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Philosophy and Poetry

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Karen Simecek’s  interests are in Philosophy of Poetry, Aesthetics, Moral Reasoning and the Emotions. She is working on issues around the value of reading poetry in terms of how this experience can enhance our understanding of ourselves and contribute to our sense of moral progress. Her current focus is on the potential value of the performed poem, which she connects with the idea of shared emotion. Here she discusses why philosophers have thought philosophy and poetry are antagonistic, why she disagrees, narrative artworks and emotions, the role of perspective in this, why the non-narrative lyric can give us emotional insights, how a perspectivalist argument regarding the arts can help facilitate ethical enquiry as well as emotional, why we should teach poetry to children, whether the reasons for teaching poetry extend to other art forms, James Britton, the relationship between poetry and the cognitive and affective processes, Jerome Bruner, why the arts aren’t humanities or sciences, and why we should teach the arts at University.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Karen Simecek: I’ve always loved thinking and being creative in thought; looking for alternatives and imagining possibilities. I was brought up to question things, and I was often encouraged to imagine how things might be otherwise. When I found philosophy, it seemed like the perfect match.

I remember reading George Orwell’s 1984 when I was about 14 and discussing this with my Mum who grew up in Ostrava in what was then Czechoslovakia. I had taken the story to depict a wholly fictional dystopia, yet through conversations with my Mum I learnt that the story had strong resonances with her upbringing. She would talk about her experiences of studying history at school and then reading about history as an adult only to find that the Soviet-influenced history text books they had at school were at odds with the history books she was now reading. This had a profound effect on me and sparked reflection on the nature of truth and knowledge, and the need to question, analyse and evaluate for oneself as a way of protecting oneself from manipulation, deception and corruption. For me, philosophy represented freedom in thinking. I’m not saying I have developed immunity to bad thinking and cognitive bias but philosophy offers a way through and a way out of bad thinking.

However, it wasn’t until after studying for an MA in Philosophy at University of Sheffield that I came to aesthetics and philosophical reflection on poetry. I enrolled on a continuing life-long learning course at the University of Sheffield. My poetry teacher there, Chris Jones was a wonderful poet and teacher who encouraged me to read and write poetry. Through the experience of reading, responding and writing poetry, I came to see a connection between poetry and philosophical thinking almost as if two sides of the same coin. And then since being at Warwick my research into the philosophy of poetry has taken with the support of the Poetry at Warwick group and the Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts, and my PhD supervisor and now colleague, Eileen John who has been an inspiration to me. I also greatly value the opportunity to share my passion for philosophy and poetry with our students on our BA in Philosophy and Literature, who have so much to say about the value of literature and many have taken creative writing modules at Warwick in poetry.

3:AM: You work in the philosophy of aesthetics and education, and have been particularly interested in poetry. Plato saw poetry and philosophy as incompatible didn’t he? You disagree. Before coming to your view, could you sketch for us why some philosophers have argued for this incompatibility, in particular because of three requirements of philosophy – generality, rationality and justification?

KS: I’m fascinated by poetry and the approach to language that the artform demands of poets, readers and audiences. In hearing or reading a poem, familiar, everyday words can be transformed both in terms of the meaning and feeling. Just by framing words against the white space of the page and attending to the words in that form can significantly shape our encounters with words. It is therefore mysterious to me why poetry has been so neglected in philosophical aesthetics, where there has been more attention on the novel, painting, conceptual art, photography and film. This may well have something to do with the fact that early writers on poetry sought to make connections between poetry and truth, whereas the dominant concern about other artforms were to do with the nature of representation and beauty, and focused on the intrinsic value and nature of such works rather than what they can offer in the service of philosophy and education.

Poetry was once considered to be a great source of insight, where a poetry audience could learn about history, science, human life and experience, including developing moral understanding. However, the uncritical acceptance of the value of poetry gave way to scepticism of the artform in delivering knowledge and offering readers truths. In Plato’s Republic (book 3), there’s a long discussion over the role poetry ought to play in education (since he sees a connection between aesthetic judgment and moral character) – on the one hand it’s assumed that poetry will play a role in education but on the other Socrates expresses deep concerns about poetry’s power to deceive.

Of course, it’s not entirely correct to say that Plato held poetry to be at odds with philosophy since he himself chose to write in dramatic form, we might then think that he did not necessarily agree with the character of Socrates in his works and in fact appears to even subvert this given the form he chose to convey his thoughts. There has been great attention on Plato’s writing on the seemingly close connection between poetry and rhetoric, and the opposition of rhetoric and philosophy (see Plato’s Gorgias for more on this). The concern is that both poetry and rhetoric aim to ‘stir emotion,’ appear to have no special subject matter (and so there is a lack of expertise) and are valued in part because they are ‘pleasing’. For Plato, the worry is that both emotion and appeals to pleasure get in the way of pursuit of truth; we are satisfied with what pleases without concern for its truth. Yet according to Plato, rationality is the key to truth and knowledge.

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Despite the ambiguity in Plato’s view, the idea of the so called ‘ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy’ has had a huge impact on the way philosophers look at poetry, which has not extended to other art forms. Where once, philosophers would even present their philosophy in verse, now we are told to write ‘clearly and concisely’ and a particular style of philosophical writing has evolved from the scientifically influenced analytic tradition of philosophy. Very few would even dare attempt to write in dramatic form as Plato did. Reason is the friend of the philosopher with emotion still being viewed by many as what steers us down the wrong path.

A more recent sceptic of poetry’s relationship with truth is Peter Lamarque. He argues that poetry cannot be truly philosophical because poetry functions to illustrate points rather than directly argue for their truth. Themes emerge through our experience of reading the poem, through our attempts to interpret and understand its meaning and grasp it as a coherent whole. But, on his view, we are not concerned with whether these themes are true or false but simply whether it makes sense to understand the poem in that way. Lamarque thinks that poetry cannot be philosophical because the poem itself does not offer philosophical propositions which it establishes and defends through principles of logical reasoning. For Lamarque, even where there does appear to be a thesis, he argues that the quality of thought which expresses this thesis is not appropriate for philosophical inquiry. Lamarque’s scepticism stems from a concern about the relationship between poetry and truth that extends to other forms; Lamarque worries that seeking truth and knowledge from works of art take us away from appreciation and valuing the artwork for its own sake. This presents a challenge to those of us who wish to argue that art can have such cognitive value since we must show that it is not at the expense of aesthetic appreciation and value but a consequence of aesthetic appreciation.

There is a degree of appraisal involved in aesthetic appreciation of a poem; we are demanded to appraise the content of the poem during the reading experience. Right away in reading a poem the reader is implicated in its meaning because the reader is bringing their concepts to the reading experience in order to make sense of the work, the reader’s perspective is in play, which forces the question ‘would I endorse the claim, idea or interpretation on offer in the poem?’ This is not just trying to ‘make sense’ of the work on terms internal to the work but within the context of one’s world view.

Even so, it’s clear that the poem does not rely on argumentative structures and logical reasoning in order to establish its themes. The relationship between the experientially particular and theme does not appear to be the kind of relationship established in a probing, illuminating and active philosophical inquiry.

A key barrier to making the case for the potential for philosophical poetry is that there isn’t much agreement on what philosophy is. However, there does seem to be agreement that minimally there are at least three virtues of philosophical thinking – it is of a certain generality, rational and reasoned. This is not just an issue for poetry but an issue for metaphilosophy; before we can evaluate poetry’s philosophical potential, we had better work out what it is for something to count as philosophy. If we don’t address these metaphilosophical questions, then we either end up including all sorts of things as philosophy or it becomes arbitrarily narrow.

3:AM: So what moves must poetry make to avoid this criticism?

KS: Of course, not all poetry will count as philosophical (whatever view of philosophy we adopt). But, on my view, there is potential for poetry to engage readers in philosophical thinking during the reading of and reflecting on the poem. I’m not so concerned with whether the themes themselves can be taken as philosophical and I still hold that there is an important and significant role for traditional forms of philosophy but the question remains, is there something more to philosophical thinking that we can access through engagement with poetry which is filled with rich images, emotional sensitivity and attention to language?

Although the poem might depend on concrete particulars for its imagery, it can facilitate a certain kind of reflection. Poetry can make a significant and valuable contribution to philosophical inquiry by facilitating active, self-critically aware and rational thinking about the concepts we use to capture aspects of human life. Poetry allows us to consider the structure and meaning of our everyday concepts with reference to the human subject in play. The experience of reading is able to achieve this philosophical thinking because the reader is encouraged to adopt a human perspective, in other words, ‘the standpoint from which we are best able to bring to light the range of values, desires, frustrations, experiences, and practices that define the human situation’ (Gibson 2009, p. 1). The experience of reading poetry is unique in the way it implicates the reader, revealing the values we have embedded in such concepts through our use of them, which could not have been established using valid arguments.

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We come to think of human life in this way through poetry because of the images we are presented with and as readers we are required to do more than merely make these connections, we also evaluate and appraise them. A good example of a poem that achieves this is Australian poet, Robert Gray’s ‘The Drift of Things.’ Through the reading experience, we are brought to ask ‘Is this a good way of understanding the nature of things?’ and we come to see the value in the experiential, sensory and perspectival way the poem helps us to see how we can understand the nature of things.

What Gray’s poem is concerned with is not the nature of things abstracted away from our understanding and experience of them (as Plato would demand if this were to count as philosophical on his view). This is suggested in the opening of the poem: ‘Things, Berkeley said, are the language of God/the world that we know is really His thoughts’.  These two lines leave us hanging outside of a physical reality; we are considering Berkeley’s philosophical reflection on things and we are introduced to the idea that all things might be thoughts (although they might be God’s thoughts). The primary function of the use of abstract thinking in the first stanza is not to express philosophical content but used to help the reader take up a particular perspective on things – one which is tied to the human subject more generally by appealing to the way we could think about things.

Once the reader has adopted this stance, they are able to engage with the images with the right kind of thinking in play. Gray’s list of things in the second stanza are all experienced and we notice that their description is tied to a perspective, a way of experiencing these things but not the things themselves (in reality):

A jetty in reeds, and clouds on water;

the bus that rides the dust like a surfboard:

a lizard trailed out of a mailbox drum.

Despite this emphasis on our experience and perspective, the poem does not allow us to dwell on our own individual perspectives. The poem offers us an insight into how we understand things from the human perspective – it emphasises our shared perspective as human subjects (for instance, by using phrases like ‘we experience’). The poem is establishing the idea that we cannot have direct experience of things by juxtaposing images that are strongly tied to experience with those that are beyond what we can imagine (sensorily). For example, ‘160 million years of giant lizards’, I can imagine a few giant lizards but what is it to imagine 160 million years of them? And with this in mind, Gray brings us back to thing’s significance for us – what they mean to us:

When we are in queues for the banks of Lethe

We’ll recall, attentive as candle flames,

not only faces, but things we have known,

And with intensity that is surprised

At the point we are faced with forgetting all we have encountered, we see their significance for us with intensity even though our grasp of the things themselves (in reality) will come into and out of focus – this is what we experience. We cannot separate ourselves from our experience of things. And it is only by experiencing a failure to access things beyond our experience that we come to see how we can only ever glimpse at their true nature.

The function of the poem is to guide us in a way of thinking about things that will bring us closer to seeing their nature beyond our experience but only by acknowledging the nature of our experience of these things, of our own perspective. What the poem also does is it makes the issues in the poem an issue for the reader, for instance, we do not just consider idealism in order to understand the poem, we are actually thinking about idealism. However, it is important to note that I am not settling here how a reader will resolve this issue in reading the poem, but I want to emphasise that it is an issue for the reader’s self-understanding.

An argumentative model, which defends a propositional thesis by appealing to principles of logic, could not achieve the same result as the poem, partly because the propositions that would be required to form the argument would be difficult to grasp themselves, for instance, the idea that we cannot think about things without our perspectives being activated – this is something that requires experiential demonstration. And also, because the argumentative model does not involve the thinker in the same way as reading poetry, the reader is not implicated in the inquiry herself, with her perspective activated and therefore the argumentative model does not present something relevant to her understanding and her life.

Although we may recognise the validity of an argument, that isn’t enough to interfere with our own beliefs. But the poem gets us to see that we as human subjects are making these connections and giving things their significance to us. Inquiry into human life needs richer awareness than of the relevant logical relations; it needs awareness of experience which brings into play the perspective of a human subject. The fact that we responded to the poem in a particular way could be stated in propositional form but that does not capture what is important about the experience; awareness of the experience itself is required.

It seems that having the argument structure is not enough. It leads us to an impersonal conclusion, where we are not considering our beliefs and commitments, in other words, we have lost the important reference to the human subject. There’s nothing to worry about in the argument as presented, it doesn’t make it my problem, as something that matters to me and should affect how I try to inquire into the nature of things. As Tzachi Zamir argues, ‘More than grasping propositional content, values are embedded within experiences that determine the level of understanding. Knowledge is structuralized, meaning that if one does not undergo certain experiences, one never fully understands’ (Zamir 2007: 201).

3:AM: Some have argued that narrative artworks can offer insights to our lives and into our emotional life in particular. You think this is not the whole story, but first, before looking at your ideas, can you say more about how narrative is supposed to do this?

KS: In Nausea, Sartre writes “a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it” (61). Stories help us to make sense of who we are, how we feel and what we are thinking. One dominant idea is that personal identity and sense of what makes me me is shaped by a narrative construction; it is the particular story I tell than gives coherence and significance to my sense of self. Of course, Sartre himself was concerned that such stories would prevent us from leading an authentic life —trapped in a given narrative rather than taking responsibility for the shape of our lives and the choices we make — but many are attracted to the idea that narrative serves a central role in our lives.

