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The Valve - A Literary Organ | What is Poetry? Take 1

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Saturday, April 02, 2005

What is Poetry? Take 1

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/02/05 at 06:32 PM

Inspired by a post over at John’s home blog, I have been reading in The Literary Wittgenstein. The central Wittgenstein aphorism for the book, found on the back page, right inside the front page, & throughout the essays, goes as follows:

I think I summed up my position when I said: philosophy really ought to be written only as a form of poetry.

It’s hard to know what that means, but it sure is interesting. Having been chastened, though, by Russell as to “interesting” philosophy, I await John’s review & its corrective disenchantment before I say anything about Wittgenstein here. But I would like to talk about poetry in the larger sense, as Wittgenstein does here. What is poetry, in the larger sense?

In these matters I am a pluralist (or to be more accurate, a pluraliste, in the Desbladettian sense). I prefer to collect answers rather than settle on one. But one of my favorites comes from Allen Grossman’s Summa Lyrica. Actually, the book offers quite a few related yet curiously different answers. John would like our Valving to, among other things, help circulate good books, essays, and ideas. When he talks about criticism like this, I get the feeling he’s talking about contemporary work. I’m not going to be much help in this. Among my many weaknesses as a scholar, I lack the mental and physical stamina required to keep up with the critical literature. Too many books fry my brains. But there are a few I like coming back to, again and again, and they tend to be older books, and I wish folks paid more attention to them. So this is just the first among many entries on Grossman.

Summa Lyrica is crazily ambitious, a hearty attempt to say it all, imitative of Aquinas, Spinoza, and the Tractatus. One of the most obvious signs of its influences is the organization by numbered aphorisms. The very first goes thusly:

1. The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.

What on earth might this mean? Let me offer two possible examples of how this describes poetry in the larger sense. Neither example is conclusive or likely, and the second is unlikelier than the first.

First: In a eulogistic piece, “Ezra Pound 1885-1972,” found in The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport offers the following pathetic (that is to say, tender) vignette from the 60’s, the last phase of Pound’s life, after his mind had been blasted by strokes, guilt, and loss:

A few years after his return to Italy, suddenly old and silent, he went into the garden one day and sat down at his typewriter. He wrote letters. He had not written to anybody in years. Were the old fires flaring again? The despondency and fatigue “deep as the grave” rolling away? He mailed the letters himself. Within the week they began to return. They were addressed to James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, William B. Yeats.

These letters then were poems, attempts to circumvent how death limited Pound’s will to communicate. (That Pound is an example here complicates the seeming nobility of the will struggling against cruel fate. Poetry is as morally ambivalent as the human will is.)

Second: In Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930, David A. Jasen and Gene Jones pass on this morsel of professional gossip, describing Thomas “Fats” Waller and Andy Razaf’s relations with song publishers:

Of course, the risk they were running in these hasty deals was that of selling a potential hit for peanuts. If such a thing happened, there was no recourse. And the embarrassment of having been taken could only remain a private matter. For years the rumor circulated throughout the music industry that Razaf and Waller were the writers of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” both credited to Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. McHugh was the professional manager of Mills Music throughout most of the twenties as well as being a Mills writer. The Mills office, where McHugh was in charge, would certainly have been a stop on the Waller-Razaf selling sprees, and the two hits could have been bought in a flat-fee deal. Waller never publicly claimed to have written either of them, but his son Maurice remembered his father going into a rage upon hearing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” on the radio. Months before he died, Razaf said to a friend that “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was his favorite of his own lyrics.

There’s another story I heard on the radio once, unmentioned by Jasen and Jones, that Waller would sometimes sell the same song, with slight variations, to different publishers, who would buy it anyway, despite possible legal wrangles, because they too wouldn’t want to lose out on a possible hit. IP has a curious history, doesn’t it?

It would seem, if the dancer can’t be separated from the dance, the singer can be separated from the song. But what do we know? The issue barely rises to the level of “he said-he said.” To my mind, there is evidence for the gossip. For one thing, none of the rest of McHugh’s output matches these songs. His biggest hit outside these two seems to have been “I’m in the Mood for Love,” a slug of sap Olive Oyl would sing to Popeye. (On the other hand, Fields might have been up to it: she is also credited with the lyrics to “A Fine Romance,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” even the songs in Sweet Charity. She had long-lasting chops.) The other thing is, “I Can’t Give You” & “On the Sunny Side” sound like Waller. Of course Waller recorded the former and had the vocal charisma to made any song he sang sound like his. But “Sunny Side” has that certain bounce. I can’t help but hear it as Waller’s.

Is my hearing it so true or false? The answer lies outside our will to know. I am reminded of the various defenses of poetry that attempt to find a place for poetic fictions outside this distinction.

Instead of a conclusion, let me throw out one final question: how is the controversial attribution of these two songs different from much of the controversy over the attribution of paintings in museums?


