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.


The Poetry of Donald Hall

Having posted about poetry over at Fors Clavigera, I thought it might be appropriate to share some recent poetry reading.

By the way, did I ever share one of my treasured little "poetic" experiences from York? Well, one of the things that characterizes a robust "newspaper culture" in England is stiff competition; and one of the outworkings of that is an incessant stream of promotional hooks and gimmicks to attract buyers. For example, the Sunday papers will regularly feature DVDs of classic movies, or a series of small glossy booklets on gardening or cosmology, etc. While we were there, my favorite paper, The Guardian, ran a fabulous promotion: "Great Poets of the Twentieth Century." For seven days straight, the paper included a small booklet of poems by some of the greats: Frost, Sassoon, Plath, Ted Hughes, TS Eliot, Larkin, and Seamus Heaney. This was capped off with a CD of the poets doing select readings. Like a boy collecting box tops for a magic decoder ring, I saved up mastheads of the paper to then send away for a free storage box for the set. It now sits here in our living room as a wonderful reminder of our time in York--and a very nice anthology of some great poems.

Over the past couple months, though, I've been enjoying the poetry of former Poet Laureate, Donald Hall, as collected in White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems from 1946-2006. Hall is a laureate of nature, especially New England's nature. But he's not a romantic. In fact, one will sometimes find oneself jarred by his grittiness and honesty about relationships. But he can also just be a charmer, giving us lyric that simply elicits a smile--until you start thinking about it, and realize more's going on here. Take, for instance, a fairly recent poem, "Olives" (apparently you can listen to it here):
"Dead people don't like olives,"
I told my partners in eighth grade
dancing class, who never listened
as we fox-trotted, one-two, one-two.

The dead people I often consulted
nodded their skulls in unison
while I flung my black velvet cape
over my shoulders and glowered
from deep-set, burning eyes,
walking the city streets, alone at fifteen,
crazy for cheerleaders and poems.

At Hamden High football games, girls
in short pleated skirts
pranced and kicked, and I longed
for their memorable thighs.
They were friendly--poets were mascots--
but never listened when I told them
that dead people didn't like olives.

Instead the poet, wearing the cape,
continued to prowl in solitude
intoning inscrutable stanzas
as halfbacks and tackles
made out, Friday nights after football,
on sofas in dark-walled rec rooms
with magnanimous cheerleaders.

But, decades later, when the dead
have stopped blathering
about olives, obese halfbacks wheeze
upstairs to sleep beside cheerleaders
waiting for hip replacements,
while a lascivious, doddering poet,
his burning eyes deep-set
in wrinkles, cavorts with their daughters.

(Revenge of the poets!)

But most moving in this collection are those poems written after the death of Hall's wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, particularly those collected in "Letters Without Addresses." The letters chronicle a year of mourning that cycles with the seasons as articulated in the rhythms of Jane's garden (an image particularly haunting for me, as I think of Deanna's gardens that adorn our house and life) and the snow that buries her grave.
Do you remember our first
January at Eagle Pond,
the coldest in a century?
It dropped to thirty-eight below--
with no furnace, no storm
windows or insulation.
We sat reading or writing
in our two big chairs, either
side of the Glenwood,
and made love on the floor
with the stove open and roaring.
You were twenty eight.
If someone had told us then
you would die in nineteen years,
would it have sounded
like almost enough time?