Criticism: Why Poets Need Logic

Poets need logic for the same reason poets need some mastery of form. By crafting poetry within the discipline of poetic forms, poets gain proficiency in the full range of their art from arranging the barest stones of syntax to constructing soaring edifices of odes, sonnets, even free verse. Or we may compare the poet’s learning form to a singer’s practicing of musical scales, which the singer does so that among other things s/he may gain the accuracy and stamina enabling her/him to perform within the full range of her/his vocal gifts. The singer lives in musical constructs; the poet lives in linguistic constructs. Learning form is the responsibility of anyone who accepts the poet’s calling just as learning basic musical technique is the responsibility of any musician aspiring to competence.

Logic, or reasoning, is also form, form for thought. In fact, any given metaphor may be understood as an inductive argument carrying within a contingent of implicit assumptions. For example, when Robert Burns, says

O, my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.
O, my Luve’s like a melody,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune …

he argues via similes either that his beloved (capital “L”), his feelings of love, or both possess qualities similar to those a red rose and a well-played melody possess. The effectiveness of his argument depends upon the reasonableness of several unstated assumptions, one of which lies at the root of all metaphors: if a thing can be demonstrated to share qualities with some other thing, then those two things may be said to be like each other. The poem’s rhyme scheme, meter, and use of repetition are elements of poetic form and, traditionally, may be judged for their effectiveness, but like any other argument the quality of the poet’s reasoning must also remain open to debate.

In The Republic, Plato finds reason and poetry incompatible, as far as poetry is practiced in his time. He does not think poetry promotes understanding because he believes that most poetry manipulates audiences by arousing inappropriate emotions. Furthermore, poetry, by virtue of its being an imitation of the world which is itself an imitation of the Ideal, necessarily takes up its position twice removed from truth. He takes poetry to task for being superficial and uninformed; furthermore, poetry appears unconcerned about its superficiality and so is dangerous to the human soul and to human strivings toward reason.

What Plato calls poetry Ezra Pound calls “bad art,” and Pound’s ideas about what to do with it are similar to Plato’s. “Bad art,” Pound says in his essay, “The Serious Artist,”

is inaccurate art. It is art that makes false reports. If a scientist
falsifies a report either deliberately or through negligence we
consider him as either a criminal or a bad scientist according to
the enormity of his offence, and he is punished or despised accordingly.
If an artist falsifies his report as to the nature of man, as to his own
nature, as to the nature of his ideal of the perfect, as to the nature of
his ideal of this, that, or the other, of god, if god exists, of the life force
of the nature of good and evil, if good and evil exist, of the force with
which he believes or disbelieves this, that, or the other, of the degree in
which he suffers or is made glad; if the artist falsifies his report on these
matters or on any other matter in order that he may conform to the taste
of his time, to the properties of a sovereign, to the conveniences of a
preconceived code of ethics, then that artist lies. If he lies out of
deliberate will to lie, if he lies out of carelessness, out of laziness, out of
cowardice, out of any sort of negligence whatsoever, he nevertheless lies
and he should be punished or despised in proportion tothe seriousness of
his offence.

In comparing the report of the creative artist to the report of the scientist, Pound places art in the same logical arena as science, where rightly it belongs. Poets need logic for the same reason scientists need logic: to tell accurate stories about human inquiry and experience.

Some hold reason to be dangerous to the creative energies that characterize poetry and its creators, the poets. Reason, it is argued, robs the muse, strips her of her shining, iridescent garments, savages her inspirational person, and leaves her lying in a ditch, bereft of all that made her lively and desirable. The same thinking arises in assertions that reason applies unfair and unhealthy pressure upon religious belief. It seems that like Midas’s touch, logic destroys every dainty it handles, which in Midas’s case amounted to everything he loved.

That some artists cast reasoning in such a villainous role suggests that 1) such artists may be ascribing the failings of poor reasoning to all reasoning, and 2) such artists may imagine the qualities of creativity to be static in nature, i.e., unchanging, once established. In the first case, projecting the qualities of poor reasoning onto all reasoning is itself unreasonable and hardly justifies throwing out logic’s vigorous baby with her offending bath water. In the second case of a belief, once imagined, next imagining itself unassailable and unchangeable, such a position seems incompatible with the meaning of the word “creativity” and points more toward fundamentalist thought wherein the adherent holds as sacred some ideal and rigidly embraces it regardless of the quality of any and all challenges to the ideal’s validity. Such fundamentalism may even ascribe evil to perceived challenges so to reject them out of hand.

Good art avoids any form of fundamentalism that holds beliefs unassailable by virtue of their being beliefs, and no artist should rest contented within any personal fundamentalism whereby his/her art is held sacred in stasis. In the course of being put to the proof, good art ought to show itself transcendent enough to offer itself up, die then resurrect in better embodiments, both communally and in the strivings of the individual artist. Art that fights to hold on to its philosophical, political, or spiritual position against all suggestions or evidence of contrary ideas becomes mere personal, political, or cultural propaganda. In its urgency to avoid death it abides self-imposed unconsciousness regarding its failings; that is, it accepts as good its own spiritual death.

Someday–soon, hopefully–the concept that the human brain is struggling to continue its evolution will be taken for granted. Then it will become common understanding that as the physical brain goes, so goes human consciousness, and that developing consciousness likewise alters the brain. In Plato’s rejection of poets we can see the careful language of a newly emergent level of consciousness struggling to take responsibility for newly forming relationships with truth, or with what is and what is possible. Thus it is right that Plato rejects the bad art of his time as being castles built on clouds of lesser levels of consciousness and lower tiers of reasoning. His arguments that bad art manipulates audiences into maintaining or regressing to lower levels of consciousness are sound.

Good poetry delights through its skill in using poetic and linguistic forms; likewise, good poetry, indeed all good art, raises consciousness in audiences through sound reasoning. Good art ought to satisfy communal needs for reason and beauty in edifying proportions. If in the course of creating art the artist’s own consciousness rises to a new realization of the truth of his/her being in the world, all the better. All art ought to be as open to judgement upon its rationality as it is to appraisal of its success in using relevant forms. No art, including that which calls itself art on the basis of fundamental rights of freedom of expression, should imagine itself to be above argument.

5 thoughts on “Criticism: Why Poets Need Logic”

  1. Simply fantastic, Patricia.

    Can’t say that I’ve completely digested all that you’ve said here, but I have experienced (and probably written)poetry that falls flat because the imagery doesn’t hold up to reason.

    Artists who believe that their art should be valued simply because of the creative energy that they put into it are mistaking activity for art, the process for the product.

    It’s one thing to find the muse; it’s quite another to translate her whisperings into a product that is of value to others.

    Of course, just because one person doesn’t see the beauty and reason in a piece of art doesn’t mean that it lacks those qualities. 

    Posted by William Morris

  2. I’ve not much to add but to agree. One benefit of taking Shakespeare from Gideon Burton is that you get this very idea all throughout the class, that even in the aesthetic aspects of Shakespeare ““ in all the puns, rimes, accents and figures of speech ““ he’s constantly constructing arguments and making claims of one sort or another. The art without the rhetoric is empty.  

    Posted by Eric Russell

  3. Patricia, I have one small quibble: Plato dismisses only some kinds of poetry from his imagined city–those you describe–not all poetry. And his ultimate response to the problem of the city is a poetic one, “The Myth of Er.” I think his condemnation of poetry is parallel to your advocacy of reason.  

    Posted by Jim F.

  4. Jim, I hoped (and feared and trembled) that you might swing by this post. Thanks for your comment!

    It is my very very (read: extremely) humble opinion that while Plato would permit good poetry in his Republic, and that he himself even waxes poetic (besides the Myth of Er I think his allegory of the cave is also quite poetic) he does indeed mean to dismiss most if not all poetry as it is practiced prior to and in his time . Here’s why:

    The discussion of poetry occurs in the context of an inquiry into a larger question, whether it is better for a man to be just or unjust. Glaucon puts forward the argument that all men, like the gods, are unjust, and Adeimantus asserts that not only the poets’ voices, but ” … the universal voice of mankind is always declaring that justice and virtue are honorable, but grievous and toilsome, and that the pleasures of vice and injustice are easy of attainment, and are only censured by law and opinion.”

    There is also concern that the gods reward wicked men and punish good men. Adeimantus holds up the poets as authorities on the gods and justice, and none of them, he asserts, “has adequately described either in verse or prose the true essential nature of either [justice or injustice] abiding in the soul … or shown that of all the things of a man’s soul which he has within him justice is the greatest good, and injustice the greatest evil.”

    While he have to take Glaucon’s and Adeimantus’s word on this, I think they may be representing the views of their time well. Such views, I believe, mark the boundaries of the old narratives about truth and about man’s relationship with what is, and it’s through these boundaries Socrates means to plow. That he’s creating new narrative pathways he’s well aware, since he says, if we “imagine the State in process of creation, we shall see the justice and injustice of the State in process of creation also.”

    Another clue I see that the concepts of justice, injustice, and poetic calling that Socrates advances is totally new to his culture, or at least to Glaucon and Adeimantus, is that when Socrates asks whether literature may be either true or false, Adeimantus expresses puzzlement at the question and says, “I do not get your meanings.” Apparently literature has not hitherto been judged for its truthfulness but rather for its effects upon audiences.

    Furthermore, when Socrates asserts that “most of those [tales of fiction] which are now in use must be discarded,” Adeimantus once more seems puzzled as to why and asks which stories and what their faults are. The idea that literature–poetry, prose, and mythology–might commit wrongs seems to surprise Adeimantus. I suppose we might think he’s being cagey, but throughout the dialogues he seems to be an earnest enough sort.

    I don’t mean to draw this out into a discussion of Plato, merely to suggest (again, most definitely humbly) that in Plato’s portrayal of Socrates’s ideas he’s showing us the creation of narrative paths that, while germs for their potential may have been present in the society at that time, went otherwise over undeveloped ground. That’s why I used phrases like “as far as poetry is practiced in his time” and “Plato rejects the bad art of his time.” I think enough evidence exists in Book II and Book III of The Republic to suggest, perhaps even strongly suggest, that most (practically all) poetry in that time may have been bad poetry, what with “univeral voices” expressing beliefs that injustice’s rewards were to be desired above those of justice. If such beliefs were as widespread as Glaucon and Adeimantus assert, then that society operated at a level of unconsciousness and irrationality that’s hard for us to imagine … or maybe not. Maybe we haven’t come very far yet.

    I didn’t want to explain all this in the blog proper and took shortcuts to cover these matters. I must not have crafted my shortcuts well enough. But, ahem … I am not a real scholar, I just play at being one on a blog.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. This is a fascinating subject, very clear and important. I’ve not thought of literature in those terms before, of how sound is its logic. But that absolutely is part of the definition of my undefined term “true” that I think of as a central feature of all good art. Dostoyevsky, my favorite writer, (though not a poet, yet I think this idea is equally true of prose), is known for being utterly truthful in his vision of humanity, and in his descriptions of people’s innermost selves.

    This also helps reify why I dislike so many of the stories on tv that I quit watching long ago. They’re trite and untrue. Their logic is unsound.

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