‘Not So Much a Thought’ explores the real or professed dichotomies between thought and feeling, mind and body, the personal and the universal to consider the general relationship between philosophy and poetry. Beginning with Brook Emery’s own poetry and broadening to consider the views of Romantic and modern poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wallace Stevens, Robert Gray), literary critics (Samuel Johnson, Marjorie Perloff, Hank Lazer) and philosophers (Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) it argues that philosophy and poetry are not antagonistic, as has often been assumed, but that they are different ways of thinking and saying. It concludes that a poem is inevitably a form of reasoning even if it does not employ, in Heidegger’s phrase, ‘the logic of calculating reason’.
Keywords: poetry – lyric – philosophy – thought – Brook Emery
I’ll begin with a poem of my own from the collection Misplaced heart.
Letter While Flying
The world’s reduced to a cabin window,
now sea-coast, now cloud, now interrupted
sandy tracks under foreshortened trees, and height is
more dislocation than detachment, the uneasy trust
that must be given to technology if we wish to escape
the down below. It’s so smooth at 30,000 feet.
I’ve decided, I mean to tell you, I hate flying too.
It’s the take-off, the way the engines tense themselves
and charge, the same and opposite as abandonment
to a wave—there’s no contact going up, apart from;
not like going down and into. Flying’s a cryogenic state,
straight-line stimulation, the brain cells dropping out
as air filters in. I hope there’s more to death than this.
You know the way sparrows flying in formation
suddenly agree to make patterns of their own,
then just as suddenly coalesce as though their many bodies
had a single mind or at least a single purpose?
Perhaps we look like that to birds, distance lending shape
to randomness. No matter how connection
attenuates, originality can only be defined
as degrees of unravelment from the flock.
It’s different on a plane, a rigid pattern has been imposed
by need. It’s silly to kick against necessity or the
obviousness of thought, the way it flukes and flits.
Billy Wilder had ten rules for making films.
Rules one through nine: don’t be boring. Rule ten,
I forget. Where does that leave Beckett,
Proust, big chunks of Joyce or almost
any thought—I’m scared to think of poems, at best
third-rate philosophy, someone said. Writing about
thinking about thinking by writing of something else.
I see no alternative to this trajectory. We’ll land,
brakes straining to absorb the re-connection. (Emery 2003: 18)
I’m not going to claim this is philosophy, even third-rate philosophy, just because it alludes to Plato’s characterisation of poetry as ‘at the third generation from nature’. It is a light-hearted poem but I hope it touches lightly on serious concerns. It’s about perception and perspective; about our relationship to the world; about the individual’s connection to the mass; about art; about Aristotle’s claim that ‘man is the rational animal’, and the unexpected places the mind goes when we start thinking.
That’s a big weight for a little poem to bear. It is immediately obvious that this poem engages with the processes of thinking. To become grand once again, and mischievous, I could claim it is an illustration of David Hume’s observation that ‘there appear to be only three principles of connection among ideas, namely resemblance, contiguity in time or place, and cause or effect’ (2004: 13). I wonder if the same principles could be applied to the nature of lyric poetry.
I’ll proceed to self-revelation. I don’t know what philosophy is. And for that matter I don’t know what a poem is. Perhaps it’s an instance of I know one when I see one or, like St Augustine on time, I know what it is until someone asks me to explain. Whatever the case, I don’t want to get into definitional and boundary disputes as there are polemicists who spit ‘that ain’t poetry’ darts at each other, and I’m sure if you walk the cloisters of our great universities you occasionally hear shouts of, ‘Up against the wall, Metaphysician’ or ‘Et tu Wittgenstein’.
However, one assumption underlying what I am saying is that these days the word ‘poetry’ is virtually synonymous with lyric poetry. I’d contend that what the average poetry punter assumes to be a poem is a largely unquestioned amalgam of romantic and modernist principles, say, a mix ‘n’ match of Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ (1950: 693) and William Carlos Williams’s ‘no ideas but in things’ (Wagner 1976: 65). In A Glossary of literary terms M.H. Abrams defines the lyric as ‘any fairly short poem uttered by a single speaker who expresses a state of mind or a process of perception, thought and feeling’ (1981: 201). The fraught relationship between thought and feeling, common to poetry and philosophy, has engendered much antagonism as exemplified in this quotation from the American critic Marjorie Perloff writing of the 1970s:
the production of poetry had become a bland cottage industry, designed for those whose intellect was not up to reading Barthes or Foucault or Kristeva. The feeling / intellect split had probably never been wider (2001: 3).
