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On the Alliance of Poetry and Philosophy

a letter to Elfie concerning poetry
by Niki Clements

An Essay on three poems by Anna Swir
by Adam Jones


a letter to Elfie concerning poetry
by Niki Clements

Dear Elfie,

To respond to your question about poetry, I am finally heeding your advice and taking advantage of the letter format. While I attempted to write paragraphs on my changed relation to poetry, I felt that the detached impersonal format contradicted the very nature of how I now see poetry.

Before, I considered the aesthetic side of poetry—in terms of form, style, and rhythm—to be its distinguishing factor as a mode of expression. For this reason, poetry seemed to be shrouded with an intricately woven veil of formalisms that I did not think I could see beyond. At the same time, I tended to view philosophy in a similar way. Like the language modes of the priest and the prophet, poetry and philosophy seemed to carry the promise and sanction of divine inspiration, so I could not readily approach them.

While I still see a veil covering the ‘meanings’ behind poetry, I realize that this is symptomatic of the language games that it plays, and makes us conscious of. The three formative poems this semester attest to the different approaches to the game: levity with Auden and the Law, severity with Millay and her injunction to Read history, and the vivacity of Levin’s acorn. By understanding poetry as a system of signs that point to some as-of-yet unidentified signified, I have learned that you must suspend judgment in order to see beyond the craftiness of the game, and learn how to engage in the game itself.

My first insight was with the line in Natasha Saje’s ‘Wittgenstein poem’, as she says, “A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar.” I used to have a veritable fear of these drops of grammar, but when I could see their relation to philosophy and see how reason underpins both, I realized I could approach poetry not to ‘know’ what the poet intended, but rather that my own work of reason was sufficient to discern the underlying dissonance-containing harmony of ideas.

So my approach to reading poetry has changed. I have realized that poetry as mode of expression is not meant to be the monologue of the poet. Poetry relies on the triadic relationship between the poet, the poem, and the reader. All three work together to reach towards an insight into the true nature about relationships among things. The poet articulates the ideas in a concrete form, and gives shape to a small kosmos-as-poem to be elaborated freely by the reader. However, poetry gains life as the reader takes the poem and achieves specific insights that the poet may not have directly intended, but are valid as the reader’s personal linguistic transactions.

Yours, Niki

An Essay on three poems by Anna Swir
by Adam Jones

When paradox was “invented” by Parmenides and elaborated by his pupil Xeno, a wonderful addition to the language game was put into play. There is something obviously fishy about the phrase “Being ‘is,’ and not being ‘is not.’” Here is a sentence where the words used are obviously and deliciously playing with the meaning that lies behind them, perhaps to show us something that would otherwise remain unknown. Paradox reconciles language’s two attributes; by being true, it achieves the goal of absolute proof, and through the empathetic function of the imagination, it provides sufficient faith to an engaging intellect to make a leap of understanding. These ideas were further synthesized in one of Plato’s dialogues, at the end of the Phaedrus (line 275 to the end). In the myth of Thoth, the written word is depicted as inadequate not simply because of its plastic stasis, but because of language in general’s untrustworthiness. One can reduce language to one perspective, to one mode, but only at the expense of the integral whole one is invariably trying to express. The only way to appropriately use language to apprehend the transcendent is through an understanding of language’s capacity for metaphor. The connotative functions of language can perhaps (though imperfectly) redeem its failure to achieve the eternal, and to stymie the brain’s tendency to privilege the ease of the singular.

These three poems by Anna Swir, one of my favorite poets, can work along the triadic scheme of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in regards to language’s poetic and philosophic goals. In the first one, “Poetry Reading,” Swir reflects on her personal knowledge of language’s horrible inadequacy – which unfortunately couples with an obsession on the part of both the individual and the collective to try to ferret out the answer from any sort of language mode, in this case, art. “The Sea and the Man” is joyful, though intelligent in its refusal to be reductive. It shows how language can best be used towards self-awareness, the ability to laugh at itself in the face of the impossible (like the Biblical Sarah), and in this humble way to provide insight. “Troubles with the Soul at Morning Calisthenics” illustrates a profound secret of integrity while using language that jokes around about serious stuff – and it makes me laugh out loud. It asks the question: How can mankind’s two desires, for the imaginative and for the ostensible, be reconciled? The answer: Very briefly.

* * *

Three poems by Anna Swir (from the English language anthology Talking to My Body) reprinted in Czeslaw Milosz’ A Book of Luminous Things. New York: Harvest Books, 1996.


I’m curled into a ball
like a dog
that is cold.

Who will tell me
why I was born,
why this monstrosity
called life.

The telephone rings. I have to give
a poetry reading.

I enter.
A hundred people, a hundred pairs of eyes.
They look, they wait.
I know for what.

I am supposed to tell them
why they were born,
why there is
this monstrosity called life.


You will not tame this sea
either by humility or rapture.
But you can laugh
in its face.

was invented by those
who live briefly
as a burst of laughter.

The eternal sea
will never learn to laugh.


Lying down I lift my legs,
my soul by mistake jumps into my legs.
This is not convenient for her,
besides, she must branch,
for the legs are two.

When I stand on my head
my soul sinks into my head.
She is then in her place.

But how long can you stand on your head,
especially if you do not know
how to stand on your head.


Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan