Poetry as philosophy in action

Every now and then, I read bits of poetry. Lately, I nibbled on Apollinaire, whose Alcools my father offered me, and I discovered W. H Auden’s Sonnet from China thanks to Shoshana Zuboff:

Falling in love with Truth before he knew Her,
He rode into imaginary lands,
By solitude and fasting hoped to woo Her,
And mocked at those whose served Her with their hands
— W. H. Auden

While I enjoy reading poetry, it only occurred to me recently that poetry is more than a thoughtful collection of word. Poetry is actually philosophy in action —  and even the Greeks knew that: ποιεῖν (poiein) means “to make”.


The reason for that has to do with the distinction between axioms and theorems (if you want to learn about that, I have an excellent book for you), or between things that are self-evident and things that are derived. Philosophy, being very rigorous, deals with theorems. Poetry enunciates subtle truths and help us navigate the blind spots of philosophy, such as beauty, love and meaning: everything that sets us in motion.

Poetry lays down the axioms of life

In an older post, I was contemplating how aphorisms were axioms for life*, and poetry is basically a more pleasant form of aphorisms, where the limitations of the language (rhythm, rhymes) help fixate ideas and thread notions together. It is easy to see the distinction between Paul Valery’s poetry and Jenny Holzer’s Truisms.

Poetry doesn’t get lost in translation

One of the most unfortunate line of Robert Frost Poetry is awfully inaccurate. Poetry has the power to transcend the language, from Homer to Sappho, and Shakespeare to Machado, I’ve read many poems who were as beautiful in their original language as they were in their translation — maybe even less so.

Philosophy doesn’t explain why we don’t kill ourselves

In “The myth of Sisyphus“, Albert Camus starts by saying that philosophy per se is essentially useless, since it doesn’t explain why we should live rather than kill ourselves. What makes us human and let us enjoy life

Poetry deals with love when Philosophy barely touches it

It is remarkable to see how philosophy is shy when dealing with the topic of Love, which is so important in our human lives, from its inception (without love, there would be no human being!) to the pleasure it gives to life. Maybe not too surprising that a philosopher like Alain Badiou needs to wait for its sunset before releasing a book “In praise of love.”

Religion itself is based on poetry

It is maybe because it promotes love, or maybe because it explains why life is worth exploring, or maybe because it doesn’t lose its meaning in translation that poetry is at the core of so many religious texts, from the Vedas to the Illiad, the Torah, the New Testament or The Quran (I have a knack for these renditions on the Song of Songs, and S’envolent Les Colombes)

Since religion mean to deal with eternal truth, poetry is not only a great vehicle, but a source of contemplation that helps us guide through life. If only clerics would release their narrow readings of the scriptures, we could all be better off…

*(there’s a review of aphorism in the New Yorker “The art of aphorism” which I don’t fully agree with)