Monday, January 20, 2014


"...a poetry of human relations — the call of each individual freedom to all the others." (Maurice Merleau-Ponty)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


A poem is always written by one captive to another.

The aim of the poem is to establish first for the poet and then for the reader a free relationship to the emotion, to liberate the subject from the feeling it implies. The poem must extricate itself, its poet, and its reader, from the history in which they are all implicated.

A poem makes an art of our captivity.

We should not expect poems to free us from political oppression, nor even from personal obsession. These will remain even after we read or write a poem. But the poem will provide us with a moment in which the nature of our oppression or obsession is available to us as an opportunity.*

Ultimately, we are all the captives of our emotions.

Update (15-01-2014, 10:38): The last word in this paragraph has been changed, on a whim. From "emotion" to "opportunity". That totally changes the meaning, but seems more right, and less trivial.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What is Bliss?

Ordinary—or, let us say, conventional—emotions occasion what Kierkegaard scholars* sometimes call "the suffering of inwardness". They indicate a "subject" of feeling, usually, i.e., "conventionally", situated inside the body, but in any case contained within the apparatus of feeling. We say that we are in pain or in love. But there are moments that can be said to be "saturated" with feeling, moments in which we are what Andrew and I have been describing as "overwhelmed" by emotion. (Wordsworth described these moments as those in which we experience a "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion" and he proposed to have the poet recollect these moments "in tranquility", producing a poem.) Here the suffering breaks the bounds of our inwardness.

In the case of pain, we actually have a conventional idiom to capture this. We sometimes say, not "I am in pain" but "It hurts". Under extreme distress, as in torture, we are told, the pain becomes impersonal, i.e., the personality is dissolved. But this also happens in the case of intense pleasure. It is a testament to the strength of our Christian conventions about love that we don't recognize the morality of the moment when we pass from saying "I am in love (with you)" to saying simply, and, very precisely, ecstatically, "It loves (us)." But this impersonal love is, of course, the true nature of the thing. It is bliss.

* * *

In my exchange with Andrew, I suggested that a poem might have a similar effect on our emotions as a drug like MDMA (ecstasy), at least as it it used in therapy. It is here sometimes used deal with the trauma of terminal illness, the loss of loved ones, or extreme experiences like rape and torture. It allows the sufferer to take a dispassionate "observing" stance toward the emotion, rather than letting the overwhelming feelings associated with the trauma dominate. This, in turn, allows the counseling to proceed through territory that would otherwise not be possible and speeds the recovery of the patient. The emotion is still there (and that's essential to the therapy) but it is somehow "suspended" in the mind or heart for contemplation.

I don't want to deny therapy to the mentally ill, but in ordinary life I'm not a big fan of psychology and psychiatry as public functions. These sciences (and intermittently dark arts) have largely replaced poetry in the management of emotion in our culture, framing the way we understand ourselves even in perfectly ordinary situations and relationships, where we should be feeling perfectly ordinary kinds of pleasure and pain, with, as we mature, greater and greater refinement. The social sciences, however, probably have a greater influence than the literary tradition on what we see on TV these days and what happens in our schools, which become sites merely for the presentation of illustrative examples of general conceptions of social living and human being. One day, perhaps, there will be no need for poetry at all because everyone will simply have a ready supply of the perfect pill … call it Bliss.

This was something Irving Layton worried about in the 1960s, where he somewhat presciently suggested that:

The society of the future will have no more need for living, creative art than for religion. To the comfortable air-conditioned suburbanite of tomorrow the intuitions of the one will appear as ludicrously pitiable and archaic as those of the other. Indeed, they will be as incomprehensible to him as the vanished ecstasies of bull-worshipping. Such a society — its outlines are already visible to anyone who is not afraid to take a good look — will be run by a tolerant élite composed of scientists, well-heeled technicians, and efficient commissars, buttressed by serviceable cadres of social workers and psychiatrists. As the tragic drama unfolds,these groups must play the assassins of whatever is passionate and unpredictable in human experience — that is, of art. (Engagements, p. 93)

As this discussion proceeds, I'm actually getting a little more hopeful than I've been for a long time. The difference between a pill and a poem is the poem's specificity. The pill "prepares a free relationship" to any emotion (which is why it is a good for a partying as it is for therapy) whereas a poem is the notation of a specific set of emotions. This, I would think, makes literary pleasure a "finer" thing than drug-induced ecstasis. And this might perhaps be why there will always be a function for literature, no matter how good the drugs get. Of course, we might get entirely beyond the need for fine feeling—because, ahem, we're just always, you know, feelin' fine. But I doubt it.

