i’ve been sitting on this topic for a while now. contemplating on how to best articulate the difference between two of my favourite proses: poetry and philosophy.
for as long as i can remember, i associated poetry with art, philosophy with thought. and if my mind were to get really fancy in putting the two together, ‘artful thinking’ is what i would conjure up.
yet it wasn’t until i finished reading nature by ralph waldo emerson that i really strived to understand the distinguishing features of each. in 1836, emerson, when describing idealism, drew the following comparison:
whilst thus the poet animates nature with his own thoughts, he differs from the philosopher only herein, that the one proposes Beauty as his main end; the other Truth. but the philosopher, not less the poet, postpones the apparent order and relations of things to the empire of thought.
such profound perspective isn’t it? beauty (poetry) and thought (philosophy). both of which have purposes; both a means to an end. for emerson his purpose took many forms: essayist, poet, philosopher, lecturer even a naturalist some academics believe. regardless of what literary persona he adorned “his work was often interrupted by the urge to write a poem” (rwe.org.). we may be from different centuries, he and i, but i can identify with his ignorance for his actual work, easily distracted by a yearning to write.
so, is there a distinct difference between a poet and a philosopher?
according to plato there is. “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” he pondered. but what is there to quarrel about? one boasts itself as the lover of wisdom, the other as the lover of words. poetry is removed from the truth–philosophy is what guides the truth. aristotle argued that poetry is an aid to philosophy. dante furthered this by favouring poetry, believing it laid the foundation for philosophy. in essence, poetry seems to have more value, ancient worth … the words that lead to the wisdom perhaps. i suppose that in order to think you must have something to think about.
to give the distinction a modern context, john koethe, a 21st century poet philosopher, believes there is a balance between the two art forms. he writes poems in the spring and summer; philosophical writing in the winter. in differentiating the two, he writes, “philosophy is subject to severe constraints of consistency, coherence, argumentative rigor, addressing of objections, and so on with the aim of arriving at the truth of the matter. poetry isn’t subject to these constraints but so free to inhabit and explore ideas and themes without worrying too much about their correctness, as long as they feel sufficiently powerful to move us.”
in other words, philosophy is more structured, an intellectual construct, whereas poetry, is more emotively fluid, at liberty to take any form its author should so desire. constrained or not, both evoke some moral or emotional reflection in the reader–the student–to explore meaning, interpretation, whether with deeper dialogue or wiser words. both inspire, both teach. both challenge our values, our heart … our mind.
so in a roundabout way this is the conclusion i’ve come to: the inquisitive writer in me is drawn to poetry. its eloquence, its style, its romantic story, painting a literary artwork for me to appreciate, delve inside to figure out its meaning. the imaginative intellectual inside of me, however, is intrigued by the ancient, historical worth of philosophy. its wisdom, its conundrum, its knowledge, disciplines me, connecting my ethos to nature.
for these reasons, i have to disagree with plato as i don’t understand how the two quarrel. after all, it is their shared commonality, words, passages of books, that intertwine the art of poetry with the academia of philosophy. and as emerson poetically philosophised, “books inspire…the active soul”.
on a note about ralph waldo emerson … he is one of the most brilliant minds i’ve ever read. for a range of topics and essays treat yourself and indulge in his ‘society and solitude’ series: