Monday, August 27, 2007

Philosophers of the Imagination

Shelley was wrong though. Poets aren't the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They are its unacknowledged philosophers. For if philosophy is the pursuit of truth, then it must be said that there are two kinds of truth - the truth of reason and the truth of imagination. And who pursues that latter truth more avidly than the poets?

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" Wittgenstein tells us. But how do we know what we can speak of until we try? Language is not a container, it is a possibility - a possibility bounded by silence - and poetry helps us to push the envelope of that possibility a little further, helps us to claim more of the unspoken for our own. If we cannot speak of something the answer is not silence, but a search for the right words to say it.

A great poem may not always be logical, but it is always wise, if only with the wisdom of beauty. And isn't wisdom, and not logic, what Philosophy is really after?

Besides, poetry is so much more fun.


Meanwhile, the New York Times informs me that mtvU has signed up John Ashbery to be their poet laureate, in a bid to popularize poetry among college students. Imagine that - Ashbery on MTV! And this so soon after Faulkner and McCarthy have become staples of the Oprah Book Club. Can it be that mainstream culture is actually developing taste? Does this mean I have to revisit all my assumptions about popular entertainment? Can I no longer define myself in terms of my snobbish contempt for all things bestselling? Aargh! Severe identity meltdown approaching!

Seriously, though, while I totally applaud the idea of trying to get more people into poetry, and can think of few people who deserve the honor of representing the form more than Ashbery, I can't help wondering if he was the best pick for the job. Don't get me wrong - I really like the man - but isn't he a tad inaccessible to serve as an introduction to poetry for newcomers? I'm having a hard time imagining that some clueless undergrad will read, say, 'Daffy Duck in Hollywood' or 'For John Clare' and suddenly burn with enthusiasm for modern poetry. Ah, well. Just as long as they don't start a trend for Poem Videos. I have a vision of a model in an impracticably short skirt wandering dreamily about a New England landscape, while Mary Oliver reads in the background. Shudder!


Anonymous said...

"Aargh! Severe identity meltdown approaching!"

Heh, now that I've got that out of the way,...
I really liked this thought very much: "If we cannot speak of something the answer is not silence, but a search for the right words to say it."

Speaking about poetry, have you heard the album No Promises by Carla Bruni? Haven't listened to it myself yet, but have heard that it's nice.


Cheshire Cat said...

I don't find it especially strange, Ashbery might be the ideal poet for the attention-deficit generation. He's such an inspiration to slackers - it's hard to think of a lazier poet...

Anita said...

Methinks you have much contempt for the undergrad population.

You never know - the mtvU competition could yield another poet laureate who's waiting to be discovered.

I personally (though yes, I like Ashbery) favor Neruda and Lorca's poetry.

You should post some, sometime. :)

Anita said...

As an after-thought:

“It’s our hope that we will interest college kids in poetry in a new way, make it hip for them,” said Daniel Halpern, the publisher of Ecco Press..."

This actually doesn't make much sense to me.

As a former English major, I can tell you that my poetry classes were as full as the freshman writing classes. There are tons of students who appreciate Ashbery, and are amazing poets/ writers/ spoken-word artists.

BUT, I will say, they weren't the ones watching mtvU in their dorms...

I wonder if the medium is the right fit.

Revealed said...

And I spent 15 minutes trying to explain that philosophy was the search for truth and *that* is why scientists become doctors of philosophy when they graduate, to this guy from grad school one evening. Are all scientists this bad or just the ones I know?

Space Bar said...

Language is not a container, it is a possibility - a possibility bounded by silence

Odd you should say that. I take precisely the opposite (visual) position: that one uses language as a frame for silence. That silence is the default or the given and language occasionally holds and examines it and then lets it go.

sonia said...

poem videos? oh my god! what a fabulous idea! what, no?

equivocal said...

So now I'm subscribed to your blog, and leafing through past issues. You're a force of nature!

Interesting here... I think I agree with Space Bar on this one; that is at least to the extent that "positions" on language and silence can be meaningful.

In your formulation language (ie. the poem) seems like a lone fist, or perhaps a thumb, in a vast ether of silence; in Space Bar's formulation, language (the poem) is the place where you look for and find fleeting silence (language is not a container still but a frame by which silence manifests). Doesn't the second formulation seem right? The very definition of world is noise, and the poem seems the only place where something like true silence might appear or be aspired to. I think we are misled by notions of speech in our politics which think of speech (or "speaking out") as something that always leads to action or, worse, as something that necessarily leads to the truth.

By the way, the famous Wittgenstein quote you cite is not quite representative of his ideas. It is from his early work as a logical positivist, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a work he later publicly repudiated in his lovely Philosophical Investigations. The later work, in fact, *challenges* the logical positivist notion that we should not speak when we cannot speak clearly (that is, for them, in analysable "valid" sentences). What the book does, in a way, is begin with your question, "How do we know what we can speak of until we try?" and goes on to describe (as opposed to prescribe) language's many quirky and slippery ways. It is this second book, Philosophical Investigations, not the Tractatus, that has somehow been so universally influential on poets since the second half of the 20th. Worth checking out, especially since it so often reads like poetry.

Love, Equivocal