Archive for the ‘Wittgenstein’ Tag

Corpus Sample: the poetic Wittgenstein

A friend recently got a hold of the first and only book published during philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I don’t know what prompted my friend to order in a copy, but he was understandably perplexed; even Bertrand Russell famously failed to understand his student’s work. Philosophically, despite its immediate fame among the Logical Positivists, the Tractatus is, today, a “dead dog”, repudiated most famously by the author’s own reflections, published posthumously as the Philosophical Investigations. Nevertheless, a friend of my friend sought to console him, assuring him “the Tractatus is pure poetry.” Creative writers have tended to agree:  Jerome Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman included sections from Philosophical Investigations in their assemblage of outsider poetry, Barbaric Vast & Wild, dramatist and novelist Thomas Bernhard published Wittgenstein’s Nephew in 1982, and Canadian poet-philosopher Jan Zwicky’s first book Wittgenstein Elegies appeared in 1986.

I don’t remember when I first encountered Wittgenstein, but it was surely before beginning my undergraduate studies. Those (eventually) were devoted to philosophy, and I wrote my honours paper on the private language argument in the Philosophical Investigations. To pass the time (four days) driving from Regina to Montreal, where we were going to study, a friend and I read through the Tractatus, doing our damnedest to make what sense of it we could. And my graduate studies resulted in a number of poetic texts, all engaging in various ways with the early and late Wittgenstein. Even more recently, a compositional method shared here takes an ironic inspiration from his remark that “meaning is use”.

I post below, then, two poems now included in my first trade edition Grand Gnostic Central. The first is a prose poem, borrowing liberally from Norman Malcolm’s memoir; the second is a poem that tries to come to terms with the Tractatus.




[from “Grand Gnostic Central”]


The walls are bare and the floor scrupulously clean.  In the living-room, two canvas chairs and a plain wooden one around an iron heating-stove.  In the other room, a cot and card-table, books, papers and pen.  A man sits at the card table.  His face is lean and tanned.  He wears a flannel shirt and light grey flannel trousers.  His shoes are highly polished.  He looks concentrated and severe, striking out as if arguing.  He stops, sits still.  He remembers swimming—a small boy, the ease of floating, the sun and water in his eyes, closing them tight.  He remembers how hard it was forcing himself down, down deep to the mud at the bottom, the water always pushing him back to the surface, his needing air pushing him back to the surface.  He has written a treatise on logic.  He knows those who do not know him think him an old man, irritable and obscure.  He remembers writing his thoughts for the book in small notebooks he carried around.  He remembers writing “If `the watch is shiny’ has sense…”  He remembers the flash on the watch-face that gave him the example.  It had rained and only now the sun cut through red clouds.  The field’s mud is soupy and slick.  He crouches down in the water at trench-bottom, once almost standing to keep his balance in the muck.  He hears the sharp tiny ticking at his wrist.  He dates the entry 16.6.15.


Holy Crow Channels LW


We know no sensations

give these propositions sense.  Questions

that exact innocence free from naivete

demand a rigorous ignorance of the evident

apparent given as the one condition

for their initial

stuttered utterance.

The long tautology that bends say

the blade of a jet engine

to just the angle of most force

turns on this

when the need for further thrust

draws inertia from the potential

for doubt, unbinding concepts and arguments

and baffling mathematicians

just this side of mathematics.

We need our end to be

the final determination

of the rule that keeps stasis

appearing repeatedly, that blesses with some semblance

of regularity frequently enough

to let us see this

and hear that

completely unsurprised.  These things we know

are hardly thought, for the common

is the category entered most

easily.  We can count, yet,

to ask what numbers are

reveals the path that eases

the passage everywhere but where

the answer you expect to desire lies

and leads you to question

again the writings that made you

conclude the first proposition

that defined one doubtfully.  For them

a mere analysis, for you

something more that flails you

to what is truly necessary.  The clear thought

expressed as clearly as the fabric of language

will strain it

fascinates you with its immaculate muteness

that finally becomes a song so mythic

you are bound from it, fast,

and your hearing is filled

with what is spoken

in innocence, naively.