Hi Lawrence! I’ll start with the enthusiastic personal bit: What a surprise to find you in cyberspace! I sent the link to Frank & Sarah.

Then, to continue the conversation, as best I can: I find that I care a lot about the attribution of works of art that I’m interested in studying. I get frustrated, and ultimately lose interest in, anonymous poems.

This goes against what I believe to be true, after all those years of reading Virginia Woolf, that Anon was a woman (that is, that anonymous works of art tend to be works of art that were composed by women or the otherwise disempowered/disenfranchised.)

I was deeply moved by the current show of Rubens drawings at the Met and very interested to learn that, because his paintings were completed by pupils and apprentices, it is in his drawings that we see the solo hand of “the master.” A fascinating justification that increased my respect for both the individual artist and the notion of a school.

I don’t have the time or the patience to link these scattered thoughts to your wonderful post, but thought you deserved at least some kind of reply.

I’ll be in Seattle for most of June--let’s talk in person. But I’ll keep checking in here, too. (Come see me @ Fernham & @ 400Windmills, the Quixote site, too.)

By Anne on 04/02/05 at 09:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If we sort the various arts along an axis of inspiration vs craft, poetry and songwriting should lie at the inspiration end, while painting and philosophy lie at the craft end.  Many fine songs and poems are written by amateurs passing thru a brief period of inspiration, but few (no?) paintings or philosophical works fit this pattern.  So it’s much easier to detect the genius behind a square yard of minute brushwork than behind the dozen bars of a tune, or the hundred words of a lyric.

To earn a living in the ‘inspired’ arts requires that you hone the craft of gap-filling, and the total output of almost any poetic or musical genius will include lots of second-rate gap-fillers, while every second-rate poet can occasionally produce an inspired gem.  And these occasional gems may echo the distinctive style of some genius, consciously or unconsciously, so our attributing them literally to the original genius simply on the basis of that echo is unfair.

That said, a genius may yet have an inimitable authentic tone, so that, for example, when I dug behind the dedication of TE Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars"-- “I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars"-- I was relieved to learn that Robert Graves (a wizard, a true star) had polished Lawrence’s draft.

I’d guess it’s this resonant authenticity that Wittgenstein was aiming after, but I’d refer it to the highly evolved nonverbal language we used a quarter million years ago-- the rhythms and sounds and gestures that still lie beneath our current verbal language, shining thru only rarely, when our passions have briefly purified us of verbal pollution…

By Jorn Barger on 04/02/05 at 09:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment


It is surprising where one finds oneself in life.


I take “the highly evolved nonverbal language we used a quarter million years ago” to be another thing outside the will to know, and another thing with a strong pull on the poetic imagination. One of Guy Davenport’s recurrent notions is how Modernism separated itself from its immediate predecessors by leap-frogging them, as it were, and recovering the ancient.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/02/05 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d maybe distinguish the will to know from the will to be, and blame verbal language for frustrating the latter (but not the former).

And I consider that even the most banal imagination is profoundly poetic in itself, but diminished by the prosaic language we hide it under. (Think of reciting WCW’s “Red Wheelbarrow” to any average jo-- wouldn’t they have to get it at some level?)

I don’t know much about capital-M modernism, but if Pater’s quote about the Mona Lisa (see ) is representative, then absolutely it’s tapping into those deeps. (Eliot’s Waste Land, too.)

(BTW, the only letters from Pound to Joyce that I remember were beyond prosaic-- one praising Ulysses in cringeworthy American dialect, and one dismissing Finnegans Wake from ignorance.  My fave Pound goes: Tree you are/ Moss you are/ You are violets with wind above them… which I think ave jo might also appreciate?)

By Jorn Barger on 04/03/05 at 06:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To answer your final question as if it wasn’t rhetorical, nobody cares who wrote the songs whereas everybody cares who painted the painting. Re-attribution of a popular song (or movie, or comic book) has little effect outside the distribution of royalties, if any; re-attribution of a painting means it’s removed from (or added to) museum walls. If this wasn’t the case, if “craft” truly made the difference, then museums would feel no shame and forgers of early Renaissance masters would make only about as much as ethnic artists in a tourist resort.

And (if this isn’t anticipating your argument) the reason might be that living arts rely on lyric response and dead arts rely on narrative placement. In the absence of more direct appreciation, a work is valued for its position in a story. As evidence, when the story behind a pop song becomes essential to that artifact’s marketing and enjoyment, re-attribution _does_ become an issue. I doubt that “My Sweet Lord” would have received much play if it hadn’t been the only halfway listenable song on an interminable album by an ex-Beatle, and after George Harrison settled the plagiarism suit, “He’s So Fine” didn’t resweep the airwaves.

Like many of my friends over the years, Anne is almost unable to picture any aesthetic response outside biography. But that doesn’t make our time unusually prosaic—just unusually individualistic. In previous centuries, it might have been equally hard to picture any aesthetic response outside ethical mandates, or outside biblical history.

