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Poetry and Knowledge—again … and again … and again (July 2006)


Dear N.,

G.’s “Poetry and Knowledge” (2003) seems to me dumb-clever, by analogy with jolie-laide. When I read it I thought he was a Classics person who, like myself, had picked up some How-to-Do-Things-with-Philosophy moves. Then I saw that he taught philosophy at Cambridge, and assumed that he was a philosopher who’d mugged up a bit of culture. Then I looked at the footnotes, and they were impressive, but they didn’t make the article any better. His argument was still clever-dumb. Leavis would have rent it into tatters, and G. (at Cambridge) writes as if he’d never read a word by Leavis nor thought that he need do so. He seems to me, in his arguing here, that familiar figure, the no-nonsense-please-we’re-English philistine. Despite the footnotes.


Anyone who starts out by asking whether “poetry is a form of knowledge” has already lost the battle. It’s like asking whether “cinema” is a form of knowledge. Either there’s a narrow stipulative definition implied there (meaning, probably what Romantics and others meant or thought they meant by the term “poetry”) or else he simply has no idea of the great variety of texts to which it’s reasonable to give the name “poem.”

The term “cinema” can also be used narrowly, as by Cahiers critics denying that some talky Masterpiece Theatre offering is “cinema.” I’ve used the term, shorthand-fashion, myself from time to time, as a way of pointing to visual absences. But if someone were to ask, “Are films a form or knowledge?” it would be natural to start by asking him what particular kinds of films he had in mind, maybe even naming a few to remind him of the range—documentaries, horror movies, war movies, travelogues, Tweetie-pie cartoons, split-beaver porn-loops, Masterpiece Theatricals, etc. etc , etc. Ditto with poems.


Then, too, there’s the problem of what he means by “knowledge.” Seemingly to qualify as such, something has to enter a space where statements are either true or false, and where “knowledge” exists in a dichotomy with “pleasure”.

“Churchill was Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945,” “Churchill smoked cigars”—OK, true. Well, how about “Without Churchill, the Nazis would have won”? Or, “Churchill was a brilliant strategist” ? Or, “Churchill, remembering Lloyd George in WWI, kept the generals on a tight leash”? Or, “Churchill was a drunken maverick whose excesses had to be controlled by General Alan Brooke as CIGS”? Or, “Churchill was ruthless and opportunistic in his dealings with people”? Or, “Albert Finney portrayed Churchill remarkably accurately in the TV series The Gathering Storm”?

True? False? What?

How about putting in a few qualifiers, like “sometimes,” “often,” “very, “always,” “when he was suffering from his periodic attacks of the Black Dog,” “when he was fighting Foreign Office officialdom,” etc , etc?


How many true/false statements that amount to much will come up in historiography? Particularly since it’s possible for a statement to be absolutely true—295 sorties were flown by Bomber Command that day—but the statement does not collapse like a pricked balloon if it isn’t wholly true—if, say, 294 sorties were flown, or 298. Nevertheless, G. has to have his dichotomy, so if there’s a piece of historiography that contains statements that are not literally true (when they could have been; I’m not speaking of figurative ones), presumably it’s either like a hunk of Swiss cheese, full of holes, or else the whole passage isn’t—or can’t provide—knowledge. An egg can’t just be rotten in parts.

So then, this bit of historiography isn’t knowledge, it’s pleasure? Fun to write? Exciting to read, almost like a work of fiction? Even if the writer thought that he was making true and important statement?

But would we sit still for such a dichotomizing about historiography if it were attempted? Wouldn’t we want to start talking about assertions, propositions, inference-making, evidence-examining, the whole process of thinking that goes on in the study of the past and that, when done well, can lead to what we reasonably call (in the absence of convincing counter-arguments) knowledge about certain things that happened in England in 1941, and which may still be of practical use when some politician is looking for analogies to his present situation.


But perhaps G. would persist and say, well, if individual works or parts of works (historiographical) don’t provide certain knowledge, it’s not knowledge at all, it’s all just, well, pleasure-seeking/giving. It’s not giving us knowledge of the world.

But here’s another blur coming up. What, pray, is “the world”? Is Churchill’s first prime-ministership not part of the world, including what Alanbrooke reported about him in his journal on a particular day, and how many cigars he smoked that week according to the butler’s ledger, and whether one of his attacks of depression was in progress, and why he said what he did (or was reported to have said) to Clemmie about Lord Halifax?


