Sunday, August 25, 2013

Randall Jarrell Was Totally Wrong About Philosophy in Poetry


From "Reflections on Wallace Stevens" in Poetry and the Age:

The habit of philosophizing in poetry—or of seeming to philosophize, of using a philosophical tone, images, constructions, of having quasi-philosophical daydreams—has been unfortunate for Stevens. Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem; the philosophical poet has an elevated and methodical, but forlorn and absurd air as he works away at his flying tank, his sewing-machine that also plays the piano.

Randall Jarrell is great, but I disagree with these three sentences in so many ways:


  1. Poetry is a terrific medium for philosophy! Philosophical ideas needs space, breathing room, and poetry is ready-made to provide that space. Prose can also be engineered to make more open spaces where thinking can happen (synapses—a return as at the end of a line or stanza or paragraph creates a juncture; see the form of Kate Zambreno's Heroines), but the prose that's best for philosophy resembles poetry as much as it resembles other prose. 
  2. Why should interestingness be the last demand we make of philosophy? Bad philosophy has two ways to fail: by being wrong, or by being terribly uninteresting. Science, perhaps, does not have to be interesting, since it can rest of the laurels of being useful. But philosophy is only useful if it is interesting.
  3. When poetry isn't interesting, the problem is rarely that it's too philosophical. If anything, the opposite it to blame for most dull poetry: cliches, empty images, pointless metaphors, sentimentality, obscurantist fanciness at the level of langauge/syntax replacing and distracting from the absence of interesting ideas, of philosophy. 
  4. What's so bad about a "forlorn and absurd air"? That almost seems like a prerequisite for being a poet. What's the opposite of forlorn and absurd? Gladsome and reasonable? Cheery and realistic? Sounds like awful poetry.
  5. Along similar lines, a "sewing-machine that also plays the piano" is a beautiful definition of a poem.

19 comments:

  1. Not sure how I feel about this. I agree the problem with most poets doing philosophy is mostly the same as that with most philosophers doing philosophy, viz. the thought is trite, they don't _do_ anything new with the ideas, etc. I think this is true of most of Stevens. But I'm not sure this proves very much either way, and I'm certain that a lot of obviously good philosophical writing (Machiavelli or Hume, say) wouldn't work in verse. I think I also disagree re philosophical ideas needing space; for me the appealing thing in good philosophical writing is the tightness of the logical links in a good argument.

    I think I agree with Eliot:

    "the effort of the philosopher proper, the man who is trying to deal with ideas in themselves, and the effort of the poet, who may be trying to realize ideas, cannot be carried on at the same time. But this is not to deny that poetry can be in some sense philosophic. The poet can deal with philosophic ideas, not as matter for argument, but as matter for inspection."

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    1. I like Eliot's formulation very much.

      I don't want to give the impression that I think poetry and philosophy are or should be one and the same; they have different purposes. But a very tight logical argument can be composed in a way that makes room for pauses, like a list of conjectures or steps. This is not to say it should have literal line breaks or internal rhymes etc.

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  2. "Bad philosophy has two ways to fail: by being wrong...." What philosophy is right? In any case, the point of philosophy isn't being right; it's enjoying philosophizing, enjoying the way it fucks with your certainties. Similarly, in poetry, the point is enjoyment of the process, not the product. (For me, at any rate.)

    When you write poetry you try for music, not for philosophy. You don't think about what you're trying to say; you think about language and let it tell you what it wants to say, which isn't how philosophizing works. That's negative capability. You're not trying to convey an idea; you're providing escape from the pressure of the real.

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    1. Philosophy can definitely be wrong. It can be riddled with logical fallacies or start with false premises or assumptions. It's poetry that can't be wrong. (Philosophy could be wrong and still interesting, of course; much classical "philosophy" is, since so much of it was a substitute for science.)

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  3. "Philosophy can definitely be wrong."

    "Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
    for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
    call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
    it involved living the way philosophers live,
    according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?"

    Yes, I suppose a philosophy can be wrong. I've been thinking about Blake and acidy stuff, thinking the problem is Urizen, wanting to return to an Eden with no abstractions, no dualities like right and wrong.

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  4. The things Durrell says in the passage you quote here remind me of many of the arguments some people make for disallowing politics as valid content or subject matter in poetry. I disagree with what Durrell says in the passage you've quoted.

    (The ongoing arguments that crop up in the poetry world about whether poetry should ever be political, or explicitly political, are arguments I often jump into. I believe politics, and philosophy, can definitely work effectively in poetry.)

    I think I also disagree with the passage from Eliot that Sarang quotes above. Or at any rate, Eliot's distinction (that the poet can deal with philsophic ideas, "not as a matter for argument, but as a matter for inspection", seems to me to be such a fine point that I'm not sure the distinction is significant.

    I'm thinking off the top of my head of numerous and well-known poets who have included (what I take to be) philosophical content in their poetry; for example, Dante, Milton, John Donne, Alexander Pope, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Kenneth Rexroth, Laura Riding, also many philosophical passages in the Mahabharata... just to name a few off the top of my head.

    Of the poets whose work has been particularly important to me, one whose poems often have explicitly philosophical content is Kenneth Rexroth. His longest poem, the book-length "The Dragon and the Unicorn," is essentially a narrative account of traveling in Europe and returning to the U.S. in the late 1940's, with the travel narrative passages interspersed with meditative philsophical passages.

    I frequently have a hard time reading philosophy -- it's not something I've studied systematically or in depth. The one major exception is that years back I read a lot of Marxist-Leninist philosophical writing (mainly works by Marx, Lenin, etc.). I also like Plato's dialogues on the trial and death of Socrates -- that keen mind always cutting through assumptions -- and now and then I like to read/reread a little of Nietsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra just for the beautiful lyricism of the writing.