Martha Nussbaum argued that what we value is embedded in narrative structures (it’s the way in which some object figures in a narrative that attaches value and significance to it) and it is the particular histories with certain things that gives them the significance they have in our lives. For instance, my lucky penny is not lucky in itself but has developed this significance because I have carried it around and there have been a series of events which I perceive to have experienced luck whilst in possession of the penny. The penny may have further significance if given to me by a loved one, and so through the connected episodes the object is configured with a particular value and significance that can only be understood or explained with reference to that history. Nussbaum develops this thought with reference to the role emotional responses play in shaping this significance in such episodes (e.g. the feeling of security that comes from knowing I have my lucky penny to my gratitude in succeeding in my endeavours and attributing that gratitude to that particular object).

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Nussbaum claims that emotions are connected to choices and rational thinking, which we come to appreciate through narrative. Part of what motivates Nussbaum’s commitment to the importance of narrative is her view that the emotions are bound up in our reasons and are deeply connected to the choices we make in life: ‘Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself’ (Nussbaum 2001: 3). Narrative connects emotions with reason; it is only through seeing a connection to one’s past that we interpret the things around us as having value in the way they feature in our lives.

As a consequence of philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum identifying such a role for narrative in shaping our lives, there has been much attention on what the study of literary narrative might offer. Nussbaum herself makes such a case, arguing that it is by studying literary narratives that helps to become aware of the narratives that shape our own emotional lives. I think there’s something right about this picture — narrative is a powerful tool in sense making and configuring significance. But is this the whole picture? What is left if we try to make sense of ourselves, experience and the world we live in if we attempt to resist story telling? I think that narrative is just one way in which we construct our thinking, we also forge other kinds of connections based on association, similarity, dissimilarity.

3:AM: You argue that the narrative account is missing something, and that is an explicit reference to perspective. Perspective for you indicates a more fundamental mechanism at work than just narrative don’t you?. Can you sketch for us what you mean by this?

KS: I came to my view of perspective as more fundamental than narrative by considering the question what is it to construct a narrative? How do we form the narratives that play such important roles in our lives?

By its very nature, a narrative is selective. If you were asked to construct a narrative of your week so far, you wouldn’t be able to piece together everything that has happened to you, every thought you had, every feeling and sensation experienced and there is a good deal that you weren’t consciously aware of that shaped your experience. There’s a need to be selective in order to begin to construct a narrative that makes sense, in other words, one that is coherent.

At this point, I think it’s worth bringing in Aristotle on the nature of narrative. Aristotle once remarked that poetry is more philosophical than history. The distinction Aristotle makes is between narrative representation and chronology; the former, according to Aristotle, offers us probable impossibilities, the latter improbable possibilities. In the historical, chronological representation we are merely offered a list of things that happened but without the necessary linkages and significance of events which reveal why x follows y. A narrative configures such significance and links events as necessary consequences of what happened before by picking out those events that can be made to cohere. Given the distinction between narrative and chronical, it begs the question what determines which events, thoughts, feelings, actions are picked out to form that narrative? One of the things that psychological therapies make use of is the ability to construct alternative narratives with the same components but difference in significance.

What determines significance? This is where I introduce the notion of a perspective which I take to be the mechanism by which we configure significance in our lives and consequently it is this perspective that determines the narratives we construct to understand ourselves and others. By perspective, I want to capture the beliefs, commitments, and values that shape our engagement with the world and sense of significance. Looking more closely at what’s involved in many forms of psychological therapy we can see that it works by attempting to alter one’s perspective, by challenging certain fundamental beliefs, commitments and values to allow alternative narrative representations to come to the fore.

3:AM: Is it because of this that you say non-narrative artworks, such as the lyric, are actually better at giving us insights to our emotional lives than narrative? Can you give us an example of how this works?

KS: Poetry sometimes makes use of narrative, but I argue that this is a mere tool that sits along side other tools of crafting language such as, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, consonance, etc. However, this doesn’t mean that a poem lacks structure and coherence, even in the absence of narrative, so what is it that brings a poem together?

One of the wonderful things about the lyric poem is that it embodies its own perspective. I was recently talking with the London-based poet, Will Harris who suggested that in writing poetry the poet needs to find the perspective of the poem, which won’t necessarily be the same as that of the poet. A poem is finished when a coherent perspective emerges. What we are then able to reflect upon is how perspective configures value and significance, and the role that our values, commitments and beliefs play in shaping our emotional lives.

Many works of poetry demand that in order to understand them fully, we must grasp the poem as a coherent and consistent whole with sensitivity to the precise words used, which requires us to have a heightened awareness of design and to forge connections within the work. It is not sufficient merely to grasp the content in that form but to attend to the resulting experience. Although this is true of literature more generally, this task takes on a heightened role when engaging with a work of poetry, since the form is not provided through a narrative structure; the reader must work with the poem in order to discover the way it works and how it comes together.

