Tag Archives: poetry

A Look at Unfashionable Philosophy

“Wittgenstein and Barfield disagree on a number of important matters; Barfield wrote that Wittgenstein never attempted historical analysis, and was therefore missing the proper foundation for evaluating language. Curiously, though, they also seem to share some significant ground. Barfield’s understanding of metaphor seems to mirror some of the claims that Wittgenstein makes about ostensive definition, though Barfield would claim that a poet (or, to use Wittgenstein’s language, one who has been inducted into the game of poetry) is able to glean a deeper insight from poetry than Wittgenstein would be willing to allow.”

The Thick of Things

It can be well worth one’s time to read unfashionable philosophy, and doubly so when one is able to read it with a mindfulness of the thinkers that are being celebrated in the modern day. When one does this, questions about the provenance of ideas and human capacities that tend to be held just beneath the surface are able to shoot up into view. Good ideas, and good questions, can be found in many places, and reading those people who are not the toast of the modern academy is an excellent way to be reminded of that fact. This essay puts together two men, one fashionable and the other not, who lived in the same period and, for most of their lives, lived in the same country.

As far as I am aware, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Owen Barfield never met. Barfield knew of Wittgenstein, and mentioned him briefly in one of his essays, but I…

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Tavern Song

And this I know: whether the one True Light,
Kindle to Love, or Wrath consume me quite,
One glimpse of It within the Tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.

— LVI, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám 

Happy G.K. Chesterton on Sad William Cowper

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton begins an illuminating passage on madness, predestination, reason, and poetry with some observations about the English poet William Cowper:

“[O]nly one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

Auden Explains Poetry, Propaganda, And Reporting

“Poetry is speech at its most personal, the most intimate of dialogues. A poem does not come to life until a reader makes his response to the words written by the poet.

“Propaganda is a monologue which seeks not a response but an echo. To recognize this is not to condemn all propaganda as such. Propaganda is a necessity of all human social life. But to fail to recognize the difference between poetry and propaganda does untold mischief to both: poetry loses its value and propaganda its effectiveness.

“Whatever real social evil exists, poetry, or any of the arts for that matter, is useless as a weapon. Aside from direct political action, the only weapon is factual reportage—photographs, statistics, eyewitness reports.”

—W.H. Auden, in “A Short Defense of Poetry,” an address given at the International PEN Conference in Budapest, October 1967

‘We are symbols and inhabit symbols’

“We are symbols and inhabit symbols; workmen, work, and tools, words and things, birth and death, all are emblems; but we sympathize with the symbols, and being infatuated with the economical use of things, we do not know that they are thoughts.” — Emerson, in “The Poet”

To clarify a little bit, a symbol is fully itself, and it stands for something else.

‘East Coker’

Two excerpts for Good Friday from “East Coker” in The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot:

 The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Allusions and delusions

Poems, songs, and sermons often allude to things the writer believes to be already known by the audience.

Allusions are simply indirect references. In its oldest sense, an allusion was an indirect reference to classical or biblical literature.

So, at the beginning of Hamlet, the prince compares his dead father to Hyperion and his uncle to a satyr. These are allusions to Greek mythology.

And, toward the end of Hamlet, the prince says, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” There, Hamlet is alluding to Jesus’s words in The Gospel of Matthew 10:29-30.

Shakespeare wrote in a time when, as he assumed, most of his audience would have some familiarity with both ancient pagan mythology and the Bible.

But, a writer can’t always control the makeup of the audience.

A quick example: While I’m a fan of T.S. Eliot for particular reasons, he wrote some poems that cannot be understood without a classical education and a broad reading experience. Sometimes, Eliot is just “over my head.”

His Anglo-Catholic point of view might have made some of his Christian poems just as opaque as some of his other works.

Eliot’s work was full of literary allusions, and I’m sure those references have made for some wild interpretations that would amuse Eliot and horrify him.

Those allusions could lead to nearly delusional interpretations in the minds of those who are not prepared to read them.

While a writer might have a specific audience in mind, she is probably not worried about keeping people out of the audience.

So when someone “sneaks in,” so to speak, the reader might find himself confused, insulted, exasperated, baffled, or mortified by what has been written, sung, or spoken, because the allusions don’t make sense.

The difficulty for the individual reader is to know when she has really misunderstood something.

For example, the first time I read them, I did not understand William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” or, in a different stream, Russell Edson’s prose poems.

But now that I’ve learned a bit more and spent a bit more time with those literary works, I at least can say I’ve started to understand what these writers were trying to accomplish.

I would not ask you to like those poems, and I would only discuss them with you if you had already expressed an interest in the writers, the works, or related matters. They’re quite different within the body of available poems. “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Edson’s prose poems aren’t for everyone — and few writers should even try to be for everyone.

If someone else “sneaks in” and noisily announces his confusion, insulted-ness, exasperation, bafflement, or mortification, well, that’s the risk the writer takes. The writer just hopes he can reach his intended audience.