Poetry, Language, and Propositions

Continuing on the poetry theme: in my upper-level seminar on Philosophy of Language & Interpretation, we've been talking about different "registers" of truth that map onto different uses of language. The sort of truth that is effected in poetry and literature is not reducible to the register of truth that is captured in propositions and syllogisms. Poetry does something different than an argument; but that doesn't mean it isn't "true." Only a kind of propositional imperialism would reduce truth to the mode of assertion.

In the course, we're going to work through these issues by reading Wittgenstein then diving into Nicole Krauss' novel, The History of Love. But this poem that I just read in the New Yorker also hints at these issues, in just the sort of way that can't be elucidated in propositional form:

by Albert Goldbarth

The sky is random. Even calling it “sky”
is an attempt to make a meaning, say,
a shape, from the humanly visible part
of shapelessness in endlessness. It’s what
we do, in some ways it’s entirely what
we do—and so the devastating rose

of a galaxy’s being born, the fatal lamé
of another’s being torn and dying, we frame
in the lenses of our super-duper telescopes the way
we would those other completely incomprehensible
fecund and dying subjects at a family picnic.
Making them “subjects.” “Rose.” “Lamé.” The way

our language scissors the enormity to scales
we can tolerate. The way we gild and rubricate
in memory, or edit out selectively.
An infant’s gentle snoring, even, apportions
the eternal. When they moved to the boonies,
Dorothy Wordsworth measured their walk

to Crewkerne—then the nearest town—
by pushing a device invented especially
for such a project, a “perambulator”: seven miles.
Her brother William pottered at his daffodils poem.
Ten thousand saw I at a glance: by which he meant
too many to count, but could only say it in counting.