To forge the necessary connections, readers must be sensitive to the words, phrases and images employed in the poem, respond to these elements, the feelings and associations they evoke and have an awareness of how these elements come together as a whole. Therefore, when reading we must try to unify our experience: what we understand from the poem must be in response to this unified experience drawing on both the cognitive and affective aspects. We bring emotions together with a network of concepts.

To help illustrate, let’s consider the example of “The Execution” by Alden Nowlan. I take this poem to explore the idea that our conception of personhood is bound up in the community of which we are a part, such that we are able defer moral responsibility to a community, allowing us to fail to take individual responsibility for the way we understand the identity of others. This is in part because of our reliance on concrete descriptors; we take it (initially) that it is appropriate for the voices in the poem to describe each other in these terms, as a coroner, reverend, hangman, etc. We are able to categorise one another in terms of the roles we perform in society, without awareness of the relationship between such role concepts and the idea of personhood. For instance, embedded in the idea of a coroner is the socially determined requirement of being a (human) person; a coroner is someone.

Throughout the poem the first-person voice is not recognised as a human being but only as ‘the coroner’, ‘press’, ‘reverend’, etc. and from this not only do we see an emptiness of communication in the poem, we enter into it and therefore do not attend to the perspectival way in which they are being used. This engages us superficially in the poem, where we end up responding with humour to the idea of mistaken identity. At first this feels like an appropriate response because of the superficial feel of the poem. However, the experience unravels for us when we read ‘Look at my face!/Doesn’t anybody know me?’ (20-21). At this point we begin to feel caught out by the poem, as if we should be able to respond emotionally to this plea but we cannot because we have not taken his identity seriously until this point, being satisfied with the (mis-)application of concrete descriptors. Then we are brought to the end of the poem, with the strong connecting sound of ‘covered my head’ and ‘the hangman whispered’ produced by the repetitions of the ‘d’ sounds and the inversion of the stress pattern between these two lines, giving the impression of a cadence which reinforces the sense of conclusion and consequently a sense that there is no way out for the voice of the poem. The way we experience the sound of these lines makes us hear them with more weight than the rest of the poem, which leaves us feeling deeply uncomfortable about having responded with humour earlier on in the poem (it turns out not to be so funny after all that no one knows who he is).

This complex network of associations provides us with the perspective on offer in the poem, allowing us to come to see the subject and themes from that unique viewpoint. I do not mean the perspective of the poet (or even hypothetical poet), character or narrator. Instead, it is a particular kind of relation between the reader—their ideas, thoughts, feelings—and what is expressed in the poem. This is not necessarily seeing the subject of the poem in a particular light but coming to understand an idea, thought or concept in relation to other concepts, previously unconnected. Ultimately, in understanding the work, we must be able to grasp all elements (including those experiential elements) as part of a coherent and consistent whole, which is what allows us to make these new conceptual connections, and come to appreciate how our own beliefs, values and commitments underwrite our emotional responses and how they are subject to revision as a consequence of recognising what we ought to value.

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3:AM: Do you think your perspectivalist argument regarding the arts can help facilitate ethical enquiry as well as emotional?

KS: Yes. My current research is looking at the idea of sharing perspectives, which is influenced by philosopher of emotion, Bennett Helm’s work on this topic. He argues that we can develop ‘shared perspectives’ by which he means shared patterns of feelings and values. Although I am not so committed to the idea of needing to actually develop a shared pattern, I think there’s ethical value in striving to find commonality in what we might be able to value together. I see this as connected to a Kantian notion of the ‘moral community.’

By engaging with poetry, we are open to encountering other perspectives and so the poem facilitates attempts to forge connections and seek out possible commonality with sets of values, significance, meaning making and commitments. In order to fully appreciate and engage with the poem, we cannot sit outside of this other perspective, instead we are invited to engage more intimately with this perspective.

I have written about the role of intimacy in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (forthcoming), which I see as a particular kind of relationship between reader and poetic persona. The voice of the poem invites the reader to pay close attention to and share in the experience described albeit with sensitivity to the separateness of persons. We can share in some of our ways of noting value and interpretation of events even though we all might experience events differently. The reason I take Citizen to be such an interesting case is the way in which is simultaneously alludes to connection and commonality whilst protecting the individual voice and the special significance events can have for someone as tied to their individual perspective.

3:AM: You’re interested in how we should teach poetry in schools and dislike instrumental approaches whereby teaching poetry is justified in terms of promoting transferable skills and knowledge, for example, or problem solving, understanding language or general creativity and so forth.  So why should we teach poetry in schools?

