Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Poetic + Photo

Thanks to everyone for posting so many great responses to my initial post about the "poetic." When I'm back and have a moment I'll post something longer, but one pointed I wanted to answer, since it was on the top of my head, has to do with Keguro's question about the denial or movement away from the body, which is a consistent theme in many writings on the poetic and the aesthetic. I immediately thought of what I'd grappled with for two straight falls with my undergraduates in my aesthetics class. We always began with Plato's many discourses on beauty, in the Republic, in which he states that what is beautiful is what's true, and what's true is what's virtuous and derives from the gods. The beautiful object or thing always has its source in an ideal form, which is non-sensuous and never fully apprehensible by humans. He goes on to say that art is a mirror of nature and that the artist is nothing better than a second-order creator--the artisan selects the ideal form and translates it into something material, whereas for Plato the artist translates the material thing into words, language, images--defers the ideal yet one more step. For Plato this is highly problematic, but just as problematic is the power that the artist has--through language alone she or he can move poeople to question or mock the gods, to challenge the ruling ethos, to immerse oneself in the physical, the sensual, the real. Plato develops this strain to the extent that by the famous Diotima section of the Symposium, he expresses a form of connection with the gods, an apprehension of the beautiful, which fully and powerfully separates itself--it is a real aspiration--from the sensual and sensuous. It isn't to much to suggest that this idea carries through well into 19th century though--it is in part a feature of such major aestheticians as Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, Winckelmann, Shaftesbury and the other Renaissance era neo-Platonists, Schiller, and of course, Immanuel Kant, whose notion of the aesthetic in part brackets off the primacy of the physical, the sensual, the sensory to a great degree. The aesthetic for Kant, if I might simply, constitutes and is constituted by its own system and a priori understandings that, while related, are different from the realms of the physical or of reason. Kant, like others before him (Longinus, etc.), proposes the notion of the sublime, which is that experience which so overwhelms us, through immensity, horror, or some other primal sensation, that we eventually are provoked into reason. But the sublime exceeds the poetic, and ultimately reason triumphs--control over emotion, over the senses, and so on. Kant is significant in that he is the first major figure among the ones in the European geneology listed above to decouple the aesthetic from God, or the gods, but the residue remains, with the gods, the Godly, being ineffable, beyond our full corporeal grasp. The poetic for Plato has this aspect of the false, something excessive, something never fully material, and yet at the same time, also possessed of a dangerous power that Plato saw in part as part of the process of its coming into being, and which Nietzsche later champions as central to what he calls the Dionysian, that originary state that all humans have lost touch with. Of course there are many other figures whose ideas come into play, and as someone--Keguro?--noted, Benjamin and Adorno make endlessly clear that alongside the autonomy of the formal, of the artwork itself, the artifact is socially grounded and mediated--it never exists out of time or place or context, no matter what the artist or viewer thinks or wants. It is always a social fact. So notions of the poetic that fail to take this into account are highly problematic, but I guess those of us who love poetry and write poetry (or try to do so) would still identify certain things, certain formal aspects, certain responses we have, to what we deem the poetic. Often these are highly corporeal, bodily, grounded. As I've told Reggie H. more than once, I almost tear up at times when I start to recite the lines to Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," which Michael Harper made me memorize several years ago at CC. Why? It is both the unique and indelible music Hayden's lines create, their unforgettable formal achievement which is both incredibly simple and yet complex, as well as the picture of the hardworking father who is "never thanked," who was Hayden's father and so many fathers, so many men and women, and the plaintive voice of the son who remembers, who invokes into being this tribute through his sincere and stunning quasi-sonnet-like song. At a certain point the feeling of this fusion of form and message, the statement, approaches the spiritual, but the body--the effects of the poetic language and images strike me deeply in body and mind. Here then might be one way to situate the poetic...but I'll return to this when I have the chance.


And now for the body, an artist/artisan, with his "second-order" artworks on display. Music began pumping up the street, and the man got so excited he couldn't stay still, he started dancing. You know the feeling. And it's often poetic, and spiritual....


  1. I have so much to say in response to this brilliant post. I don't know where to begin. But I think I will try to begin at the poem -- not the poetic directly, "Those Winter Sundays". Since I haven't memorized it, I'm always shocked at what I find in it when I teach it. The last time I taught that poem, I was amazed to hear my students try to tease out what Hayden meant by the "chronic angers" of the house. There's so much packed in there, what I imagine to be the sense that a space can change emotion, or the idea that emotions expressed in a space linger on, even the sounds of wood creaking or of cold air entering could be felt as a kind of anger. As I think about the ideas, what gets held in those words, and think about our conversation, I do come back to the way some definite feeling is expressed but something intangible is also accessed in those words. What I experience as poetic there is the possibility for understanding and the possibility that there's more than you can understand.

  2. mendi, to riff off you. What I also seem to read, as a dialogue between John and Michael Harper, between you and your students, and in the multiple dialogues that have taken place (and continue to take place) around this topic, is that the ineffable, the intangible, resists formal isolation by creating communities of dialogue.

    I'm glad John mentioned the Symposium and Diotima's (all too brief) role. Right now I'm working on a notion of queer propinquity, riffing off Edna St. Vincent Millay, to consider how identities (and languages) possess us, leave us "undone," (the famous race-sex threat combated by jim-crow and anti-immigration law). Digressions. Sorry. I guess I'm interested in the sort of communities enabled by the "poetic," striving, contingent, "possessed," "undone," hence Plato's discomfort with the poetic: it abrogates responsibility.

    In the poetry class, even for we who teach, there's always a sense of being blind in a room full of strangers, who, as they begin to discover the contours of the environment, shout out, "here's the door," "there's a chair," "here's a table," forming communities, even though, at times, such communities resemble the blind men with the elephant, the "poetic" overcomes the fragmentation linked to the elephant.

    Okay, Plato to elephants. I hope some of it makes sense.

  3. Yes! To me it does make sense, good sense. I'm very much helped by this idea of a dialogue-specific meaning that "the poetic" creates.

  4. im just sitting here taking notes and i love it!