I’ve been putting this off for weeks but have decided that now is the time. The berowed view that poetry and philosophy are incompatible has undergone some more waning but I’m now drawing a distinction between poetry that sets out as its main objective to ‘do’ philosophy and poetry that sets out to do Other Things that might have a philosophical component somewhere near the surface.
I’d like to consider first the nature of the poem and the nature of the philosophy tract. I accept that this is a very broad brush stroke but poetry is usually a compression whereas philosophy is usually an expansion. I’m making this distinction even though my reading of philosophy is quite sparse but it does seem that there’s a long windedness in terms of refuting all other philosophies before putting forward your own view.
Of course there are some poets, Lucretius, Pope and Jarvis spring to mind who are equally long-winded but most go the other way. Paul Celan and Edmund Spenser work by compression as does Charles Olson but in different ways and with different results. With regard to all of these, there is one element that I’d like to get out of the way before proceeding: the line between God and Truth aka between theology and philosophy. I’m taking Martin Buber, the Neo-platonics and Alfred Whitehead primarily as philosophers even though theologians have made extensive use of their work.
I’d like to start with Spenser’s Cantos of Mutabilitie Which Frank Kermode referred to as the best philosophical poem in English. As the title suggests, it has change and time as it’s subject and this is one of Spenser’s recurring themes especially in The Faerie Queene. Essentially ‘Change’ puts forward the arguments for the priority of mutability over fixity and then Nature demolishes this with:
I well consider all that ye have said And find that all things steadfastnes do hate And changed be: and yet being rightly wayed They are not changed from their first estate; But by their change their being doe dilate: And turning to themselves at length againe, Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate: Then over them Change doth not rule and raigne; But they raigne over change, and doe their states maintaine. Cease therefore daughter further to aspire And be content thus to be rul'd by me: For thy decay thou seekst by thy desire, But time shall come that all shall changed bee, And from thenceforth, none so more change shall see. So was the Titanesse put downe and whist, And Iove confirm'd in his imperiall see. Then was that whole assembly quite dismist And Natur's self did vanish, whither no man wist.
As a long-standing Spenser fan, this makes me want to jump up and down with delight because it’s supremely accomplished as poetry yet also manages in eighteen lines to express a fundamental aspect of 16th century philosopphical ‘truth’. Each stanza has one crucial and brilliantly crafted line, the first hinges on ‘dilate’. Bert Hamilton glosses the line with:
i.e. expand as they fill their natures, showing that change is not random but purposeful (see N.Frye 1990b: 160-161) acting in accord with the Pauline concept of sowing a natural body to raise a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15. 36-44). It is not circular, then but spiral in returning creation to its beginning.
This may be the case but I can’t help reading Ficino on God’s dance of joy into ‘dilate’ primarily because it seems a more logical and less complicated ‘fit’. Anyway, it is at once both plain and gloriously compressed and serves as a counterpoint to Spenser’s view of the world in continuous and relentless decline.
I think I need to note the extensive and frequently tiresome critical debate about the relationship between these Cantos and the rest of The Faerie Queene which is an argument without any facts. I will however set out the subtitle from the first edition of Mutabilitie which was published in 1609
Which, both for Forme and Matter, appeare to be parcell of fome following Booke of the FAERIE QUEENE, VNDER THE LEGEND OF Conftancie Never before imprinted.
‘Appeare’ is the tell-tale verb and we should leave it at that because we will Never Know.
The next act of compression comes from Paul Celan:
ILLEGIBILITY Of this world. All things twice over. The strong clocks justify the splitting hour, coarsely. You, clamped into your deepest part, climb out of yourself, for ever.
I’d argue that what we have here is a struggle with philosophy, an incredibly dense working of the major strands of 20th century thought with it’s concerns about perception, temporality and personal responsibility in the shadow of the Holocaust. Of course, many argue that this is too dense, that the distillation is too great and falls into meaningless and psuedo-mystical babble but this seems to miss the point entirely. Throughout his writing Celan is concerned with very Big Things indeed and explores the challenges inherent in living any kind of purposeful life when surrounded by our many violences and absence of thought.
Many who do accept the brilliance of this material insist on imposing the work of Martin Heidegger as the main philosophical thread and equate the ‘mystical’ quality the poetry with Heidegger’s later work. This seems to overlook other influences far removed from and (in some cases) directly opposed to all things existential. Martin Buber’s concerns with the demands of and responsibility for the Other are also very much present in the above. As with Spenser, I don’t want to examine the acres of critical pondering on this but I would like simply to point out that poetical philosophy, in the hands of genius, can be a more profound and provocative exploration of Truth in all its manifestations.
I’d like to finish with Charles Olson’s frequent nods to Whitehead’s Process and Reality in his Maximus series. In the past I have expressed the view that the work in its entirety can be seen as a transcription of Whitehead into poetic form. I’d now like to amend that view, Process and Reality was clearly a central aspect of Olson’s view of the world and this is apparent in parts of the sequence but there is much more of Olson the man here than there is of philosophy, even his clearest expositions are made by using himself and his everyday experience to make the ‘point’.
So, the best poetry adds other dimensions to philosophy because it can distil and intensify. This does not mean that poetry is in any kind of privileged position with regard to Truth but it does mean that it can, on occasion, push the conversation a little bit further.