since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
e. e. cummings (1926)
Plato famously set the challenge, in the Republic, for poets and lovers of poetry to defend poetry and its contribution for a well-governed society, if poetry is to “return from exile”:
But nevertheless let it be declared that, if the mimetic and dulcet poetry can show any reason for her existence in a well-governed state, we would gladly admit her, since we ourselves are very conscious of her spell. But all the same it would be impious to betray what we believe to be the truth. Is not that so, friend? Do not you yourself feel her magic and especially when Homer is her interpreter?
Then may she not justly return from this exile after she has pleaded her defence, whether in lyric or other measure?
By all means.
And we would allow her advocates who are not poets but lovers of poetry to plead her cause in prose without meter, and show that she is not only delightful but beneficial to orderly government and all the life of man. And we shall listen benevolently, for it will be clear gain for us if it can be shown that she bestows not only pleasure but benefit.
The direct defence of poetry has been undertaken by many writers, most effectively, perhaps, or at least most famously, by Sir Phillip Sidney (The Defence of Poesy, c. 1580), Wordsworth (“Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, 1802), and Shelley (A Defence of Poetry, 1890). But as with the majority of controversies, the antagonism between poetry and many philosophers has continued, more or less openly, more or less politely, until the present day. The pleasure poetry affords is viewed with suspicion: is it of a good or bad sort? Is it virtuous or vicious? How much of it should we take? (Recall Plato on judging the goodness and badness of people: “Yes, for great is the struggle, I said, dear Glaucon, a far greater contest than we think it, that determines whether a man prove good or bad”.) This is a question—the goodness or badness of poetry—that any philosophy of poetry must attempt to answer. And, as usual, the answer is not without consequences. Hence getting the matter right is important. However, given the difficulty and variety of the issues involved (in the case of poetry, intentions, feelings, emotions, the imagination, pleasure, beauty, subjectivity, interpretation…), the topic is rather intractable and the risk of error high. No surprise, then, that the editor of this volume, John Gibson, claims in the Introduction that “until very recently one could fairly say that poetry is the last great unexplored frontier in contemporary analytic aesthetics, an ancient and central art we have somehow managed to overlook more or less entirely” (p. 1). The Philosophy of Poetry is therefore very good news.
Despite the news being good, we may disagree with some of its approaches, attitudes, choices, and claims. One of the claims I dispute, which is discussed at some length, and given some importance, is made by Gibson in the Introduction, regarding the naïve reading of poetry (before modernism) which allegedly is no longer a viable option since modernism; and this is said to reveal an important feature of modern poetry and, crucially, of poetry in general. Let me explain Gibson’s point and why I believe it involves a mistake.
Before modernism, Gibson claims, poetry reading exhibited “narrativising tendencies”: “one of the basic habits of naïve reading is to approach a poem as always implying a narrative, and so as calling on the reader to unearth the story it suggests, and this has a very nasty habit of occluding the more radical, and artistically significant, manners in which poetry can engage with thought, feeling, and life” (p. 8). Whereas modernism “abandons to a great extent just about everything that makes naïve reading possible, and herein lies much of its fabled difficulty” (p. 7). In short, modernism discourages readers from fictionalising poems, and for Gibson this is progress, as naïve reading is a bad habit. Does it? Is it?
Gibson explains his view by suggesting that modernist poetry usually requires “scrutiny” to be minimally understood: “To achieve even minimal understanding of much modernist poetry, we very frequently must treat a poem not merely as an object of aesthetic interest but, before this is even possible, as an object of scrutiny, which is one thing naïve reading will not tolerate” (p. 8). I agree that reading poetry involves a form of scrutiny, of apprehension of form and meaning, but this was true in pre-modernist poetry reading as well: before modernism (even granting that “narrativisation” is the traditional mode of reading) poems were scrutinised, investigated, not simply made into a coherent “story” (and “story” must be understood in a lose sense). If modernist poems appear as more difficult than traditional poems (and some indeed are more difficult), that fact is what determines the required reading: it is the difficulty of the poem that invites more complex and detailed scrutiny for a minimal understanding, which a more naïve reading, per se, will not afford. So pre-modernist and modernist poems are not different in kind with regards to the reading they promote: simply, we may not get as far in a naïve reading of a modernist poem as we get (usually) in a traditional poem. But the difference is in the poems themselves, as it is the poems that demand their own mode of reading; and it is a difference of degree (of difficulty): the more difficult the poem, the harder it is to understand and appreciate it, and so the less naïve the reader can be. However, the reading of such difficult poetry still involves, pace Gibson, an attribution of some form of coherence, of a “story”. Reading still consists, and I claim it always will, in that activity of “making sense”, modernism did not bring any change in this respect.
What Gibson wishes to emphasize is that reading modernist poetry requires some more knowledge from the reader, and more thought, because the poetry tends to be more complex. What I wish to claim, in reply, is that such complexity, even when it is increased, does not require a new, special, way of reading, but merely a sophistication of the old ways. We may need to be less naïve these days to minimally understand some modern poetry, that is, perhaps we need to be more philosophical, but the general attitude poems invite, at the outset, is still the same: an attitude of wonder and inquiry, of trying to make sense of a poem, of scrutinizing its aesthetic dimension (its goodness as a poem), its poetic meaning.
