What Does Poetry Have To Do With Philosophy?

For most people, the relationship between poetry and philosophy may not be obvious, even when poetry is understood in its original Greek broader form as including all sorts of creative arts. For many people, philosophy is such an abstract task that its connection to beauty and creativity seems to be entirely absent. Of course, if one happened to spend time with my mother and I at an art museum, then the connection between art and philosophy becomes all the more obvious. After all, there are a great many questions that lie behind the art that one sees. Why did the artist choose to focus on these elements? What media did they choose to express themselves in? Why did the artist choose a particular subject to express? How do the elements of the creation combine to send a particular message? These and other questions spring to mind naturally when one examines a given piece of art, and the more one asks such questions, the more obvious and natural these questions come.

When one examines music, for example, the lyrics and music can combine to create a complex picture and mood. In the music of ABBA, for example, heartbreaking lyrics are combined with cheery music to create a feeling where great sadness is borne with a stiff upper lip and a strong resolution to bear the burden of existence as cheerfully as possible. In the song “You’ve Got It All,” by the Jets, the exact opposite elements are combined with similar effect. A song whose lyrics express trust and confidence in a partner in the aftermath of a bad and potentially abusive prior relationship has its optimism slightly undercut because of the minor keys used in the music that add a feeling of grief, anxiety, and doubt to the picture. The result is not tonal dissonance in the fashion that one gets from Christian death metal, for example, but rather a complicated emotional resonance that strongly connects with my own complex emotional palette. Not everyone relates to these sorts of songs in the way that I do, but the fact that such songs do for me has always prompted me to ponder what it is about these songs that speaks so strongly to me personally.

One thing to note when it comes to artistic creation is that all works of art require a great deal of work. At least when we are dealing with the better forms of art, and this is even more true of literature, works take a considerable amount of effort to create. Musical artists can labor over an hour or so of music (or even less) for years and years. Even in cases where art is created relatively quickly, like my annual novel writing competition every November, the novels that are written over the course of a month require a great deal of work in planning, hours a day of typing after one has already outlined what one wants to discuss, and then a great deal of time spent in tedious (for me) editing. For the creator, especially if they are philosophically inclined, a work can have a strong deal of interest in and treatment of philosophy, whether of a heavy-handed manner or not. The same work, though, is encountered by people who will ask their own questions, and those questions often hinge on philosophical questions.

If we consider philosophy to be an examination of causes, art furnishes many questions as to causes. Why does a given piece of art exist? What motivated a given artist to create what we have before us? An examination of the genre of the art and its references (if any) to other pieces of art will provide an intellectual history of the piece of art in question, and demonstrate the artist’s familiarity with certain conventions and certain conversations that this work is a part of. Why does the artist include what they include, and why do they not include certain things that we might think would be obvious. For example, in the Bible, one of the more striking aspects of the Bible is the lack of detail it provides about the appearance of its most dramatic personages, even as it includes detailed references to their family history. Interestingly enough, one notices the same thing about Jane Austen novels, which mention their characters as being some shade of pretty if they are young women or not quite handsome if they are men, but which do not provide the sorts of details that we would expect. Why these works did not do so while we expect those is itself the sort of subject that also invites philosophical inquiry. After all, it is not only a given piece of art that we should examine for causes, but also ourselves for what it is that we expect to find and feel disappointed about if it is missing. For there are reasons not only for art, but also for ourselves.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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