Poetry As a Way of Knowing

Friday, March 30, 2012 -- 5:00 PM
Laura Maguire

If the title of this week’s show sounds strange, it may be because we don’t normally think of poetry as being in the business of producing knowledge. Poetry, we might think, is about capturing impressions and expressing feelings. The goal of poetry is not to describe the world. That’s, after all, what we have science for.

I think this is an arbitrarily narrow view of things. Can't poetry capture impressions, express feelings, and also be a source of knowledge? And why should we suppose science has a monopoly on knowledge? Surely there are lots of things we know that we don’t learn from science. Science is in the business of producing knowledge, but we acquire knowledge in all sorts of other ways too. For example, you don’t need to study biology to learn how to ride a bike. 

Of course, being able to ride a bike is practical skill (knowing-how) and not what philosophers call propositional knowledge (knowing-that), which is what science deals in. So, if we’re just talking practical skills, the claim that poetry could be a way of knowing sounds less controversial. When you study poetry, presumably you develop many skills, like learning how to interpret a poem, which involves other skills, like how to identify and understand metaphor, how to measure meter, and so on. And maybe if you read a lot of poetry you also develop another skill, namely how to write poetry. So, in that sense, it’s easy to see how poetry could be a way of knowing. 

But if that’s all we meant by “Poetry As a Way of Knowing,” then this week’s show would not be very interesting! Just as we don't learn how to ride a bike so we can know how to push pedals, direct wheels, and pull brakes, we don’t read poetry merely to develop the skills involved in reading poetry. We ride bikes for all the rewards it brings, like getting fit, taking in beautiful scenery, and getting places without polluting the environment. Poetry must also come with similar rewards—there must be something else we acquire from reading poetry. 

That may be the case, but we have not yet established whether poetry gives us specifically propositional knowledge, whether it tells us facts about the world in the same way that science does. We should be careful here, though. It might be that poetry does indeed provide us with propositional knowledge, but that it does so in a very different way from science. The two disciplines are obviously quite distinct, which is precisely why the suggestion that poetry might teach us facts initially sounded so odd. The whole point of poetry, it seems, is not to state facts, but to use language in a creative and imaginative way to express thoughts, feelings, and impressions. Whether or not this could ultimately lead to propositional knowledge is an open question. 

So far, I have mentioned two kinds of knowledge—practical knowledge and propositional knowledge. To say that poetry gives us the first didn’t seem like a very interesting claim. To say that it leads to the second did sound interesting, but we would need to know more about exactly how this could be achieved. 

There is also a third possibility, and that is that poetry gives us phenomenal knowledge, or knowledge about what it’s like to have a particular kind of experience. In a famous paper (“What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”), philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that the subjective experience of something, like being a bat that can perceive its environment through echolocation, cannot be reduced to objective facts, like a scientific description of echolocation. Perhaps poetry gives us this third kind of knowledge. Perhaps through its creative use of language, poetry provides a unique window into subjective experience. 

In order to arrive at some answers here, we should probably say what exactly we mean when we talk about “poetry” in the first place. How does it differ from poetically-written prose or mere rhyme, for example? Are there any essential traits that all poems share, or are their commonalities more like what Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance”? 

Once we have answered those questions, then we can turn to some others: What can poetry reveal about the world? Is there some unique insight we gain by reading poetry? Can it help us better understand ourselves and our experiences? Or is it simply a source of pleasure? 

Joining us this week to think about these issues is award-winning poet, translator, and essayist Jane Hirshfield.

Comments (19)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 30, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Poetry

Poetry
When words have no rules or regulations
And a sentence has no bounds
That is where the poet hides
Where truth can still be found
The word is mightier than the sword they say
When words are truly free
Poetry is the words of a poet
Then the poet has the power of Thee
There is a lesson to learn in poetry
A remedy and a cure
For poetry are words of freedom
And in freedom the truth shall set us free
What is the truth One wonders
In the phrase and phrases of a rhyme
The true poetry of a free poet
Will bring equality to All in Just time
For freedom is equality
Unity of not only mankind
The true words of a poets? poetry
Is the beautiful true Oneness of All kind.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 30, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Poetry? OK. Now you are

Poetry? OK. Now you are getting into my life. And that of a friend and brother in Canada. Let me explain. My writing began as poetry. Short-lived, but fun-all, or most all, of my epics were lost during my visit to Canada in 1969. Long time ago. Well, three and four decades later, I began to write prose; while that other person mentioned above was writing poetry. He seems to be getting recognition now. About time, I think. If you'd like to see some of his ideas; read some of his poems?--- go to: www.larryvanpelt.com. What makes a great poet? Could be luck. Or charisma. Or....language skill? Huh? Or is it all just commerce? I think so, to wit:
Several days ago, our electric clothes dryer stopped working. The drum did not turn, but the motor was still running. My assessment: the belt was broken. So, having no experience with appliance repair, and not wanting to fall victim to commerce, I procured a new belt and proceeded to tear the dryer apart. Two days later, or there abouts, the dryer is fixed, for $20.00 and my time and inexperience. Better than the'commerce' way, which would have likely cost me $150.00, or more... That maybe the difference between commerce and art, OR...maybe there is no difference at all.
Nothing poetic about that, really. Ye Haw---pretty much.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 31, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Poetry's discursive reply to

Poetry's discursive reply to the question, What is it like to be human?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 31, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

the transformation of

the transformation of neuronal pathways in the brain from reading/studying poetry is some very interesting research...
RIP Adrienne Rich!

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 31, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Your Own Personal Genius

Your Own Personal Genius
A man can rationalize anything.
In times of necessity, the task can be done with the sophistication of an evil genius.
Absurdity and excess go hand in hand.
A good life is beautiful life and aesthetically speaking , beauty rests in proper proportions.
The foundational presuppositions of sophomoric metaphysicans can conjure superstitions that stifle sentimental intuition.
Divine revelation in contrary juxtaposition to matters of fact is nothing more than fiction.
The hallmark of balanced philosophy is found in its all­encompassing approach.
Sticking to the ruts of dogma greatly restrict the search for truth.
Thoughtful allegories can be meaningful tools to help men get on with their day to day existence.
The danger lies in getting lost in the words of metaphor or of delusional schizophrenic omnipotents, thus thinking ourselves into
believing what we've read or wrote.
Such occurrences, as documented by observers of history, have brought less enlightenment to the well ­read
than has rendered the noble and common man intellectually or prematurely dead.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 31, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

We can no longer talk to the

We can no longer talk to the veterans of World War I, but they left an extraordinarily rich legacy of poetry. It is estimated that 5-million poems were written during 1914-18 and, although only a tiny portion of it has survived, it reflects reality in a way that historical prose could never match.
WWI began with heroic poetry as idealistic young men marched off to the battlefield believing that if they did their duty the war would be over by Christmas. By 1916, the war was at a stalemate, which the Germans tried to break by a massive offensive at Verdun. Tha Allies responded with a counter-offensive at the river Somme. By the end of 1916, one-and-a half million men had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner with a minor adjustment of the front line. The public on both sides clamored for peace and President Wilson offered to broker it. Had democracy prevailed, that would have been the end of the war; but, of course it wasn't. The politicians and generals on both sides insisted on outrageous demands that the other could not possibly accept (much as is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today) and the war continued. The poetry, especially that of the soldier-poets changed dramatically, now telling of hardship, senseless waste of youth and a longing for peace.
When I was young, I used to think highly of the heroic poetry and wondered at the negativity of those who saw the war as such a waste and burden; now, as an adult, I see that I had it entirely backwards.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 31, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

jane quoted a poet saying....

jane quoted a poet saying.........
was it because i was thinking of him that he appeared
or was it because i was dreaming of him that i awakened
is that right and who is the poet?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 31, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

is this right ???

is this right ???
was it because i was thinking of him that he apperaed
or was it because i was dreaming of him that i awakened?

Devon's picture

Devon

Saturday, March 31, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

The poet was Ono no Komachi

The poet was Ono no Komachi (ca. 850) --
Was it because I was thinking of him he appeared?If only I'd known I was dreaming, I'd never have wakened

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 1, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Great program. One little

Great program. One little correction: I believe what Ogden Nash wrote was
Candy is dandy
But liquor is quicker

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 3, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Wakened

Wakened
I was wakened by a radiance of light,
Shinning from me.
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 3, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

One latter-day creation from

One latter-day creation from a small collection of what I call New-Age Nursery Rhymes:
Humpitty Dumpitty sat on a wall,
Flopped by a pigeon, he had a great fall;
All broken and scattered---no money back terms,
He's a breakfast entree now,
An omelet. For worms.
I have similarly ravaged subjects, including Jack Horner; Old King Cole, et. al.
Is poetry a 'way of knowing'? Certainly, it must be. It helps us Think About Life*---to muse upon how things might be vs. how they are. It takes us into altruistic territory, while every other aspect of living fairly screams: look out for yourself and your own, because no one else WILL. We know, too well, how the world works. Poetry (sometimes) allows us to dream about how it might work better.
(* the name of a band of optimists)
Warmest,
Dr. S.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, April 5, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Fantastic program! Just

Fantastic program! Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your show but this one was especially thought-provoking and inspiring.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, April 5, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

To Lee, regarding Ogden:

To Lee, regarding Ogden:
Quite so. Perhaps others will recall. If not, they do not matter so much, do they?
My best to the Wife and Kids,
HGN

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, April 7, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Excellent comments, all.

Excellent comments, all. Arvo: fascinating post on the uses of poetry. Where can I find these WWI soldiers' poems?
REPRESENTATIONS
Philosophers arise! Cast off the chains of science! ?They? would transform the prescriptive belief system into not just certainty about now, but into determinism about all that is to come. The real duality is ?matter/consciousness?; there is no overlap: science is about matter; philosophy is about consciousness. Do not let anyone who uses science as their justification tell you anything about your work as a philosopher, or dissuade you from conclusions about thoughts.
Almost thirty years ago, some scholar/geniuses at Berkeley founded a journal called Representations, to give voice to new critical methods, among them Historicism. As a neo-philosopher, I worshipped at the feet of these guys, so their journal was the access to their new methodologies. But I was embarrassed to ask anyone on the staff why the journal was named ?Representations,? and what was the meaning, in the sense they used it, of the term. I was frightened that everyone knew, except me, and I would appear to be an even greater fool than I really was. (I remember the feeling, when I emerged naked from the dressing room of the YMCA pool, on Bathing Suit Friday.)
Reality. By which I mean reality which is normal ? which is ?understood by everyone.? Representations of reality. A person thinks something is worth communicating to another person. All kinds of demonstrations and illustrations and symbolic communications are available. What choices to make, and why? What are the relative powers of the choices to convince, and why? How do unintended or accidental or misintended representations reveal even more?
Because it is about rational thinking about thought, philosophy depicts a rational conscious reality (yes, conflicted and contradictory reality ? that?s no problem ? that?s the fun of it, in fact). But poetry, because it is metaphorical, adds to, and more closely approaches a representation of consciousness-reality. Philosophers should be enamored of the poet. I love reading and discussing poetry, and finding out what and how the poet ?represents.? I have tried writing poetry ? complete failure; probably because I hold poetic skills in such high regard it is crippling; more likely I am just plain no good at it, like I?m just no good at basketball.
But, thirty years later, I think I know what ?Representations? means.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 9, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

1. I was listening to the

1. I was listening to the roving philosophical reporter Catlin Esk and Shakespeare's choice of wording in King Lear. Willie used "madded" to describe Lear's descent into situational insanity. Madded is archaic, but back in the day it was just descriptive. (The use of "charcoaled" would be far more metaphoric -- the old ashes to ashes theme). Now, we would use the word "maddened", which wasn't invented until the 1700s.
Although "madded" was an unchallenging description for Willie to draw, these day its archaicness creates an intellectually challenging metaphor where none originally existed. So while the facts may be wrong, Catlin point still holds.
2.
We taste bitter.
But when we feel bitter
the same neural pathways light up.
Our minds' connections are
doing what poets do.
Is the metaphor dead?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks for the query, mirugal

Thanks for the query, mirugal. Rather than recommending a particular anthology, I hope you will find some comments helpful.
Examples of the 'heroic' poems might include 'The Soldier,' written by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) and 'In Flanders Fields,' written in 1915 by John McCrae (1872-1918). The latter poem seems to mark the end of the heroic era. Neither Brooke nor McCrae was a front-line soldier, Brooke was a sailor and McCrae was a medical doctor.
'In Flanders Fields' was met with considerable consternation at the front lines. Especially after the appalling Allied losses at the Somme, the attitude towards the war changed. Dulce et Decorum Est, a poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) is considered a refutation of McCrae's poem (as well as a response to a particularly insensitive remark about the Allied casualties by the Allied High commander, Sir Douglas Haig). Owen's is probably more widely known for the poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth. Like Owen, most of the published authors were officers. An exception was the South African, Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), noted for 'Break of Day in the Trenches.' Several other notable front-line soldier-poets perished in the war; a poet who survived was Siegfried Sasson (1886-1967), although he came close to facing the firing squad for writing an open letter to the government expressing his opinion about the futility of continuing the war.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, April 27, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

CORRECTION: For anyone who

CORRECTION: For anyone who may be interested, the website referenced in an earlier comment was misstated. It should read: www.larryvanpelt.ca (not: .com) Apologies to all, including the Poet.
Sardonicus.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

'twas brillig, and the slithy

'twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe---'kind of says it all, doesn't it? Of course, we are not certain what is being said, because the poet is speaking in his own special tongue and we must IMAGINE what it is he is talking about---later, we must decipher 'mome wraths'. And, once again, we are unsure of what a wrath is, let alone a 'mome' one. And so, when poetry is a way of knowing, it may only be a way of knowing for the poet. I was amused by Humpitty Dumpitty. Not deep---but, a funny take on the original. And a different way of knowing the broken egg parable. Sardonicus has a wry wit. Yes.

 

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