The Microcosm: Poetry and Humanism

John Koethe

The Microcosm: Poetry and Humanism by John Koethe

I think of poetry as what Wallace Stevens called a soliloquy of the interior paramour, or less grandly, as a form of talking to yourself, rather than addressing an audience. But I have the sense that when people first hear this description of poetry, they take me to be offering a conception of poetry lying somewhere between the narcissistic and the solipsistic, and react accordingly. Yet in thinking of poetry in this way, I take myself simply to be agreeing with much of what Harold Bloom says about it—that it’s emblematic of our most characteristically human trait, what distinguishes us from our fellow creatures: our capacity for self-consciousness. I now feel that my idea of poetry as a form of talking to yourself is a basically humanistic conception of poetry, and I want to try to say a bit about what that means.

The Swimmer
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Human beings are the ultimate source of value, and what makes human beings valuable—or what Kant called “ends in themselves”—is human consciousness, human self-consciousness, which is the most commonplace and, at the same time, most unique thing in the world. Even though there are and have been billions and billions of us, each of us is uniquely aware of ourselves in a way unimaginable by anyone else; and while we all inhabit the same natural world and the same historical time, each one of us also inhabits a world of his own. As Wittgenstein put it: I am my world. (The microcosm.) Kant and Wittgenstein both also recognized the transcendental character of this subjective consciousness and its sense of its distinctness from the natural order—Kant in what he called the experience of the sublime, in which the mind attempts to contain the natural world in thought, and Wittgenstein in what he called the experience of the mystical, in which it tries to see the world as a limited totality. And what I mean by a humanistic conception of poetry is one that takes its goal to be the creation of a sense of the unimaginable reality of the individual life. Thinking of poetry as a form of talking to yourself is simply in the service of that goal, for it’s only by enacting the experience of the self-conscious self that one creates this sense—or so it seems to me.

While it’s true that poetry as a form of talking to yourself works to create a representation of the individual life, and in that sense is self-centered, it isn’t inherently self-absorbed or narcissistic, since you can talk to yourself about virtually anything. You can talk to yourself about isolation and the privacy of your own experience; but you can also talk to yourself about the quotidian, the dailiness of ordinary life, the immediacy of the natural and social worlds, love, sex, physics and politics. The range of the great poets of consciousness is astonishing: One rarely has a sense of the external world in Stevens, or else it’s so transformed by the imagination as to be unrecognizable. Yet in Eliot and Ashbery it’s often vividly present but so fragmented it moves in and out of focus, while in O’Hara and Schuyler it’s carried forward by the momentum of attention. Merrill’s microcosm is an inherently social one, while Bishop’s natural world is observed with such hallucinatory clarity it’s suffused by the subjective consciousness which (as David Kalstone has remarked) it so painfully excludes. The work of all these poets is informed by a palpable sense of self, whether or not that self is explicitly referred to or addressed.

I’ve attempted to realize this idea of poetry in my own work. Some years ago I argued, in commenting on the philosopher Susan Wolf’s views on meaning in life, that in the wake of modernism artists, including poets, are often not in a position to know just what their aims are and whether they’ve succeeded in realizing them; and that this is not just because of the human penchant for self-deception, but is somehow inherent in modernism itself. Moreover, the humanist conception of poetry I’ve been trying to describe is not something I decided one day would be a great idea and then set out to implement; rather, it’s one I’ve come to think informs my work in retrospect. That said, when I first started writing in college in the mid-1960s, my models were Black Mountain poets like Olson and Duncan, in whose work language (along with perception) is the focus, and from which that aforementioned palpable sense of the self was usually (and deliberately) absent. As I began to find this model of poetry stultifying, I discovered the work of New York poets like Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler, which was even more interesting linguistically, but in which a feeling of a self behind the poems was vividly present. For a long time afterward, the poems I wrote, while self-centered in the first sense I just talked about, were disjunctive and surreal, and then conceptual and abstract, culminating perhaps in a poem called “The Constructor” (1988), a long first-person meditation on poetic belatedness with no concrete setting at all. In the early nineties I worked for almost a year on an even longer poem, “Falling Water,” one of the first poems I’d written that was explicitly autobiographical, though I also continued writing abstract meditations like “The Secret Amplitude” (1996). Later I started writing what I think of as “memory poems,” based on a Proustian recollection of a past incident of no particular significance in itself, but the memory of which seemed to me to capture the feeling of the passage of time more directly than I’d been able to in conceptual terms (these, including the title poem, make up the last section of Sally’s Hair [2006]). I’ve continued to write in that mode, including the title poems of Ninety-fifth Street (2009) and ROTC Kills (2012), and to some extent in the title poem of my new book, The Swimmer. That book seems to me more various and open to the idea that you can talk to yourself about almost anything, while still conveying a sense of the individual self. Though it contains abstract meditations, like a long poem on the experience of individual time I alluded to above (“La Duree”), it also includes poems centered on physics, model trains, cats, jazz, ceramics, men’s clothes, rock and roll, Ernest Hemingway, mathematics, and cosmology, as well as two long social meditations on the Civil War and recent American history. I’d like to think it’s a fuller realization of the humanistic idea of poetry I’ve been trying to describe, one that conveys a more robust sense of what it’s like to be alive. But as I said, I’m not really in a position to say.

The Swimmer

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John Koethe has published nine books of poetry, and has received the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the Frank O’Hara Award. He has also published books on Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosophical skepticism, and poetry, and is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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  • If I hear correctly what you mean to say, self-consciousness is the medium by which a humanist poetics is possible because it is anchored in the most common and essentially human experience – selfhood. Reflection would not be possible without this sense, and perhaps poetry wouldn’t be either. I find as a poet that selfhood itself is fractured and thereby allows for a multiplicity of voices to come through to the page – not wholly dictating their whims but also giving a little up to the force of one’s influences to work on a poet composing, to use that “anxiety” Bloom wrote so well about, from authors once living and ones still at work. A writer could be unaware of this influence and fancy all their work a production of singular genius, but no one lives in a vacuum. Self-address, as you highlight, is not the same as “talking to oneself.” We’re all more than a few voices short of an empty skull.
    What is to me curiously left unsaid above in your article is that Humanism, with a capital ‘H’, is itself a great conversation that has the potential to transcend the barriers of time and allow for dialogue between people of different eras, cultures and geographies. The microcosm of a poet creating verse or a reader experiencing verse has the potential to reflect or resonant with the cosmos on another level of that ever-growing, ever-deepening field. In this way, self-consciousness is never an end in itself, but a means to realizing the world, in a very large sense.
    Thank you for the engaging read this morning, John.

  • Wade Dizdar

    Very lucky to have found The Constructor, marked down when our mall had a bookstore. Now I know all of the Used places. My first poems, bought in college began w Eliot’s Four Quartets, attracted by the look and the flow, and went from there. There were a few excellent poets there at that time, and I didn’t take musical instruments along. Koethe’s work gave off a similar kind of a sheen from its body —cool!

  • Paul from Jersey

    Part of the poet’s self-consciousness, however, by definition stands apart from solipcism. Publication invites others in, in anticipation that the poem will work on the reader. And even when it doesn’t work on the reader, thats how it works on the reader. Having invited the reader in – essentially, to share her consiousness – the poet loses control over interpretation: it’s the discovering reader who makes the poet, and poem, protean.