poem is where mind goes

what you cannot say, sigh
what you cannot sigh, sing
what you cannot sing, dance

mind the world like wind on water

As a philosopher and as a poet, I find myself repeatedly drawn back to questions about what poetry and philosophy are doing – and why so many people who do them think they are doing such radically different things. When poets describe those things, their descriptions are often variations on a theme: poetry is concrete, philosophy is abstract. That strikes me as thoroughly wrong-headed, especially when I come to suspect that the poet who says it believes s/he is diving into reality while the philosopher is abstracting from it. That would make it easier for those of us who do both if it set us to work on philosophy when we’re pulling out and poetry when we’re ready to go back in. But I don’t find that at all satisfying, and I don’t believe it is accurate. There is no “out”: we are in medias res.

The relationship between concrete and abstract is also of interest to me as a visual artist, particularly as both relate to representation. One of the most interesting things about “abstraction” is that it is often seen (in programming, for example) as stripping away redundancies and inessentials (thus simplifying) in order to facilitate work with matters of greater complexity. “Abstraction” enables treatment of complex objects as though they were simple, which feeds into another common way of speaking about it (alluded to in the previous paragraph) as stepping back (as though abstraction consisted of stepping back from the concrete to something more distant, less immediate, and perhaps a little less messy). There is some utility in speaking this way; but, especially when it gets entangled with questions of representation, speaking this way can introduce a great deal of confusion. (And it can also lose track of what folk wisdom has long maintained – that both god and the devil are in the details.)

In my reading of Plato (who is sometimes accused of starting this argument), I’ve been fascinated by the fact that, in the Republic, he was a poet exiling poetry in a poem. That strikes me as a pretty good joke – and a self–consuming artifact to boot; and systems that call themselves into question (as jokes often do) are probably the best antidote for the grand systems of philosophers. I’ve never been convinced that philosophical knowledge should be anything other than practical. It is a practice, and, as a practice, it is as intimately concerned with both making and doing as with thinking. (And I don’t think any of those three can be entirely disentangled from the concrete: matter matters when one is engaged in any or all of them.)

When philosophers build systems, they abstract. But philosophical practice is (or can be) as concrete as the practice of poetry (particularly when, as in Kierkegaard – who called himself “a kind of poet” – or Unamuno, it is systematically antisystematic). Engaging the world, we find ourselves in a rhythm of concrete and abstract, and that is reflected in the play of our language, in the music of it. It is also reflected in the objects and activities we embrace (and sometimes set aside) as art (bearing in mind that “we” is a fluid collective and that any given “I” is unlikely to mean the same thing by “we” every time s/he uses it).

Plato most famously pitted philosophy against poetry in the Republic, but the supposedly less serious (and certainly less familiar) conversation in Ion is intriguing for what it suggests about performance. By the time Plato writes, the performer of poetry has largely separated from the composer of poetry. Ion is an extreme instance of a performer for whom the only composer that matters is Homer. But Plato (or the Socrates of Plato) is intensely interested in putting performance and composition together again, as we see in the composition of one conversation after another in his work. The just city of the Republic needs just citizens, and citizens who go through motions to please a crowd (or a crowd of judges) are not just citizens. They are the reason cities degenerate, and Ion, more than the characters in the Republic, is their poster child.

In the Republic, Plato inscribes suspicion of lyric poets (and lyric moments in epic and tragedy) because they tend to get carried away – and in getting carried away, they tend to sweep audiences off their feet. The Plato of the Republic wants nothing more than citizens with feet firmly on the ground. He seems convinced, paradoxically, that his best hope is a city constructed in imagination that will turn the soul of its hearers to the practice of a city constructed in reality – a city in air to ground us. His linguistic experiment is marked by ulteriority. To confuse this city with the just city would be akin to confusing map with territory. Anyone who so confused the two would never get off the ground with Socrates or the poets. But the map might just point the way. And that is why philosophers must keep an eye on poets who, in bursts of lyric insight, also point and for whom, dangerously, the point is an invitation.

Because philosophy has long connected reason with what is necessary, a major concern of any philosophical practice is finding what is necessary and distinguishing it from what is not. Plato’s conversational experiment in the Republic is apophatic. Coming over and over again to what is not justice reveals a shadow of what is. The revelation occurs in the process of probing limits to see if they are indeed limits. It is a kind of mapping. We find necessaries by constructing possibles where we are. Possible worlds on edges of existing worlds put our ideas on edge and give us an idea of where we find the edges here, now. Without that, we can only imitate possibles and have no idea how – in Plato’s image – to divide at the joints.

Plato, a practical soul, had his doubts about people who have “seen the light.” But Ion suggests that he had even greater doubts about those content to imitate those they believe have. Neither philosophy nor poetry is simply content with the pleasure of ulteriority, though both take pleasure in it. Ulteriority is an aspect of getting clear – and that needs, not a master, but mastery, which is a practice. It is a practice of seeing not only what is there but also what is not (under the form of the possible), and that is a practice in which poetry and philosophy embrace – not one after the other, but together as a knowing – a science – that might just see through appearance and, as the saying goes, get real.

Thinking about thinking (which is, by the way, a practice), I return again and again to the image (often associated with William James) of the stream of consciousness, which, like the flight of a bird, is punctuated by moments of rest – perchings. That these perchings are not “permanent” brings to mind the last stanza of Victor Hugo’s “Dans l’eglise de…

Be like a bird who, perched for a time
on twigs too fine,
feels the branch bend but still sings,
knowing that she has wings.

What I gather here – poetry, philosophy, and painting – I offer as “perchings.” I hope, on occasion, they offer reason to sing.

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