Poetry and Abstract Thought
Article first published online: 25 SEP 2009
© 2009 Copyright the Authors. Journal compilation © 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Midwest Studies In Philosophy
Special Issue: Philosophy and Poetry
Volume 33, Issue 1, pages 37–52, September 2009
How to Cite
LAMARQUE, P. (2009), Poetry and Abstract Thought. Midwest Studies In Philosophy, 33: 37–52. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4975.2009.00183.x
- Issue published online: 25 SEP 2009
- Article first published online: 25 SEP 2009
There are four main ideas I want to propose. The first is that abstract thought, properly so-called, is unavoidable in poetry, indeed its very essence, so it makes no sense to claim that poetry is somehow better off without it. Second, that abstract thought comes in degrees, from the mere presence of general terms right up to abstract philosophical reflection which can, but of course need not, occupy poetry. Third, that where philosophical reflection does occur in poems its role can be quite different from that in philosophical prose. And fourth, that Plato's worries about truth and poetry are serious and constrain expectations in how to respond to poetry of a philosophical bent.
I shall not attempt to define poetry, an enterprise probably futile, and shall confine myself to undisputed cases. The formal marks of poetry—meter, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, imagery, compressed language—can be found outside poetry and although versification might be sufficient for “poetry” in a loose sense it is not necessary and is of no intrinsic value. There is a mode of writing where poetic devices seem more incidental than essential. Lucretius' De rerum natura, Pope's Essay on Man, and Voltaire's Discours en vers sur l'homme are in verse form (rhyming couplets in the case of Pope and Voltaire) and provide an easy proof that poetry can be a vehicle for philosophical thought. However, it is not such cases that I shall draw on. These are cases where it seems entirely possible—in some contexts desirable—to ignore the surface poetic form altogether and focus on the ideas and arguments in their own right.1 It is likely that many contemporary readers did just that (albeit, in the case of Pope, admiring the epigrammatic “wit” of the poet's turns of phrase). Of more interest (in this discussion) are cases where thought and form are more closely integrated, where the poetry is, as we might say, essential not incidental.
Setting aside the Lucretius-Pope-Voltaire-type cases, abstract thought is often claimed to be inimical to poetry. The reasons given are diverse. Abstract thought, it is said, conflicts with the very nature of the poetic enterprise: with poetic language, with poetic focus, with the interest that poetry arouses. Sometimes expressive qualities are cited: poetry is sensuous, emotional, experiential, rooted in feeling. Sometimes the inwardness of poetic reference is thought to be salient: poetry is personal, subjective, a product of imagination, an expression of something deep in the poet's soul. Sometimes it is distinctive linguistic modes like imagery and metaphor that are taken to imply the rejection of abstraction. Sometimes it is the particularity, immediacy and concreteness of poetry that seem to make the difference. In each case abstract thought is associated with the opposite of the items listed: not sensuous and emotional but cerebral and rational; not personal and subjective but impersonal and universal; not imagistic and metaphorical but intellectual and literal; not particular and concrete but general and abstracted. Abstract thought is associated with scientific or philosophical discourse, with truth rather than feeling, with propositions rather than images, with knowledge rather than lived experience. These intuitive distinctions all contain important elements of truth. Also they seem to point to paradigmatic features of poetry quite different from those exhibited in, say, De rerum natura, which only rarely shows traces of the personal and sensuous. Nevertheless, the characteristics noted—including the implied contrast between the abstract and the poetical—need to be grounded in a more ordered framework.
Although the underlying conception in this outline is most closely associated with Romanticism, with what might be called an expressive rather than a mimetic view of poetry, it is important to recall that Romantic poetry, even in its heyday, is full of abstract thought. Wordsworth, for example, notoriously indulges in abstract ruminations:
The mind of Man is fram'd even like the breath
And harmony of music. There is a dark
Invisible workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, and makes them move
In one society. Ah me! that all
The terrors, all the early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, that all
The thoughts and feelings which have been infus'd
Into my mind, should ever have made up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself!
[Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805), Bk I, lines 351–61]
Phrases like “Invisible workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements” or “Regrets, vexations, lassitudes” are hardly concrete sensuous images. Shelley is another example of a poet who cannot resist grand philosophical reflections which surface explicitly:
All things that move and breathe with toil and sound
Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell.
Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind.
[Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1817), stanza IV]
But there still seems to be something about this use of abstract thought which sets Wordsworth and Shelley apart from Lucretius and Pope. It is manifestations of abstract thought of this kind—in its many forms—that will concern me.
Why do I claim that abstract thought is unavoidable in poetry? What is meant by abstract thought? An important contrast is between abstract and particular. The particular is not the same as the personal. General terms are abstract in contrast to singular terms. Predicative expressions, in nominal forms, standing for qualities, ideas or concepts, such as “redness,”“squareness,”“wisdom,”“democracy,” and “transcendental idealism,” are abstract. But then so too are general terms such as “good,”“high,” and “brave,” which stand not for things but for what things have in common. A general term can in principle have multiple instantiations. Singular terms purport to refer to particular individuals, and are epitomized by proper names: “Sherlock Holmes,”“The White House,”“1976.” (In this context, names and singular terms can be taken as syntactic categories, encompassing names of imagined or fictitious entities as well as names of existent beings.) Many people share the name “John Smith” but such people do not instantiate the name, for there is no concept to instantiate. The name simply has a different referent in each use. Some singular terms, though, do have conceptual content, as in definite descriptions like “the tallest person in the room.” These involve general concepts but purport to identify an individual instantiating a concept rather than just the concept itself. There can be no description without generality and no poetry without description. So poetry, like any discursive writing, cannot avoid the general even in its search for the particular.
Some poems emphasize particularity, rather than abstraction. Take the poem “Flames and Dangling Wire”2 by the Australian poet Robert Gray, which begins like this:
On a highway over the marshland.
Off to one side, the smoke of different fires in a row,
like fingers spread and dragged to smudge.
It is the always-burning dump.
Behind us, the city
driven like stakes into the earth.
A waterbird lifts above this swamp
as a turtle moves on the Galapagos shore.
We turn off down a gravel road,
approaching the dump. All the air wobbles
in some cheap mirror.
There is a fog over the hot sun.
Now the distant buildings are stencilled in the smoke.
And we come to a landscape of tin cans,
of cars like skulls,
that is rolling in its sand dune shapes.
Consider the number of singular terms, in this case definite descriptions: “the smoke of different fires,”“the city,”“the hot sun,”“the distant buildings,”“the smoke.” These expressions purport to identify individual entities. Of course it matters not a bit whether they do so or not in reality. This is an imagined scene, but a scene that imagines particulars. In an interview, the poet has stated:
That's not an experience I ever had. The rubbish dump was from seeing someone's backyard fire or something, . . . I thought I could write about a great rubbish dump. And I'd driven passed them and by putting all these images together from all over the place, who knows where they came from, the images, my attitude to life, began to emerge and I began to discover what I thought about life. . . . The images are a way of relaxing the mind, so that the subconscious mind speaks between them, through them.3
This comment is revealing for the light it sheds on relations between the particular and the abstract in poetry. The importance of the particular in this poem lies in the vivid, disturbing, and highly particularized images. Gray has also stated “I don't write with words, I write with images,” suggesting the priority he gives to the particular. But of course strictly speaking no one can write with images, at least not mental images. Poetic images—the expression of mental images—are indeed in words, presented in language through description. A poem is not a painting, and descriptions, unlike brush strokes, bear conceptual content unavoidably. More than that, when we read descriptions we do not just conjure up images in our minds, we also engage in thought; thought stems from description, and description rests on general terms, ultimately on abstraction. The fact that the thought content of the images is grounded in simile and metaphor does not disguise its predicative nature. The smoke is “like fingers spread and dragged to smudge,” the city is “driven like stakes into the earth,” the air “wobbles,” the distant buildings are “stencilled in the smoke.” These figurative characterizations both heighten our involvement with the images and take us beyond them to reflections on other instantiations of fingers, smudge, stakes, wobbling, and stencilling. The visual engages the conceptual. Connections are made in thought as well as in the imagination.
