A good philosopher makes you think – not just adopt an opinion or give you something to believe or believe in (or not believe or believe in). A good philosopher makes you put on the brakes, stop the mind from racing along in its familiar tracks.
Here’s a good philosopher, Kelly Jolley, thinking out loud about poetry. Listening to him put the brakes on and made me think:
Poetry is a way of getting something to take on a body. It comes clothed in the corporeality of words themselves so the thing that you find yourself bothered by or interested in, or puzzled by, or find mysterious, becomes a kind of object on the page.
The idea, I suspect, is that bodies are synchronized to resonate together.
When you laugh my body (pretty much involuntarily) begins to chuckle or laugh, too – unless I’m resistant to your laugh and show it in stiff straight-faced impassivity.
When I read a line of poetry, I may undergo visceral feelings of funniness, strangeness, attraction, or of puzzlement, or of soaring serenity or of the sense of crawling in mud. All of these feelings, or responses, incorporate corporeal dimensions – knitted eyebrows, twisted stomachs, hands shaking off mud.
Perhaps in reading poetry my body is reacting to, or resonating in sympathy with, something like another human body. The words involve me – send me shivering, say – the way a person’s (embodied) voice or gesture might.
Things that are plainly non-persons can elicit my bodily response, too: spoiling bananas, pure snow, lilting breezes. These can set off a recoil, or instill a moment of serenity. So if a poetic line of words presents me with any of these “things,” I respond as if to a body, human or otherwise.
Thus we could say that poetry takes on a body. It takes on a corporeality that sets my corporeality in synchronized motion: I catch my breath, or sigh in wonder, or feel the welling of tears.
Perhaps this is the way to hear Archibald MacLeish’s famous couplet: “A poem should not mean / But be.”
The living poem is like a living body. It does this and that to us, which is quite something other than presenting a hidden meaning or a code to decipher with the help of a good dictionary.
— Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
Kelly Jolley on Poetry: podcast
Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica” from Collected Poems 1917-1982. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.