Can the dialectic between poetry and philosophy resolve itself into some kind of Hegelian synthesis? It seems the efforts of Plato and Aristotle to cast a suspicious eye on the value of poetry, or to taxonomize it, was at least in part a reaction to the assumption that the two were naturally conflated (Homer being the poetic titan with whom ancient philosophers had to contend). And so a line was drawn, with poetry being the more human intellectual expression and philosophy being the most divine.
Sir Philip Sidney, nearly two millennia later, makes an effort to turn this on its head, writing, “All philosophers (natural and moral) follow nature, but only the poet…does grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than nature brings forth, or, quite anew…” So the poet is both an imitator and a creator; the philosopher may not be an imitator, but he doesn’t get to create either. Furthermore, poets get to create something better than nature, which is, perhaps, not terribly sensitive to the astonishing complexity of the natural world, but c’est comme ca. And so Sidney attempts to reverse the hierarchy of the species:
Eventually, it seems, even philosophers gave up arguing for the primacy of philosophy, as Wittgenstein remarks that, “philosophy should only be written as a kind of poetry,” a comment that I’ve heard echoed at least a dozen times by at least a dozen different poets, often with an underlying sense of satisfaction or relief. I have no idea if the philosophy community even cares about this debate any longer, except insofar as philosophy has branched itself into poetics, and the poetry community by and large seems content to let this current model stand. Poetry is philosophy but, you know, prettier, or stranger, or more abstract, so what if the actual thinking in our poems is not, at times, particularly impressive or profound? While poetry, to be clear, is certainly very capable of eunoia, if a poet wants to do the work of philosophy (which is not to say all poets should or do), shouldn’t he or she at least make a serious effort to think as rigorously as possible?
This question, having haunted me for some time, felt temporarily assuaged when I came across a small collection of poems by Liz Waldner, called Trust, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Competition. This book foregrounds poetry as a thinking art with impressive intensity and historical scope, weaving through Platonic thought and biblical texts, marrying metaphysics, philosophy, and poetry in a way that is neither dogmatic nor obsequious, neither dismissive nor smug. This book takes philosophy seriously, but not to the exclusion of experience, emotion, or poetry.
Waldner begins her seventh collection of poems with a short poem that strikes me as a uniquely apt and elegant example of the integration of poetry and philosophy. “Truth, Beauty, Tree,” epigraphs itself with a passage from Plato’s Symposium, which lays the foundation of thought for the poem: “…only when he discerns beauty itself through what makes it visible will he be quickened with true virtue.” At issue in this poem is the Platonic notion of virtue (areté), which is determined by the optimal functioning of a thing (so, for example, we would say that a virtuous knife is one that cuts well). The poem reads:
Such embroidery of the green
Body. The sky
Is a beautiful wound
In it. I
Would like this not to be
True but it is.
Nor is it useful—like the eye
Itself the sight
We hope to see through (to)
The poem does not act as exegesis of the Symposium passage, exactly, but more like intelligent reverie set against the backdrop of the notion of beauty as virtue (but not just “beauty” in particular; the form of beauty, that beauty of which all beautiful things partake). “Nor is it useful” challenges the idea that beauty is indeed virtuous (that is, fulfilling of its perfect function); in fact, the poem seems to argue that beauty’s virtue lies in its lack of utility.
Of course, “function” and “utility” are not quite the same things: the function of beauty, in a Platonic sense, is to direct our minds toward the divine. Whether or not this is its utility is another question. What is the utility, for example, of the staggered rhyme of “sky,” “I” and “eye” (which slants into “sight”), or the slanted rhyme of “green” and “be”? And yet, these sounds do have function; these sounds create a sonic tapestry that contributes to the feeling of reverie, in addition to drawing attention to the relationship between “eye” and “I” and both to “sight” (see below), as well as preparing us for the idea that the “eye”/”I” looks towards expanse (“sky”). It is this kind of work on the level of sound that reminds us of the unique work that poetry does and can do, as do the lacunae between lines and within lines (Body. The sky). This isn’t philosophical summary, but an artful thinking with.
Waldner terminates the poem, “like the eye/ Itself the sight/We hope to see through (to)/Always.” The eye, like beauty, becomes its function (if it does not see is it an eye? Or the material that becomes an eye when it has sight?). The hinge of ambiguity in the last two lines poses the question: do we see through eternity as a mirage/illusion, or is it that, as Plato argues, we can see through whatever mirage/illusion we are looking at to eternity? Waldner does not fix us with a preference, but poses the question with subtlety of expression.
A number of poems in Trust take up Platonic themes, not to rehash what Plato already hashed out at some length (and many, many philosophers after), but to provide a possible lens through which we might begin to understand the complex experience of a life. These poems neither hold Plato’s thought on a pedestal nor do they dismiss it out right:
Is the slave
Of the visible;
Is shackled by
When at night
Your eyelids fall—
You must believe me—
The book beside
Your pillow sighs,
These lines begin by inverting the Allegory of the Cave, which suggests that our eyes are shackled by the visible, and the visible is the slave of fire, as it cannot exist without the fire that makes its shadows. Here, Waldner has us asking how we make the world a prisoner by our perception of it. These images are then followed by a tender moment in which the book expresses relief that the reader is resting. What does this suggest? That literature itself is tired of our constant searching? And if we remember the Allegory, we know that the eyes/light are redirected toward the good; and yet here, we feel an intense exhaustion about the whole endeavor.
Most of these poems are intellectually engaging, though not all to the same extent. Waldner indulges her funny bone in a poem called “The Au Pair Girl’s Speech” in a way that is certainly clever and playful, but didn’t inspire the same intensity of thinking in me as a reader. The poem begins:
Her secretary recorded it:
“Avocacro, alligator, palm;
for Monsier Stevens a squamous psalm.”
Peeling Wallace with her tongue
The Lizard allows as how she knows a way
A shady way to say alway…
The clipping of “always” to force a rhyme with “way” is funny, but I had the feeling that I was missing something, other than that the poem was paying homage to Wallace Steven’s own riotously silly poems, like “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Elsewhere, a similar moment, where the sounds of words seem to joke with themselves:
Mr. Jing-a-ling, how you ring-a-ling,
keeper of the keys…Married to the maker
of The Key to All Mythologies—Miss Bronte,
how could you do it to Dorothea?
Again, I feel as though I might be missing something. Is the poet mistaking Bronte for George Elliot, in whose Middlemarch Dorothea is married to a man who writes The Key to All Mythologies, or is this simply a continuation of the non-logic of “ring-a-ling”? In other words, is she teasing us? And is this silly song specifically intended to remind us of how texts become garbled in the minds of those who spend too much time looking for answers in libraries? In other words, does it have a constructive function in the poem? Is it virtuous?
While it may be strange to think of a poem as a virtuous art object, it is less strange to think of its parts as functioning (just as one might feel strange saying that a person is virtuously functioning, but we might say that their mind is sharp or their hands capable of picking up a pair of glasses). That said, areté does not simply designate function but optimal function. And as a reader, it is difficult if not impossible to say whether a line, image, sound, etc. functions optimally, since we can’t conceive of all the other possible lines or images the poet might have employed. So instead we simply ask what the poem is doing, and whether or not the parts contribute to this effort. It’s not virtue, exactly, but it may be as close as we’re gonna get.
Which returns us to the poem at hand. The lines quoted above interrupt a longer poem in which the speaker leaves a library, thinks about Euclid, and remembers “Daphne in Albuquerque” recounting the story of the shoemaker’s elves as they “waited for doctors/to come collect from her body/signs of its rape.” The question implied by the juxtaposition of the library, Euclid, the myth of the shoemaker and the violent rape of Daphne (who herself recalls the story of a woman who tried to run) is whether or not these stories, geometry, or the vast stores of libraries prepare us to deal with something as starkly, oppressively violent as rape. “I want the key,” the speaker says; and reading this, I want her to have it, though I am forced to admit that it may not hide in Euclid’s pocket. And if not there, perhaps not in philosophy either, not in the libraries, though the poem ends with an affecting determination to continue the search: “I hurry when it starts to rain—/ but, okay, it’s stains you can read.”
On some level, trust is at the very center of the issue of the search for meaning in text (and I don’t necessarily mean didactic meaning)—the trust that a poet has to afford her poems, the trust that a reader has to afford the writer, or a trust on the part of both writer and reader that somewhere, somehow, ideas like truth and beauty will yield something if we continue to read, despite the blur of rain. This is the ancient promise of philosophy (whether or not it has consistently delivered), and Waldner’s Trust supplicates this promise in the form of poems that ask philosophy, theology, literature, etc. to answer to the violence and difficulty we live with day after day.
Waldner offers poetry that is not so much concerned with hierarchies of poetry and philosophy as much as the possibility of sublimation, such that these two endeavors almost holographically fold into one another. Just as the empirical properties of light cannot be explained if it is considered to be a wave or particle, but must be considered both, neither can poetry be considered either a formal/material/emotional expression or a philosophical one. It is capable of being all of these, which is perhaps what distinguishes it as an intellectual endeavor, and an artistic one, at its very best.