The Elusive Function of Poetry

I’ve been reading poet Gary Snyder’s book The Real Work: Interviews and Talks 1964-1979.  In the interviews and talks, Snyder puts up such a coherent worldview concerning aesthetics and, indeed, how to live, that I find it amazing, sometimes while reading, that poetry fits into his life at all.  Indeed, in one of the interviews, Snyder is asked, “As you see it, what is the function of poetry?” Snyder responds:

You ask me what is the function of poetry so I think, “What is the function of poetry since 40,000 years ago?’ In all cultures of the world — total planetary overview.  And in that sense the function of poetry is not only the intensification and clarification of the implicit potentials of the language, which means a sharpening, a bringing of more delight to the normal functions of language and maybe making language even work better since communication is what it’s about.  But on another level poetry is intimately linked to any culture’s fundamental worldview, body of lore, which is its myth base, its symbol base, and the source of much of its values — that myth-lore foundation that underlies any society.

One thing I do appreciate about this answer is that it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive — that, when asked what the function of poetry is, Snyder’s impulse is basically to say, “Well, let’s look at what its function has in fact been.” And, one can indeed imagine that for most of the history of poetry, poetry has fulfilled the functions that Snyder lists.

But, one question that Snyder seems to dodge with this answer is that of what the function of poetry might be today — a question about which I have long wracked my brains.  If the answer is still to be that it is “linked to any culture’s… myth base, its symbol base, and the source of much of its values”, I find that answer lacking with regard to a culture whose poets are, for the most part, individuals committed to individual expression, competing with each other, whether they like it or no, for people’s money, time and attention.  I’m all in favor of individual expression, mind — just not the competitive aspect that always seems to follow.  The idea that the symbol base of our society should depend on who wins out in this competition not only is rather abhorrent to my sensibility, but also fails to even answer the question of what the poetry that doesn’t win out, that doesn’t manage to link itself to this symbol base, is for.

I’ve realized recently, I think, reading over much of my own poetry at the same time as reading through The Real Work, that for much of my own history of writing poetry, I’ve found in it a way to create or intensify a community, believing that through poetry, the deepest and most interior voices of individuals come out and can be shared.  (That doesn’t even necessarily mean that my favorite poetry is “lyric”, confessional poetry; instead, I would say that each person’s own decision about what to put forth as poetry is itself a function of what they deeply care about, in itself a self-expression.) This has held true for the high school class in which I first got to love poetry, for the open-mic scene I was involved with for a few years, and for the current poetry reading group I’m a part of.  But, I think, there’s a problem with that too, which is that it doesn’t seem to imply anything about poetry’s being necessary.  In the world we live in, in which some of the most ambitious and far-reaching self-help programs around find their way into the business section of the bookstore, ways of creating community that have nothing to do with sharing interior voices are at least as valued, if not more; and, I would be a snob to say they were less real.

What I want to propose instead is Snyder’s first function of poetry, which he almost appears to skim over: “intensification and clarification of the implicit potentials of the language, which means a sharpening, a bringing of more delight to the normal functions of language and maybe making language even work better”.  This, I think, is a better argument for the continuance of poetry, as long as language forms the basis of our interactions.  In an earlier entry in this blog, I wrote that “poetry, by very virtue of being the original form of literature, should count as the default form of literature” — literature whose atoms are mere words, not the characters or plots whose internal consistencies are such an overarching worry in the construction of other forms.  The structure of a poem is allowed to unfold from the words themselves.  The enhancement of the normal use of language thereafter seems like a natural thing.

Sometimes, thinking about the best poems I heard on the open-mic scene that decade or more ago, I think of them in these terms: these poems created a weavery of language that could, at its most transcendent, momentarily take the place of the society that I found myself so confined in, with its ploddingly uniform value systems and no forward motion.  But, that weavery of language isn’t sustainable in anything close to the long run.  Like Joseph Cambpell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, we need to seize the linguistic treasure of the poetic otherworld, and bring it back into this world.  It just might be that the cultivation of poetry as a skill into the future depends on that retrieval.


Poetry, Ambiguity and Puns

Recently — I think I was reading Laura Riding’s poetry — it occurred to me that one of the things that appealed to me the most about poetry was its ambiguity. But: there’s a question about what the word “ambiguity” itself means. Suppose I claim that a poetic passage is ambiguous: I could mean either that its meaning is so vague as to spark nothing more than a cloud of associations in my mind, or that there are two (or, in rare cases, more) definite referents, either of which could be meant, without much mixing between those meanings.

The latter case, I’d say, is typified by the pun, which — especially if it’s embedded in a larger piece of writing — is a type of play with language that I find very honorable. Far from being “the lowest form of wit”, the pun means to me a form of humor that easily pushes away the temptation to mock anything, and results in a laughter of, instead of cruelty, delight at the coincidence it exposes. I also find the use of puns very valuable to me in my own poetry (example: “Before I went off to Wall Street to study the ways of the Dow”). They’re great for packing as much meaning as possible into a short passage, and also for “exposing” connections between things, perhaps on a subconscious level — such connections being, I would say, one of poetry’s important hallmarks.

The pun is also clean in another way: the ambiguity it produces is itself unambiguous. There exist a definite, small number of references each pun can point to. Those afraid of becoming too unmoored from meaning can still relax at the sight of a pun. One could even say that what a pun means is its exact multiplicity of meanings. And, therefore, complete ambiguity cannot be achieved by a pun.

The type of ambiguity that is itself ambiguous — whose set of possible references is itself open to interpretation — may, I think, be often denied, with respect to either its poetic value or its credentials as passable writing at all. But, I think it’s of immense worth to poetry. Otherwise, for example, what do we make of something like Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, one of my favorite poems:

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

… Soon, too, after realizing that what one of the things that appealed to me most about poetry was its ambiguity, an inversion of the thought struck me with a kind of horror: maybe one of the things that appeals to me the most about ambiguity is its poetry. Horror because, if ambiguity is primarily a feature of poetry, well, then (following Laura Riding herself), poetry doesn’t really model the world. Riding, who gave up poetry as an art and a career when she was in her thirties, insisted that poetry’s aim towards aesthetic surfaces waived any claim it had to truth.

Yet, I still think that I believe the many poetry fans who must still be out there, who (sagely nodding) understand that there in fact is truth in poetry. Here are the stakes as I see them, then: does the ambiguity that I find so important to poetry itself form part of that truth? Or, to put it another way: is ambiguity a feature of the world?

Poetry, Up Against Philosophy

Last Sunday, at my poetry-reading group, I read an excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, his epic-style poem about the ninth-century English King Alfred’s repulsion of a Viking invasion.  I read what I found to be the most moving part in the entire poem: the song of the villain, the Viking King Guthrum.  It begins:

He took the great harp wearily,
Even Guthrum of the Danes,
With wide eyes bright as the one long day
On the long polar plains.

For he sang of a wheel returning,
And the mire trod back to mire,
And how red hells and golden heavens
Are castles in the fire.

“It is good to sit where the good tales go,
To sit as our fathers sat;
But the hour shall come after his youth,
When a man shall know not tales but truth,
And his heart fail thereat.

“When he shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods,
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods.

“For this is a heavy matter,
And the truth is cold to tell;
Do we not know, have we not heard,
The soul is like a lost bird,
The body a broken shell….”

It’s a stunning expression of a pessimistic philosophy.  Not that I would call myself a pessimist — and, part of the pleasure in reading this section was knowing that Alfred himself, who has come into the Viking camp anonymously as a minstrel, would soon rebut it with his own song — but, the actual rebuttal I found disappointing after imagining what a potential rebuttal might consist of; and Guthrum’s song remains my emotional high point of Chesterton’s Ballad.

It also reminds me a bit of W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day….”

Auden’s stanzas, and many of Chesterton’s, are in the classic form of a ballad: the so-called common meter, rhyming ABCB.  And there’s a reason, too, why “ballad” is a word applied to songs as well as to poems: this type of thing sticks in your head.

Here’s my point: Chesterton and Auden reach me with their pessimistic philosophy in a way that a mere exposition of such a philosophy wouldn’t.  Now, this reach doesn’t actually consist of making me think pessimistically about life: instead, it’s poignant.  But, the lines of their pessimistic philosophy are ones I already know by heart.  Guthrum and Auden’s clocks sing a well-known song, make it beautiful, and make it ring in your head.  Philosophy is the preparation: with these ballads, you live with what the philosophy is saying — encapsulated as an element in your life.

Is it too much to say the same for all poetry?  Even though it often wants to introduce philosophical ideas to its audience, I don’t think poetry is nearly as good at it as philosophy itself is.  In poetry, things are more relative: we have to deal not only with the meaning of the words themselves, but with the meaning of the fact that the poet is saying these particular words, which, I find, often offsets the literal meaning.  If you want to take a position and mean it, you’re better off with philosophy.  And, as someone who so often thinks the structure of one’s internal ideas determines one’s life, well, that’s pretty important.  What does poetry have to give, instead, up against philosophy?

And, let me argue exactly this: that it makes philosophy itself stick in your head.  It takes the elements of a familiar philosophy and translates them into an earworm, or, if not literally, at least a mind-worm.  And, it can make the dourest of philosophies beautiful.

Schneiderman’s Throwdown

Rob Schneiderman is the author of my favorite article in Princeton University Press’s The Best Writing on Mathematics 2012, edited by Mircea Pitici, which I’ve talked about before in this blog.  Schneiderman’s article, “Can One Hear the Sound of a Theorem?”, was the first piece of writing I ever read that finally provided me with some sort of answer to the question, which I’d been struggling with for a while, of what exactly was this vaunted link between music and mathematics I’d heard so much about.  Schneiderman’s answer: music and math are both self-contained systems of expression, ones that require no references to the outside world to do what they do.  Other comparisons are fluff and bluster.

And really, I’d say, Schneiderman (who apparently knows my great-uncle) is best in his fluff-and-bluster mode.  Here’s one choice quote:

The problem is that mathematical content comes in the form of proven statements about well-defined structures, and attempts at “explaining” musical phenomena usually involve structures that are not well defined, with conclusions justified by carefully chosen examples and multitudes of counterexamples ignored.  And any logical development of well-defined structure is inevitably based on dubious or pedantic musical principles, so that the resulting conclusions can say precious little about what is important in music.  (p.97)

Over and over again, Schneiderman demonstrates that many of the links often drawn between music and math, taken in their entireties as disciplines, are superficial, tenuous, or worthy of extreme skepticism: they fail to get at the heart of what’s so beautiful and gripping in at least one, most likely both, of music and mathematics.  Take this excerpt, too:

… after mentioning musical affinities of Galileo, Euclid, Euler, and Kepler, the author [of the book Emblems of Mind, Edward Rothstein] includes Schoenberg, Xenakis, and Cage among a short list of examples that seem to point back from music to mathematics.  Even most mathematicians with an affinity for these composers would… surely recognize that this juxtaposition is way out of balance.  This comparison leads to such contradictions as claiming the existence of “a systematic logic that guides musical systems” but then admitting later that the great musical compositions “create their own form of necessity, the binding coming not from logic but from the unfolding of ideas…” (p. 106)

The juxtaposition, of course, is way out of balance because the group of twelve-tone composers that includes Arnold Schoenberg, Iannis Xenakis and John Cage can in no way be said to stand in for all of music.  And this, indeed, is Schneiderman’s point: that perhaps mathematics can form a basis for certain pieces or indeed compositional styles, but that that basis is merely one choice to be made within the universe of music, and has no bearing on the nature of that universe itself.  (As for music forming the basis for mathematics, contrariwise — forget it.) Properly looked at, too, this point of view is liberating.  Why indeed must a piece of music unfold according to an internal logic as tight, dare I say foreordained, as mathematics?

Yet Schneiderman implicates even the august Princeton Companion to Mathematics as falling victim to such false comparisons (p. 107).  What’s going on here?  A desperation, even among mathematicians who should know better, to imbue mathematics with just a drop of the intuitive beauty we all know can arise from a fragment of music?  … Or something more sinister: a desire among the quantitative explainers of the world to own music as part of their own field, even if its internal richness is reduced thereby?  A notion of mathematics as the golden road to absolute knowledge, outside of which further paradigms are unnecessary…?

To such attitudes, Schneiderman offers a throwdown.  Music, as he sees it, exists in a realm apart, and that realm’s dialogue with math’s goes both ways.  It’s a good thing, too: my love of math and my love of music combine to result in that much more love.

Math Therapy

If mathematics is supposed to be the underlying structure and grain of the universe, but so many people have trouble resonating with it, then why not math therapy — to restore one’s personal harmony with math?  Sometimes I think that, at its best, the part of my job that’s actually teaching math should approach this ideal.  When you peel away the techniques of classroom management, when you peel away the signposts to important facts and theorems — what, ultimately, I mean, are you trying to pass on?

Even more so recently than ever before, I’ve come to feel that the search for interesting and rewarding mathematical topics leads in a plethora of unexpected directions.  I imagine that for many of these, even calculus might be mostly or entirely unnecessary.  Why shouldn’t it be one of the multitude of natural states available to a person to make, and then try to answer, interesting mathematical inquiries?  Why shouldn’t it be an integrated part, if one chooses, of personal, of social life?

Maybe I’ll write a story about a math therapist.

Is Music Philosophy?

I’ve been reading David Sheppard’s biography of professional music-maker Brian Eno, On Some Faraway Beach.  Eno is perhaps best known as the popularizer of the “ambient” aesthetic in music, but there was a time, the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was entranced by African musical sensibilities as well.  Sheppard records Eno, in that period, remarking about his “Fourth World” collaboration, the album Possible Musics, with trumpeter Jon Hassell: “We talked about music as embodied philosophy, for every music implies a philosophical position even when its creators aren’t conscious of it.”  Eno would soon take his philosophy of Africanized rock to the band Talking Heads, for the creation of whose album Remain in Light he would, Sheppard implies, exert an undue amount of control as producer — perhaps swamping the contributions of some of the band members in the process.

Eno’s remark — music as philosophy — is reminiscent of anti-web-2.0 technologist Jaron Lanier’s proposition, in his book You Are Not a Gadget, that “We [technologists] make up extensions to your being….  These become the structures by which you connect to the world and other people.  These structures in turn can change how you conceive of yourself and the world.  We tinker with your philosophy by direct manipulation of your cognitive experience, not indirectly, through argument.” (pp. 5-6) It’s a persuasive idea when Lanier states it, and it’s key to his book: he infers that technologists really need to think about the philosophies that their creations would foster before releasing them on the world (and that, all too often and to deleterious effect, they don’t).

Is Eno’s version of the argument as persuasive?  Don’t get me wrong: I’d love for music to be, or even to imply, philosophy, thus forging a fierce link between two of my strongest interests; but, after listening yesterday to Eno’s collaborative album with German band Cluster, After the Heat, with this question in mind, I didn’t feel so sure.  Yes, Eno’s music is more philosophical, in the sense of “direct manipulation of your cognitive experience”, than most; few musicians seem as conscious of the different contexts, at least, in which their music can be listened to.  But, it’s notable that nowhere does Sheppard record exactly what the philosophies Eno links his music to actually consist of.  At times, actually, the picture Sheppard paints of Eno reminds me of Dean Moriarty, the Neal Cassady character in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