KS: When I started working on The Uses of Poetry project at the University of Birmingham, I was shocked to discover how much affective engagement with works of poetry is sidelined to more cognitive engagement, where poetry is presented as an object whose secrets must be uncovered through close analysis even at University degree level. As part of our project, we surveyed the claims various UK universities made about the skills students would gain on their English Literature degree courses and almost in every case cognitive skills of analysis, synthesis, critique, theory and argument were emphasised with little or no reference to sensitivity, nuance, sympathy, imaginative engagement and aesthetic appreciation.

My colleague at Birmingham, Dr Kate Rumbold and I were keen to reconnect the study of poetry with our own view of what is of value in engaging and appreciating poetry. However, we did discover a number of interesting articles about studies conducted in the field of medicine, where poetry was being used with trainee doctors as a way of helping them to express themselves as well as being better equipped to appreciate the difference in experience of patients and improve their capacity for empathy (which is important for diagnosis and assessing severity of symptoms). We were also struck by the excellent work being done by Professor PhilIp Davis and his team at the University of Liverpool such as their work on the valuable role of reading groups in helping people with debilitating lack of confidence, suffering with chronic pain and dementia. Professor Davis and his team have also worked closely with neuroscientists who studied brain activity of people reading Shakespeare (2008; 2012). What they found is that the particular form of language and the unusual syntax (such as using verbs as nouns) causes the brain to ‘jolt’ in surprise and increases brain processing, which suggests an affective reaction to what one is reading that then shapes engagement with the words on the page and shapes meaning making.

Poetry can be a useful tool for promoting the kind of transferable skills you mention but too much focus on such instrumental value of poetry puts at risk a more important role that poetry can play in education and culture. Another colleague, Professor Viv Ellis and I discuss this in our article in the Journal of Aesthetic Education. We argue that poetry’s attention to language, images and concepts offers rich experience and invites us to do something with the language of the poem (those words in that form). What we are invited to do is make meaning. The value of such an experience, with heightened awareness of form is that it helps us to step outside of our everyday language and ways in which our linguistic practices shape our thinking. By actively engaging in project of meaning making with the poem, we are brought to see how language is not fixed and can be shaped to make new connections, open up new possibilities of thought and transform the language we use in the everyday.

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[Don Paterson]

3:AM: Do these views about teaching poetry extend to prose-fiction and other arts or is it important that we understand what you’re doing as making the case for what is distinctive about poetry, and a particular kind of poetry – lyric –  at that? Why does it matter if we don’t justify teaching poetry so long as we justify teaching literature generally?

KS: That’s a very good question and one I’m often asked. I am trying to make the case for what is distinctive about poetry in contrast to other art forms. This is a difficult task since it is likely that some of what I say of poetry will be true of other kinds of works. For instance, the use of rich imagery and metaphor shows up in prose-fiction as well as other kinds of artwork; this is not something exclusive to poetry. However, what is distinctive to poetry (or, at the least, exemplary) is the primacy of language in our engagement; a poem demands a certain kind of attention to the words that shape it. Every single word and mark of punctuation is significant. Poet Don Patterson makes the case for this: “Our formal patterning most often supplies a powerful typographical advertisement. What it advertises most conspicuously is that the poem has not taken up the whole page, and considers itself somewhat important … Silence – both invoked and symbolized by the white page, and specifically directed by the gaps left by lineation, stanza and poem – underwrites the status of the poem as significant mark” (Paterson, Don. 2007. ‘The Lyric Principle Part 1: The Sense of Sound’. Poetry Review 97 (2): 56-72.).

Paterson sees the white space on the page as doing more than just showing that it has been crafted; the shape itself has significance and the white space suggests silence, reinforcing the sense of significance of the words that are on the page. This connects poetry with other art forms such as photography and painting, where the frame guides us to consider only what falls within the frame, to focus on that particular perspective which can help us notice something we ordinarily would not.

The physical shape of the poem and the visual impact of the words on the page affects the meaning, which, it can be argued, is expressed when read aloud in the form of tempo.

Poetry helps to focus attention on language — meaning, use, context — and enables reflection, critique and expansion of language and our cultural practices embedded in language. This has profound effects on culture and self in terms of expanding conceptual schemas and seeing new possibilities for thinking, feeling and valuing.

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[James Britton, centre]

3:AM: James Britton has been influential in your thinking around this issue hasn’t he? Can you say something by way of an introduction to him and his work and say why you have found him particularly useful in this area?

