, the mind may yet influence itself by images and stories and outbursts of song.

6. conclusion

To many thoughtful people nineteenth century advances in Higher Criticism, comparative religion, and anthropology have made the claims of revealed religion obsolete. In general, logic as social consensus gets us through the day: the most widely supported ideas are called self-evident, while those with more complex underpinnings are considered rational. Any dissenter is simply exiled from the discourse as stupid or prejudiced or mad or wrong, though a diachronic view will show that heretical views sometimes displaced the accepted. Furthermore, philosophy is obliged to rely on words, and those slippery things are never quite up to the task.

No consensus can be sufficient to answer the skeptic’s questioning the only human means of perception, cognition, and expression. Archimedes was famous for having said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.” We have no psychic equivalent of a place to stand outside the human consciousness. Readily conceding this impossibility, poetry has found a way to concede the vulnerability and even to make it a virtue.

Though I have relied on Sydney and Shelley most of all, similar ideas persist in George Santayana, Wallace Stevens, Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara and many of the leading poet/theorists of the twentieth century. [15] Socrates and Nietzsche practiced poetic philosophy in their skeptical searching, their pursuit of an answer that may never appear, their letting go of the pretense of certainty and with it dogma. They recognized the strength of the mysterious, the irrational, the sensual, and the aesthetic (the unacknowledged sources of most of our actions, reinforced though they may be with rationalization).

It is as if Orpheus, instead of singing to trees and touring the underworld of the subconscious, adopted the guise (one of the thousands available to that old confidence man) of a film noir detective tailing Ultimate Reality through a district of poorly lit warehouses, each dark and misty street of experience leading to others, never quite making the collar, but never on that account ceasing the restless ardent pursuit. That he is sometimes plugged or drugged or blackjacked and is often dead wrong shows only that he is human, all-too-human, and for this reason the viewer or reader or listener can accompany him and redeem the “fierce chaos” of the world with words.

1. John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? generated a similar discussion in Britain. Carey, like Fish, trivializes art to a mere pastime. Unlike Fish, though, in the end Carey reserves some value for verbal art, asserting that words do have the capacity to represent reality and to represent moral concepts essential to humanity. Fish goes no further than grudgingly to grant art some mysterious “intrinsic” value without qualities.

2. In Plato, of course, the question is more conflicted, specifically because of the affective and irrational power of poetry. Though in many passages Plato affirms poetry’s divine power, his Republic can function more smoothly without its potentially subversive influence.

3. This translation is Samuel Butcher’s.

4. Through this essay, I refer primarily to Sir Philip Sydney’s “An Apologie for Poetrie” (also called “A Defence of Poesie and Poems”) and Percy Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” as they are two of the most significant theoretical essays written by major poets.

5. Keats’ April 24, 1818, letter to John Taylor.

6. From John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind.”

7. This widely distributed association was especially popular during the Romantic era. For details on the concept of the Romantic furor poeticus, see Frederick Burwick. Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Burwick treats both representations of madness and the reception of writers considered mad.

8. In a book with a title that sounds nearly Buddhist, Concerning Nature, or What is Not.

9. These terms are from the Helen and the Paladon. I discuss Gorgias further in my article "Gorgias of Leontini," Ancient Greek Authors. Ed. by Ward W. Briggs, Jr. , Dictionary of Literary Biography series no. 176. Brucolli Clark Layman.

10. Sextus Empiricus, who wrote an authoritative and compendious exposition of Pyrrhonian skepticism, was called “empiricus” both because of his reliance on experience and experiment in his medical practice, and his approach to philosophic questions.

11. In the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

12. See Christian Thomas Kohl, “Buddhism and Quantum Physics: A strange parallel of two concepts of reality.” Available at http://www.newdualism.org/papers/C.Kohl/Buddhism-QP-Parallel.htm.

13. Shoyoroku, Case 20, translated by Robert Aitken Roshi and Yamada Koun Roshi, unpublished manuscript, Diamond Sangha. Ti ts’ang Kuei-ch’in (Dizang Guichen), (Jizo-in Shino), 869-928.

14. Letter to George and Thomas Keats dated December 21, 1817.

15. Charles Olson. “Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself” from The Poetics of the New American Poetry (175-181) Olson invokes Keats’ Negative Capability, declaring that mere facts end in Supermarket triviality: “the exact death quantity does offer.” On the other hand, he quotes Melville: “By visible truth we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things.” This implies that observed reality is the only entry-point through which one can glimpse truth. Olson notes that his goal as a writer has been “trying to get a measure of language to move himself into a book [that is, his unique “take” on things] and over to another man’s [subjective] experience.” To Olson 20th century physics confirms his consciousness-centered epistemology as “man, knowing how well he was folded in,” is implicated in all reality: “Nothing was now inert fact, all things were there for feeling, to promote it, and be felt.” For him “things, and present ones, are the absolute conditions; but that they are so because the structures of the real are flexible, quanta do dissolve into vibrations, all does flow, and yet all is there to be made permanent, if the means are equal.” Wallace Stevens continues to mystify readers with his successful business career. (The type may seem rare, but not unique. For example, R. Gordon Wasson, whose fascinating and scholarly work was a product by his enthusiasm for psychedelic substances, was a vice-president of J. P. Morgan. Two varieties of psilocybin mushrooms are named after him.) Hartford Accident and Indemnity’s corporate vice-president wholeheartedly endorsed Rimbaud’s call for the “dereglement de tous les sens” and declared flatly that “life is mysterious.” “By the aid of the irrational [the poet, according to Stevens] finds joy in the irrational.” He defines his goal in writing as “to apply my own sensibility to something perfectly matter-of-fact. The result would be a disclosure of my own sensibility or individuality” “Manner . . .means the attitude of the writer, his bearing rather than his point of view. His bearing toward what? Not toward anything in particular, simply his pose.”
In a more offhand way, Frank O’Hara’s “personalism” expresses similar values. “ Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.”
Compare also, Santayana’s comments, on the one hand: “Beauty as we feel it is something indescribable; what it is or what it means can never be said.” [The Sense of Beauty, Pt. IV, Expression] Yet at the same time and from the same text: "To have imagination and taste, to love the best, to be carried by the contemplation of nature to a vivid faith in the ideal, all this is more, a great deal more, than any science can hope to be. The poets and philosophers who express this aesthetic experience and stimulate the same function in us by their example, do a greater service to mankind and deserve higher honor than the discoveries of historical truths."

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