"The doctors are working day and night," sings Leonard Cohen, "but they'll never, ever find a cure for love." My hope lies in the continued existence of highly specific forms of bliss, the fine-grained, richly textured ecstasies of literary pleasure.

*I should apologize to Kierkegaard scholars, who will be puzzled, I now realize, at my attribution here. What they mean (and Kierkegaard meant) by "the suffering of inwardness" and the very ordinary kind of suffering that I'm talking about here are, I think, completely different things. I remembered the phrase from the spine of a PhD dissertation in the Søren Kierkegaard library at the University of Copenhagen where I used to read in the late 1990s. Writing this post, I liked the sound of it and thought I knew what it meant. A bit of reading has given me reason to doubt that I do.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Emotional Notation

[A response to Andrew Shields' comment]

Poetry is the art of writing emotions down, just as philosophy is the art of writing concepts down. In 1879, Frege published his Begriffsschrift, normally translated as "conceptual notation", a formalism that was supposed to make the connection between thoughts perspicuous. It was not intended to describe how we actually think, it was not a delineation of some natural "language of thought", rather it was an artificial simulation of thought, intended to be more precise than our ordinary thought processes. Likewise poetry is an Ergriffsschrift, an "emotional notation", an attempt to make the connections between our feelings intense. It does not stimulate genuine feelings, but artificial ones, which foster greater precision in our emotional apparatus and, therefore, a finer range of genuine feeling in the long run.

In making a poem, I don't "express emotion", I write the emotion down. I don't communicate a feeling to the reader but offer the reader an occasion for greater precision in feeling, through the intensity of the emotion. So there is certainly something "emotional" about the process of writing a poem, just as there is something conceptual about philosophizing. But it is true that I do not, at the time of writing feel the emotion. In an important sense (and this is something T.S. Eliot emphasized) the poem is intended to free us from feelings (and personality). More precisely, as Heidegger said of philosophical questioning into concepts, poetry "prepares a free relationship" to the emotion.

This freedom can of course itself be felt. It is the exhilaration that is familiar to us as literary pleasure, what Nabokov called "aesthetic bliss". It is not, to be sure, the possible bliss that comes from feeling the emotion that is the ostensible theme of the poem. That feeling, after all, may be altogether painful.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

What is a Poem?

A poem makes you feel better. It does not take away your sadness but makes you better able to feel it. It does not make you happy but makes your joy more precise. Since it is a work of art, a poem improves your ability to imagine—specifically, your ability to imagine feelings, your own and those of others. Poetry is the art of writing emotions down.

An emotion is a capacity to feel some particular feeling (as a concept is a receptivity to a particular thought). In order to have an effect on the imagination the poem must make the reader feel something. A poem does not produce an actual feeling, but a virtual one. It produces an artificial feeling in an artificial setting that makes you more capable of feeling the natural one in its natural environment. It works an art upon the nature of our emotions, which is really just "culture".

In the poem, you do not write "about" the emotion, you simply write it down. A love poem is not a poem about love. Nor is it about the beloved. It is the love, duly noted, presented to the imagination in writing. It is madness to suppose that a poem can make the beloved love the poet, but it can make whatever love there is more present, more felt, as a presence, an intensity. A good poem can also make the emotion unendurable, and thereby the act unavoidable.

It can, conversely, make the impossibility of the act tolerable. It can bridge the distance between the feeling and the action.

