Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Face to Face: Place and Poetry

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Face to Face: Place and Poetry

Article excerpt

A psychology is always brought face to face with the problem of the constitution of the world.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

For the spoken version of this paper I read a number of poems, interspersing them with some of the comments made in the prose part of the paper. In this printed version of the paper, however, my aim is that the prose paragraphs focus more specifically on only three poems: The Driver', The Slope' and 'Incident at Galore Hill'. The hill referred to is a low, isolated ridge about an hour to the west of Wagga Wagga in the Riverina. In the spoken version I also opened with the quote from Merleau-Ponty given above: A psychology is always brought face to face with the problem of the constitution of the world'.1 In trying to prepare the ground for a philosophy which can deal with what he terms the 'phenomenal field', Merleau-Ponty spends a number of pages early in The Phenomenology of Perception clarifying what he sees as the limits and traps of several narrowly psychological approaches to perception.2 Such psychologies-Merleau-Ponty lists empiricist, Gestalt, Bergsonian and what he terms 'introspective' psychologies-set up the observed world as a transcendent domain which maps consciousness as if it were somehow separated out from the world, as if, to employ his phrase, there are two different 'modes' of being. One of these modes refers to the external observed perceptions and the other to the inward form of observation. The problem is that when defined in terms of this sort of transcendent psychology, being is, as he puts it, 'brought down' to knowledge. Fluent perception is reductively modelled on externally described cognitive structures. But, he goes on: 'As thinking subject we are never the unreflective subject that we seek to know; but neither can we become wholly consciousness, or make ourselves into the transcendental consciousness'.3

- I

To start: a few reflections about the relation between inside and outside.

This is, in part, an architectural relationship: quite literally so. We walk outside. We walk inside. Light turns to shadow. At night, we have the peculiarly modern experience of walking from an illuminated interior to the dark outside. Whether this inside-outside relationship is marked by a feature as distinctive as light thrown from the open back door into the darkness or whether it is marked by a series of inconspicuous glances through windows, half-noticed exits and entrances as we carry the rubbish out to the carport, or sit out in one of the chairs along the veranda, the place we live in comes to terms with, arrives at its own limits in relation to the environment, the surrounds, the location. It sets up its own field of terms-words, thoughts, markers, journeys-for where it is. In a profound sense, it is the built structure that makes the place. Without a built structure of thought or a built structure of information-or a literal 'building'-there is no-place.

The relationship between the place and its surrounds is a cognitive one and, therefore inevitably, takes place as a psychological movement between inside and outside, a process in which interiorisation and exteriorisation are mutually entwined in each other. (Poetry seems to have a deep connection with the discovery, or opening, of places: imaginatively a poem always takes place somewhere, not just because it is descriptive, but because the thought or image of a poem is staged or positioned 'somewhere'-in the mind, in the play of images, perhaps indeed within a set of descriptive references-but always 'somewhere'.)

At the same time, to show that the poem indicates how the speaker participates in the experience is indispensable in my work. In part, this is a practical way in which poetry can manage the intertwining of interior and exterior experience, without setting one up one term against the other as transcendent or overly structured. (I am not saying that this is a philosophical move, but more just an aesthetic reflection of, or response to, the question. …

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