“And he said, ‘Yes, of course, I know exactly what you mean and in fact all those problems have occurred to me, but the thing I want is the realization of those factors that should one depend on Schopenhauer’s dichotomy for any inwardly realized…’ and so on in that way, things I understood not a bit and he himself didn’t.” (p. 6)

Don’t get me wrong: Eno’s music is exciting, relaxing, mysterious: he runs a great gamut of emotions.  And, there’s something to be said for the high Beat aesthetic of continuous conversation about whatever, or as Allen Ginsberg put it in “Howl”, “whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes”, whether the conversation makes ultimate sense or no — something Eno has, apparently, been pretty much fantastic at for a long time.  But, so far — and, maybe it really is just because music has so much less to do with lifestyle in the here and now than in Eno’s heyday — I’m going to have to guess the pessimistic answer to this post’s title question: No, music is not philosophy; or, at least, it hasn’t proven that it is.  It’s okay, though: actual philosophers, anyway, can rest easy.

Mathematics, Interpreted Freely

I’ve been interested for a while in Princeton University Press’s annual Best Writing on Mathematics series, edited since 2010 by Mircea Pitici.  In his introduction to the 2015 edition, Pitici writes:

“Interpreting mathematics points toward protean qualities of mathematics not immediately obvious in doing mathematics per se.  An accepted mathematical result is merely the egalitarian premise from which each of us can part with the commonly shared view by interpreting it idiosyncratically, as we please or even as it suits us.  … Lack of reflection on the proper context of applied mathematical thinking perverted the humanities, the social sciences, and even the study and practice of law — to name just a few examples.” (p. xiv)

What a liberating view of mathematics and its relation to the world!  Pitici’s 2012 edition, too, includes an article by one Ian Hacking entitled, “Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics at All?”.  Hacking argues for two main answers to his title question: one, that it is “astonishment that engenders philosophy of mathematics” (pp. 238-239) — astonishment, that is, that certain abstruse but awe-inspiring mathematical objects are even out there — combined with, two, an idea from “Mark Steiner… who asked more or less my title question, ‘Why is there philosophy of mathematics?’ He answered, in effect, application.” (p. 245)

And, for all those who’re worried that appeals to applied mathematics might sully the philosophical purity of math here — well, never fear, because Hacking distinguishes seven kinds of application, only a couple of which would normally be considered applied math (and the failure to distinguish between which, I imagine, could well have caused Pitici’s “perversions”).  They are: “Math Applied to Math” (about which Hacking states, “Why should there be so much ultimate connectedness behind so much apparent diversity?… This question needs a lot of philosophical work, right now” (p. 248)); “The Pythagorean Dream” (in which “mathematics of a deep and simple sort really is just the structure of reality” (p. 249)); “Mathematical Physics”; “Mission-Oriented Applied Math” (these last two being perhaps what most people think of as applied math); “Common or Garden”; “Unintended Social Uses” (i.e., to preserve an elitist hierarchy, which I find the least interesting inclusion on Hacking’s list); and finally, “Off the Wall”, for which Hacking quotes Wittgenstein: “Why should not the only application of the integral and differential calculus etc. not be for patterns on wallpaper?  Suppose they were invented just because people like a pattern of this kind?  This would be a perfectly good application.” (p. 251)

… The point that Pitici and Hacking are striving for, it seems to me, is that, yes, there is something unsettlingly alien about mathematics, something whose exact nature philosophers have disagreed about for eons, but that, in fact, this very alien quality is what creates (mostly unrecognized) freedoms in how we relate mathematics to the experiential world.  And, in my own experience teaching math with physical objects, certainly, I find a delicate tension between defaulting to instilling the conventional “what you see is an approximation of something mathematically ideal” notions, and something wilder.  The objects that we use to model mathematical ideas never seem to end up being as precise as we want them to be; in a mathematically governed universe, I mean, why would it take so much effort to create something in order to demonstrate mathematics?