So Gibson is mistaken, I think, when he claims that “in stripping away all that is essential to naïve reading, the modernist poet brings us closer to what poetry has really always been” (p. 10). Modernist poetry does not depart radically from tradition—and it still invites the same old attitude of creating a minimally coherent “story”. Modernist poetry brings poetry closer to what it has really always been by exactly pointing to the inevitability of such attitude towards a poetic work. It is a mistake to see modern reading as stripped of it.
But Gibson is right when he claims that “the difficult modern poem gives us that, and only that, which has ever mattered to poetry and thus […] through the modern poem we learn something important about how to read poetry in general” (ibid.). What we learn is not, however, what Gibson claims we do: that we need to revise the “fictional narratives” (p. 11) we construe when we read poetry; instead, we learn that making sense of poems, creating a minimally coherent “story” of them, being in wonder, is how we have always begun to read poetry and how we will always begin. Of course, then we rethink, sophisticate, refine our perceptions, but to read a poem as a poem we need to make a “story”, to consider it and appreciate it as a coherent whole.
The volume includes eleven very interesting essays which focus mainly on issues around the meaning of poetry (and in particular its opacity, density, and complexity), as one would expect from analytic philosophers and critics at the present day. And the authors offer, for the most part, modern and contemporary examples of poetry. For reasons of necessary brevity, I shall refer only, and succinctly, to three of these essays.
Peter Lamarque’s “Semantic Finegrainedness and Poetic Value” asks the following question: “why should writing of this kind that is dense, complex, and resistant to ready understanding have value” when in other contexts that “lack of clarity” is seen as a defect (p. 19)? Lamarque concludes that the “finegrainedness” of poetry’s language can afford an arguably valuable experience which normal communication does not: “it is part of the poetry game that in poetry we attend to the finegrainedness of language, its textures and intricacies, its opacity, in conveying thought-processes, and we find value in the experience that [it] affords, in precedence over the more humdrum norms of communication, such as transparency, the imparting of information, and the assumption of paraphrasability” (p. 36).
Simon Blackburn’s essay (“Can an Analytic Philosopher Read Poetry?”) addresses a variety of issues pertaining to what philosophy does with language and why poetry matters for philosophy. Let me make only a meta-philosophical comment of agreement with the project (which is ultimately an explanatory and ethical project): philosophy—the reflection about what is wisest to think, care about, and do—is interesting in part for its ability to teach us, to delight us, and to move us to retain or change our views, attitudes, and actions. Philosophy makes us check our beliefs and attitudes, it makes us think and try to find theories and practical solutions that are the best to be held. Our hope for progress, however, has its risks: if we are not careful, and in particular if we do not understand the relevant aspects, we can go astray in our conclusions. Since we never understand all things completely, the risk of error is high. Often we will make mistakes. Of course, where there is evident need for action, taking such risk is necessary, as doing (or saying) nothing is in itself an attitude (a passive attitude can, for instance, be mistaken, innocent, or silly). Blackburn puts this danger eloquently in the sentence: “Silence itself has implications, and often very potent ones” (p. 122). So wisdom is in seeing where we must speak and act, and where, to the contrary, we should be silent and still (as mistaken words can also be harmful). Philosophical problems are therefore a challenge to our perceptual and intellectual capacities (to our wisdom) and this they share with poems.
Roger Scruton’s essay, “Poetry and Truth” (the title is after R. K. Elliott’s homonymous article published in Analysis in 1967), addresses the distinction between poetic and prosaic writing, whereby prosaic language is seen as more “instrumental” (p. 152), whereas poetry is rather non-instrumental, “[t]he effect of poetry [depending] on the way of telling” (p. 153) where the words are used “to create and bestow intrinsic value” (p. 154), although Scruton accepts that the difference is one of degree and that poets sometimes introduce elements of prose in their poems, like T. S. Eliot in the notes for The Waste Land (p. 154). “Poetry transfigures what it touches, so that it is revealed in another way” (154), that is, in poetry truth is understood as “revelation” (154). Sincerity is seen by Scruton as crucial: “Words that can be sincerely uttered show an experience that can be truly felt” (p. 160). The last question Scruton asks is particularly interesting: why create poetry at all? “Why is it so important to us, that we endow the world with meanings?” (p. 161). The answer is Eliot’s: “These poetic moments are, as Eliot teaches us, achievements.” (ibid.) According to Scruton, in conclusion, life of full awareness will bring about and will be able to recognise genuine poetry.
Both poetry and philosophy are concerned with “the syntax of things”. Poetry, if the poet is right, often notices that syntax first, however vaguely and unconsciously, where there is sincere sentiment. But philosophy, if it is to do its work right, with transparency and with no error at the outset (errors of principle do pollute and infect the most well-meaning discussion), will have the last and, hopefully, a wise word. Read carefully, simply, and you will read well.
 Plato, Collected Dialogues. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1961.
 Plato, Republic, 10.608b.