Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Poetry and the Impossible
It's been a quiet couple of weeks here on S.C.T., as I have been trying to collect my thoughts into presentable form in order to respond in my own way to dy0genes' point about poetry. Eventually, as is my wont, I accumulated a sprawling document--far longer and more ill-organized than what I'm posting here. This is the first of what I expect will be two or three parts laying out some of how I see the question of poetry in relation to philosophy.
The Platonic critique of poetry often seems old-fashioned today—who worries about the bad effects of reading poetry anymore?—so it can be a surprise to find it being maintained, quite seriously, by one of the most significant poet/critics of the 20th century. This is Laura (Riding) Jackson, a writer of such uncompromising integrity, such gentle severity, if I can put it that way, that it is hardly surprising that she has not attained the reputation she deserves. Well, I suppose her having dropped poetry altogether might have had something to do with it too. The Collected Poems of Laura Riding, as she was known when she wrote poetry, is a 498-page volume, first published in 1938, three years before she renounced poetry entirely, though she lived until 1991. Her reasons for this renunciation are complex, but they can be summed up, perhaps misleadingly, in one of her titles: “Poet—a lying word.” This phrase, which stood at the head of a poem and of a book of poems, came eventually to sum up her attitude to what had been her vocation. Poetry, she came to believe, “failed.” It enticed one to believe in the possibility of an apt speaking, an articulation of inner human reality, but it failed to deliver this discourse. Poetry, she said, disappoints “the hopes it excites as seemingly the way of perfect human utterance, or articulate truth.” All during her poetic career she had struggled to bring about a language of Platonic purity, a speaking that would be uncontaminated by accident and chance:
Come, words, away from mouths,
Away from tongues in mouths
And reckless hearts in tongues
And mouths in cautious heads—
Come, words, away to where
The meaning is not thickened
With the voice’s fretting substance… (“Come, Words, Away”)
Eventually this impossible and self-refuting urge led her clean out of poetry.
I can’t give an account of Laura (Riding) Jackson, as she called herself after her marriage, that can remotely do justice to her accomplishment, let alone her ambition. And it must be said that if, by her own standards, she did not succeed in the task she set herself as a poet—because, as she came to believe, that task was unrealizable—neither does she accomplish the task she set herself later, of laying out a complete theory of “rational meaning,” by which every word in the language would have one and only one meaning, an account which would finally dispel the encrustations of ambiguity and chance resemblances which make misunderstanding so rife and misleading so easy. To her, language would ideally have been an more elaborate Esperanto, a nomenclature of sense, purged of connotation. One need not appeal to Wittgenstein, Piaget, Saussure, Chomsky, Pinker, Whorff, Vygotsky, or any of the score or more of other major 20th-century theorists of language or language acquisition, to point out how implausible such an ideal is; one can easily open a dictionary and look up, say, “Book: 1. n. A written work or composition that has been published (printed on pages bound together). 2. v. To schedule use of a facility or location ahead of time.”
Riding believed that the poem engaged in a struggle to attain a purity of meaning, to say precisely in a manner that was resisted by its material, language. This struggle is spiritual. “Poetry,” she says in Rational Meaning, the book upon which she labored, with her husband Schuyler Jackson and then alone, until her death, “may be described as an institution devoted to the pursuit of spiritual realism, in relation to religion as an institution devoted to the pursuit of spiritual idealism.” And so we find ourselves with Plato and his objections to the poets’ tales of the gods; or with Heidegger and his exegesis of Hölderlin’s anticipation of the gods’ return.
This is extraordinarily unlikely company for Laura Riding. I can think of few figures she would have wanted less to do with than Heidegger, whose gnomic meditations she would have dismissed with curt impatience. The gulf between Heidegger and Riding, at any stage in her long career, is immense, and I don’t mean to imply any close kinship. But I do say that Heidegger and Riding are each witnesses for the case that the poet’s work is bound up closely with the question of the gods. And as I have cited more than once, Quid sit deus? is called by Leo Strauss the question of philosophy.
