In the last issue of Ol Chanty, I published an essay on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In that essay I concentrated on the epistemological dimensions of Kant’s thought, particularly in relation to what Kant called the transcendental horizon or ground of empirical thought and also his concept of the Noumenon or unknowable thing-in-itself. In both these areas of thought, Kant tried to go beyond the rather limited horizons of Empiricism in the realm of philosophy. The purpose of the present essay is to explore the relevance of Kant’s ideas to the field of contemporary poetics.
A strong empiricist bias emerged in British poetry after the Second World War. The most typical – and perhaps truest – poet of this tendency was undoubtedly Philip Larkin, who implicitly understood the limitations of empiricism without, however, going beyond them. “And past the poppies’ bluish neutral distance / Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach / Of shapes and shingles. Here is unfenced existence, / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” In this excerpt taken from his poem, Here, it is as if Larkin was paying homage to Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself by saying that there is an area of experience which is beyond our ken, and therefore we shouldn’t talk about it or pretend we can ever have ideas about it. It develops a similar line to that of a lot of the logical positivists of the time, such as Professor A J Ayer, who believed that anything we might say about such a realm of unknowable things would be meaningless, which, of course, meant that metaphysics in philosophy was now out of favour, while facts and sense-data had become the flavour of the month. The ‘matter of factness’ about this poem is perfectly expressed in the flatness of the line, “Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach”. This flatness seems to express the choice the poet has made not to go beyond the familiar shoreline and risk exploring the horizon. This absence of risk is typical of so much British poetry, and not just that of the post-war period.
Kant spoke of the transcendental ground or horizon of our empirical ideas, whereby what is absent conditions what is present in thought. An example might be the empirical number 5 presupposing the infinite series of numbers of which it is merely a member. Likewise, Larkin’s “here” is obviously grounded in the “there” of “unfenced existence”.
It seems to me that because Larkin shrank from these transcendental horizons he remained decidedly minor. There was no attempt to go beyond the realm of fact. I don’t pretend to know what lies beyond the realm of fact, but I do know that the transcendental ground of what I know empirically lies in what I don’t or can’t know empirically, that, to take an example, the transcendental ground of the empirically knowable universe lies in what is empirically unknowable, which might stretch from God masturbating this universe into existence to an infinity of universes – both of which are equally plausible, although scientists would probably hold the last to be more plausible than the first. Only one thing is certain about all this and that is that no-one can ever know what lies beyond limits of our perceptions to ascertain what reality is in-itself. Herbert Zbigniew expressed this dilemma of empirical knowledge perfectly in his prose-poem, Wooden Die. "A wooden die can be described only from without. We are therefore condemned to eternal ignorance of its essence. Even if it is quickly cut in two, immediately its inside becomes a wall and there occurs the lightning swift transformation of a mystery into a skin.” Herbert stops there, but, as a poet I consider it perfectly permissible to imagine any number of possibilities regarding the nature of things-in-themselves and explore them in my work, because I believe that is part of the remit of poetry.
One of the great debates in 20th Century poetry was between the advocates of William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things” and Wallace Stevens’ notion of poetry as “the Supreme Fiction.” I think it was Stevens who coined the expression I have used as the title of this essay, namely “No things but in ideas”. Happily, Williams’s own poetry does not always conform to the “No ideas but in things” poetic he espoused, which, I don’t mind saying, I find highly constricting. More than that, I also see it in terms of the argument between the Empiricists and the Kantians transposed to the realm of poetics. Williams was an advocate of a poetry of things and facts, while Stevens was an advocate of the ‘transcendental’ in Kantian terms - which is not to be confused with the transcendent. Another way of putting this is by saying that one was a poet of the immediate world which lies around us and the other was a poet of the horizon. Take the opening part of Stevens’ The Man With The Blue Guitar. “The man bent over his guitar, / A shearsman of sorts. The day was green. / They said “You have a blue guitar, / You do not play things as they are.” / The man replied, “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.” / And they said then, “But play you must, / A tune beyond us, yet ourselves, / A tune upon the blue guitar / Of things exactly as they are.” It seems to me that, at least to begin with, “they” are putting forward an empiricist/realist argument about the nature of reality, whereas the “man with the blue guitar” is arguing that ‘things as they are’ get transformed during the creative act – indeed the whole act of perception/cognition. It is impossible to say which of the two versions of reality is really real, that is to say really represents “things as they are”, but the man with the blue guitar’s version is in my opinion the more truthful – if you know how to distinguish truth from fact.