By 1996, when Hank Lazer writes Opposing poetries, the gap between feeling and intellect is, in his opinion, even wider:
Today’s crisis in American poetry, marked by a broad sense of stagnation and growing critical discomfort, consists of the collision between two incompatible notions of verse practice: one characterised by a plainspoken sincerity, a focus on apotheosis, a single organising self and/or voice, lyrical brevity, carefully crafted vowel and consonant music, a kind of representational realism, and liberal politics; the other characterised by stylistic innovation, increased attention to the operations of language, enactment rather than representation or summary, a poetry infused with the thinking of modernist and contemporary theory, philosophy, and speculative prose, a more intensely collaborative concept of the reader, and neo-Marxist politics (1996: 34).
In other words you have to choose between (the common conception of) poetry as personal, particular and an overflow of spontaneous emotions—which in Plato’s terms blind mankind to the real truth and therefore justify the banishment of poets from the Republic—and (a less-common conception of) poetry as abstract, self-conscious and concerned with ideas, perhaps a poetry that, in Aristotle’s terms, tries to depict things in their universal character. It is clear which poetry Lazer prefers but I baulk at such either/or conceptions—good poetry crosses Lazer’s boundaries all the time.
To consider the way the divorce between poetry and philosophy has been represented, here are three well-known quotations from famous poets. In the early-19th century, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats writes, ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination—what the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth’ (1964: 176). A few months later he writes to John Hamilton Reynolds, ‘axioms in philosophy are not axioms till they are proved upon our pulses’. At the beginning of the 17th century, Shakespeare has Hamlet say to Horatio, a representative of sense and reason, perhaps of Enlightenment thought, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ (1963: 166-7). These are all apparent denials of the possibility of profound knowledge through the application of reason alone.
Samuel Johnson gives a commonsense definition of poetry that goes some way to mending the divide between thought and feeling, reason and imagination when he writes, ‘Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason' (1961: 426). Lucy Niall complicates this for our century by reminding us that ‘truth’ is now considered to be ‘unpresentable, relative, multiple, textual, rhetorical, metaphorical, contingent, gendered, situational, cultural, perspectival, heterogenous, rhizomatic, discontinuous and in every conceivable sense open to interpretation and dispute’ (1997: 228). Just like any poem in fact. She also reminds us that the literary text can be seen as an analogue of the unconscious and of the structuralist theory of language, and that both psychoanalysis and structuralism are part of the romantic heritage of postmodern literary theory in that they represent a ‘return to the romantic opposition to reason’ (1997: 243) and to the claim that literature can say what philosophy cannot. The corollory would be that philosophy can say what poetry cannot. Just as plausibly it could be argued that philosophy and poetry can say similar things but in different ways.
However, in the modes in which they are most often characterised, are poets thought of as competitors rather than as collaborators with philosophers? In Creativity Kevin Brophy quotes Freud, in 1907, praising creative writers as:
valuable allies [whose] evidence is to be praised highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not let us dream. In their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people, for they draw upon sources which we haven’t yet opened up for science. (1998: p. 58)
But then he quotes Freud saying, in 1917, that an artist ‘desires wine, honour, power, wealth, fame and the love of women’ but lacking the means to achieve them ‘transfers all his interests, and his libido too, to the wishful constructions of his life of phantasy, whence the path might lead to neurosis’ (1998: p. 58). So, as artists, poets have special knowledge but, not being scientists, being instead infantile or neurotic, they construct fantasies rather than truths. Of course, many areas not opened to science in 1907 are open in 2006, though I note one scientist has said recently that, with regard to our knowledge of the brain, we are at the same point now as we were with the body when the great anatomists were carving up corpses in the 16th century. Despite this, it could be argued that the antagonists are not poetry and philosophy but science, on one side, and poetry, philosophy, psychiatry and religion on the other. I think, once again, this is a false and unnecessary dichotomy and that all these divisions are limiting.
