Tijdschrift voor filosofie
sinds 1969


A poetics of hope

Sybolt Doorn

Poetry to the philosopher, in my view, fills the world with inspiration. It makes the escape from the webs of analytic thought, rigorous logics, and harsh rhetoric accessible. In a world predominated by the dusty decadence of philosophy, poetry ventilates by way of a solitary engagement with language in a playful way; a language beyond the sometimes-tiresome language games in philosophy. Poems, to me, seem to express a condensed, creative act, moving beyond the edges of possible thought into unopened domains of reflection. We move through lines, stanzas and verses and dwell into something linguistically ‘wrong’ and initially ungraspable, but motivated by the slight chance of finding something previously unseen or unexpectedly beautiful. Not only do poems, their coming into being, embody the creative act, also the reading of the poem requires creativity as the poem’s reality requires a construction to become meaningful. In poems philosophers can find shelter and hope; the poem promises, speaks, and eventually tells us of the fresh ideas it is willing to share. 

These hopeful and creative qualities of the poetic tale make themselves apparent after reading a poem several times. Yet, in a recent session where I read through some poems by Fernando Pessoa, this hopeful act was greatly disturbed. I waited, patiently for the hopeful act, reading through poems, waiting for a poem to steer something within me, to awaken the creative act, a poem I could not move beyond. But this time, I came across a poem whose message was directly intelligible; a hand reaching out of the page, and hitting you, the reader, in the face. I was confronted, not by a fresh idea, but by a classical philosophical thought experiment. The poem – A Question – starts off with |A deep, brutal man,| who asks of a poet:

If you had to choose between seeing dead –
Your wife whom you do love so well –
And the loss complete, irreparable, 
   Of your verses all, instead –
Which loss would you rather feel?

Pessoa creates in a few lines an atmosphere and disturbance, reminiscent of Nietzsche’s aphorisms; almost as profound as the demonic appearance in the passage on the eternal recurrence. We readers, following this disturbing act, feel something is at stake, something that does not only concern the poet, but us, readers of poetry and prose, us humans who partake in creativity. I do not know for sure, but my guess is that Pessoa was well aware of this situation, as he describes |The poet glanced with sudden woe|. The poet, like us, feels something through the question, but Pessoa’s brutal man gives the poet no time to reflect. Philosophy, contemplation, is exempt of power here, as the man |Broke with a question ill-foreseen| that stings the heart, the capacity to feel, rather than the mind and its capacity to contemplate. The answer is given by our intuitive reaction, and not after time-consuming philosophizing.

The poet in the poem, never replies. Never is an answer formulated in words – |And he did not answer|. A Question, is about the short moment that falls between the question, and the answer. A moment between the transition from |His inner silence|, where he is |half-serene,| and thus vulnerable, to a philosophically constructed answer produced by the strained mind; in between lies the moment, I think, that is most fruitful to poetic expression. In the poem the last philosophical phase is never reached, the brutal man aims at the fluid poetic moment between question and linguistic answer, where the poet replies on the basis of his feelings, which in this case expresses itself through a silence, a long silence; the answer from the poetic phase.

In reply to this silence, the brutal man |Smiled, as elder to younger brother|, elder, more knowledgeable, but also villainous and with premeditation. It was a test all along, to test the interests of the poet, and to test if the poet can be considered as a poet at all. Our respondent is then plunged into an episode, the moment in which he could answer was filled by a poetic, non-contemplative answer, in which he chooses his creations, his verses, over his wife, his love. Not because the poet actually chooses, or points out that he wishes his verses over his wife, but because he considers it. The poet, then with:

   The tortured glance of startled sense
   And sudden self-knowledge intense
   And newness of self-consciousness
   Was bitter, as ev’n he could guess.
   More than a smile were violence.

A violence is inflicted upon the poet. The weapon of poetry is aimed at him, and in return he betrays the poetic. The poet did not instinctively choose for love, for the symbol of his adorations, for one of the most important sources of inspiration. Why is this so problematic? Why is this torture to the poet? Ethically, because the poet chooses an artifact over a human life; his vanity outshines his love. This is the first interpretation of Pessoa’s poem, a philosophical interpretation, of the poet who is thrust into idleness by becoming aware of his unethical decisions. 

But following poetic intuition, we did not yet see the ethical reflection upon his gestural reaction; there was no actual linguistic response. That’s why I think we need to evaluate the bitterness the poet feels on poetic terms. There, love, or the partner, means something different than only a human life. Love, being a source of inspiration, works its way into the future, into forthcoming acts of creation. Rather than having faith in the future, for hoping that he could express a further blossomed experience of love, he clings to his old experiences, his memories. He holds on to what has been established and denies creativity.

Pessoa’s poet does not trust the moment in between the question and the answer. He does not believe in the poetic surface. He follows the binarity of the brutal man’s question, on his terms, by choosing either love or poetry, and thereby the poet affirms the already existent. An integration of the intuition that, because it is a question of poetry and love, multiple answers might be possible, did not take place within him. To move beyond the conformity of the given duality, to poetically dodge the two-sided coin by trusting in a poetic eruption where a synthesis of love and poetry manifests itself, does not occur to him. 

It relates to what Deleuze wrote about a poets’ appeal to ‘necessary destructions’. Deleuze says a poet ‘speaks in the name of a creative power, capable of overturning all orders and representations in order to affirm Difference in the state of permanent revolution […]’ Our non-poet in Pessoa’s poem, is not capable of destroying his older work, the ‘past-tense’ of creative expressions. By his lack of trust, he betrayed the source of his work to come, the source of his creative power. Within his silence, his run to a philosophical answer, he reflexively says ‘no’ to the permanent revolution and violates it by way of his conserving tendencies. He does not poetically create the answer of hope; in that moment in between A Question and its answer he falls into the binarity of the brutal man, losing his poetic spirit.