Monday, October 17, 2005

Sorry for the Long Absence

Yet another week went by without a post.

Mostly I've been trying to keep myself above water with Robert's impending medical issues, my own school work, and a consulting project.

Is poetry a form of philosophy? Have I raised this issue here before? That's an old argument that dates back to Cicero and further back to Plato. The philosophers versus the rhetoricians. Back in the day when 'poetry' meant fiction. The philosophers think their art is superior to that of the rhetoricians (what most ancient writers, and writers into the Renaissance base their art upon, what we might now call 'craft') because they get at eternal truths, because their art is more serious, because they don't deal with the emotions. The rhetoricians think their art is superior to the philosophers because they can effect real change in the world, because they can persuade others of things, because they are focused on the construction of their pieces as artistic wholes.

Plato, of course, thinks poetry is bullshit. See "Ion" in which he says that poetry is nothing more than emotions unhinged. In "The Republic" he talks about the relationship of poetry to fiction and why fiction is basically evil. Oh, but Plato is sort of a fascist. He is rather concerned with legislating human behavior and creating a system in which people behave in an ideal fashion--which is basically one of the points of philosophy, to locate the 'ideal' and realize it. If you think about it, the Republican part of Newt Gingrich, George Bush, Pat Robertson, etc., is a lot like Plato.

Aristotle is much more sane. There are extremes, there is a mean between them. It is best to find the mean to persuade others of your point of view. The most important criterion of an argument, a play, a poem, is its construction, and its construction is relative to the material being presented, to the audience, and to the speaker. What is important to Aristotle is craft and its proper enactment. Aristotle is a liberal.

Wallace Stevens is somewhere between the two. You get that smug sense of righteousness in just about everything that Stevens writes. But it's tempered with an exacting craft. Is determining eternal truths important to Stevens? I don't know. I just argued that "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" was about indeterminacy and multiplicity, despite the vast critical expenditure of hot air on fixing a meaning or a philosophy to it like a pin through a bug.

I've been drawn to "The Plain Sense of Things" most of my life. It lacks the smug superiority that you find so often in Stevens' voice. It is philosophical, I suppose, but it undercuts itself repeatedly. Grand dreams reduced to a ruined house, the pond and 'its waste of the lilies'. The poem suggests a kind of ashes to ashes, dust to dust kind of thing, which is inherently boring and not telling us anything that we don't know: 'a fantastic effort has failed, a repetition / In a repetitiousness of men and flies.' Yes, men. And flies.

The thing that attracts me to this poem is the way in which the voice includes the reader: 'we return / To a plain sense of things. It is as if / We had come to an end of the imagination . . .' I suppose the 'we' could be the speaker and companion(s), but the 'we' is just used as an opening gambit in the poem--it is dropped after the first stanza. This inclusion of the reader makes the end of empire, the end of dreams, the end of whatever so much less of a voyeuristic enterprise on the part of the reader--this will happen to you, too, Stevens seems to be saying--not just death, but the prospect of ruin. Or it mocks our inherent voyeurism. Because we are all voyeurs--to the hurricane, to death and destruction, to robberies, rapes, murders, the presidential elections--we watch and watch. What else is there to do?
We are all like the 'rat come out to see, / The great pond and its waste of the lilies'.

And Stevens mitigates his tendencies toward smug aphorism here, too. He actually admits, 'It is difficult even to choose the adjective / For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.' His focus on the idea of imagination, but less so on the act of imagining seems also a nod to defeat on his part.

Am I in a bad mood? Yes. You know you're in a bad mood when it's going to be 70-75 all week (and sunny) and that pisses you off because you're tired of warm weather in October. I'm off to adjust my mental attitude. See you later.

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