KS: My interest in James Britton has come from working closely with Professor Viv Ellis on the Uses of Poetry project at the University of Birmingham. Britton was a useful point of joint attention for Professor Ellis and me since Britton was an educationalist who was hugely influenced by philosophers Richard Rorty and Susan Langer. Britton had many insightful things to say about the connections between thought and language and took up Langer’s notion of the need for symbolization and symbolic forms of language use.

Britton was working in the 1950-80s, which included a period at the Institute of Education, UCL (1954-1970) – the value of his work to the study of poetry is the insights he offers regarding poetry as a mode of language that ‘draws attention to itself’. Britton connects the poetic mode of language with the human need to symbolize and argued that engagement with language forms an important part of linguistic development but also development in thought. This was useful to our project since it helped to make the connection between poetry as an artform and poetic language found in the everyday. The artform of poetry makes most use of the poetic mode of language, it is exemplary and therefore offers a point of focus on this kind of use of language.

3:AM: Although you don’t justify the teaching of poetry instrumentally you do think eliciting affective responses to poetry can deepen cognitive understanding and analytical skills don’t you? What is the relationship between poetry and the cognitive and affective processes, and why does balancing their relationship deepen our understanding of poetry? Is there evidence to support this view?

KS: In psychology and neuroscience, there is wide acceptance that cognition and affect are deeply connected even if located in different parts of the brain, with the two aspects of the mind working together and both cognitive and affective brain processes involving the other to some degree. The degree to which they work together is still disputed but there is good reason to view the two as intimately linked.

In research in literary studies, critical theory, philosophy, psychology, history and other disciplines there has been growing trend to focus on affect and to analyse the way in which feeling contributes to meaning and experience. What we have seen over the last 25-30 years is greater consideration of the role of affect and the important role it plays in our lives. My own view is that there is no such thing as pure cognition, it is always shaped by the phenomenological and emotional aspects of our lives. Take for instance a conversation between two people, we are never able to extract the ‘content’ of what is said, we must take into account who said it, how it was said as well as the nature of their relationship. Noting the role of affect allows us to appreciate the subtleties, the finegraindness of experience that have great power to mean and shape meaning. Poetry can help us to notice the subtleties of language, and appreciate connections in meaning that come prior to clear articulation. It’s in this way that I think affect and cognition come together in our engagement with and appreciation of poetry and allows us to see more in the words on the page or in the performance. To treat a poem as a thing to analyse without appreciating the experiential features it affords would result in a flat understanding that leaves the subtleties of meaning and association hidden. The affectively rich experience provides the structure for considering possible meanings and interpretations that would not present themselves to us if we treat in largely cognitive ways.

Image result for Jerome Bruner

[Jerome Bruner]

3:AM: Jerome Bruner ran experiments to support the notion that imaginative literature had greater affordances for the ‘subjunctification’ of experience than transactional prose such as a news article. Can you say what ‘subjunctification’ is and what we can take from Bruner’s findings? Would philosophy benefit from being cast in imaginative literature form, or even the lyric?

KS: Bruner talks about his experiments in his 1986 work Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. He analysed two texts — a literary short story (‘Clay’ from James Joyce’s The Dubliners) and a passage from an anthropological text about rituals — to compare their use of language. He found that the literary text contained more moments of ‘subjunctification’ that is where it made reference to things being other (as a consequence of contingency, subjectivity, perspective or psychology e.g. phrases such as ‘he intends to’, ‘she desires’, ‘it might have’). He then tested what happens when participants heard these two different kinds of text read aloud. When he asked them to describe what the text was about he found a greater use of subjunctifying words in participants after hearing the literary text compared to the academic text, in other words, they were more likely to use words that opened up gaps and acknowledged uncertainty. It’s surprising that this has not been given more attention given his findings suggest an important role for poetic language and the need to engage with language forms that resist a closed form of communication. Professor Ellis, Dr Andrew Green and I set about extending this experiment by using a news paper article, a short story and a poem to see if there was an even greater willingness to embrace subjunctification and possibilities of meaning on being asked to describe a poem. Both our experiment and Bruner’s own were small scale and so there is need for a more in-depth study but both sets of findings suggest something interesting here.

Bruner’s notion of ‘subjunctification’ highlights the way in which language has the power to resist closed meaning and instead offers up the possibility to mean multiple things at once, triggering the kind of free play of the cognitive faculties that Kant talks about in his critique of judgment. If we are wanting to cultivate creative thinking, then we must make space for poetic language and some degree of indeterminacy. Having said that, I would not want to suggest that philosophers should abandon their more ‘transactional’ prose since there is a need for refinement and clarity in thought. However, what I would like to see is philosophy embracing the arts and literature as a way of opening up philosophical thinking and inquiry. I see it more that art and philosophy are complimentary and ought to be brought together for the most fruitful kind of philosophy.

