What is poetry? Mere word play? A pretty, or at any rate striking, way of expressing thought and emotion?
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.