What is the relationship between philosophy and poetry? Philosophers have often taken inspiration for their analytic work from poetic language – as in the case of Martin Heidegger ‘s appreciation for Georg Trakl or Friedrich Hölderlin. Poets have sometimes returned the favour, as in the case of Coleridge’s reading of Friedrich Schelling. Sometimes, poets have mocked philosophers for their pretentions to absolute knowledge, from Aristophanes to William Carlos Williams. Rarer are efforts by philosophers to write poetry, and rarer still attempts to philosophize through the medium of poetry. last night, Prof. Christopher Norris from the Philosophy Department at Cardiff University presented and discussed examples of his own efforts to explore philosophical themes through poetic writing. The title of the session comes from a project on which has been working for around five years, producing individual poems that deal with the work of specific modern philosophers.
Chris described how he had submitted himself to the discipline of writing these pieces in the villanelle form. Villanelles (a classic example being Dylan Thomas‘s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night) consist of five three-line erses and a final four-line one, with the first and third lines of the first verse providing a two-barreled refrain that is repeated throughout the poem. This repetition, especially in post-Romantic uses of the form, tends to create a feeling of growing intensity. Chris noted that the legacy of Romanticism and Symbolism has been to encourage poets to focus on the communication of emotional intensity. But in the pre-Romantic, Augustan age, poets like Swift, Dryden and Pope used complex verse forms as a medium for argument and satire. He suggested that the distinction between poetic discourse and prose established by 19th and 20th century poetry was much more malleable than often thought (and not because of the popularity of free verse or prose poetry). Rather, the discipline contributed by verse forms is suited to philosophical argument in the sense that submitting ideas to metre and rhyme can not only reveal hitherto-overlooked aspects of ideas, but can also itself give rise to new ideas and surprising twists in arguments.
Discussion afterwards focused on a number of topics. The audience responsed positively to the idea of philosophical poetry. Chris was asked to what extent his own individuality – his own subjectivity – entered into the writing of the poems, and how this (as a kind of Romantic ingredient to the mix) affected the ‘Augustan’ philosophical project he was engaged in. In addition, people were interested in the ways in which philosophical poetry of this kind establishes a connection with the reader. Some of the poems appear to attempt to distil a philosopher’s central concepts into poetic form, with the repetition created by the villanelle bringing out different aspects of an idea or concept with each iteration. Others are satirical in intent. With these poems, the use of epigraphs to lend context appears necessary. Others, however (like the piece on Derrida) seem to aspire more to create a self-sufficient poetic ‘world’ in miniature.