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October 19, 2003

Two Dialogs on Poetry and Poets

I wrote these some time ago, but they came to mind after reading some comments on poetry somewhere this past week (Oh, the curse of a faulty memory!). Then Julian posted a dialog with Paypal Customer Service over at Play Money that again reminded me, and I thought, why not?


I. Smith

Socrates: I hear, young man, you claim to be a poet. Am I correct, then, in understanding this to mean you produce poems?

Smith: I do.

Socrates: Wonderful! Then perhaps you could share one with me; though, that I might better understand, perhaps you should first explain to me what a poem is?

Smith: You're teasing me, Sir, aren't you?

Socrates: I am not. I do not know what a poem is and I wish to.

Smith: Well, Sir, I can show you better than I can tell you. May I read you one?

Socrates: Of course; but how can I judge if you are indeed reading me a poem, and how can you know if you are reading me a poem, if you cannot tell me what a poem is?

Smith: In the same way I would hold up an apple, and say "This is an apple?"

Socrates: Ah, but I know what an apple is, so I can judge if you speak truly.

Smith: But if I hold up a fruit that you don't know, and name it, a pineapple, say, wouldn't that explain to you what a pineapple is?

Socrates: You would be naming it, as you yourself said, not defining it. By saying it is a fruit, something of which I have some general knowledge, you do begin to define it, but it is hardly a precise definition. There are many kinds of fruit, some large, some small, some of one color, some of another, some sweet, some sour, and so on.

Smith: Then I'll try to define it: A poem is a thing made of words arranged to please the hearers' ears with its sound, and their imagination and intellect with its sense.

Socrates: That is good. I mean, that is the sort of statement I wished to hear as that is one that we can examine. I will not question that poems are constructed of words; Homer has certainly established that. But tell me this: If a work of this sort does not please the hearers' ears, is it a poem?

Smith: It is a failed poem.

Socrates: Come now, is it a poem or not?

Smith: No, I guess it's not a poem.

Socrates: In your process of creating these poems, do you try each word, as you go along, on listeners?

Smith: No, of course not. I finish what I am working on, then I read it to others.

Socrates: And do you call it a poem when you read it the first time to those listeners?

Smith: Yes, of course; it's finished.

Socrates: But how can it be a poem if a poem is "to please the hearers' ears" and no hearer has yet heard it? What if it does not prove to please their ears? Do some not fail to please the listeners?

Smith: Yes, some fail.

Socrates: Then either your definition is not correct, or your process for creating poems is sadly inefficient. Perhaps you meant to say they pleased your own ear?

Smith: Well, while I'm composing that's the standard I use, yes.

Socrates: Ah! Then perhaps this can explain your desire to have a category of "failed poems." If a poem is a work that pleases your own ear, but fails if it does not also please the ear of others, then the definition "failed poem" need not mean "not poem."

Smith: I like that!

Socrates: Does the same logic not apply to the other things you mention, that of pleasing the imagination and intellect with its sense?

Smith: I guess it would have to.

Socrates: Perhaps you would then restate your definition as you have it now.

Smith: A poem is a thing made of words arranged to please the poet's ears with its sound, and his imagination and intellect with its sense, though to be successful it must also please the same faculties of the hearers.

Socrates: Do you mean to say of all the hearers?

Smith: No, I can see I'd better not. It must please the faculties of some of its hearers.

Socrates: Which ones? Does it matter which ones it pleases?

Smith: Ah... Hmm... Yes, it does. It should please the ones I mean for it to please.

Socrates: So, to be a successful poem it must, you might say, please its intended audience?

Smith: Yes, yes, that's better. And its success would be relative to the part of the intended audience it did please.

Socrates: So a poem, can, in your eyes, be less than a complete success, and more than a complete failure. Perhaps we should discuss this matter of "pleasing." How do you mean "please?"

Smith: I mean it makes them happy.

Socrates: Then if it makes them sad, or serious, it must be ruled a failure?

Smith: No, not exactly. Maybe I should say: makes them feel the way I intend for it to make them feel.

Socrates: That would allow for successful poems to make them feel in a variety of ways, but would it allow anyone but the poet to judge if something is a successful poem?

Smith: I don't get what you mean.

Socrates: How would the poet's intended audience know if they are feeling as the poet intended, thus enabling them to judge if it is a successful poem? When a tailor sews up a suit of clothes for a customer, the customer puts it on and can determine in a mirror, or in the judgment of friends, if the fit is good and if he received what he expected, can he not?

Smith. Yes, of course.

Socrates: How can the hearer of a poem make a like judgment?

Smith: I don't know.

Socrates: Perhaps the problem is this. While a friend can judge if the fit of a suit of clothes seems good, who can judge better if the workmanship is properly done, the friend who is not a tailor, or another tailor?

Smith: Another tailor, of course.

Socrates: Would it not then, perhaps, also be true that another poet would be the best judge of a poem?

Smith: Yes! That's it!

Socrates: Very well. Perhaps you might then restate your definition, as you would have it now.

Smith: Okay. A poem is a thing made of words arranged to please the poet's ears with its sound, and his imagination and intellect with its sense, though to be successful it must also please the same faculties of other poets. That's better; if other poets don't know my intentions, who will?

Socrates: Who indeed?

Smith: Shall I read you a poem now?

Socrates: What would be the use? I'm just a philosopher; I couldn't tell a poem from a paean.

II. Plato

Socrates: Good day, Mr. Plato, what topic shall we discuss today?

Plato: Perhaps we could continue in that vein to which Mr. Smith brought your attention; it remains rich with ore.

Socrates: Very well. What would you have us examine?

Plato: In my search for the schema of what would be the perfect State, I have determined that poets and their works are possibly an evil and thus must be banned. However, I love poetry (who does not?) and would prefer to not exclude either the poets or their works. May we examine my reasoning and see if perhaps it is at fault, or if indeed I am thinking rightly and they must be banned?

Socrates: We must examine it. It would indeed be a shame to exclude Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, or other men such as these, or, indeed, their poetry. Tell me, how do you arrive at this conclusion?

Plato: Poetry is imitative of nature, is it not? It imitates with words the actions and deeds of men and gods, and describes the places in which they occur.

Socrates: That seems a just description of some poetry, that of the epic poets, the tragedians, and the comedians.

Plato: Even so. I allow for those who are not imitative, those who write paeans to the gods and praises for great men, as these are not imitative.

Socrates: Very well, but what is it then that makes this imitative poetry an unworthy thing in your state, and thus its makers unwelcome?

Plato: I reason thus. You are aware of my idea that all things are imperfect imitations of perfect ideals that exist somewhere, are you not?

Socrates: Certainly.

Plato: When a furniture-maker makes a bed, he makes an imperfect imitation of the ideal bed.

Socrates: That follows from your assumption.

Plato: When a painter paints a picture of the bed the furniture-maker made, he is then creating an imitation also.

Socrates: Of course.

Plato: Except, the painter's imitation is of what is already an imitation itself, thus he is creating a twice imitation, one with more faults than the furniture-maker's.

Socrates: That is certainly the case. Mr. Smith's age would call it a "Xerox of a Xerox," and would be able to inform us that repeating this action would eventually result in "a complete breakdown in the communication of meaning," or perhaps would mumble something about "signal to noise ratios, laws of thermodynamics," or "chaos theory." But your way states the essence.

Plato: Thank you. We call he who makes the ideal form of a bed a maker even as we do the furniture-maker, but do we call the painter who paints a painting of one a maker of a bed?

Socrates: We do not.

Plato: The poet and the painter are similar in their functions in this way, are they not?

Socrates: That appears to be the case. But does either the painter or the poet claim to be the maker of a bed?

Plato: No, they do not. But they do imitate the form of the bed, do they not?

Socrates: That does appear to be the case. But does the making of this twice-removed imitation make them evil and provide sufficient justification to exile them from your state?

Plato: Perhaps not in itself. My concern is with the eventual end to which it seems to lead.

Socrates: Then show me where this leads.

Plato: Some say that I should admit poetry, and the poets, on the grounds that they are great teachers. But if what they produce is imitation, how can what they teach be virtue? It must be imitation of virtue.

Socrates: If you are correct thus far it would follow, yes.

Plato: And it is clear that what is an imitation of virtue is not virtue.

Socrates: It is.

Plato: Thus anyone who studied from them would be led away from virtue, as one cannot find virtue where there is only not virtue.

Socrates: This follows logically.

Plato: Then the poets and their works would do harm to the citizens of the state as they would lead the citizens away from virtue. Thus poets and poetry must be banned.

Socrates: Very well, you must ban them, certainly, if all this is the case. But I can see you are yet reluctant to do this.

Plato: I would prefer to be shown to be wrong in my thinking than to ban the poets.

Socrates: If it could be shown that poets do not imitate what are already imitations, this would place poetry on the same level as all natural things of the world, would it not? If this were so, would it resolve the dilemma?

Plato: This might be possible if poets did not imitate nature, but themselves could see beyond nature to the ideal forms of things and in fact imitated those.

Socrates: Exactly. But does this resolve the dilemma?

Plato: It does not.

Socrates: And how not?

Plato: Poetry would still remain an imitation, though not as debased an imitation, of virtue, and thus is not virtue.

Socrates: This is so. But does this suggest there might be fault in your reasoning in banning poetry?

Plato: I see it must. For if poetry is now equal to other natural forms of things, yet it is banned because it is not virtue, then all of the other things must likewise be for the same reason. There would be nothing in my state as any thing that is not an ideal must be banned for leading away from virtue.

Socrates: That would appear to be the case.

Plato: Is this why you chose to see poets as inspired by a god?

Socrates: Not exactly, no. That is because poets exhibit the same lack of knowledge of what they produce as do seers and prophets who are inspired of the gods. When I have examined poets as to the meaning of their poetry I find that they, who should be the experts if the making of poetry is as the making of other things, are less expert than many other men at determining the meaning. From this I must conclude that poetry is not "made" as are other things, but must be given to poets by a god as a gift.

Plato: If this is indeed the case, the poets should perhaps be the first citizens of my ideal state.

Socrates: How do you determine this?

Plato: If what they have is a gift of a god, it cannot be an imitation. It must be the ideal form of the poem. If it is the ideal, it cannot lead away from virtue.

Socrates: We appear to have resolved you problem of how to allow admission of poets and poetry into your ideal state.

Plato: Now I must seek a way to provide them with an audience, one other than themselves.

Socrates: Perhaps not. Mr. Smith has determined that the only proper audience for poetry is poets.

Posted by dan at October 19, 2003 12:59 PM | TrackBack
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