In his short story, The hill of evil counsel, Israeli novelist Amos Oz presents a romantic, pastoral vision of poetry when he has a literature teacher describe one of his student’s recitations thus: ‘Ruth’s voice … echoes the spirit of poetry, eternally playing among streams in a meadow’ and goes on to say, ‘If gazelles could sing, they would surely sing like little Ruth’ (1993: 24). Here poetry is escape or consolation, either imitation of nature or a cultural refinement of nature. It is not thinking. A page earlier, a different character comes to his senses when he says:
Poetry. Philosophizing. A pleasure garden with overhanging vines, all of a sudden. Now I’ll go and fetch a block of ice, and you must lie down and rest, so you won’t have a migraine again tonight. It’s so hot (1993: 23).
Both poetry and philosophy are made irrelevant and self-indulgent by blunt reality, by commonsense, by heat and migraines.
The Romantics were, allegedly, vehement in their rejection of science which they regarded as the opponent of both God and nature, the source and subject of much of their lyrical output. Wordsworth did write ‘We murder to dissect’ but, referring to Aristotle in the introduction to the second edition of Lyrical ballads, he also wrote, ‘Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing; … its object is truth, not individual and local, but general and operative’ (1950: 686) and considers that ‘the remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or the Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed’ (1950: 688). For Wordsworth, ‘all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ but he adds ‘and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced … but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply, … For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts’ (1950: 678). And what do we make of Coleridge who named one son Hartley after the associational psychologist, another Berkeley after the subjective idealist philosopher, and a third Derwent after a box of pencils?
If we fast forward to the end of the 20th century we find the physicist Steven Weinberg saying:
The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless … what we are learning about physical laws seems coldly impersonal and gives no hint of meaning or purpose. (2003: 47)
In this view we are not in need of local truth or verifiable and repeatable fact—the provinces of science—we are looking for, or in need of, purpose and meaning—the traditional province of religion. How might poetry and philosophy respond to these twin challenges of religion and science to explain or elucidate? I’ll partly explain by quoting Wallace Stevens from 1946:
If people are to become dependent on poetry for any of the fundamental satisfactions, poetry must have an increasing intellectual scope and power. This is a time for the highest poetry. We never understood the world less than we do now nor, as we understand it, liked it less. We never wanted to understand it more or needed to like it more. These are the intense compulsions that challenge the poet as the appreciatory creator of values and beliefs. (1996: 526)
To be relevant, poetry must have intellectual scope and power and poets should be challenging, at least authentically questioning (I am thinking of Socrates, and of Heidegger), ingrained values and beliefs, thinking beyond the familiar chains of words and thoughts, beyond dogma, cliché, platitude, advertising and spin. When our language is so demeaned, and our thinking so deluded that ‘kill’ can be ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’or ‘pacify’, and dead people are ‘collateral damage’, then we are certainly in need of the highest poetry, of ‘thoughtful dwelling’ within language (Heidegger 1971) and of reason beyond rationalisation. We don’t need popular poetry or popular philosophy if that means diluting substance and patronising readers, we need poetry and philosophy which respect readers’ capacities to understand and appreciate and endeavour to build bridges between the realities of migraine and ice and the equal realities of thought.
Robert Gray’s ‘The Drift of Things’, from the collection Afterimages, is an unusual poem in the divided climate I have been describing. It does not fit easily into either of the ‘poetries’—the one simple, concrete, personal and emotional; the other abstract, complex and speculative—which Hank Lazer identified earlier. It begins:
Things, Berkeley says, are the language of God,
this world that we know is really His thoughts–
which Hume remarked brings us no conviction,
but to me is almost justified,
for things are worthy of such existence,
of ultimate stature. It often seems
I am listening to them. What could it mean,
that intuition? I think the appeal
is their candour, it’s the lack of concern
at being so vulnerable. So we sense
they are present entire. One feels these things
that step through the days with us have the fullness,
in each occasion, of reality.
The clouds on water; in reeds, a boardwalk;
a bus that rides the dust like a surfboard;
the lizard, tail hung from a mailbox drum,
inert, all a long-shadowed afternoon;
the planks through mud, from where chickens’ pollard
is thrown; the skirmishing of cherry trees
in bloom, with sabres of wind; the warped length
of a boat on the beach, as if replete,
that’s warmed by morning; the cobwebs of foam
on the shore; or an avenue of trees
to exalted snow–these are each itself
and no other thing. It’s plurality
we experience, it is differences,
not the smear of Oneness–the haecceity
we knew as children. (This is mysticism
for materialists.) Glad animals,
for us phenomena were then enough;
we took variety and relations
as literally, we’d find out later,
as William James had enjoined us to do.
