National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part two

Poetry continues the Great Conversation. What is truth? How do we know it? Who are we and how should we live? Often reserved for philosophers, these surface questions are the result of the friction from winds of poetry.

What came first? Philosophy? Or Poetry? Since Theogony pre-dates many philosophical writings, I submit that poetry came first. Poetry is the wind that troubles the water.

But I am no scholar. Only a modern-day peasant who watched as twelve- to eighteen-foot waves battered the rocky Lake Michigan shoreline this weekend.

On a gray, stormy afternoon, I retreated to the public library in Racine. A book of translations of Han Shan needed to be renewed for the fourth or fifth time. And the children needed to get out of the apartment. Besides, the more you check out books of poetry the more funding the library gets based on your activity and/or interest in certain subjects. Or so I am led to believe by local librarians.

I was introduced to the Cold Mountain poems during one of the library’s writers groups. Since then I have read and studied several books of translations from Wang Wei, Ryokan, Han Shan, Basho and others.

During the last few years, I find my writings turning toward dialogues with these poets. Here is a sample Cold Mountain poem from Han Shan, a Taoist/Buddhist hermit, as translated by Red Pine:

Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change

A quick read reveals a surface feast of images and imagination. After reading and thinking about this poem for a few months there are things inferred and/or referenced. Is the An Lu-shan Rebellion referred to in the third line? Is there a reference to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? Heaven means the emperor. Earth means the empire. Is the last line political? Or philosophical?

While Han Shan wrote this poem on rocks or trees, elsewhere in the world Beowulf was composed. Charles Martel expanded the Frankish Empire. What do I say to Han Shan? Why did you flee? What and/or who did you leave behind?

Earlier this year I shared poems with a high school group on invitation of the tutor. Han Shan was one of the poets I recited (among other poets like Ghalib and Akhmatova). After the class, one of the tutors thanked me for visiting the class. She was grateful that the young men in the class saw a man engaged and enthusiastic about poetry and literature. The tutor asked how I became interested in poetry. My answer was that poetry is part of the Great Conversation.

Which came first philosophy or poetry?

Foreign language section at Downtown Books & News

Someone asked how many of today’s poets are also philosophers?[1] The question presents some assumptions. One assumption is that poets merely express themselves in literary work through distinctive style and rhythmic fashion. This notion tends to present the  emotional aspect of poetry, but ignores the intellect of poetry. There is a dichotomy to poetry that mingles and merges into philosophy. The study of knowledge, reality and existence is at the core of philosophy, and the expression of these ideas is at the center of poetry.

Readers of poetry know that the subject matter of most serious literary poetry is an investigation of knowledge, reality and existence. One might argue, that light verse also presents a philosophical truss and girder to the support of the work. Truly, poetry puts a face on ideas, clothes abstractions in tangible, beautiful garments and builds images from the exploration of the meaning of life.[2]

Western philosophy began in 6th century BCE. It interesting to me that before philosophy there was poetry. Hesiod composed Theogony more than 100 years before Thales of Miletus and the Pre-Socratics. About that time period Homer released the Iliad. It is not by accident that poetry informs philosophy nor that poets birth philosophical conversations.

To address the question that sparked this post, I’m still considering the question of who I might regard as a great modern poet philosopher. My mind runs in two veins: one is the craft of the poet (i.e. the strength of the literary work) and two is the ideas of the poet (i.e. the strength of the logic and rhetoric of the argument). A couple of modern poets come to mind, but they have long since passed from this world. Two names of living poets simmer in the back of my mind. What do you think? How many of today’s poets are also philosophers? Are you a poet? Do you consider yourself a philosopher? What examples of philosophy do you find in poetry?

NOTES: [1] Gael, “Wondering how many poets are also philosophers and intuitives as well as creative.?” LinkedIn, April 21, 2013 accessed May 6, 2013 http://www.linkedin.com/group.
[2] There is a whole discussion that could be had regarding avant-garde poetry and the challenges with poetic forms that are not accessible to the average reader, but this post deals only with the question of philosophy as it relates to poetry.

Quote: “Astonishment is the root of philosophy.”

~ Paul Tillich, The Writer’s Almanac