3:AM: The humanities are often contrasted with the sciences – and philosophy seems to be a humanities subject despite borderline cases like philosophy of physics. But do you think the arts should be lumped in with the humanities or does your work regarding the contrast between the imaginative and the transactional point to there being a serious reason for not doing this?

KS: Yes! I think there’s good reason to resist this. We all use language to express ourselves and share ideas. The sciences are no different to the humanities in that respect; a language evolves in a community of scholars which shapes the conceptual frameworks that they use to understand the focus of their study and uncover new possibilities for thinking about the world in which we live. But just as a biologist wouldn’t ever consider their field to give a full picture of the world, since it gives one perspective and recognises the need for the other sciences physics, chemistry, material science, engineering, we ought not see philosophy and the humanities as having a special status above sciences or vice versa — each offers another layering of understanding. The role philosophy can play is in bringing these conceptual frameworks together — its role is to seek the connections and just as many great philosophers of the past, to aim at a total world view of human life and experience. The value of philosophy is in forging, analysing, and evaluating conceptual schemas. What I would like to see is more integration with philosophy, for instance, by making philosophy a core part of the curriculum at all stages of education and promoted as a way of thinking that enhances our understanding and critical reflection in other fields. That does not mean reducing philosophy in the service of other disciplines but recognising the fundamental role that philosophy can play.

3:AM: Universities are under many pressures and scientism seems to be prevalent – leading to difficulties in the humanities and arts. Why should we defend the arts and philosophy in universities?

KS: The question we must ask is what are we left with in a world where the arts and philosophy have been forgotten? What would we be lacking? My view is that we would be missing a great deal; we would be conceptually poorer and progress in the way we live would be stunted.

The arts and philosophy have an important role in developing creative thinking, opening up space to think otherwise. Here I’m reminded of Heidegger in his essay ‘The Age of the World Picture’ (1938) where he criticises the way in which a scientific way of thinking projects into the world — seeking to understand experience through a pre-given framework rather than allowing a more genuine, open encounter with the world. But going further than this, I think we are in danger of forgetting what matters as human beings — we are social creatures and so there is something important in feeling connected — a feeling which is offered through deep appreciation and engagement with the arts.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books that you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

KS: 

The Philosophy of Poetry

John Gibson The Philosophy of Poetry: contemporary philosophers discussing poetry (highlights include Sherri Irvin and Anna Christina Ribeiro), this is a must read for anyone interested in philosophy of poetry. Gibson’s introduction serves as an excellent intro to the field.

Emotional Reason

Bennett Helm Emotional Reason: Deliberation, Motivation, and the Nature of Value: influenced my understanding of emotion. Here he offers an interesting view of how cognition (judgment) comes together with affect (what he calls ‘felt evaluations’) in our emotional lives.

Love's Knowledge

Martha Nussbaum Love’s Knowledge: although many (including me) have offered criticism of Nussbaum’s ideas, this book still has much to offer in helping us to reflect on the relationship between philosophy and literature. There’s still so much to explore in this rich and stimulating work.

Poetry

David Constantine Poetry: The Literary Agenda – he makes excellent, insightful observations about the nature and value of poetry, in particular, the relationship between poetry and reader.

Quantum Poetics

Gwyneth Lewis Quantum Poetics: she talks about the nature and value of poetry and writing poetry (including as having certain therapeutic benefits). She makes insightful points about form and explores connection between science and poetry.

I’m going to cheat a little and have 5 poetry collections too.

Nameless Earth

Robert Gray Nameless Earth: this includes the poem mentioned above, ‘The Drift of Things’ — he’s an interesting poet for his attention to the environment, projections of apocalyptic landscapes and meditations of philosophical ideas.

Citizen

Claudia Rankine Citizen: An award-winning collection of poems and images (almost like a collage piece) which tackles everyday racism in the USA. What I find most interesting about this work is the way it uses the second person to invite a connection between reader and poetic voice, yet pushes back to protect what cannot be shared with others.

Nigh-No-Place

Jen Hadfield Nigh No Place: both Hadfield and Morgan reveal the aesthetic possibility of language to make sense without fully grasping meaning. With Hadfield, this is achieved through her riffs on Scottish dialect.

Collected Poems

Edwin Morgan Collected poems: known for his playful approach to language and experimentation with his ‘Martian’ and ‘computer’ poems which become a study in what poetry is in itself.

This Connection of Everyone with Lungs

Juliana Spahr This Connection of Everyone with Lungs: an extraordinary collection that speaks about our connection through the breath, but with that connection comes a kind of complicity in events around the world.

[Archive footage by Sir Lennicus Bibby of interviewer checking Ted and Sylvia’s poetry homework ]

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 22nd, 2018.