Section 2 - Notes on YES and NO
2.0 One wants to say that the New Zealand poet James K Baxter was of his time and place, and the New Zealand poet Allen Curnow was of his century.
2.1 I bring Wittgenstein and Eliot into conversation with Baxter, to name a lack and affectation in the latter’s writing. In order to see what is there in Baxter it is useful to see what is not.
2.2 Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets was published in 1974, the third of the Jerusalem books that were Baxter’s last writing. The books were published before and after Baxter’s death in 1972. The style of these works is plain and descriptive. It is apparently artless. That is, there appears to not be a lot of art.
2.3 The book is in the religious art tradition, but it has two problems. First, it is thin poetry writing. That is, it lacks a certain complexity of signs. Second, it does not engage with religious philosophy as a system. This second point is the most interesting failure, and is a basis of digression in these notes.
2.4 The relationship of philosophy and poetry is a famous topic in literary history. It is commonly addressed in theories of interpretation. T S Eliot and Ludwig Wittgenstein have both written about it.
2.5 Eliot deals with the topic several times in his essays. It is tempting to say, as part of the particular labour that the Four Quartets performed upon meaning. How should a poet stand in relation to his or her big ideas, and how can there be both poetry and philosophy, that distinction of discourses, in philosophical poetry?
2.6 Eliot deals with the subject in his 1930 Introduction to G Wilson Knight’s The Wheel of Fire. This introduction is a key document in the apologetics of modernism in literature, not because it settles territory but because it ventures into it. Eliot argues that philosophy and poetry are two different but related things, that he prefers both together, neither one nor the other, and that the key requirement is that they produce a doubleness of reading or a complexity such that any reading, however strenuously performed, must necessarily contain error. The relationship between the poetry and the philosophy is as of two patterns, one on top of the other. The philosophical narrative intervenes in the interpretive process of the poem. Poetry’s discursive form intervenes in the interpretive process of the philosophy. Philosophical poetry, says Eliot, “presents us with the emotional and sense equivalent for a definite philosophical system“. The philosophical construction can set a “kind of criterion of consciousness” in a poem. It is an under-language. Then Eliot leaps and almost disappears from sense completely. His instinct for tracking the residence of meaning, where poetry pulls him, can outrun his prose tools. He proposes that the operation of a philosophical system in poetry is where
“…the poet has something to say which is not even necessarily implicit in the system, something which is also over and above the verbal beauty. “
2.7 What can this something be that is at the same time contextual with and neither implicit nor explicit in something else? This is paradoxical. This something is also “over and above the verbal beauty”. It is neither in the system, nor in the property of words themselves. So the object of attention is there, but outside of both signifier and signified. There are not many places left for this something that is said to reside. Unless it is a layered hybrid, a quality of writing where philosophy changes state.
2.8 Metaphysics (an art history term) enters English poetics, again. We are dealing with effects accompanying the crossing of languages. In this case it is the crossing of art’s language, backwards and forwards, over the face of philosophy’s.
2.9 Notice how far we are from Imagism. Eliot’s aesthetic lies in the crossing of languages. Pound’s in the titration of realism. The two converge.
2.9.1 As an aside within an aside: there is a connection here to the question of how New Zealand poetry asks to be read, and not just a connection to Baxter, to whom we return below. How far we are now from C K Stead, a key architect of southwesterly rectangles:
“Mr Curnow’s critical method... has been to look for the common experience of which the poems he values are the visible record. In this he is, I think, insisting upon the priority of the experience over the poetry it initiates”3
2.9.2 I do not know who my remarks should be addressed to – Stead or Curnow. Notice the use of the term “visible record”. That seems a revealing slip: in the middle of literary criticism Stead/Curnow is found floating, synaesthetically, into the world of the art history of realist painting. Verbal art’s work is not seen. It is as though there is a red sheet and a blue sheet on the yacht deck and they pull a blue one, repeatedly, while looking at the red.
2.10 Eliot traces philosophical poetry to the crossing of languages. Wittgenstein distinguishes between philosophical and psychological selves. Both are modernism’s keys. Modernism is a distinctive shift in the nature of representation that has progressively emphasised the constitutive work of language.
2.11 Thus Wittgenstein:
“Thus there really is a sense in which philosophy can talk about the self in a non-psychological way. What brings the self into philosophy is the fact that “the world is my world”. The philosophical self is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world…” 4
“If I wrote a book called The World as I Found It I should have to report on my body, and should have to say which parts were subordinate to my will and which were not... this being a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject “5
2.12 This is high theology of language, which good art naturalises. Wittgenstein creates the category of “philosophical self”, enabling him to defamiliarise the subject (“talk about the self in a non-psychological way”), first, and then enabling him to displace it. It is the transference of the subject from psychology to language. An alternative interpretation might be: it is the transference of the subject from autobiography to a generalised state.
2.13 And finally there is Wittgenstein on the nature of religious belief:
“ When someone who believes in God looks around him and asks, “Where did everything that I see come from?”, “Where did everything come from ?” he is not asking for a (causal) explanation ; and the point of his question is that it is the expression of such a request. Thus, he is expressing an attitude toward all explanations. – But how is this shown in his life? It is the attitude that takes a particular matter seriously, but then at a particular point doesn’t take it seriously after all, and declares that something else is even more serious.” (6)
Here the philosopher articulates a peculiar tautology accompanying statements of belief. It is a complex quality. It disconnects investigation of the world from knowledge. It also makes of this investigation a kind of theatre, perhaps a kind of charade. It is not that investigation is hollowed out so that we are solely left with the objects of belief. Both the form of the seriousness of any investigation is maintained, and its foreclosure. Belief, according to Wittgenstein, is the habitual multiplexing of these two things.
2.14 The Jerusalem sonnets do not ask to be read as the crossing of languages. They do not adequately displace a central persona from psychology to philosophy. They contain constant tautology. That is, setting out to investigate one thing, proposing discovery, they then veer away, and reveal their setting off to have been a feint:
Poem for Colin – 1
This small grey cloudy louse that nests in my beard
Is not, as some have called it, ‘a pearl of God’ –
No, it is a fiery tormentor
Waking me at two a.m.
Or thereabouts, when the lights are still on
In the houses in the pa, to go across thick grass
Wet with rain, feet cold, to kneel
For an hour or two in front of the red flickering
Tabernacle light – what he sees inside
My meandering mind I can only guess –
A madman, a nobody, a raconteur
Whom He can joke with – ‘Lord’, I ask Him,
‘Do You or don’t You expect me to put up with lice?”
His silent laugh still shakes the hills at dawn. (7)
2.15 Baxter’s Jerusalem writing is highly vernacular and has a confessional character. That Baxter evidently thought his confessions to be poetry suggests he thought they possessed a requisite complexity. Where is this complexity? It is clear that he thought poetry’s complexity attached to the representation of his personal experience. Baxter appears to have thought that his psychology, the portrayal of Jim, the Jimness, say, under the aspect of Pacific Creole Renaissance Social Saint, underwrote poetry. That Jim was an important intervention in the interpretive process. Why did he think that? His audience told him, through publishing contracts, reviews, and book purchases. Baxter’s Jimness must have been isomorphic with the taste of his audience. He appears from this distance to have been rocked in the amniotic fluid of his contemporary readers. They demanded psychology of their poets, as picaresque, carnal, obvious, Biblical, human, and as fully staged within vernacular theatre as could be delivered. James K Baxter was Punch to his audience’s Judy. He was deeply recognisable as poetry. This is Baxter’s folk aspect.
2.16 The Jerusalem sonnets reveal a delirium of high New Zealandness and low poetry.