Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The first thing we do, let's kill all the poets


“We are, at all events, aware that such poetry mustn't be taken seriously as a serious thing laying hold of truth, but that the man who hears it must be careful, fearing for the regime in himself, and must hold what we have said about poetry.” — Republic, Plato.

from Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy



Buried in the Wall: When Poetry, Philosophy, and Faith Converge
Alan Birkelbach (Texas Poet Laureate 2005)
Dallas Philosophers' Forum, March 24, 2009 (presented @ Two Guys From Italy)

Poetry and Philosophy are viewed as opposites, that is, Poetry is generally considered an emotionally-centered discipline and Philosophy an academic-driven one. And Faith tends to keep feet firmly planted on both sides. But what are the questions that arise when all three converge? Does poetry become a philosophical tool? Can poetry become inseparable from faith? Can poetry become worth dying for? Can fervor and passion co-exist with rational thought? These, and other questions, will be examined in this high-level overview of the issues that arise when the lines between faith, philosophy, and poetry blur.


This was the first time I've attended a talk/reading by a poet laureate. I've seen U.S. poet laureates Robert Pinsky (in an extensive lecture) and Billy Collins, of course, in C-SPAN2 BookTv broadcast and video.

It was a very nice talk (by a poet whose poems I would like to read more of*) with several examples of poetry (including Chinese and Middle Eastern). I was getting the idea, getting to the subject of the talk, that the thrust of the talk was that poetry, somehow, was some sort of reconciliation of philosophy and faith — a "restoration" of faith in the otherwise faith-barren halls of philosophy. Or something like that.

I have, I think, something of a contrary view. I see philosophy (viewed historically) as a battle between idealism and materialism — between Platonism and anti-Platonism — and poets definitely being in the "anti-Platonism" camp. (Plato hated poets — for good reason! Alan Birkelbach, responding to my question "Which camp are poets in?" at the end of the talk, thought they live in both camps. But I don't know.) This battle between rhetoric (Platonism) and poetry lives on today in philosophy in the "conflict" between "the analytics" and "the postmodernists". I see, even when they are writing about God and that sort of stuff, poets as being the "bad boy" — not to be trusted — closet postmodern materialists, whether in the past or now.

The other thing Alan Birkelbach talked about was the "love" poets have always had for alcoholic indulgence (though his muse thrived on coffee). Ironically, his talk was presented under the restaurant's ceiling adorned with dozens of hanging straw-covered wine bottles.

And I learned this: In Texas, the stipend the legislature pays for the position of Texas Poet Laureate is $0. I suppose they consider that poetic justice.

__________________
* from Texas Poetry Calendar 2008

"Early in the Morning, on the Road, near Franklin, Texas"
By Alan Birkelbach

Her skirt clings to her the way fog clings to a flower.
Her legs are curled up, her sleeping face soft like a saint.
Driving for hours a man thinks about how things are measured,
about how coffee always tastes better in small towns.

Her legs are curled up, her sleeping face soft like a saint.
St. Augustine said the eye is attracted to beautiful objects.
Coffee always tastes better in small towns;
the treasures of the destination make us take the trip.

St. Augustine said the eye is attracted to beautiful objects.
The full moon makes her skin glow like a statue.
The treasures en route make us take the trip.
I start out thinking in terms of miles and hours

but the full moon makes her skin translucent like a statue.
Her breathing is as fragrant and sure as moonflowers
and I stop thinking in terms of miles and hours.
She’ll wake up in a little while and touch me with her bare toe.

But for now, her breathing is as fragrant as moonflowers.
Driving for hours a man thinks about what makes things holy.
She’ll wake up in a little while and bless me with her bare toe,
her skirt clinging to her the way fog caresses a flower.