I must confess, I love Wallace Stevens’s work. I love the quirkiness of much of it, “The distance between the dark steeple / And cobble ten thousand and three / Is more than a seven foot inchworm / Could measure by moonlight.” I love also his defence of the ‘abstract’ in poetry. Furthermore, Stevens’ work has a recondite aspect which I find very challenging, even if I can't always tease out his meaning. I am also all too conscious of the fact that people have taken sides in these questions. I read a poem some years back in a magazine called The Red Wheelbarrow whose subject-matter was precisely a boxing match between William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, which, of course, Williams won by a knockout. It was as if the different claims of David Hume and Immanual Kant were to be decided by an arm-wrestling contest.
Empiricism in poetry, no less than in philosophy, is an approach which eschews the more complex synthetic outcomes of the creative process in order to settle for what’s closer to hand. You have only to read The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry to see the results of this poetic at work. The following poem is by Hugo Williams. It’s called The Butcher. “The butcher carves veal for two. / The cloudy slices fall over his knife. // His face is hurt by the parting sinews. / and he looks up with relief, laying it on the scales. // He is a rosy young man with white eyelashes, / like a bullock. He always serves me now. // I think he knows about my life. How we prefer / to eat when it’s cold. How someone // with a foreign accent can only cook veal. / He writes the price on a grease-proof packet / and hands it to me courteously. His smile /is the official seal on my marriage.” Hugo Williams has expressed admiration for W C Williams and perhaps this fact can be gleaned from the amount of observation in the poem - e.g., the cloudy slices and the rosy young man with white eyelashes / like a bullock.”. However, what also seems to me to be the case - I may be very obtuse – is that the poet has shunned the idea of the synthetic in poetry beyond the immediately present. The poverty of thought in the poem seems to me a consequence of observation taken almost as an end in itself. The poet has aimed at just what is front of him, rather than at the horizon; as a result there is no winding up of a coiled spring to provide the energy to carry the poem forward from word to word, line to line and stanza to stanza. It is one prose statement after another and in the end you do start to wonder whether the effort was worth it.
We all know what a jackal is, how it scavenges around the carcasses of animals killed by larger predators like lions, leopards or cheetahs. We know that it belongs to some kind of canine order, though, unlike wolves, wild dogs and dingoes, it is not a pack-dog but a much more solitary animal like the fox or coyote. These are aspects of the jackal which are more or less empirically verifiable according to the methods and procedures of science, which have little poetic about them. In ancient Egypt, jackals were observed hanging around graveyards – for rather obvious reasons, considering they are scavengers. They were thereby believed to have a special relationship with the dead. In time, the jackal was transformed into Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead who led the deceased before Osiris, the god of the Underworld. How the ordinary humble jackal became a god we may never know, but one thing is certain, it took a process of imaginative synthesis for it to eventually come about, a poetic transformation which lifted the jackal out of the everyday element in which the natural historian might view it and turned it into a divine being. It shows how a creature of empirical fact can become one of transcendental meaning through a process of synthesising previously unrelated elements. The ibis underwent a similar transformation. Because it arrived in Egypt before the seasonal floods which fertilized the land, it was seen as a harbinger of the floods and was taken up as the god of wisdom and knowledge, Thoth. Nowadays, it is for us easy to see the connections between one thing and another and dismiss the whole process as one of the pre-scientific mind at work, but a lot more difficult to grasp the transformation that has taken place without seeing a transcendental poetic at work which raises the common or garden empirical jackal or ibis to the status of divine beings.
