There is, as some of you might know, a rather ancient quarrel between poets and philosophers. I, a student of philosophy, might seem partisan. Of course, I have also studied a bit of poetry while at Yale, and am known to carry about a dog-earred copy of Richard Wilbur from time to time, a sort of talismanic honor that I rarely afford my copies of Plato or even Nietzsche. Today, though, I won’t be taking sides. In fact, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t, for the simple reason that poetry and philosophy have nothing to say to one another, indeed, they no longer even exist in forms worthy of fighting each other.
Philosophy, as a study of what is, has largely been replaced in the popular imagination by its younger, more measured brother, natural philosophy, or what we now call physics. As a study of what ought to be, philosophy is currently without a ground. There are systems of ethics, to be sure, but they exist cut off from the daily decision process of individuals or societies. The Church, despite its earth-bound actions, was once a powerful and immanent symbol of philosophy made manifest, born out of currents neo-platonic and Gnostic, prone to birthing other currents, Thomistic, humanistic, Jesuitical. Today, the only institutional normative voice is the state, and it’s not a very respectable one at that. One could say of the current study of ethics, without much irony, that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.”
How fitting to quote a poet. The original fight had much to do with the fact that poetry is a mimetic art. It imitates. In the city of the philosopher, the imitative is one step unnecessarily removed from truth. Of course, some have pointed out, poetry may be one step removed from the truth of philosophy, but that is just the right place to be of great help to society. After all, who wants a society of philosophers? They’re an absent-minded lot, often falling into wells. They’re also a severe bunch: Xenocrates, rather than be tempted by the famous courtesan Lais, physically incapacitated himself (I’ll spare you the details). Much better to have a city with a bit more imitation and a bit less truth.
This then, also explains the animosity that poetry once bore philosophy. When you’re guarding the customs that allow for everyday life, the lies we tell each other in Church or in the Senate house, it doesn’t help to have a gadfly stirring up trouble. Poetry, it seems, was once a civic venture. Vico, a rather poetic philosopher, calls Homer the “wisdom of the gentes.” He means there is something of Homer intrinsic to the Greek spirit. Homer is more than a poet; he is the voice of a society. We might also think of the Aeneid, or closer to our own time, the poetry of Goethe or even Whitman. Such is poetry that shines with the values of its time and place, that glimmers with a civic sparkle. “O muses,” sang the Greeks; “O pioneers,” sang Whitman. They at once embodied and revitalized the spirit of their cultures. That sort of poetry, and I say this knowing it will make me a rather unpopular person in many circles, is dead.
Perhaps it is because of the fractured nature of our societies. What poetic voice could speak to us? What poetic voice could remind us who we are? Bob Dylan might have tried at some point, but even if “Modern Times” is as expansive and essential as its title suggests, who’s listening? Another explanation might be that poetry, in its slow sacrifice of form, lost the attention of society. Why is it that I can remember all of Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” but none of Robinson Jeffers’ “Shine, Perishing Republic”? Ah yes. It’s because one has rhyme, meter and a crushing, nihilistic hedonism, and one has only the sharpness of a poet’s eye to keep it buoyant. Whether through form, or content, whether from an abandonment of prosody or a suicidal inward turn, it is not for me to say, but poetry has lost its voice.
This then, is the state of the ancient quarrel. It is a state I do not enjoy, and yet I’m not sure if anyone really cares to change it, or if change is even possible. Some, like Matt Shaffer ’10, even gleefully sing in a post-modern pitch about “the death of philosophy.” How sad that they are also unwittingly eulogizing the end of poetry.
I can only hope that there are others like me, others who fear for the loss of what Baudelaire called “poetic beauty, which is an expression of the public soul,” others who mourn the death of philosophy, without which we remain blind as to whither that soul must go.