By Ray Davis on 04/03/05 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"living arts rely on lyric response and dead arts rely on narrative placement”

Or for ‘arts’ read ‘spirits’?  (One can crush the living lyric response by placing it in a narrative...)

Also: “[My Sweet Lord is] George’s first solo single, and incredibly, George is the first to have a number 1 as a solo Beatle. This record is the third ever best-selling single by an ex-Beatle, selling over 5 million copies.” ( )

So it must have tapped some living, lyrical vein…

By Jorn Barger on 04/03/05 at 06:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s interesting, though probably immaterial, that “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “I can’t give you anything but love” have key verses fantasizing about wealth, and in some sense contrasting it to the present state of love/romance the songs celebrate.

In “Sunny Side,” it’s the chorus: “If I never had a cent / I’d be rich as Rockefeller / Gold dust at my feet / On the sunny side of the street.”

And the very title of “I can’t give you anything but love” does that quite directly.

To some extent this is just a convention of the times (one can think of dozens of songs with similar themes). But what I find ironic is the emphasis on material wealth that the singer does not have, given the probability that the lyrics of the songs were liable to be stolen by (presumably white?) song publishers. If you write the song, you make way more money over the long run from it than if you’re merely the first person to perform it…

When Fats Waller sings it, he knows whereof he speaks.

By Amardeep on 04/04/05 at 09:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting site.  As a philosopher taking a peek to see what the literary studies folk are up to, I was intrigued to find--in the first week’s worth of posts and comments--more mentions of philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein) and composers than of poets and fiction writers.  Is that just a fluke?

By Zehou on 04/04/05 at 10:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Not a fluke. Perhaps symptomatic. But I think we here at the Valve are going to work on that tic. I’m sure w/the right medication, we’ll be able to focus better on the literary object. “Just be the ball. Be the ball. Be the ball.”


I esp. like the quatrain you quoted from “Sunny Side.” It’s a nice teaching device for aptness of metaphor (sunlight = golddust is easy to present). Also nice to think there was a time when popular song could acknowledge that folks aren’t rich, are never going to be rich, but somewhere someone else is.

Jorn & Ray’s back & forth tempts me to write on the Concert for George that the PBS stations had in constant rotation the last couple of months. But I’ll control myself. “Be the ball!”

By on 04/04/05 at 11:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Awww, but I want to hear what you have to say about the Concert for George!  It would be very exciting to see a post on the Valve about something I’ve actually encountered, for one thing ;-).  Don’t be the ball!

By on 04/05/05 at 07:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Lawrence, I’m not sure if you’ve read Marjorie Perloff’s “Wittgenstein’s Ladder,” but in the second chapter, on his “Philsophical Investigations,” she discusses extensively not only the ideas behind his famous statement that philosophy should be written “as a form of poetry,” but also his later exploration of the “language game,” and how his philosophical practice, in prose, represents a form of poetry that has been extremely influential (on poets well before Grossman, of course).  I highly recommend it, as well as Wittgenstein’s “Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics and Psychology,” and of course the “Philosophical Investigations” and other later works as well.  They turn many (but not all) of the suppositions of the “Tractatus” on their heads.

By John_K on 04/05/05 at 05:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From a philosophers’ perspective:

It’s great that writers and literary scholars are interested in Wittgenstein, but it’s painful to see folks like Perloff (who lacks even a basic understanding of the philosophical culture in which W. lived and worked) speculating so wildly about the meaning and significance of his books and some of the aphoristic remarks they contain.

There is, luckily, a large body of helpful and rigorous scholarship on Wittgenstein.  The “stars,” to my mind, include folks like Peter Sullivan, Cora Diamond, Tom Ricketts, Warren Goldfarb, and Ed Minar.)

By Zehou on 04/06/05 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d have to agree w/you on Perloff. I’m not so sure (to put it churlishly) she’s all that strong on literature either. But she has great taste. She may not have great things to say, but she picks great things to talk about.

Odd that you’d mention Goldfarb: he taught (as a visiting professor) my undergraduate Wittgenstein class. It was a life-changing experience.

By on 04/06/05 at 06:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zehou, one of the points Perloff makes in her book is that she is *not* attempting to approach Wittgenstein as a philosopher would, but from the standpoint of a literary theorist.  The later chapters of the book, which explore how a number of subsequent creative writers, like Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Rosmarie Waldrop directly and indirectly engage with (their readings of) Wittgenstein’s thought, are pretty interesting.  She does have a decent sense of the broader artistic cultural matrix from which he came.  Cora Diamond’s work on Wittgenstein is brilliant.  Lawrence, I had a prof who regularly slammed Perloff, but having read a lot of her work, I would say that she while she does miss some key things at times (her book on O’Hara, for example, is ironically blind to some of its heterosexist assumptions, though her later essays on him are somewhat better), she is often provocative, and you’re very right that she does pick fascinating texts and authors to talk about.

By on 04/06/05 at 06:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment


By on 04/07/05 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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