Paul Valery once wrote ““What matters for poets is the energy of image-formation - the images themselves are of no interest; it is the sensation of a leap, a short-cut, a surprise - of control over the universe of difference.” In my opinion, Valery hit the nail on the head here. The jackal and ibis do not represent themselves. To paraphrase Hamlet, the thing is not the thing and in itself has nothing poetic about it. It is only when it is brought into relation with other elements in a poem that it begins to develop any kind of poetic significance. In other words, it takes on a significance which lifts it out of its humdrum empirical domain into that of the transcendental, which presupposes a complex nucleus of elements of which it is only a part. In short, its life is a life which has been borrowed from the universe of meaning around it, and the whole complex of meanings and ideas which both transcends and subsumes it. It is what makes poetry so different to science. I have nothing against science as such; it’s a very necessary activity. However, I do detest the scientific world-view and see it as a corrupter of all other values. And it is a world-view, moreover, which everyone takes for granted these days as the only one we can possibly have. As a result of the dominance of this world-view, the imagination has been relegated to a very secondary and minor position. This means that the horizons of life itself have diminished, because the horizons of life are entirely determined by the imagination, which constitutes the transcendental ground of all human hopes and aspirations – for better or worse. The Ancient Egyptians understood this in a way that we no longer do. The jackal was no longer merely a jackal, but a guide for the dead, the ibis no longer merely an ibis but a herald of wisdom and knowledge. Like the hippopotamus and crocodile, both dangerous denizens of the Nile transformed into potent gods and goddesses, they underwent a metamorphosis whose poetic truth we still recognize today. With notable exceptions of course, poets seem to have accepted their diminished role in the world without any demur. That’s why, when I read a book like The Penguin Book Of Contemporary British Poetry, my heart sinks. We are back to the domain of the jackal as jackal, rather than Anubis, and in this a certain world-view which I detest is clearly triumphant.
What’s at stake here is not this or that pantheon, but the principle involved in moving beyond the matter-of-fact common sensical world-view propagated by journalists, scientists and academics in the realm of poetics, a world-view which Peter Russell wittily satirized in his couplet about the death of Pan. “Great Pan is dead; the forest all forsook; / The poets now all have that dead-pan look.” It is a world-view reiterated by Derek McMahon in his poem The Banished Gods - also published in The Penguin Book Of Contemporary British Poetry - which relegates the banished gods to a world of “zero-growth economics”. It is all of a piece with Philip Larkin’s withering dismissal of “the myth-kitty”. With this attitude, the imagination runs slap bang into a wall. Its horizons are entirely determined by journalistic or academic clichés, or formulaic scientific concepts. The ideas embodied in the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer and Vishnu the Preserver, or the dynamic interplay between, say, Apollo and Dionysus have far more resonance in poetry than anything empirical or factual can possibly have because of the way they are grounded in archetypal modes of thought and action which are, in the Kantian sense, genuinely transcendental.
It isn’t just a question of gods and goddesses, of course. It’s a question rather of orientating oneself in one’s poetry through a complex of ideas that may or may not make use of them, but which nevertheless becomes the transcendental ground or horizon of the poetry itself. And that these ideas should be emergent rather than established should go without saying. I would hazard that the complex of ideas which turned the jackal and ibis into Anubis and Thoth was an emergent one, not rooted in established conceptions – although, of course, by means of a priesthood serving the state, it later became established. It is no accident perhaps that Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, the editors of The Penguin Book Of Contemporary British Poetry, invoke the ideology of post-modernism to justify their selection. Post-modernism was the creation of an academic priesthood, not artists themselves. And academia deals in the rigid concepts of the understanding, rather than the fluid ideas which chaotically bubble up to the surface of intuition in order to find their final form in a poem. Such fluid ideas are an inalienable part of what poetry’s about, and will be until people stop writing poetry.