Here then is our first simple lesson. Even in poems where the particular and the imagistic are dominant, the general or abstract—the universal, one might say—cannot be avoided for that is what description is. Wherever there is propositional content there is conceptualization. But a rather more interesting shift from the particular to the abstract is just round the corner and is manifested in the poet's own account of what he was doing. He tells us that out of the images emerges something more abstract still, something he calls his “attitude to life,” what he “thought about life.” For readers trained in reading poetry this is a natural and important move not just towards the conceptual content of the metaphors and imagery but to some further meaning they embody, to reflection of a more abstract kind, in this case about ourselves, the world we live in, the dangers we face. References elsewhere in the poem to hell, devils, souls, eternity, the future, take us to a level of abstraction—a thematic level—beyond the content of the explicit general terms used. What is offered are not just haunting, hell-like images of a burning rubbish dump but a vision of human life, in decay, burnt out, and in danger.
Abstraction at a thematic level is characteristic of poetry, at least poetry as an art form. In the literary arts there is an expectation of two kinds of content: the immediate content of story or image, the subject of the work, and a broader thematic content that looks beyond particularities. The distinction between subject and theme is familiar and well-illustrated in Robert Gray's poem. The subject is the visit of the poetic speaker to a rubbish dump, the themes are a vision of human life that refers beyond the particularities and somehow generalizes from them.
In this case the themes have to be extracted through inference and interpretation but that is not always the case even with a poet like Gray for whom the immediate and sensuous image is so important. His more recent poem “The Drift of Things” wears its philosophical themes on its sleeve.4 It is surely, in a quite literal sense, a philosophical poem, although, I suggest, of a different kind from the direct discursive mode of De rerum natura or Essay on Man. Here is how the poem begins (it is too long too quote in its entirety):
Things, Berkeley said, are the language of God,
the world that we know is really His thoughts—
which Hume remarked brings us no conviction,
but to me it is almost justified,
for things are worthy of such existence,
of ultimate stature. It often seems
I am listening to them. What could it mean,
that intuition? I think the appeal
is their candour; it's the lack of concern
at being so vulnerable. So we sense
they are present entire. One feels these things
that step through the days with us have the fullness,
at each occasion, of reality.
From the start we are in the world of abstract ideas: concepts like existence, intuition, candour, vulnerability, fullness, reality, are introduced. These are not images. But the very next stanza offers a plethora of images, tumbling out, seemingly unconnected, sweeping the abstractions from our minds:
A jetty in reeds, and clouds on water;
the bus that rides the dust like a surfboard;
a lizard trailed out of a mailbox drum,
inert, all the long-shadowed afternoon;
the planks on mud, from where chickens' pollard
is thrown; a skirmishing of cherry trees
in bloom, with sabres of wind; the looped vines
of sea foam; or trees in an avenue
toward exalted snow—these are each itself
and no other thing.
The “things” that the poet wants to celebrate and explore rush out at us to assert their immediacy and irreducibility. We know from the title—“The Drift of Things”—and from that first philosophical stanza that the subject of the poem is . . . well, things. The rest of the poem oscillates between abstract reflection on things and their vivid realization in images. The poem ends with a sequence of images that are more subdued, more mysterious, less sharply lit, more like “phantoms”:
Behind a shed, low ridges and great clouds;
a gravel lane; pale sun on dusty grass;
the broken palings and the wire netting;
a gate, towards a dimly veined forest;
the canal with swallow. Marvellous phantoms.
No thoughts can approach their attendance here.
Perhaps that final line is a kind of repudiation of philosophy with its “thoughts” confronting but never refuting the poet's “phantoms,” the images that affirm the reality of things.
Nonetheless, there are strong philosophical themes more or less explicitly presented throughout the poem. Let me briefly identify some of these ideas broadly characterized in my own words and give the passages in the poem from which they appear to emerge:
- 1the theme of creation: the Humean-type view that if God created the world he must be “monstrous” or “bored”:The one hundred and sixty million yearsof giant lizards, which spent all their daysravening on each other, must implythe God of this is monstrous, too; or bored,and boring; or suffers crazy nightmares
- 2the theme of skepticism: the idea, recalling naturalized epistemology, that radical skepticism is incompatible with the evolution of the senses:and yet the minute co-ordinationof the senses to nature, cell by cell,has been the sole project of our animalevolution, to now.
