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Poetic Thinking 2016 | February 26, 2020

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The poetic as regenerative force

Harry Desmond

I was struck by the following sentence from A Lover’s Discourse, which I think may have something to say about poetic thinking, or at least poetic language:

I continue to fool myself as to the effects of language: I do not know that the word “suffering” expresses no suffering and that consequently, to use it is not only to communicate nothing but even, and immediately, to annoy, to irritate (not to mention the absurdity). (p. 98)

The word “suffering” expresses no suffering. To be sure, the word “suffering” was intended to convey suffering, but it seems that through continual and quotidian use its power to evoke suffering has been eroded, to the point that today it operates on a purely symbolic level detached from the affective state it purports to describe. I convey information by saying “I am suffering”, but I don’t in fact tell you anything about what it’s like to be me suffering. Worse, Barthes says, I’ve probably annoyed you, and also (adding insult to injury) made a fool of myself!

How, then, can we express suffering? It would appear that we need to continually reinvent and renew our language in order to counteract the ossifying effects of conventional usage and return “to the things themselves”. We need new words, new grammatical structures, and new figures of speech. We need new metres, new inflections and new diction. In short, we need the poetic.


  1. Pensiero Liquido

    Harry, this is a cool post.
    I agree, how to we exit the safe zone and enter the realm of the real, of the potentially harmful?
    Do we actually want it?
    I think of Coetzee’s Elisabeth Costello, Ch. 6, The Problem of Evil.
    If sufferance was to really convey sufferance, do we want to be exposed to it?

    Here it really seems appropriate to recall Nietzsche again, and the poets as the squanderer of the utility of language. What is this stretch of language? The mean (language) is used for a perversion, or to get a different and untidy end, an open-ended end whose effects are not easily assessed.
    This is the power, but also the danger.
    Again, no banister…

  2. Vivian Lam

    Thank you for this, Harry. You pose an interesting question—how do we counteract the “ossifying effects of conventional usage” and return to what was once the true content of the word? The poetic is certainly one method—not just by invention of new structures and diction but also by the deep focus and deliberate thought requisite to evoke the essence of something.

    So, to salvage “suffering” from our linguistic erosion, must we make an effort to engage in the poetic consciously? Is it possible to “think poetically” as a lifestyle? Should we make it a point to slow down and evoke, rather than to quickly convey the gist? Or should poetic mindsets be compartmentalized to just moments of sublimity?

  3. Pensiero Liquido

    Vivian: I think it is totally fine to conceive small acts of poetic thinking embedded in our daily lives. Think about Montaigne and his cabbage, this gardening is a mundane activity that can produce a special space in which Montaigne interacts with himself and engages creatively in a sort of spiritual activity.

    In a similar sense, I also think that slowing down and take a moment to absorb what we read, for example, and distill it inside us, can be an act of poetic thinking. Here the creativity is not necessarily with the material, but the peculiar way we engage with it and make it part of us.

    But then again, to connect to my previous comment, salvaging “suffering” from the linguistic erosion, and make it properly ours, in a personal way, can be dangerous.

  4. Harry Desmond

    Thanks for these comments. It’s interesting to see how you’ve taken the post in different directions.

    Silvia, your connection to Nietzsche’s notion of poets “squandering” language is very interesting. There is certainly a simplicity and symbolic economy to the ordinary use of the word “suffer”, and in terms of that economy a more poetic invocation seems wasteful. Even as you say perverted since it wilfully flouts the mores of that mode of speech — one certainly conveys less information in an ordinary language sense by writing poetically. I’m reminded actually of the Oakeshott piece we read at the start of the quarter. Suffering is normally uttered in the everyday, utility-driven voice, by means of the word “suffering”, and to speak in the poetic voice requires something more. This voice has the potential not only to access the real suffering glossed over by “suffering”, but also to lay bare that suffering on paper. It might be more comfortable on the surface level, but can we really be content to rest there if we want to find out something deep about ourselves?

    Vivian, certainly deep focus and deliberate thought are likely necessary prerequisites for evoking the essence of something, but I guess I was thinking more about how one would communicate that essence to another. That requires something at the level of language or speech. I suspect that most of us mere mortals are able to engage in the poetic only in “moments of sublimity”, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of our coming to dwell in it more lastingly…

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