What Is It
What is poetry? Mere word play? A pretty, or at any rate striking, way of expressing thought and emotion? Or does great poetry involve an approach to the world that provides insight and information not available in other ways? Ken and John explore how poetry can illuminate what we know with award-winning poet Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief and other poetic works of philosophical richness. This program was recorded live at the Marsh Theatre in Berkeley.
Jane Hirshfield, an award-winning poet, translator and essayist, joins Ken and John for a query into poetry as a way of knowing. They begin with two challenges to this assumption. Firstly, does poetry even set out to produce knowledge? Secondly, does poetry administer a special kind of knowledge? To address these questions, the hosts distinguish between three types of knowing: propositional knowledge, know-how, and that of what it's like. It is hard to see how poetry provides any of these kinds of knowledge. After all, poetry is more about “expressing feelings and capturing impressions” rather than providing factual information. Similarly, if all poetry provided was skill at composing and interpreting poems, we'd have a predictable show! One more way to reconsider poetry's contribution to knowledge is to ask whether its offerings contrast with those which one gains from science.
Jane proposes that poetry is language which hears itself and listens in every possible direction. To clarify, when one hears the sound of one's own thoughts, one thinks differently. This is how poetry expands the listener's relationship with the subject matter. To add, John notes that poetry accomplishes this by expressing meaning beyond the literal interpretation of the words. The nickname Old Hickory, for instance, refers to Andrew Jackson in such a way as to conjure more sensual qualities (perhaps his smell). Jane agrees; the unique characteristic of poetry is its exploration of the words themselves. In fact, poetry relies on this kind of slipperiness. For instance, the biblical definition of knowledge, in comparison to the philosophical explanation of knowledge, is carnal, erotic, and intimate. That being said, she's all for poetry as a way of knowing!
A phrase from Wallace Stevens further illustrates word play in poetry. Stevens said, “Death is the mother of beauty,” a statement that many would consider a poetic truth. Yet, if one takes the literal definition of these words, one finds little sense in stringing them together; death is a multifaceted phenomenon, motherhood is a relationship between parent and offspring, and the complex of beauty is very complex. One possible interpretation of this phrase is that an awareness of death reminds us of the beauty in our lives. Yet, it fails to capture the magic of the original wording. It is with regard to this point that Ken makes the crucial observation that a poem's content and form might be equally important. Perhaps even more, one cannot separate the two. Thus, a paraphrase of poetry is insufficient because it is the synthesis of form and content that constitute the poem's essence.
As the discussion continues, it becomes apparent that, historically speaking, poetry and philosophy previously bore closer similarity. In response to a question of the philosophical value of Lao Tzu, Ken responds that contemporary philosophy explicitly attempts to remove elements of poeticism whereas quite a few past philosophers (Nietzsche and Wittgenstein as two examples) wrote in verse. John remembers that as an undergraduate, philosophers wrote in terms of intimate “I, thou” relationships, while others wrote in the Eastern tradition, describing a world in which the ego had disintegrated. In this day and age, he laments, philosophers write in objective, technical language. In consolation, Jane remarks that she still reads Wittgenstein for his poetry.
Ken brings the discussion to the what some define as an ancient conflict between poetry and philosophy. Plato himself argued that poetry failed to represent the world truthfully and instead only presented an imitation. Jane reminds us that Plato also said, “poets weave seductive lies.” With their eloquence and compelling language, they convince the listener that what they say is true. Jane notes that poetry isn't so much concerned with fact as it is with “explorations, investigations, provisional comprehensions of experience.” In other words, a good poet does just what Plato describes.
The audience posits that poetry is free and playful. To use an analogy from the audience, poetry “blisses out” on the grass while science climbs the branches according to the architecture of the tree in order to witness the view at the top. Ken reminds us the while product of good science does provide architectural facts about the construction of the world, the intellectual process intrinsically part of scientific inquiry is enormously playful and liberating. That is, a scientist's hypothesizing about the world is very much a creative activity which must then be tested with rigorous precision and objectivity. All in all, we should seek to end the ancient conflict between poetry and philosophy by recognizing the distinct contributions of each discipline as investigations into how we live our lives.
- Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:40): Caitlin Esch interviews Phillip Davis from Liverpool University in England. Davis collaborates with the department of Neuroscience to better understand the process of reading poetry. In several examples, he demonstrates the Functional Shift: a spike in brain activity in response to the clever manipulation of words. Shakespeare said, “A kind and gracious man, him have you madded.” He used 'madded' instead of 'maddened,' thereby changing the semantic function of “mad.” The Functional Shift excites and arouses the brain, challenging it to restructure its circuits. Not surprising, poetry therapy has proven useful in rehabilitating patients with brain disorders. Lucille, a patient with traumatic brain disorder, reads an original work about the necessity of rising to the occasion.
- The Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 1:03:50) Ian Shoales recites some of his favorite poetry, wondering why it is that we remember poems of great length. One his cherished selections is an allegory about a man who communes with the divine. Why do so few children know this poem today, especially considering its profoundly moral lesson? For an answer, he offers satirical insight.