- 3the theme of consciousness: the Sartrean idea that there is a gap, however slender, between consciousness (in itself “nothing”) and the world it is conscious of:So consciousness, quicker than thought, is thin;it is a function as thin as nothing.The mind reflects the body to itself:it only can reflect; body responds.
- 4the metaphysical theme of substance and change:If change is real, then qualities must be;and with no Substance in which they adhere,the properties of things are all there is.
- 5the theme of “wordless perception,” perception without description, without conceptual content:The body has its bias, to survive—nothing intrudes between the world and that,but wordless perception takes care of all.
These themes are abstract ideas par excellence, expressed in an abstract and philosophical vocabulary. They weave in and out of the imagery. One thing this engaging work illustrates is how close subject and theme can be, even while keeping the particular and abstract apart. The subject is a poetic speaker absorbed by haunting images, wrestling with deep questions about the very nature of “things,” questions in epistemology and metaphysics; the themes themselves are developed reflections on these questions but more than that explore what it is to be a poet of imagery pressing the limits of poetic art and examining what images can reveal about human interaction with things.
The final stanza begins:
But this is metaphor. No one endures.
What strikes us most of things is their strangeness,
and how speak of that, but through metaphor?
In effect, the poem seems to say, it is the poet's art, that of metaphor or figuration, not philosophy, that can best expose the ineffable and profound strangeness of things. The poem uses the full potentialities of poetry to illustrate the point rather than arguing for it head-on in a direct philosophical treatment either in prose or in Lucretian-style verse.
Let us briefly consider another poem, by the philosopher and poet John Koethe, “The Secret Amplitude.”5 This powerful and moving poem begins “Perhaps the hardest feeling is the one / Of unrealised possibility.” Like Gray's it too contains abstract philosophical content but perhaps one might be less inclined to call it a philosophical poem, if only because it offers no general thesis to contemplate, just ruminations coming in and out of focus. The tightly structured form of the poem is immediately striking: nine equal parts each consisting of ten three-line stanzas, with a varied rhyme scheme. The form itself has a hypnotic effect, heightening the feeling of reflection and forming a calming background to the themes of loss and death, nostalgia and the fragility of meaning in human lives. There is plenty of abstract vocabulary, even reflection on abstraction itself. Thus, in section VI:
What is the abstract, the impersonal?
And are they the same? And whence this grandiose
Geography of a few emotions?
Think of an uninhabited landscape,
With its majesty rendered otiose
By a stranger's poverty of feeling;
Then contemplate that state without a name
In which something formless and inchoate
Stirs in an act of definition, like
A thought becoming conscious of itself,
For which the words are always late, too late.
The motion spreads its state across the sky,
Unburdened by causality and death.
The poem plays with thought-experiments—“contemplate that state without a name”—as in section II, which begins:
Start with the condition of the given:
A room, a backyard, or a city street.
Next construct an idea of heaven
By eliminating the contingent
Accidents that make it seem familiar.
Spanning these polarities—the stringent
Vacuum and the sound of a lawnmower—
Find the everyday experiences
Making up our lives, set on the lower
Branches of the tree of knowledge. Is this
What people mean by living in the world?
There is a nostalgia for the past and reflection on memory where “personal details / Came to mean less to me than the feeling / Of simply having lived them.” Also a yearning for something called “transcendence,” a state where things “melt” not into a viscous meaninglessness but “into shape and significance.” Unlike in Gray's poem there is little overt philosophical statement but rather what might be called a philosophical atmosphere or an atmosphere of philosophical reflection. The poet has written:
I like moving between a very subjective and intimate and personal perspective and a very impersonal sub specie aeternitatis perspective. What I find interesting is the shifting back and forth between those two perspectives and I'll do that within the same poem.6
This idea of oscillating between the personal and impersonal or, as we might say, between an immediate subject and more abstract themes, is a familiar characteristic of a certain kind of poetry. Again it contrasts with the more direct approach of a Lucretius or a Pope who offer little at the subject or personal level.
