Four Problems Presented by Poetry
1. Poetry presents a problem in philosophy
Consider the image and the poem that follow:
Seeking her release
she closes her eyes,
hurls herself over the
cliff and into the clouds.
Expecting to plunge into
black waters and despair,
she discovers her wings.
If text and image are interchangeable, would one be redundant? If text and image are unique, would one not cancel the other? If they interplay, how could we understand either when one is removed?
If a poem objectively correlates to a real experience or emotion, should we not seek the epiphany rather than the poem?
2. Poetry presents a problem in physics
Is a poem a free-floating concept, or a chemical navigating the brain? Do we owe Byzantium to Yeats’ endorphins? Skunk Hour to a sleep-deprived brain?
Where do poems deposit meaning? Is it stored in the left brain’s databanks within a cloud of electrons, some charged, some not?
What if an electron spins out of orbit, changing a word from “-+++---- -++-++++ -++--+-+ -++-++-+” to “-++-++--
-++-++++ -+++-++- -+++-+--,” or scramble positions and create, “-++-++-+ -++-++++ -+++---- -++--+-+?”
If a poem can be reduced to brain states, how do we judge it? Do better poems traverse neurons with less resistance? Do they shed the interference of electro-chemical noise? Are they superconductive, less likely to accrete spurious or superfluous interpretation?
How do brains transmit poems? Do essential electrons peel off from orbit, tunnel through bone and blossom into parallel realities in parallel brains? Or is a poem like a tachyon, boring into our dimly remembered pasts and triggering images into our futures?
3. Poetry presents a problem in metaphysics
To a logician X = X.
To a physicist X = X if, and only if, X truly = X.
To an empiricist, if X has always equaled X in the past, it will most likely do so now, at least until we find precedent-setting examples where it does not.
To the Chinese X = 4, an imperfect number, although, at one time, they believed X = 5.
To most poets X = a very dry experience, best avoided altogether.
Let me offer a second example for our consideration:
The poetry of Wallace Stevens demonstrates that each instance of X expresses a rich an unprecedented moment, one best savored like a French Pinot with your lover on an autumn evening in the New England countryside.
Does this explain the lived experience of poetry or raise additional questions? For instance, is the experience of drinking the Pinot the same as reading the poem which evokes it? Put more simply is X equal to the Pinot or the poem?
Brief segue or, perhaps, a non-sequitur
Poets scoff at rigid X, preferring to embrace more ambiguous metaphor. Fair is fair. For most of the twentieth century, philosophers snubbed their noses at metaphor, calling it ﬂaccid and imprecise. They frequently referred to metaphors as “poetry and nonsense.”
Nonsense, needless to say, comprises the primordial matter of the universe. How appropriate that metaphor and nonsense collaborate so well.
The precision of physics crumbled into chaos in the last decades of the second millennium. Scientists and philosophers eagerly anticipated a theoretical epiphany, a singular breakthrough, a moment when relativity and quantum mechanics would merge into the universal theory of everything.
The universe fooled them with a plague of Mandelbrot bugs. Boundaries between dimensions dissolved like waves washing over fractal shores. New geometries surfaced, neither line nor square, neither square nor cube. Ambiguous, like metaphors; tangible like poems.
4. Poetry presents a problem in perception
The sound of purring
signifies nothing more
than the pleasure of
Rewritten from a piece originally published in Feeding the Crow (Austin, TX: Plain View Press, 1998.
Phillip T. Stephens devoted his career to community rights and arts activism. College writing and visual design classes paid the bills. After retirement he focused on writing and rescuing cats with his wife Carol in Oak Hill, Texas for Austin Siamese Rescue. He contributes regularly to The BeZine, and The Creative Cafe. Publications include literary journals and anthologies, four novels, two volumes of poetry and peer-reviewed papers on metaphoric thinking in science and religion. He won of three Indie Book Awards for his novel Seeing Jesus and the Gold award for poetry in ArtAscent Magazine’s August issue.