Everything Flows in the Arts of Description: with examples from Lao Tzu and Yeats

Poets struggle with the paradox of the present. Poetic language, as opposed to more simply univocal discourse, creates impressions of presence; poetry has an inclination to witness while it is describing. The status of a poem is always suspect with regards to what a given community of readers considers to be ‘the truth.’

Poetry is messy. To see why we can use Wittgenstein’s distinction between language that describes and language that develops means of description, the distinction between rules of description and descriptive propositions; and we should take note of his observation that the functions may ‘shade off’ in multiple directions — the language can change function in the text. You can’t tell one from the other by merely looking at them in isolation. What language does in context is what counts.

This dynamic helps ‘explain’ language that challenges belief, or paradoxes intended to create aporia. ‘Tao defined is not the constant Tao. / No name names its eternal name.’ Perhaps this works like a koan. The propositional form of the first sentence emphasizes the vanity of trying to name the ‘constant’ Tao. The second sentence adds insult to injury by applying the proposition to the situation created by attempts to name its eternal’ name (perhaps we can call it by temporary names. So the first sentence ‘describes’ Tao and the second develops means of description: we can go on by exploring the problem of naming and constancy.

My larger point is that even this rudimentary description produces in the reader s feel for the thing at hand, even though it is not a thing at hand. As we read the Tao Te Ching the Tao ‘thickens’ and expresses its unreal reality. Everything depends on Tao.

To take a more ‘poetic’ example. Yeats’s ‘Who Goes with Fergus’ opens with a question. ‘Who will go drive with Fergus now,/And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade…’ The distribution is clear: the first half-line suggests the proposition (the who who would entertain the myth of Fergus) and the rest describes the means of description. The poem tries to describe driving with Fergus by describing what it would be like (see below). The verb ‘drive’ introduces the resistance to accepting the proposition (the equivocity of the semantics is inescapable) Throughout the poem description and the means of description are subtly interwoven. The witness to the ‘eternal present’ of the myth draws on both functions.


The Poet’s Progress


—-first section of ‘Lost Rules of Usage’ by Susan Stewart CINDER: New and Selected Poems (2017)

If we agree that the form of a poem emerges from our experience as readers (the word form may also refer to generic distinctions between kinds), it is useful to consider Wittgenstein’s key concept ‘form of life.’ (‘Life’ refers to the practices of those who habitually express themselves with given expressions.)

Poems ‘go on’ by following the ‘grammar’ of the words in use: the rules governing meaning in the community of users. Those are the rules, as we say—-exceptions taking their import from departure from the given rules.

One upshot of this approach to form is the prejudice against ‘private languages.’ Poets struggle with this prejudice all the time, early in the process of shaping a poem preferring what is in your head to what is communicated on the page. But that just won’t do. There’s an ethical aspect to composition: authentic participation, however ludic, in a form of life.

The concept of ‘branching’ has been suggested to get at the formal process. (See Philosophical Investigations 47). One thing leads to another, every extension (line, half-line, stanza, etc.) drawing new sense out of what’s there.

The poet’s progress depends on increasing mastery of the relevant ‘language games’ that make communication possible.

Form: how it happens to us

Form is a word used to explain the cause of poetry. This use creates lots of confusion. Wittgenstein can help here. Following W, we can say that form does not explain the cause-and-effect logic of understanding, but form, as it emerges from our reading of the poem, is the reason —- the cause —- the why we search for the cause of the poem. Once we turn this around, we can accept the futility of explanation. There are as many causes as there are ways of proceeding to write a given poem. Our concern is with the emergence of form in our experience of the poem. How it happens to us.