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Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

Poetry: Fleshly or Lawyerly?

Categories: Ed Mooney, ZiR


Duck-Rabbit_illusionThis is a follow up to my last post, “Corporeal Words.” There, I paused with the thought, borrowed from the philosopher Kelly Jolley, that poetry lets words become bodies or objects. Thus they might set up a resonance with our own bodies. In a comment, Daniel D’Arezzo seemed to move us toward theology. He suggested that my drift would let the word become flesh. Although I applaud this aperçu, Daniel rejects it.

I would argue that every poem is an argument—argues something—but this lawyerly interpretation of poetry takes the poet down several notches from high-priestliness, which is where some readers want to keep poets—keep them as priests who make the word flesh.

This is an inversion of what Plato calls an “ancient quarrel.” Philosophers seek truth through rational argument and poets indulge passions and rhetoric. Plato wanted to depose the high-priests of poetry and let philosophers assume that office. Daniel wants to depose them by turning them into arguing philosophers. I’ll not question who deserves priestly robes, though I’d love to watch priestly power stolen from politicians and pundits. Instead I’ll question how we might negotiate an apparent impasse: on the one hand, it seems that poetry is corporeal, yet on the other, it’s taken to be argumentative. Is someone right and someone wrong?

In philosophy or in art, the sort of critic or commentator that I admire tries to bring something—a painting, a poem, an argument, an object, a dance—into better view. If that is one aim of criticism (or commentary), then we abandon a battle over true-false answers: is poetry argument? is it words made flesh? Instead, we ask whether one or both of these thoughts about poetry bring things into better view.

Rather than prove a thesis, at least one kind of good critic prods us to see things from a new angle, from an angle that we had neglected, an angle that breaths life into what has puzzled or perplexed us, or had just passed beneath our notice. I confess that it’s a new thought that a poem might be words made flesh,—that thought brings something into better view for me, and I tried to show in my post how that happened.

I confess that it’s a new and startling thought—from someone who obviously knows poetry—that a poem might be an argument. That thought also brings something into better view. So letting two opposed remarks become salient episodically—now this remark, now that— has vastly improved my view of poetry. Philosophy or criticism needn’t always be combat over truth or falsity. It can provide illumination on this occasion—or that. (Or, of course, it can fail.)

I’ve come to think of Thoreau’s philosophy as a kind of episodic, occasional philosophy. Like Wittgenstein, Thoreau looks for a remark that will bring something—here and now—into better view. Episodic insights can be arranged informally, this way or that, blocking out the siren song of an unchanging-view-from-nowhere. Instead, this is to offer philosophical fragments, philosophical remarks, philosophical reminders—things Wittgenstein and Thoreau seek.

Taking the hint, the apparent impasse over whether poetry is flesh or argument can be reconfigured. I can see the poem now as flesh, bringing my flesh alive; and now, as argument, testing my mental acumen. We have two episodes of philosophical insight. One moment Thoreau sees pebbles on the stream’s bottom. The next moment he sees them intermixed with the stars above, both on the stream’s bottom. I’ll let those moments linger.

— Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Citations: Thoreau, Walden, Chapter 2; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, throughout

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