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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Along similar lines, a "sewing-machine that also plays the piano" is a beautiful definition of a poem.