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  • On The Philosophy of Poetry, ed. John Gibson
  • A. J. Nickerson

The Philosophy of Poetry. “Of” intimates something more than copular coexistence. This could be the systematic and propositional attempt to define what poetry is, subjecting poetry to philosophical investigation with its distinctive questions and processes of inquiry. As a literary critic, however, I heard the title The Philosophy of Poetry as an assertion of poetry’s discursive, cognitive value: it suggests there are varieties of philosophic thought, of which one might be the poetic organization of understanding. Between these inversions there are less exclusive (and less partisan) ways of imagining the relationship. The philosophy of poetry could be the attitude it assumes toward the world—its disinterested revelation of truth, or ruminating consideration of it, or resistance to its pressures. It could be the Aristotelian virtue of practical poetic commitment to propriety, discipline, and truthfulness. Or, following Heidegger, it could be poetry’s metaphysical work of measuring man’s existence in the world.

One might expect (I did) this ambiguous coordination to be a strategic move to reconfigure the relation of philosophy and poetry through attention to the subtleties of their coexistence and interference. In practice, however, this volume is oriented away from the idiosyncratic particulars of poetry and toward establishing the philosophy of literature [End Page 309] as a subset of philosophy, using poetry to correct the earlier prose-heavy studies and so “attain the expansiveness and openness our friends in other areas of analytic aesthetics have already achieved.”1 The book presupposes analytic philosophy to be the basic and proper model of enquiry. Ten of the twelve essays are by members of philosophy faculties: John Gibson, Peter Lamarque, Ronald de Sousa, Jesse Prinz and Eric Mandelbaum, Sherri Irvin, Simon Blackburn, Anna Christina Soy Ribeiro, Roger Scruton, Alison Denham, and Richard Eldridge. Only Angela Leighton and Tzachi Zamir represent the literature department. They draw on a few philosophers (Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Wollheim) and repeatedly cite other contributors (Richard Eldridge’s Beyond Representation: Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination, Peter Lamarque’s The Philosophy of Literature).

This in-house—or rather, in-faculty—execution of a project that is necessarily cross-disciplinary is symptomatic of a low view of what literary criticism and literature might contribute to philosophy. This finds expression in the volume’s confessed reluctance to engage with poetry. De Sousa—at once pleased and saddened by his antipathy but typical in it—describes how he once “did passionately want to be a poet” but is now “only an occasional and always a highly prejudiced reader of poetry” (p. 37). Irvin in her essay on “unreadable poems” laments having to “consort with so many unfriendly poems” (p. 92). On the occasions when poems are included, choice seems circumscribed by a limited and popular acquaintance with poetry—Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

Unsurprisingly, this inattention to poetry corresponds to a clumsiness in handling texts. This is evident in the apparently hasty editing of the volume, which is riddled with misspellings, lacunae, and ugly footnoting. The literary critic will also find it evident in some crude oversimplifications about literary history (Lamarque’s discussion of “supposed commonplaces about poetry”) and poetic effect (Prinz and Mandelbaum: “Rossetti uses rhyme and repetition to create a sense of rhythm” [p. 72]).

This hampers the project of an analytic critique of poetry. Prinz and Mandelbaum’s essay “Poetic Opacity: How to Paint Things with Words” is a badly spliced and uneven composition. It is also desperately limited in its appreciation of poetic effect: we are told “the form of a poem is heightened,” “enjambment heightens the reader’s attention,” “bodily imagery … heightens the readers’ attention to sensation,” and “perceptual idioms … heighten the sensual feel” (pp. 79–81; my italics). This [End Page 310] heightening argues for an intensification of attention without observing the intricately differentiated phenomena, or explaining how or why these compositional aspects have this effect on our interest and engagement, or why they direct our embodied, subjective awareness of poetic experience. Consequently, this impoverished lexicon constrains the degree of refinement possible in aesthetic evaluation and, therefore, in the analytic study of poetry.

At this point the literary...


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pp. 309-314
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