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    1. Yes, the argument is reminiscent of "poetry and politics don't mix" rhetoric. I disagree with that too; politics is such a huge part of life you can't just leave it out.

      I think there is a valid distinction between argument and inspection in this case; "Argument" implies that you're essentially trying to tell people what to think, as you might in a persuasive essay or opinion piece, etc. In poetry one hopes that the ideas are compelling whether or not one agrees with them. Or they might make "arguments" but in far more subtle, indirect ways than an article you'd see in a political magazine.

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  5. I'm pretty sure Jarrell didn't read Stevens' The Necessary Angel, because in the second essay Stevens states clearly the difference between poetry and philosophy in a way that doesn't contradict Jarrell. Stevens accepts for the most part Descartes' "There are sentences in the writings of the poets more serious than those of the philosophers.... There are in us, as in a flint, seeds of knowledge. Philosophers adduce them through the reason; poets strike them out from the imagination, and these are the brighter.." saying himself the difference between philosophy and poetry is "the difference between logical and empirical knowledge" elsewhere establishing an equivalence between fact and the imagination.

    Stevens illustrates: "Once on a packet on his way to Germany Coleridge was asked to join a party of Danes and drink with them. He says:

    "'I went, and found some excellent wines and a dessert of grapes with a pine-apple. The Danes had christened me Doctor Teology, and dressed as I was all in black, with large shoes and black worsted stockings, I might certainly have passed very well for a Methodist missionary. However I declaimed my title. What then may you be... Un Philosophe, perhaps? It was at that time in my life in which of all possible names and characters I had the greatest disgust to that of Un Philosophe.... The Dane then informed me that all in the present party were Philosophers likewise.... We drank and talked and sung, til we talked and sung altogether; and then we rose and danced on the deck a set of dances.'"

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    1. Andrew Ty pointed me to this later essay in which Jarrell revisits his earlier judgment on Stevens, wondering if he had been too harsh etc., but ultimately he still seems unmoved, if more generous.

      There are lots of comments on phil vs. poetry in Adagia too.

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  6. Very good post and comments Elisa! Plato was a poet before he (was) turned to philosophy, and his dialogues often have much of poetry in them. If philosophy asks the question "how am I and how may I live my life," then poetry might answer: "I'm not sure, but here are some examples..."

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  7. I think we, and Jarrell, confuse recent conceptions of how poetry and philosophy are written with the concepts themselves. Stevens, like many of those who write on him, far admired the Sophists over Plato, and what we know of their writings, like that of Heraclitus, might well be called poetic in a sense, due to aphoristic nature and unique word choices. Lucretius is another example, the first of the "Three Philosophical Poets" who George Santayana wrote his classic study about. The others are Dante and Goethe. In all three of these there is certainly no contradiction between poetry and philosophy. Poetry is a lot more clearly opposable to prose than to philosophy.

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  8. I haven't read everybody's comment, so I apologize if what I say is superfluous. But I believe philosophy and poetry are intricately linked, in that their roots feed from the same soil: Mystery.

    I've only recently begun revisiting philosophy, and I like what David Grove said above: "It fucks with your certainties." In the same way poetry deranges the senses (A. Rimbaud) and makes the familiar unfamiliar (P.B. Shelley) philosophy can rearrange the way you think, sort of make thinking less automatic in the way poetry makes perceiving less automatic.

    And I personally love poetry that sounds philosophical. Generally poetry sounds philosophical when it deploys abstractions in new ways i.e. by linking one with a new image. Marianne Moore I'd call philosophical (her Marriage poem, etc), along with Stevens, Ashbery; meditative poets like Hass.

    I love Jarrell's poetry, love it, but I've never taken time yet to read his criticism. I suspect he meant to say true philosophizing cannot take place in poetry... I'd say strict, literal philosophizing cannot be, but I do think poetry is a perfect place for creating philosophical worlds or situations, sort of like a thought-experiment translated to the page.

    Great discussion. I'm glad I got to see it.

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    1. Thanks Jake! Sounds like we totally agree. When I teach poetry, sometimes I see poems that are just pure image and description and I long for something philosophy-y in them. Other times of course you get a poem that's awful because it's nothing but vague abstractions ...

      If you've ever had a discussion on difficulty vs. accessibility in poetry (and who hasn't), you definitely need to read Jarrell's criticism!

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    2. I don't know if Jarrell's stock as a poet has gone up, and I confess that I've read only his much-anthologized pieces. He used to be slammed for sentimentality, bad ear, clumsy metric. (There's an interesting disappreciation of Jarrell's poetry in James Dickey's Babel to Byzantium.) He used to be called a genius critic and meh poet.

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    3. I just went looking for the volume of Jarrell poems we had, but apparently John got rid of it because I made so much merciless fun of one of the poems therein...

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    4. I think it was actually just the line "At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe" which is one of the most absurd first lines I've ever encountered.

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  9. Hmm. Well, I know that feeling when a line strikes you as absurd--or just bloody bad for a reason you may be unable to articulate. It's possible that I may be not unambivalent about this line, however. I may like it that the gestalt doesn't come until the second line. On the other hand, "At home" may be superfluous; and there's something risibly mid-20th-century about "flannel gown." It reminds me of a black-and-white James Stewart in a grey flannel suit. But maybe there's another absurdity I haven't detected. If I have time, I'll reread this poem. I haven't read it in years.

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    1. I think similes are usually ridiculous, but something about this one -- a bear? to its floe? -- and the fact that it comes before what it describes I just find hilariously bad. Maybe so bad it's good, but probably so bad it's bad.

      I immediately picture bed curtains, like Dickensian shit.

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