Discourse: For Stanley Rosen

Poem: Discourse: For Stanley Rosen
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/rosen-hill-1716

Here is the ancient antagonism between poet and philosopher revived. Rosen was a philosophy professor at Boston University before his death in 2014; Hill is, obviously, a poet. The poem is a search for a common ground on which they can meet, these parties that have so often demonized one another—at least, the philosophers have thought ill of the poets, and banned them from the Republic.

The opening is deferential: Hill asks for enlightenment (“as to whether there persists… a dialectic”) and forgiveness (for “my small vocabulary that tries / and abides your patience”). And then he admits frankly to wonder in the face of “man the philosopher set on his throne.” Even when Hill qualifies this wonder by calling man the philosopher “abysmal,” he still takes pains to ensure he will not be thought to “speak ungratefully.” His is a tribute, but an “unsparing tribute.”

But the poet, even in tribute, must remember the philosopher’s offense, and Hill somewhat cheekily suggests:

Perhaps (but not likely) I may be still
a whizz at ordinary language and you
mishear things.

Language, and in particular ordinary language—that is the turf of dispute. Hill’s poetry is gnarled, and, though I have not read any of his work, I gather from Rosen’s penchant for Hegel and Heidegger that no little obscurity is likely to permeate his prose. It is a curious fact that the philosophers who have privileged ordinary language as the site of philosophy—with the exception of J.L. Austin’s inimitable clarity—have tended to find themselves needing to write extraordinarily difficult texts. Hill and the philosophers have converged on the discovery that to do justice, poetic or philosophical, to the ordinary will require discourse beyond the ordinary. (This should not be surprising, given how readily Plato’s criticisms of poetry turn back on philosophy. Poets and philosophers are antagonistic because they are so close.)

I will let Hill have the last word:

Something here even so. Our well dug-in
language pitches us as it finds—
I tell myself
don’t wreck a good phrase simply to boost sense—
granted its dark places, the fabled burden;
its loops and extraordinary progressions;
its mere conundrums forms and rites of discourse;
its bleak littoral swept by bursts of sunlight;
its earthen genius auditing the spheres.



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