We were so awed, so entranced, in childhood
by objects’ insistence, to us they’ve seemed
sufficient. That ‘concrete particulars’
are basic existence was something that we’d
have agreed with Aristotle about. (2002: 52-3)
Is this philosophy or poetry? Many people, I think, would recognise the beginning of the second stanza as poetry because of the succession of images and similes, but some, readers and poets alike, would be uncertain about the status, or at least the success, of the other lines I have quoted. This is an important poem. At times it is discursive and abstract; at other times it is full of concrete particulars. It is long (nine pages) and written in blank verse. It is directly concerned with philosophy and philosophers who are not fashionable now (the poetry Lazer referred to would be more likely to have derived from Derrida). In one sense ‘The Drift of Things’ is old-fashioned: Wordsworth stands close at its shoulder and there are echoes of Wordsworth in its sound. Afterimages won, I think, two of Australia’s major literary awards but, as far as I know, this poem received scant attention in the reviews. In Heat Jeffrey Poacher happily comments on Gray’s imagism observing that ‘emotion and intellect are generally absent from this process of observation’ (2003: 226) but when he comes to ‘The Drift of Things’ he criticises it as ‘striving for an aphoristic profundity’ (2003: 228) and considers that here ‘the fog becomes too thick’:
One can admire Gray’s fortitude in grappling with concepts of such mind-warping complexity, but it is very difficult to pin down what the poem is trying to say. Indeed, the closing lines appear to endorse an anti-rationalist position – which might be thought a curious result, given that the pale glow of philosophy’s lamp is what seemed to have inspired the poem in the first place. At the very least the poem demands considerable patience from its readers (2003: 228).
Why shouldn’t it? And why should this poem prove so difficult for the reviewer? I think the answer might have something to do with expectation. The poem is not doing what a poem is comonly expected to do. It is not the short lyric about a personal experience.
The last lines of ‘The Drift of Things’ are:
But this is metaphor. Nothing endures.
What strikes us most of things is their strangeness,
and how speak of that, but through metaphor?
In seeing things now, it’s as if they’re lost
already. They’ve seemed to me a pathos,
whether met calmly or in exultance.
They pass along the edge of darkness,
are glimpsed from highways, changing, as we’re changed.
The trees wear peculiar significance
in their group on a hilltop or a plain.
These things that are more than just what is found …
Behind a shed, low ridges, and great clouds;
a gravel lane; pale sun on dusty grass;
the broken pailings and the wire netting;
a gate, towards dim, venuous forest;
the canal with swallow. Marvellous phantoms.
No thoughts could approach their attendance here. (2002: 59-60)
The last line might be interpreted as anti-rationalist but this does not make it, or the poem, anti-philosophic. In one sense Gray has been supporting empiricism against rationalism, using sense experience and a posteriori reasoning rather than the a priori reasoning of the rationalists, to consider the problem of how we can escape the content of our own thoughts to acquire knowledge of the world outside us. The poem is a confrontation with ‘Being’. In Heidegger’s terms such poetry is the essence of philosophy which is to be thoughtful and full of wonder. Through metaphor, Heidegger says, poets alter the perception and reception of things so that there is an unveiling or an uncovering which goes beyond assumption. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms what is happening in ‘The Drift of Things’ is, to my mind, the paradox of transcendence in immanence.
A poem, inevitably, is an argument, a form of reasoning, whether it makes its argument discursively, as Gray does, or more enigmatically as, say, Ezra Pound does in the famous poem, ‘In a Station of the Metro’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
This poem violates the conventions of the lyric as previously defined: there is no identified ‘I’ to speak the poem, no thoughts and feelings. There is just the juxtaposition of the three images. But doesn’t the reader assume a speaker/observer? And in our contemplation of the images don’t we consider questions of likeness and unlikeness, recall similar observations of our own, feel something—maybe mixed senses of melancholy, beauty and alienation—and wonder about the meaning/significance of the yoking of images of the technological, the human and the natural? Isn’t this a romantic poem by other means? Aren’t the images lyrical? I can’t tell you what the conclusion of this argument is—I am not led there by a series of irrefutably logical steps—but I am certainly thinking about the connotations of that largely abstract word, ‘apparitions’ and thinking about my experience of the world rather than taking it for granted.
I have been talking of the poet as philosopher or, at least, thinker. Now I want to briefly consider Heidegger’s reversed formulation, ‘The Thinker as Poet’, perhaps the little ‘poem’ that begins:
When the little windwheel
outside the cabin window
sings in the gathering
thunderstorm … (the ellipses are Heidegger’s)
and whose third stanza reads:
As soon as we have the
thing before our eyes, and
in our hearts an ear for
the word, thinking
(all extracts reproduced from Heidegger’s ‘The Thinker as Poet’ are taken from: http://thefloatinglibrary.com/2008/06/30/the-thinker-as-poet-by-heidegger/ )
I’m resisting the temptation to quote reams of Heidegger at this point but I can’t resist quoting in full the succeeding two poems, or sections of the long poem that is ‘The Thinker as Poet’:
When through a rent in the
rain-clouded sky a ray of the
sun suddenly glides
over the gloom of the
We never come to thoughts.
They come to us.
That is the proper hour of
Discourse cheers us to
Such reflection neither
parades polemical opinions nor
does it tolerate complaisant
agreement. The sail of
thinking keeps trimmed hard
to the wind of the matter.
This would not surprise Keats of the letters quoted earlier; neither is it too far from the thought trajectory of Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ where the concrete image of the fire in the grate becomes the occasion for abstract thought and reflection. I don’t think it would upset Pound or Williams. Nor would Robert Gray demur at the linkage between thinking and things, especially the last, neatly turned metaphor. The next poem reads:
When the wind, shifting quickly,
grumbles in the rafters of the cabin,
weather threatens to become
Three dangers threaten
The good and thus wholesome
danger is the nighness of the
The evil and thus keenest
danger is thinking itself. It
must think against itself,
which it can only seldom
The bad and thus muddled
and I might add ‘poeticising’, the making of pretty illustrations. I’m not sure what Heidegger means by thinking that thinks against itself but it might be thinking that examines its own processes, allows for alternative possibilities, ambiguities and contradictions, is, in fact, as open as the best poetry. The American poet Jack Gilbert advises poets not to impose thoughts on a poem but to think as a poem thinks which is not ‘the logic of calculating reason’ (Heidegger 1971) but is thinking nonetheles, and reasoning by other means.
Poetry should not be thought of as antipathetic to reason either in its composition or its reading. Poetry has as much to fear from any retreat from reason as philosophy. As, I think, do all of us in this strange time when the precision of science and the traditions of religion are increasingly challenged by quasi-science and New Age mysticism, when philosophy seems to be equated with self-help tracts and poetry with Hallmark greeting cards. In How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world, Francis Wheen recounts what happens when the term ‘The Enlightenment’ is typed into the search engine at Amazon.com (2004: 6). Fifteen hundred books come up but many of them have titles such as Crystal enlightenment: the transforming properties of crystals and healing stones or Golf for enlightenment: playing the game in the garden of eden. The sleep of reason does bring forth monsters. But, alone, reason is not enough. At about the same time as Descartes was inventing rationalism, Pascal was discovering the human heart, and, really, none of us needed to wait for Antonio Damassio’s Descartes' error (1995) or The feeling of what happens (1999) to know that we have an emotional brain. Cognitive research does not announce the end of poetry or philosophy, or of debates between humanism and religion, but it should certainly make us reconsider the false dichotomy between thought and feeling, mind and body, with which I began this talk.
In ‘On Poesy or Art’ Coleridge defined art as ‘a middle quality between a thought and a thing, or … the union and reconciliation of that which is nature and that which is exclusively human. It is the figured language of thought, and it is distinguished from nature by the unity of all parts in one thought or idea’ (1958: 254-55). He goes on to assert that ‘body is but a striving to become mind—that it is mind in its essence!’ (1958: 257-58). Now you might, I might, quibble about whether that unified organic conception of poetry is too restrictive and whether the last assertion could be reversed to read ‘mind is body in its essence’. Questions such as these, aesthetic and philosophic, are the ones that I try to explore in the seven loose, untitled, unrhymed ‘mind’ sonnets which, to further mix the body parts, form the spine of the collection, Misplaced heart.