“To a poet the mere making of a poem can seem to solve the problem of truth,” Riding later wrote. “But only a problem of art is solved in poetry.” This is indeed the rub. How was it that a problem of art could seem like the problem of truth, so that solving the one seemed to offer, for a tantalizing moment, the solution to the other?
One possible answer is that, given its latitude to treat of nonexistent objects (and even objects that are impossible in the real world), poetry can easily elide the differences between the merely nonexistent and the impossible. That is, poetry speak as if the teacup, the fountain of youth, and the circular square were all just stops along its path, though as objects one is ordinary object, one nonexistent merely, and one both nonexistent and impossible. So, too, when Riding writes of poetry trying to attain a “spiritual realism,” to articulate matters of the spirit in a language scoured of the last traces of ambiguity, she is imagining a nonexistent object. There is no such language.
When she wrote poetry, Riding imagined that it was a way of attaining something beyond language as ordinarily spoken by human mouths; and this “something beyond” is a nonexistent object, an impossible object, not to mention objet petit a (if you like the Lacanian game—and I have no objections if you don’t). When she gave up poetry, she continued to aspire to such a language—she merely changed her avenue of aspiration. Riding provides the most clear case I know of someone self-consciously “running up against the limits of language,” to use the Wittgenstinian phrase once again. Wittgenstein at this stage of his career is usually read as an ally of Russell against the British Idealists and indeed against Meinong, but if sometimes I am nevertheless tempted to adapt the logical apparatus of the Tractatus with a logic of possible worlds, it is precisely with poetry in mind.
I might add that Badiou’s account of poetry with recourse to set theory is a gorgeous attempt—I am not sure how successful—to segue meta-mathematical rigor and poetic allusiveness. In any case, his assertion that poetry, like the other conditions of truth, starts from the undecidable void of the situation (apologies for these technical terms from Badiou’s philosophy, but this post is already too long for me to stuff in more explication) is very like Riding's own description of the poem as a "vacuum."
Frank Ramsey famously remarked of Wittgenstein’s conclusion (“Whereof one cannot speak one must remain silent”) that if we can’t speak about what we can’t speak about, “we can’t whistle it either.” Riding was trying to whistle it. (PMS Hacker thinks that so was Wittgenstein, and I agree… I just think it wasn’t such a silly idea).
I wish I could convey in a brief post the bracing and fierce doggedness with which Riding pursues her objective whether before or after her engagement with poetry, or the music of her genius whether in verse or prose. From the very beginning she refused assessment by any standard but those which were native to her own spirit; it is as if she feared (very rightly, as it turns out) she would be reduced to a function of someone else's scheme. The very first poem that brought her to notice by Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom demands:
Measure me for burial
That my low stone may neatly say
In a precise, Euclidean way
How I am three-dimensional.
And it ends:
Measure me by myself
And not by time or love or space
Or beauty. Give me this last grace:
that I may be on my low stone
A gage unto myself alone.
I would not have these old faiths fall
To prove that I was nothing at all.
Her ambivalent stance towards feminism, or the "minefield" (as John Ashbery writes) with which she surrounds her poems to safeguard authorial intention, betoken her lifelong resistance to being made a creature of others' stories. (This especially comes out in her biography, for she jealously guarded her own version of events and denounced and demonized anyone who remembered things differently. One cannot say she comes across as wholly sane).
This makes assessing her a difficult matter, and even in presenting her work it is difficult to convey why I find it so compelling. Though she is engaged in an attempt that cannot succeed, she seems less like a child crying for the moon than a brilliant and dogged mariner determined to find the Northwest Passage.
I'll close here with a passage from her late book The Telling, a beautiful work, by turns hermetic, cranky, fastidious, and lyrical, which well sums up both her critique of previous attempts to say beyond what can be said, and her sense of what was at stake. This should lay some ground for next posts.
We hover round the fact of the religions--in which Truth was told in two halves, God, and Man, which did not make One, but half, and again, half. ...Were they to make one story of their separate stories...that story would have in it the flaw of divided purpose that was in all the stories: not wholly for Truth's sake were these stories told. (The Telling, 57.)