Poetry and Philosophy Revisited

John Koethe

Barnes and Noble

As an academic philosopher and the author of many books of poetry, I’m often asked about the relationship between poetry and philosophy. What I’ve usually said in the past is something along these lines: Philosophy and poetry can both be ways of responding to similar underlying concerns, puzzlements, or feelings about experience and the self and their relationship to the world, but they’re very different activities. I’m suspicious of the idea of “philosophical poetry,” or of doing anything that might properly be called “philosophy” in writing poems. The reason is that while they can have similar origins, they have different aims and are subject to different constraints. The aim of philosophy is clarity and truth—it’s subject to the constraints of consistency, coherence, criticism, and argumentation—whereas poetry, even when its origins and concerns are somewhat philosophical, doesn’t aim at establishing the truth of various ways of thinking about the self or time or the world, but of inhabiting different ways of looking at them, or making palpable and felt what it’s like to respond to them in those ways. (And, of course, a lot of poetry isn’t concerned with this at all.)

I still think this is basically right. But, lately, I’ve begun to feel that the line between philosophy and poetry isn’t as clear as I’d once thought it was; that there are matters of human importance and concern that might seem philosophical but that are better addressed through poetry (or imaginative literature generally), rather than through philosophy in the strict, constrained sense I’ve indicated. Ludwig Wittgenstein is a philosopher who’s been important to me. One of his characteristic views is that much, or at least some, of what philosophers say (or try to say) involves a distortion of language. I’m sympathetic to this view, though I’m much less sure of how to recognize these abuses of language than are some philosophers influenced by Wittgenstein.

There are matters of human importance and concern that might seem philosophical but that are better addressed through poetry.

• • •

Like most mainstream academic philosophers, I know less about, and am less inclined to be sympathetic to, Martin Heidegger. That said, I’ve recently spent time in a reading group working through his Introduction to Metaphysics, in which he maintains that the central question of philosophy is: Why is there something, rather than nothing at all?—a question logical positivists like Rudolf Carnap ridicule as meaningless. Wittgenstein had almost nothing to say about Heidegger. Yet, to my surprise, there are brief but sympathetic remarks of his from 1929 in which he agrees that Heidegger’s question is meaningless and can’t be pursued philosophically (for one thing, we can’t imagine what an answer to it might be). Still, Wittgenstein shows an enormous respect for the feeling of astonishment at the existence of the world that this misbegotten question attempts to give philosophical voice to, almost as though a failure to feel such an astonishment, or bewilderment, or something like it, would be a sign of spiritual deficiency. And rather than, like the positivists, urging us to keep our mouths shut to avoid speaking nonsense and transcend the limits of language, he practically implores us to revel in such nonsense, all while cautioning us not to delude ourselves into thinking that what we’re doing when we do so is philosophy. While he doesn’t make the suggestion explicitly, a possibility this suggests, to me, is that one thing that sort of reveling might be, instead of philosophy, is poetry.

Three themes that my work in philosophy has centered on are realism, which concerns the relationship between the natural world and our thoughts and theories about it; the nature of our minds and mental states and their relationship to our material being; and the nature of time (though I’ve written much more about time in poetry than in philosophy). I continue to think that these themes are legitimate ones for philosophical treatment in a strict sense. But my poetry often involves reflective meditations on what I think of as the individual human counterparts of these themes: the individual world of my own experience, which ends with death; the individual human life, with its unique perspective on its own thoughts and experiences and its sense of its own value; and the individual experience of the passage of personal time, which coincides with one’s own life. I think these things with which I’m so preoccupied are the ultimate basis for all value, and that they’re rooted in the kinds of “abstract feelings” (as T. S. Eliot called them) which Wittgenstein acknowledged in his dismissal of what Heidegger took to be the central question of metaphysics. But, like Wittgenstein on the legitimacy of that metaphysical concern, I’ve become increasingly skeptical (for reasons which I won’t go into here) of the possibility of the systematic philosophical treatment of these ideas that are so fundamental to our experience of ourselves and the world. I’m increasingly convinced that it’s not just that they can give rise to either poetry or philosophy, with the latter treating them more rigorously and clearly; but rather that they can’t be philosophically elucidated and explained very well at all; that they are, in fact, best established and clarified by their enactment in poetry and other exercises of the imagination.

I think these things with which I’m so preoccupied are the ultimate basis for all value.

• • •

Wittgenstein also spoke of the philosopher who suffers from “loss of problems.” What he meant, presumably, is that since philosophy attempts to explain things about ourselves and the world which we find puzzling, paradoxical, and difficult to understand, we cannot be motivated to explain these troubling aspects of our experience and our lives unless they trouble us in the first place. Whether philosophical explanations can actually relieve these kinds of puzzlement is, as I’ve said, something about which I’m increasingly skeptical. What’s remarkable about human life is that while it is utterly commonplace, each life is absolutely unique to the person living it. We’re usually so close to our lives and so habituated to them that we can’t see them clearly enough to realize how puzzling and remarkable they really are. If all poetry can do is enable us to see this, then that may just be enough. Explanations can wait, perhaps indefinitely.


We have them, and live and think about them,
But then, what are they? Some seem like
Bigger deals than the rest, like those of big enchiladas
Or the CEOs of banks too big to fail, but why? Some seem
Meaningful for their commitments and accomplishments,
As no doubt they are, though most are unexceptional
And ordinary, and just fine for that. They’re all equal
In value, but what that means is difficult to say:
That each one matters more than anything
To whoever’s life it is, though each is barely real
To anyone else? The world exists before and after it,
Yet while it breathes it is the world, its world.
Whenever I attempt to gesture at it, all I find are words
For where I am: this room, this place I live. Stay with me
I want to say, yet it can’t, not because it’s unreal,
But because I am. Is what I want to say instead
That everything comes down to lives? The thought
Is true enough, but it’s a way of feeling, not explaining,
Of poetry rather than a paper. They’re real enough I guess,
Just “metaphysically thin.” But each of them is everything.

John Koethe has published many books of poetry, including North Point North, The Swimmer, Falling Water, and has received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and the Frank O’Hara Award. He has also published books on Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosophical skepticism, and poetry, and is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.