Misplaced heart has no interest in transcendence, though many of the speculations are metaphysical. It considers the physical, sensory world to be all we have and to be mysterious and amazing enough. It seeks the numinous in the phenomenological and immanent, in the interactions between mind, body and world, without recourse to a god or any spiritual entity. It assumes we are Pascal’s ‘thinking reeds’ and therefore have to think and that the insights of science and philosophy are an essential part of that process. It thinks that there is no purpose to life beyond the material, the present, and the purposive acts we undertake. The ‘mind’ poems are, in one sense, definitional. Each begins ‘The mind is’ followed by a metaphor. Each is concerned with a different way of figuring the nature, apprehension, and processes of the mind. The first began when I was sitting on the beach watching a small bird beating into an onshore wind. How the observed bird became a metaphor for the mind, I don’t know. It wasn’t a result of conscious thought. A version of the first two lines—‘The mind is a small bird hovering / to outface a wind blowing from the sea’—appeared in my head some days later. I have no truck with ideas of inspiration or the Muse, either literally or metaphorically. My assumption is that the lines evolved unconsciously because my brain was flitting around ideas about the nature of the mind and, serendipitously, the thoughts, the feelings, and the memory of the experience were yoked together with or by words to produce the image. Then the conscious brain took over—experimenting, rejecting, considering—to shape the lines and to develop the image into a poem. The ‘mind’ poems make metaphorical, surreal and irrational leaps as part of a reasoned poetic argument in which the images and the line breaks—the connections and disconnections—are the method. They observe some of the strictures of the form of the sonnet and violate others. I hope they are in keeping with Howard Nemerov’s description of a poem as ‘not so much a thought, or a series of thoughts, as it is a mind’ (1978: 103) because this phrase captures, for me, the senses of risk, uncertainty and inquisitiveness that make poetry lively and interesting.
I’ll quote one of these ‘mind’ poems as an example of what I have been arguing here. It begins with the operations of the body, mixes-up common pre-Socratic conjectures of the breath as soul or mind, as formulated by Democritus, Diogenes and Heraclitus, and then jumps, in the third stanza, to bring together Kant, quoted in the starry skies image, and Wittgenstein, alluded to in the reference to words, to consider the relationships between exterior and interior worlds and language before the juxtaposition of a 20th century image of bodies, perhaps film noir, responding to instinct or desire, with an idealised image of beauty, represented in art.
Without knowing it at the time of writing this poem, might I have been doing phenomenology by wondering about consciousness, perception, thought, imagination, desire, volition, bodily awareness, embodied action and linguistic action? Might I have been exploring, by different means and in a different context, some of the issues that Merleau-Ponty investigated? I do agree with his argument that neither empiricism nor rationalism, by themselves, are able to adequately explain the human condition. I also agree that the usual dichotomies—mind and body, self and world, touching and being touched, looking and being looked at, being both sentient and sensible—are not sustainable in the sense of being either mutually exclusive or hierarchical but exist, rather, in a shifting interdependence which involves divergence, convergence, overlapping and encroachment. I certainly feel that my existence as consciousness, as Being, is inseparable from my body and this world.
To all of which information external to the poem you should say, ‘So what?’. A poem is not a tissue of allusions or quotations and gains no status because it references some philosopher or other. If it is to work, if it is to work on the reader, it must work without a necessary knowledge of such references. I hope this poem doesn’t appear to know or to tell, for as Anthony Kerrigan in his introduction to Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones writes, ‘in literature it is only necessary to outline the steps. Let the people dance!’ (Borges 1962: 10). And I would like readers to dance as much as think. I’ve tried your patience for long enough. Here’s the poem: good, bad or indifferent, it’s all I could do:
The mind is a body breathing in unconsciously
and consciously breathing out, an imperceptible
pause between the operations, coming near to full
and just as near to empty, always something
left behind or a space to fill, dying a little
and being born again, the warm exhalation
like gently beating wings passing from a cloud,
cooler, fine-grained wind entering like a ghost:
an interchange between the starry skies above
and the moral law within, words assembling
as if they might be things in-and-of themselves,
while a ceiling fan revolves above two sweating,
naked figures in a cheap hotel, and entwined zephyrs
blow Botticelli’s Venus across a choppy sea.
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