The irony of it is, G. seems to be writing as if he’s a Platonist himself, believing that there are such things as “knowledge,” and “pleasure,” and “the world.” What does he mean by “the world”? Evidently it isn’t simply everything that is the case. For if it were, unless we have here our old friends the atoms bouncing around in the three-dimensional cosmic pool-game, then evidence (as interpreted) and causal relationships, as perceived, whether while injecting a new drug into a mouse in search of a cure for cancer, or managing a war against heavy odds, are also parts of that “world.”

Statements are made, relationships are described, values are affirmed, judgments are offered. This goes on in all manner of situations, “fields,” activities. Including (recognizing the great variety of works that fall under the rubric), “poems.” Simply sticking with generalizations, you can go on pulling them out and filling a dictionary of quotations with them—“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;/ The proper study of mankind is man, “ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,” “April is the cruelest month,” etc.


Well, again, if G. wants, he can go back to the time of I.A. Richards in the Twenties, and Freddy Ayer in Language Truth and Logic, and all the rest of it, as if nothing else of any consequence had been said since then in the way of challenging those simple-minded either/ors. But it would be simply begging the question to say that statements in poems have to be different from other kinds because that is part of the nature of “poetry” (known how?), rather than looking at poems, by which I mean looking at the contents of a lot of anthologies to get an idea of what appear to be the boundaries within which a large number of very different things are all called poems, and trying to figure out what’s going on. What makes something a poem?

He might even find Wittgenstein’s idea of family likenesses helpful.


He might also give a passing thought to his term “pleasure,” which he also seems to think is something definite and discrete, as if doing his kind of philosophy, or working on a cure for cancer, or designing a dam, or trying to figure out why Churchill did what he did on a particular occasion weren’t pleasurable activities for some, pleasurable in part because of the effective knowing, or pursuit of knowing, finding out, whatever, that was involved. Or at least the belief that one was seeing things accurately, even if one wasn’t seeing the whole “world” at that point, let alone piercing the veil of illusion, intuiting unfading truths, and the rest of the Transcendental-Idealist nonsense. A historian who said that he didn’t care whether or not what he said was true would be loony. Or else a truly swinging and cynical post-modern rhetorician.

The plays of Shakespeare, coming to us from four hundred years ago, are still considered by the not entirely stupid or hopelessly romantic to be conveying important truths about the nature and problems of “ruling,” and social order, and justice vs. mercy, and the will to destruction, and “love,” and other little fun things like that.


In contrast, a good-sized warehouse could be filled with all the books and papers in Science which were once believed to be providing knowledge, and the facts and hypotheses and inferences and arguments of which have subsequently been concluded by other writers of scientific books and papers to be saying things that were simply wrong. Were they “knowledge” when people believed that they were true? Or did they simply have the rhetoric of works in which people were studying “data” and trying to explain why things happened the way they did.

The plays of Shakespeare (in verse, and so presumably “poetry” are entertaining for some, at least when well produced, and Tom and Jerry cartoons are entertaining, but this doesn’t mean that Julius Caesar, and Hamlet and The Tempest simply offer at greater length the “pleasures” of Tom and Jerry.


It’s so odd. G. is really in the same box with those damn Post-Kantian Transcendental Idealists in his evident belief in the possibility of an accessible absolute knowledge somewhere, and his sense that if it isn’t absolute, then it’s not really-and-truly worthwhile, not fully serious. For he doesn’t seem to be claiming that everything is merely fiction-making, including historiography, and oceanography, and molecular physics, and philosophy, or that philosophy like the kind he himself does is simply a higher form of entertainment, independent of knowledge.

Some of those “erroneous” science writings can probably still be enjoyed by some civilized scientists because of the quality of their reasoning, or the energy of their information-assembling, even if the conclusions were wrong and the research flawed. They do not have to be “right,” or even thought to be right, in order to be serious.

The point is not whether all or most poems arrive at significant new truths that are agreed to by at least the cognoscenti. Some poems are indeed pure play, and there’s an element of play in many poems.

The point is whether serious thinking can go on in poems, even if it doesn’t necessarily take the form of a series of logically linked propositions.

Personally, I would say that it can. Wouldn’t you?.

On the evidence of his article, G. simply hasn’t read enough poems.


© John Fraser

2002/abridged 2007


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