Vince Imbat

Poetry and narrative trace their history so readers can re-enact them

Jul 26, 2022

Lyrical forms like poetry and narrative are exploratory in nature. They present their own history. Instead of simply stating their arrival, they include how they arrive. They use story to present ideas rather than explanation.

# References

Klagge, J. (2021). Wittgenstein’s Artillery: Philosophy as Poetry. The MIT Press.

Wallace Stevens, in “Of Modern Poetry” (1940), defines a poem as “the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.” This seems to me to be true of any work organized lyrically: poems, certain sorts of essays, certain sorts of fiction. We see in such work a mind moving—noting and considering, listening to what it has just said, leaping forward or turning back. Rather than reporting on what will suffice, speaking from a position of arrival, this kind of writing dramatizes the act of getting there. What we do when we read such work, as Kenneth Burke illustrates …, is reenact that movement. We perform the poem, connecting image to image or turn to turn, making of its various parts a coherent inner action: “For a poem is an act, the symbolic act of the poet who made it—an act of such a nature that, in surviving as a structure or an affect, it enables us as readers to re-enact it.” A poem, we might say, gives us instructions for re-enacting its inner movements.

The act of “reporting on what will suffice, speaking from a position of arrival” is what one usually finds in philosophical writing. It is a natural way to set out a philosophical position.

But Gardner suggests that what characterizes a poem, in his broad sense, is that it “dramatizes the act of getting there.” Here we see the importance of Wittgenstein’s dialogical style. Whether we see the style as deriving from his experience in the classroom or not, we are offered a sort of path that gives us, the readers, the opportunity to “re-enact that movement.”

One must start out with error [Irrtum] and convert [überführen] it into truth. That is, one must reveal the source of error, otherwise hearing the truth won’t do any good. The truth cannot force its way in when something else is occupying its place. To convince someone of the truth, it is not enough to state it, but rather one must find the path [Weg] from error to truth.

The poem must not only enable us, but engage us, to reenact the movement of thought of the poet.

This will be different for each writer, of course, but the task of the invisible audience is the same—to track the drama, to recreate it internally, to find its motion within ourselves.