Just as any work of art must extricate a set of materials from the "everyday" environment in which they are implicated, so the poem must extricate the emotion from the historical forces in which it is willy-nilly implicated. This also has the effect of setting free "the subject" of the emotion, releasing it from the "personality" that has been constructed around it. It is a political construct. The poet, for example, meets a beautiful woman (a woman's beauty is intensely political) and the poet undertakes to compose a poem "to her beauty". His task here may be to free her lips from the policy that governs her face.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

What is a Work of Art?

A work of art is an object that improves the imagination. It need not be made by human hands, but it does at least have to be found and presented as art. A natural object in its natural environment can be mistaken for a work of art (or simply misrepresented as such), but this is because the experience of the beholder is wonderment in a manageable amount. The beholder feels invigorated and refreshed and slightly humbled, but the ability to imagine is not finally improved. Actual awe in the face of natural beauty cannot be mistaken for aesthetic experience.

It becomes a work of art by removing it from its natural environment (obviously, the artist can do this originally in the imagination) and placing it in an artificial setting. Here it can have its effect on the imagination.

A beautiful woman can under the right circumstances be a (found) work of art. (A painting or a photograph of such a woman is not, of course, such a circumstance. Here the work is the painting or the photograph, and the woman merely material out of which it is made.) Under such circumstances, however, she must cease to be an object of love, and even desire. Thus, when her lover says, in an attempt to flatter, "You are a work of art," he is either making a poetico-philosophical mistake or demeaning her. "I am using your beauty to improve my faculty of producing accurate imagery," he is saying.

The natural setting of a beautiful woman is one in which she is loved.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Complexity, Anxiety, Happiness

Two observations from Cyril Connolly's Unquiet Grave:

"Angst is inherent in the uncoiling of the ego, the tapeworm, the ver solitaire. It dwells in the Lacrimæ Rerum, in the contrasting of the Past with the present. It lurks in old loves and old letters or in our despair at the complexity of modern life" (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, 1944, p.43).

"Everything is a dangerous drug to me except reality, which is unendurable. Happiness is in the imagination. What we perform is always inferior to what we imagine; yet day-dreaming brings guilt; there is no happiness except through freedom from Angst and only creative work, communion with nature, and helping others are anxiety-free." (p. 37-8)

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Correct Method (Poetics)

The best way to study poetry is to read a lot of poems you love.

Solitude and Privacy

"Even in the most socialized community, there must always be a few who best serve it by being kept isolated. The artist, like the mystic, naturalist, mathematician or 'leader', makes his contribution out of his solitude. This solitude the State is now attempting to destroy, and a time may come when it will no more tolerate private inspiration. State Socialism in politics is likely to lead to social realism in the arts, until the position is reached that whatever the common man does not understand is treason." (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, p. 54)

A few years ago, I started collecting quotations from the early twentieth century about the state of the individual in the culture. Cyril Connolly has thought as much about this as anyone. This is my favorite of those pithy, two-sentence pronouncements on the topic:

How do you react to our slogan 'Total Everybody Always'? Have you at last understood that your miserable failure as an individual is proof that you pursue a lost cause? (TUG, p. 100)

I believe the whole "national security" scandal is bringing these issues to the fore again. The state would like to abolish privacy and this means granting no one a space of solitude. It also means replacing the arts with the social sciences in our understanding of who we are. Never again will we compare personal experiences; we'll just consider our "social graphs". We're no longer to be individuals, just members of groups (always several groups, but groups nonetheless). And who we associate with will always be a legitimate concern of the state, a "matter of national security". Since we're nothing but who we associate with, the state's domination will then be total. Total Everybody Always.

These days, I find myself agreeing with Terence McKenna. How do we fight back? "By putting the art pedal to the metal!" That is, we must learn to make a contribution of our solitude. If it takes a few milligrams of DMT to "get into yourself", maybe that's what you've got to do. Oh, yes, I forgot, the State has outlawed such things. Maybe this post is really an homage to Colorado and Washington and Uruguay. They're showing the way, friends.

(P.S. David Brooks sucks. As demonstrated ably by Andrew Gelman and, well, himself.)