Saturday, November 20, 2004

Remark and Strophe

Here's a favourite problem of mine. One of the most striking differences, to my mind, between philosophy and poetry has to do with the lack of anything like a poem in philosophy, that is, a discrete unit of "work done". I often think of Mallarmé's maxim that "a poem is not made of ideas but of words". Well, any old collection of words will not suffice to constitute a poem. This post is not a poem. But something about the way some words are put together makes them poetic. I want to be able to say something similar about philosophy.

Here's one promising analogy. Wittgenstein, who said that philosophy ought to be composed like poetry, organised his work into remarks. Many of his remarks are quite ordinary in their content, but in their arrangement they are able to illuminate the concept or set of concepts that Wittgenstein is after.

Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down; it is the art of passing remarks so as to draw attention to concepts.

Poetry is the art of writing emotions down. And I want to say that what are passed by poets, are not passed, but turned, and are not remarks, but strophes.

"America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe" (Ginsberg)

That's what so appealing about poetry: it's got a product. We philosophers ought to approach our passing remarks in a similar fashion, commodifying what is already our fetish for thinking. Not, yes, without irony. Always with irony, yes.

(This may be a deeper philological insight than I intended. Consider the possibility that the "work character" of poetry is intimately connected with the need for the poet to capture a market share of the attention space, i.e., to move product, while the philosopher's coy silliness allowed him a species of pure loafing.)

Flarf, it seems to me, has made one thing very clear about the relation of the strophe to the poem. Building a poem is not a matter of arranging strophes, i.e., of putting poetic atoms together. If that were the case the poem would owe its poesie to the accumulation of strophic matter that was originally poetic. But strophes become poetic, become strophes, only in their arrangement with other strophes. A coherence theory of poetry.

In any case, that's how far I've gotten in this direction. The strophe is to the emotion what the remark is to the concept. The strophe is to the poem what the remark is to the . . .

But in both cases the proximal theme of the crafted words (the remark or the strophe) is an image. The remark passes the image, and the strophe turns it. An image is a concept backed like an emotion, maybe, and vice versa.

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