Philosophy must embrace poetry

How poetry captures the difficulty of reality

In an era where poetry is often dismissed as inaccessible and disconnected from everyday life, John Gibson challenges these assumptions. He argues that the enigmatic nature of poetry is not so different to that of philosophy. By contending with the complexity of poetry, we might be able to grapple with the difficulties of reality.


I recently assigned John Ashbery’s poem ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ in a philosophy course I am teaching on theories of the self. I assured the students that the poem would dramatize a point about what the philosopher Peter Goldie called ‘the mess inside.’ The mess is a matter of many things, but, in good part, it resides in the chaos of the often contradictory desires, anxieties, wants, beliefs, memories, and self-images that course through us over time, and not infrequently in the moment. It is a mess that explains many of our most tragic and/or hilarious failures as actors on the stage of life, and I told my students that certain strands of lyric poetry are especially good at thinking about why this is so. After explaining ways Ashbery’s poem enlivens our understanding of the cultural and psychological sources of this mess, I opened the lecture to discussion. After a pause, a student who obviously wasn’t feeling it asked, sincerely and more or less respectfully, ‘is Ashbery just saying Fuck You to the reader?’


Poets and philosophers are aligned at least in respect to the ‘difficulty’ of their modes of thinking.


Apart from the language, my student’s question was not a surprise. Hers was just a ruder way of lamenting the fabled ‘difficulty’ of modern lyric poetry, which for this student apparently registered as an insult rather than an invitation. If one is interested in the provenance and force of such laments, which are hardly unique to my students, Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry is a good source, not least because he is a poet who finds a grain of truth in these complaints. My interest is different. I am concerned with the nature of this difficulty and why the poetic instance of it should chagrin even a captive philosophical audience. As an academic philosopher, I do not find it particularly galling or newsworthy to be told that the work of my colleagues can be found difficult or that the general public pays it little mind. In fact, I find it a favorable coincidence of history that poets and philosophers — the two parties to Plato’s ‘ancient quarrel’ — will at this late date find themselves in a similar boat. Philosophers share with much cooler poets the experience of being in a present that is largely inhospitable to their practices of thought and writing, especially in the Anglophone world. Poets and philosophers are aligned at least in respect to the ‘difficulty’ of their modes of thinking. And this is telling, since ‘difficulty’ suggests a promise of substance and its avoidance the sense that it nevertheless isn’t worth exploring. I tell my students that, as philosophers, their avoidance of poetry amounts to exactly this refusal to search for depth. This typically does not go down well.

20 02 13.karen licensed final SUGGESTED READING Should we treat loneliness with poetry? By Karen Simecek

In both philosophical and poetic practices, this difficulty is made productive in important ways. It arises in part not just because we each produce ‘content’ that is challenging but, ultimately, as a consequence of what Cora Diamond calls the ‘difficulty of reality’, that is, the sheer complexity of the world we struggle, each in our own ways, to render an object of attention. Our ways of writing are difficult partly because of the difficulty of the historical, political, social, and psychological contexts we explore, which oblige both poet and philosopher to erect elaborate architectures of thought to capture it, to whatever degree they can. Yet this difficulty functions very differently in poetry than in philosophy, and the way it does often makes poetry appear more honest, both as art and as a mirror of life. Philosophy’s difficulty tends to be essentially intellectual and argumentative, a result of the need to engage in conceptual innovations along the road to providing a demonstration of some claim about the world being this way rather than that. And it strives, certainly in the form of analytic philosophy that dominates in the Anglophone world, to do this clearly, through disambiguation, precision of insight, and, in general, making sense of the rough business of life. It is a continuation of the labour of the Enlightenment, at least in this small respect.


This is very unlike philosophy’s way with difficulty, and is typically much more satisfying since it is more capacious in its ability to acknowledge these features of human predicament.


It is here that poetry seems to know something that philosophy on the whole does not (Adorno, Beauvoir, and a few others excepted). This ‘something’ goes by many names, the most famous of which John Keats titled poetry’s ‘negative capability’: its willingness to rest with ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Put differently, the poet knows how to lean into ambiguity, opacity, paradox, provisionality, even nonsensicality, which often renders meaning in poetic contexts a destination one must struggle to reach, in part because this ambiguity is preserved and not washed away along the way. And when a poet, such as Ashbery for me, preserves these forms of difficulty successfully, it registers in equal parts as a philosophical and poetic accomplishment: a way of elevating the messiness of life to the status of art. In doing so, these aspects of our world become an object of both scrutiny and aesthetic immersion. It is a way, as Nietzsche might put it, of making the ‘terrible truths’ of this world tolerable to perception, by satisfying our desire both to encounter our world more intimately and not to be crushed by it in the process. At the very least, it is how this difficulty permits poetry to engage in powerful critique as well as exemplary art-making. For on the assumption that our world too is often opaque, paradoxical, ambiguous, even nonsensical, a poem that captures these features of it in very syntax and form will earn its claim to truth through its way with difficulty. This is one way that modern poetry pushes back against the unflattering features of our world, confronting its oppressiveness, ugliness, and vast blah-ness in the act of embodying it in poetic form.

  24 02 09 ai poetry SUGGESTED READING AI poetry reveals the truth of the world By David Nowell Smith

This is very unlike philosophy’s way with difficulty, and is typically much more satisfying since it is more capacious in its ability to acknowledge these features of human predicament. And this brings into relief one good reason poetry should matter much more to philosophy than it presently does. Without poetry’s extraordinary images of, in Diamond’s words, the difficulty of reality, philosophy risks losing the most potent and precise of images of the very thing to which its theories are supposed to be adequate: the mess that is both inside and around us. I find that putting matters this way clarifies what I should really be doing with my students, perhaps not reading Ashbery to them so much as insisting that, if they wish to become dangerous philosophers, then they must also study with the poets and critics on the floor above me.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation