Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words

By Mutlu Konuk Blasing | Go to book overview

Introduction
“MAKING CHOICE OF A HUMAN SELF”

It is the human that is the alien.

Wallace Stevens

POETRY HAS PRESENTED a problem for disciplinary discourse from the beginning. “There is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” Plato declares; he gives no evidence and makes no argument as to why poetry would have a quarrel with philosophy, but his own discourse offers clear evidence of philosophy's issue with poetry. Poets are banned from the Republic, ostensibly on the grounds that mimetic fictions are imitations of imitations and thus twice removed from Truth. This threat to the discourse of Truth would not in itself pose a practical danger if it didn't also appeal to something “within us” that does: these “productions which are far removed from truth … are also the companions and friends and associates of a principle within us which is equally removed from reason” (1974, 77, 73). If “epic or lyric verse” is allowed into the state, “not law and the reason of mankind … but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our state” (76). For along with the “manly” principle of reason, is a “womanly,” “other principle, which inclines us to recollection of our troubles and to lamentation, and can never have enough of them, [which] we may call irrational, useless, and cowardly” (75, 74).1 The real threat, then, is not mimesis but a language use that mobilizes emotions, the variability and inconstancy of which pose a further problem (75). While “reason” would standardize a citizenry of coherent, self-determining subjects in charge of the “city” within their souls, the “other principle” is subject to variations, both within and among individuals. Poetry plays to the volatile part of our “nature” and thus has the power to create “bad” cities: it can move the “promiscuous crowd” at “public festivals,” for it is a “sort of rhetoric which is addressed to a crowd of men, women, and children, freemen and slaves” (75, 37).

On the social level, poetry threatens the project of establishing order in the “city” within the citizen as well as in the city of discourse;2 it stirs unruly emotions, which are subject to different kinds of persuasions, and it has mass appeal.3 But at the discursive level, the threat of poetry is not a threat of anarchy, for the autonomous, stringent orders of the linguistic and formal codes are evident. Rather, it is the threat of a different system underwriting—and, therefore, in effect overruling—the order of reason. What imperils rational language is what enables it: a nonrational linguistic system that is logically and geneti-

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