What general observations are suggested by the appearance of abstract thought in poems of this kind? The first is that much of the abstract content is thematic—whether overtly expressed or merely implied—in a manner peculiar to the literary arts. The relation between a poem and its themes is not the same as the relation of a philosophical work and its conclusions. We might be misled by talking of “support” in both cases. A philosophical work supports its conclusions and a poem supports its themes but they do so in different ways. It is not just that philosophy uses argument whereas poetry rarely argues its themes but rather that poetic themes serve to structure, make sense of, and give coherence to the particularities of the poem's subject. A theme is not adequately supported if it does not in some way put into perspective the developing subject. Nothing like that is true of a philosophical work. In philosophy a conclusion is derived through principles of reasoning. Logic not rhetoric dictates whether the conclusion has adequate support.
In our poetic examples the abstract thought is finely integrated into the imagery or what might more broadly be called the circumstances of the poem. When we reflect on Gray's themes of epistemology or consciousness it is important that we bring to mind, imaginatively, his own examples of “things” in order to grasp the subject details—the accumulating images—that underlie the abstractions: “A jetty in reeds, and clouds on water; / the bus that rides the dust like a surfboard; / a lizard trailed out of a mailbox drum,” etc. Not any list would do; there is not merely a contingent relation between the subject images and the thematic vision arising from them, the vision of the strangeness of things. The themes get their interest and power precisely through emerging out of this vivid presentation of a perceived world. When I earlier identified what I took to be some philosophical themes in Gray's poem I quoted the passages that seemed to suggest those themes. The abstracted thematic content (in my summary) is clearly distinct from the direct poetic content (the words quoted). They cannot be taken to be saying the same thing, nor the one logically derived from the other. That is not the aim of interpretation. The thematic content might better be seen as an emergent property out of the poetic particulars, offering a perspective from which the particulars can be imaginatively conceived, a kind of gestalt which binds the poetic content into a coherent whole. Similarly, the philosophically ruminative atmosphere in Koethe's poem acquires both salience and poignancy through the immediate subject of death and nostalgia.
A second point, about paraphrasability, connects to the first. It is customary to pay lip-service to Cleanth Brooks's “heresy of paraphrase” in poetry but it should not be forgotten that if paraphrase is impossible in poetry it is obligatory in philosophy. There could not be a serious philosophical thesis that could only be expressed in one way or indeed an argument that demanded unique phrasing. This makes philosophical content in poetry problematic, for the way that a poem supports its philosophical themes both determines what those themes are and is part of its allegedly unparaphrasable content. We can, of course, talk about different poems presenting roughly the same themes, expressed in general terms—the strangeness of things, loss, nostalgia—but the support these themes get, as we have seen, derives from the very particularities in the poems that they offer a perspective on. And those particularities, partly because of their imagistic and metaphorical expression, are not paraphrasable, or not readily so. In effect it matters that they are presented in just that way: the content is inextricably linked to the form.
In fact a stronger claim about paraphrasability might be made, namely, that the unparaphrasability of poetry is not just a matter of empirical fact—the fact that time after time poetry seems to resist adequate paraphrase—but rather a demand that poetry makes on poetically sensitive readers.7 It is not that poetry cannot be paraphrased but rather that no reader should accept that a rephrasing of a poem can offer exactly what the poem itself offers. Attention to the finegrainedness of expression—broadly, “form”—is tied up with the very idea of poetry itself.
This in turn suggests an approach to the Lucretius-type cases. If De rerum natura is read—as it might well be—purely as a philosophical exposition of Epicureanism then, like any philosophical system, its claims could be restated in other terms. If, on the other hand, it is read primarily as a work of poetry then a sensitive reader should attend to its precise poetic modes and effects. However, it would be strange indeed to propose such alternative styles of reading for the poems by Gray or Koethe. To read them merely as philosophical statements—paraphrasable in philosophical prose—seems to miss all that is interesting and important about them. It is this difference that encourages the idea that they, unlike De rerum natura, are essentially poetic.
The context specificity of poetic imagery is evidence of a kind of aesthetic particularism in poetry, the view that there are no generalizable principles that systematically link non-aesthetic to aesthetic descriptions.8 The use of the “same” poetic imagery—death as a grim reaper, love as a rose, etc.—in different works never ensures sameness of aesthetic effect. If the very identity of a poetic image is at least partly associated with the aesthetic effect that it generates and if aesthetic effect is hypersensitive to context then any substitution for an image is likely to lose or weaken the gestalt of the whole. Of course if that is right then what is implied is a much tighter conception of poetic “content” than just truth-conditional meaning. But truth-conditional meaning never did sit comfortably with metaphor.
Third, abstract philosophical thought in the kinds of poetry discussed does not make the same claim on our cognitive attention as it does in philosophical writing. Being tied to the particularities of the subject it is offered as a reflection on that subject not as freestanding propositions awaiting some kind of final truth-assessment. A philosophical thesis in a philosophical work must take propositional form and as such is always open to cognitive appraisal. Philosophical themes in poetry might but need not take propositional form. Works can be about despair or transcendence without expressing or implying propositions on these.
When Robert Gray uses explicit propositional forms in apparently philosophical mode—“So consciousness, quicker than thought, is thin; / it is a function as thin as nothing”—it should not just be taken for granted that he is making a philosophical statement about consciousness baldly open to truth-appraisal. There are no arguments in its defence, only those insistent images from which it arises. These poetic themes occupy our minds imaginatively, they are serious and reflective, but they do not invite analytical philosophical debate. With respect to a reader's reflection it doesn't seem to matter whether they take propositional form or not, thus whether they are even candidates for truth.
Sometimes a poem grounded in particularities can seem to set up an argument or advance a hypothesis. Shakespeare's Sonnet 65, for example, for all its intense imagery, is both a “meditation” on the most abstract of subjects, the destructiveness of time, and a hypothesis about how time might be defeated in at least one case.
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer's honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
The “fearful meditation” of the octet, although expressed in interrogative form, is a forceful statement of the decaying power of time with its telling reminder that even the toughest earthly materials—brass, stone, earth, sea, rocks, steel—are vulnerable. In the face of such power what chance of survival can there be for the beauty of the speaker's beloved? The couplet at first seems merely to despair (“O! none”) but then offers some hope that a “miracle” might be possible, that “black ink”[a metonymy for poetry itself] might preserve his love and immortalize his lover's beauty in verse. The force of the “reasoning” in the poem is not in its logic but in its rhetoric. There is no attempt at “proof,” yet there is a compulsion in the constantly changing, piling up metaphors, as if in competition to portray the awesome power of Time: the metaphors of irrational madness (“rage”), of law (“plea,”“action”), of military might (“wrackful siege,”“battering,”“gates of steel”), of stolen treasure (“jewel,”“chest,”“spoil”), and of running (“swift foot”). In this rhetorical context beauty seems to be overwhelmed, making only brief and timid appearances in the guise of a “flower” and “summer's honey breath.”
The theme of Time and mortality and the survival of beauty, although abstract, is not treated philosophically in this poem, in the manner of Gray or Koethe, yet it would be easy enough to express the “hypothesis” in propositional terms, even to weigh its truth: is it true that poetry can survive the ravages of time or that poetic descriptions of beauty can somehow preserve beauty itself? Yet for all the abstractness of the theme it seems curiously irrelevant either to formulate a proposition (a “hypothesis”) or to coldly appraise its truth. The effectiveness or success of the sonnet does not rest on that kind of appraisal. Once again, the poem works well just to the extent that the theme is well supported by the particulars and a scenario is presented with which a reader can sympathize imaginatively. Just these images serve precisely and memorably to advance an engaging “meditation.” There is no call to test an argument or demand more proof.
A fourth point is that philosophical thought in the poetry under consideration is perspectival, integrally attached to a point of view. This connects to the earlier claim emphasizing the peculiar relation of theme to subject. A theme, we saw, emerges from a subject, helps make sense of it, and generalizes from it. But poetic subjects themselves are perspectival. They are the expression of a poetic speaker and it is not merely contingent how the subject is expressed or presented; indeed what the subject is is partially determined by how it is expressed. It is this perspectival nature of poetry that might help motivate the claim that poetry is inimical to abstract thought, taking the paradigmatic poem as personal, sensuous, imagistic, and particular. But on the account given of abstract thought—in terms of conceptual and thematic content—there is no conflict between abstract thought and perspectivalism. The point of view is embedded in the presentation of the subject but the thematic generalizations are not any less abstract for that reason. The perspective of Shelley's “Mont Blanc,” quoted earlier, is deeply personal, whether or not we ascribe the attitudes directly to the author or just to a poetic speaker. The particularities are one person's response to a natural setting to which another person might ascribe no significance. The sublimity of the scene prompts the poet to reflect on his own response and from there to more universal ruminations:
Dizzy Ravine! And when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate phantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of the witch Poesy,
Seeking among the shadows that pass by
Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,
Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast
From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!
