mouth formed thought formed mouth formed thought mouth formed

What is a Poem V: Proof and Poems

So far I’ve suggested that poetry is a form of language use (language act) which is special, havers on the border between mention and use, and is a means of expanding the possibilities of language. Let me be clear again that I do not want to assimilate every single thing we might want to call a poem by virtue of some features, every time it is read or heard, to this cause. It is alright by me if you want to call ‘Thirty days hath september…’ a poem and I am not going to claim it messes with the meaning of ‘September’. You can put your shopping list into verse and call it a poem even if it is just a mnemonic device. However, what I am claiming is that the special distinction of the central cases of poems are things that actively work on the structure of language to take it somewhere different – to expand its possibilities.

The next idea I want to canvas probably won’t seem obvious to many people. I think it is useful to compare a poem with a mathematical proof. Making that claim I am relying (once again) on some Wittgensteinian hints. In my view what Wittgenstein says about proof is broadly that a proof establishes how a certain group of symbols should be used. That is to say that proof is a bit like definition. Another word mathematicians use for ‘proof’ is ‘demonstration’ – and a demonstration shows you how to do something. The problem for this view of proof is explaining our (very strong) instincts that there is no choice about the direction we have to go in maths – that the structures a proof reveals are pre-existing platonic realities. However, nobody is going to claim that about a poem, which makes my task a bit easier.

What we might say, pursuing this analogy, is that a poem shows us how to use language in a non-standard way – but immediately becomes a standard itself for how that use proceeds. It is no accident that so much of our language use is coined by poets. The view I am describing is perhaps quite close to R P Bluckmur’s definition of a poem (and which I have pinned to my notice board!).

‘Language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand but adds to the stock of available reality’

A proof shows how the proposition proved connects with an existing body of established mathematics. The word ‘show’ here is important – a proof does not work by telling you it is a proof, it works by leading you through the steps that will bring you to understand the connection, in a way which will allow you to carry on from the newly proved mathematical rule. [Yes, again skating over a pile of stuff which the professional philosopher will need detailed.]

That leads us into the workshop commonplace that we should ‘show and not tell’ by a different route. I suspect that what this really means is I think there are two (at least) different and important ideas conflated in the workshop adage, a show1 and a show2.  Let’s think about that in the next exciting episode….