Thursday, October 06, 2005

I should be writing about West's The Day of the Locust, but I'm seduced back into The Borg by the discussion about poetry and philosophy Ange spurred here, here and here.

Most of what I wanted to say has been said already, but there are a couple of points that I think are worth making. Like everyone else, it seems, I'm intrigued by the idea (er, non-idea) of doing Plato one back, and kicking him out of the Republic. A life without ideas, life perhaps become its own best idea, sound nice right about now. But I waver, here, too. At the risk of sounding like I'm feeing poetry to the dogs of philosophical ideation, (and noting that this is probably a variation on Jane's point), I'm not sure it's really possible to get away, ever, from ideas, although I admire a good philophical escape-artist as much as any other kind of artist. Even when O'Hara writes, in the most quotable manifesto of all time, "when I get lofty enough I've stopped thinking and that's when refreshment arrives" we certainly all of us agree, and cheer, and perhaps feel relieved from the burden of making good sense, and good citizens, but this is an idea, too, an idea that poetry results is the termination of ideas, of thinking. It's just not an idea that's all that portable; it needs to be performed in the poems themselves, as Ange does in certain poems from Starred Wire like "Imaginary Standard Distance" and "Poetry as Scholarship," where she tenderly pokes fun at the attempt to proceed from axioms or make "life . . . a thesis." Stressing sense and affect and the jouissance of the text is an idea, it's just one that poetry is probably better suited to convey than certain philosophical modes--which is why some of the best idea-workers--Nietsczhe, Barthes, Kierkegaard, Benjamin, etc.--are poets in their own right. So, I think Chris is correct in saying that the distinction needs to be refined: looking at the different kinds of questions posed/arguments conducted in poetry and philosophy is one way, but I also think we could distinguish between methods--poetry is much more likely to perform or enact an argument rather than communicate it, and much more likely to take the fight to the streets, literalize it, think it through in sense-data and affects and experience. Form, I guess, is the difference: philosophy is much less likely to think in form, and when it does I become tempted not only to admire it more but to call it poetry.

Of course, Ange's right--I myself reserve the right to be a sophist, to contradict myself, to refuse systems, and summaries and paraphrases, to choose questions over answers. But then, again, so do many thinkers. Choosing to be a sophist is itself an idea about ideas, about their relevance, their proper place in the scheme of things. . . This is, I think, what Ange was getting at with her remarks about risk the other day (which sound like, umm, Nietschze?)--ideas as theatre, as sketchy provisos, tentative and expedient means to an end but no ends-in-and-of themselves.

So even though I like to write about poetry and think about it thinking aboutlessly, this is where a reviewer might go wrong in assigning the relationship between poetry and ideas, expecting to find a portable or didactic or disembodied idea in a poem or book of poems. With something like Fourier Series, which clearly puts so much energy into form, and formal thinking, it's a real mistake to critique its "message" or "argument" without checking that content against the more "sedimented content" of the form. Fourier Series, to my mind, with its grids and sections and lyrical juxtapositions, is all about dialectic and a certain dialectical irony. I would be hesistant to accuse any section of imperialist rhetoric without seeing how such rhetoric might be ironized or undone by an adjacent moment. Perhaps that's what McSweeney meant, that she wanted to see these ironies made clearer or more vivid. That's a fair request. But it did sound from her as if she wanted Josh to put a little note at the bottom stating his political sentiments vis-a-vis "manifest destiny" as it is embodied by Wayne and westerns.

It may be a bad idea to ask poetry to tell us what to think. But poetry can allow a rich occasion, a rich site, for thought. In the end, that's why something that's orientalist or imperialist or sexist or whatnot has a place in poetry that it doesn't really have elsewhere--poems allow us the opportunity to think through these things ourselves. If McSweeney felt she didn't get to do much thinking through of ideas, just idea-listening, fine; that's an OK critique. I, on the other hand, did a good deal of thinking and feeling and sensing, and sometimes all three at once.

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