Philosophy in contrast is not perspectival in this way. Philosophical conclusions do not arise out of a personal response to particularities. Of course there might be cases where that is true causally or as biographical fact but the conclusions will never gain their validity from resting on the singular point of view of a speaker. Nor is the subject matter of philosophy perspectival either. Different writers can tackle, as we might say, exactly the same subject; exactly the same problem can be addressed by different philosophers.
In poetry it is never the case that poets address exactly the same subject for the subject is defined by the particularities of its presentation. I might use a rubbish dump as a motif in my poem and attempt thereby to express a vision of life but unless I use exactly the same words as Robert Gray—in effect repeat his poem—my poem must be different from his and express ultimately a different vision, albeit one open to some of the same general thematic concepts. In contrast, if I make exactly the same point in philosophy of language that, unknown to me, W. V. O. Quine made fifty years ago then once the origin is acknowledged it doesn't matter which presentation people read. Purely as a statement of a philosophical thesis my words are substitutable for his.
A consequence of the notion that abstract thought in poetry is filtered through a point of view is that readers attend far more closely, and in a different way from philosophy, to the process of thought by which the abstract reflections are arrived at.9 Readers engage imaginatively with the development of ideas in a poem as they unfold through the voice of the speaker. (Note that this holds also for the Lucretius-type cases when the poems are read as poems.) The pattern of thought is dictated by the speaker's presentation of the subject. This movement of thought is evident in Shakespeare's sonnet 65, where the speaker finds more and different metaphors to bring home the destructiveness of Time and pauses twice (“O fearful meditation,” line 9, “O! none,” line 13) as if to take stock of the quandary that confronts him.
Gray's “Flames and Dangling Wire” is literally a physical journey—to and round a burning rubbish dump—but also a journey of revelation, a journey of thought, where the shocking hell-like images acquire ever deeper and more disturbing metaphorical force:
And standing where I see the mirage of the city
I realize I am in the future.
This is how it shall be after men have gone.
. . .
Going on, I notice an old radio, that spills
its dangling wire –
and I realize that somewhere the voices it received
are still travelling,
skidding away, riddled, around the arc of the universe;
and with them, the horse-laughs, and the Chopin
which was the sound of the curtains lifting,
one time, to a coast of light.
In many poems of this kind with first-person speakers—it is true of Koethe's “The Secret Amplitude,” moving backward and forward in time—the imagination of the reader is itself taken on a journey, both through the subject and towards the themes. The process of thought is at least as important as any thought captured in propositional form.
In philosophy readers also follow patterns of thought but they do not need to imagine what it is to be someone—a speaker—engaging in just that process of unfolding ideas. For one thing, as we have seen, the very same arguments could have been put in other ways and often readers of philosophy reconstruct arguments in their own words. Also there is no need for any kind of imaginative projection into a point of view in philosophy. This might be desirable in some cases, but those are the very cases where philosophy begins to merge into poetry.
Finally, there is Plato's problem. For Plato—the Plato of the Republic—poets are deceivers who dress things up seductively to make them look more appealing than they would if put in plain language. Readers are tricked by fancy poetic devices into attributing an authority to the poets that they haven't earned in, as it were, the hard currency of philosophic reasoning. For those who suppose that poetry (as poetry) is an alternative route to philosophical truth, there is something important and worrying in that charge. For we have seen that poetry doesn't characteristically defend its philosophical themes by argument. If we think of the themes as philosophical propositions inviting truth-appraisal then the process by which they are arrived at can readily come to seem insidious. They emerge out of particularities giving shape to subject detail but the particularities are images and fictions of an essentially perspectival nature. The reason we come to think of human life as decaying like a rubbish dump is because we are presented with powerful images of such a dump and a hint that the images carry metaphorical force. Even Shakespeare's sonnet seems to engage a kind of special pleading by piling up metaphors of destructiveness to characterize Time (what became, say, of the healing powers of time or time's role in increasing wisdom?). Such is not the cool reflection of philosophy.
