Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Poetry and Philosophy (no. 1)

I started this blog partly because I wanted a formal self-encouragement to write about poetry and philosophy. It was particularly reading Lyn Hejinian’s The Fatalist, being utterly floored by it, and feeling like it would be a real waste if I didn’t write about and study that book, that got me to begin posting in the first place, but that project has been deferred for a long time (for one thing, my copy of the book was on loan for the last six or seven months). This post will begin a (hopefully) regular series of investigations into poetry that I think of as genuinely philosophical, by which I mean poetry that does original philosophical work. The tautological aspect of that definition is fine as a starting point, though I’m sure it’ll be refined and particularized as this project goes on.

After some initial considerations here, I’ll start with The Fatalist, which should take some time—it’s an astoundingly rich book—and then hopefully examine the work of Rosmarie Waldrop, Leslie Scalapino, and others (Barrett Watten, Kit Robinson… a school essay on Heidegger and Silliman may get revised and posted as well).

Some general questions I’ll be thinking about during this project (these are just starting points; there will be countless others, many of them specific to the work under consideration):

1) What is the relation of expression (of some thought that can be considered as existing independently of what happens in the poem itself—discursivity is one kind of expression), example (where a particular piece of poetic language stands in for a more general concept or conceptual nexus), and enactment (where the philosophical work is first produced or performed by the writing—it need not be directly stated, but can come about through juxtapositions, etc.)? These three factors are, of course, always operating in any poem (what’s expressed, exemplified or enacted needn’t be philosophical—that’s just my focus here), and can slide into one another. In a given work, which, if any, is primary, and when?
This is a question about the function of language at any point in the work.

2) Given these relations, what do they do to each other?

3) What’s the relation of general & particular, concept & object, abstract & concrete in the writing? One reason “doing philosophy” in poetry is attractive to me is that poetic writing isn’t stuck with the discursive and abstract approach that even the best philosophy seems to end up with (on the other hand, I want a philosophical poetry that’s “philosophically rigorous,” not a watered-down or merely “poeticized” version of philosophical thinking, in which the matter of thought isn’t really thought through).

4) What is the philosophy of a given work of “philosophical poetry?”

5) Is the language/ style/ vocabulary/ logic of the work “philosophical,” in the sense of quoting or parodying a genre (or genuinely becoming a more-or-less discursive work), or does it do its philosophical work without “sounding like philosophy?” If both, then how does it negotiate between kinds of language?
Actually, that deserves its own point:

6) How does the work negotiate between different kinds of language?
A subquestion here bears on the status of the sentence.

It's also going to be important, in specifying what "philosophy" means in a given instance, to distinguish between fundamental philosophical approaches. One such distinction is that between a primarily "presentative" mode of philosophizing (where we're given the results of thinking) and an "investigative" mode that focuses on the "path" or process of thinking (Heidegger is the most prominent example of the latter--late Wittgenstein, too, to a great extent--but they're both usually operating in a given philosopher's work, at least when that philosophy is of any interest whatsoever).

Back soon with first stabs at The Fatalist.



  • At June 29, 2006 at 12:11 AM, Blogger david raphael israel said…


    good to see this; I look forward to reading such forthcoming installments as this premiere promises. I've not yet looked at The Fatalist (haven't been thorough or kept up with Hijinian, though I've liked what I've read from her work, going back to My Life); so this seems a good kick or prod in direction of reading it.

    There's a quote from some poet (but alas I forget from whom at the moment) -- along these lines (alas, paraphrase; the wording now escapes me): "philosophy embarasses me." The sense of the utterance & thought, involved a notion that philosophy (the explicit formulation of meaning as idea) is -- from p.o.v. of poetry per se -- almost pornographically graphic, that is, overly explicit (here the notion of the graphic or pornographic is of course metaphorical, but curiously so); which also carries, it seems, a notion that poetry (or poetry of a certain sort) seeks to pursue the aims of philosophy "by other means" -- means that (for whoever-this-poet-was) are felt to be more decorous, discreet, subtle, persuasive, modest, and (perhaps) profound in reach or measured (appropriate) in expressive form.

    [Perhaps another way of framing this, though, involves the nature of mysticism -- and mysticism in poetry. This is an angle at some elements inherent in that thought. Mystical utterance typically seems to rely on certain linguistic traits that poetry tends to cultivate or encourage. A case could be made that mysticism is to poetry as is (say) wine to grape juice: the same material, undergoing a natural fermentation, so that potential compounds in the material are brought into form. At any rate, a look into mysticism in poetry somewhat differs, somewhat parallels, and might at times somewhat cross-cut a look into philosophy in poetry. This paragraph is thus something of a tangent from the original thought, but perhaps a useful one.]

    Back to "philosophy embarasses me" (above). I of course boil this down rather clunkily. Perhaps at some point the quote-in-question will properly surface; meanwhile, perhaps that's extracting enough surmise from a 3-word misquote.

    But it somewhat relates to your observation: << One reason “doing philosophy” in poetry is attractive to me is that poetic writing isn’t stuck with the discursive and abstract approach that even the best philosophy seems to end up with >>. Indeed so, grasshopper.

    My (general) theory about poetry and philosophy, is that philosophers may typically think philosophy is about philosophy; but in fact, it is -- or can be -- about poetry. By poetry, I mainly mean a (type of) esthetics of utterance -- which ultimately is an esthetics of imagination and thought as the latter come into particular expression, hover beyond encapsulations of speech, and "negotiate" the distance and shift between those two states (the articulated & particular & ponderable, versus the unarticulated and inchoate and not-fully-conscious). I feel there's also rich & curious ground for musical metaphor or correspondence as well. But I won't run with that in this box today.


  • At June 29, 2006 at 2:20 AM, Blogger andy gricevich said…

    Well, for me this is definitely a choice of philosophy rather than mysticism, as well as philosophy without thought of mysticism. It was my major, you know, and I'm enthusiastic about it, love reading it, thinking about it, talking about it, doing it... but writing it seems like a comparatively pointless endeavor, except as scattered aphorisms from time to time (though there are some philosophy books I'd like to write). But maybe these philosophical poetics do move somewhere between some kind of philosophy and some kind of mysticism, in their way of inviting particulars of experience... too tired to make much sense.

    Mostly, thanks for this, good sir!

  • At June 30, 2006 at 8:34 AM, Anonymous Jean said…

    My favorite philosophers are also poets, namely the Great Dane Soren Kierkegaard and the Funky Mustache Friedrich Nietzsche. In my opinion, no one else has come close to these two.

  • At June 30, 2006 at 7:09 PM, Blogger andy gricevich said…

    Well, they're both in that rather exceptional category of pre-20th-century philosophers who actually know how to write well--in fact, they're probably about 1/3 of that category--so that's an appeal. I never stop having entirely new takes on Nietzsche, usually through alternating a short period of being embarassed by him with a new period of finding him thought-provoking and crucial and even harder to pin down than I thought on my last reading. Kierkegaard is a fabulous writer, but I don't find the philosophical content that compelling--that individualistic/ negative-theological-ethical-existential thing has some interest, but it doesn't cover much beyond the sphere of the "isolated individual."

    That moustache was apparently cultivated largely by Nietzsche's sister after his breakdown.

  • At June 30, 2006 at 9:46 PM, Blogger david raphael israel said…

    talk about the philosophy/poetry interface, plus this Nietzsche stuff, brings to mind another category: fiction that dabbles with philosphy (or at least philosophers). Thinking (at the moment) of the novel When Nietzsche Wept. Regrettably, I found it lackluster as a novel; the premise was fun -- involving Nietzsche encountering Freud (if I recall aright). But I digress.

    I'd agree the langpos are (in general) rather obsessed with philosophy. Another perhaps to note is Joan Retallack. A case might even be made that the interest or need to deal directly with philosophy is among the functions generating the new forms. The typically discursive style is a style that naturally accommodates philophical musing. The line where poetry ends and philosophy begins (or vice-versa) seems mostly notable by its absence.


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