But if what I've said about the relation of poetry to abstract thought is right then much of the sting is taken out of Plato's warning because the roles of abstract thought in philosophy and poetry are seen to be so different. Plato's warning is apt only for those who think of poetry as a vehicle of philosophical truth. There is no need to think that way. Poetry of a philosophical bent, like the poems we have considered, are much more appropriately read as imaginative reflections on philosophical themes, grounded in subject particularities. As such they are profound and engaging but not candidates for independent truth-based scrutiny; the imaginative process of adopting the point of view and thought processes of the poetic speakers is reward enough and can be powerfully moving. Perhaps there is a danger that if our imaginings become too vivid they might turn into beliefs. But we can imagine what the dark side of life is like without adopting it as a standard for living our own lives.
As modes of discourse philosophy and poetry both deal with abstract thought up to and including the thought we characterize as philosophical. Not all poetry has an aspiration to be philosophical. That which does can fulfill the aspiration in different ways. One way is just to philosophize in verse, in the mode of Lucretius and Pope. If philosophical statement is paramount then the poetic form seems incidental and there is no distinctive poetic contribution; such work must submit to philosophical appraisal of the standard kind. Another way—as explored in this essay—is to integrate philosophical reflection into forms more deeply characteristic of poetry, notably those emphasizing particularity of point of view and subject. To read poetry (of any kind) as poetry is to adopt a certain attitude of mind, a receptiveness, among other things, to finegrained expression, the salience of perspective, and the play of images. Reading philosophy as philosophy encourages different expectations and invites different kinds of appraisal. Both modes of reading—indeed both modes of discourse—exercise the mind, both can help develop an outlook on the world, and both engage a realm of abstract ideas. Just because we can find philosophy in poetry should not serve to weaken the distinctiveness of the poetic, as outlined. Poetry might not be essentially sensuous, personal, immediate, or imagistic but those qualities, when present, can offer a unique path to the abstract and the universal.10
This is not to say that attention to the poetic form in these cases is of no interest. The poems might indeed be read primarily “as poetry” and quite what that means is partially the subject of this paper. Pope himself offers entirely pragmatic reasons for writing in verse: “I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons. The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts, so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: the other may seem odd, but it is true: I found I could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions depends on their conciseness” (from Pope's own introduction—“The Design”—to Essay on Man).
In Robert Gray, Grass Script: Selected Earlier Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2001), 42–44.
“In Dialogue with Robert Gray,” Lyn McCredden, Double Dialogues, Issue Five, Summer 2003.
From Robert Gray, Nameless Earth (Manchester: Carcanet, 2006), 47–52.
In John Koethe, Falling Water: Poems (London: Harper Perennial, 1997).
A Conversation with John Koethe in Two Parts, in Cruelest Month: Retrieved October 29, 2007, from http://cruelestmonth.typepad.com/cruelestmonth/2006/05/a_conversation_.html.
The point is developed in my “The Elusiveness of Poetic Meaning,”Ratio (forthcoming).
See Frank Sibley, “Aesthetic Concepts,” in Approach to Aesthetics: Collected Papers, ed. John Benson, Betty Redfern & Jeremy Roxbee Cox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).
The point is further developed, and illustrated, by Mark W. Rowe in “Poetry and Abstraction,”British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (1996): 7.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at two conferences: “Poets Reading Philosophy, Philosophers Reading Poetry” at the University of Warwick in October 2007, and a workshop on “Metaphor, Poetry and Paraphrase” at the University of Oslo in November 2007. I have benefited from the comments of participants at both meetings and it was a special pleasure, at the former, to discuss poetry with the poets Robert Gray and John Koethe. I am most grateful to Eileen John and Ernie Lepore for their invitations to speak at these meetings.