The past hundred years have witnessed, in the English-speaking world, the emergence of two major philosophical poets: T. S. Eliot and Kay Ryan. While they certainly aren’t the only ones, these two strike me as particularly philosophical (and particularly great), and considered together, their work illuminates the nature of philosophical poetry itself.
Which leads naturally to the question what ‘philosophical poetry’ or a ‘philosophical poet’ is. It may be as slippery to define as ‘greatness.’ No definition will satisfy everyone. (Part of the problem is that no one has conclusively defined poetry: Is it emotion recollected in tranquility? Or the best words in the best order?) Philosophical poetry is frequently taken to mean poetry that expounds some sort of system, as Lucretius did with Epicureanism—but systematic philosophy is only one kind of philosophy, and didactic poetry is not the only philosophical mode. Suffice it to say, for our purposes, that philosophical poetry is contemplation quickened into language. And if that doesn’t do: Philosophical poetry moves us by the motion of the poet’s mind. Both of these definitions are inadequate, but both apply to Eliot’s work and Ryan’s.
The first and most obvious difference between these poets is one of form. In ‘The Wasteland’ as in ‘Four Quartets,’ Eliot’s verse is in a state of flux. It is called ‘free verse,’ but a better description is ‘protean verse.’ Dantean tercets, fragmentary snippets imitating the corrupted ancient manuscript, Shakespearean blank verse, short-lined stanzas, long-lined recitativo-like philosophical passages—formally, Eliot is a ‘melange absurde de tout.’ This protean aspect let him embark on feline character-sketches in mid-career and late-career verse dramas. Eliot, formally, was ‘everyone and no one,’ to borrow the phrase Borges used about Shakespeare. What the latter-day inheritors of ‘free verse’ forget is that ‘free verse,’ as Eliot practiced it, transitioned fitfully among the verse forms of the past.
This tendency of Eliot’s is at odds with the major traditions of mystical and philosophical verse. Most philosophical poets find one form and stick to it. Rumi and Hafiz, for example, produced hundreds of examples of a single verse form, the ghazal. Khayyam’s ruba’i, though translated into aaba quatrains by Fitzgerald, actually use a rhyme-refrain pattern similar to the ghazal. Dickinson sticks to the quatrain; the now-forgotten Edward Young, author of Night Thoughts, to blank verse. The De Rerum Natura doesn’t switch among meters; sustained heterometria would show up in Latin philosophical poetry much later, in the occasional verses in Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy. Kabir’s songs, while not entirely uniform, maintain a uniformity of tone and character—unlike Eliot’s ‘rhythmical grumblings,’ now transcribing social chatter, now indulging in some classical musing.
We do not see Kay Ryan taking Eliot’s repeated leaps into the unknown; her poems proliferate without changing their character. Her distinctively skinny poem is more in keeping with the usual tendencies of philosophical verse. A single form and tone are selected, and a way of perception generates the individual poems. In the same way the Persian poets are collected into a single Diwan but experienced as single ghazals, Ryan’s oeuvre can be thought of both as individual poems and as a single Work. The limitation of range, so striking in Ryan’s work, generates uniformity without monotony.
So Eliot, formally, is an exception among philosophical poets. When it comes to content, though, he fits the larger pattern more closely. Philosophical poets tend to structure their work around the images and mythological material of a tradition. Even Lucretius, otherwise godless, begins his poem with Venus, the ‘Aeneadum genetrix.’ Dante is the most obvious example of this tendency—the Biblical tradition isn’t enough for him, so he draws in the classical one as well. Even in Dickinson, we find references to Calvary or God (and her trademark quatrain, let us not forget, derives from the hymnal). Rumi and Hafiz are full of references to the Qur’an and the Hadith. Eliot, and early Eliot in particular, draws sustenance from several different traditions. This is not dependence so much as delight. The name of the system is Memory.
In this respect, Ryan is an exception. The place of Biblical or mythological allusion has been usurped by the 21st century American cliche. Readers today appreciate variations and plays on cliche in the way past readers appreciated classical allusions. One can imagine a time, hundreds of years from now (maybe less, given the quickening pace of change), when Ryan’s now-famous chickens ‘all the same kind / at the same speed’ will have to be illuminated by a hyperlink explaining the American idiomatic expression ‘chickens coming home to roost.’ What Ryan’s future readers will not have to be particularly familiar with is the Bible or Virgil or The Grand Sweep of Western Civilization. For the most part, Ryan’s philosophical poetry is indifferent to the wisdom of the past. The name of the system is Watchfulness. If there is a system.
Where Eliot and Ryan overlap is their aversion to the memoiristic. Eliot’s master, Dante, may seem to break with the larger pattern, with the details of his life being inseparable from his poetry–but the Beatrice of the Comedy is purified of Beatrice Portinari. Sometimes, with a philosophical poet, the verse can create a picture at odds with the life. We think of Dickinson as the Recluse of Amherst, but that mental picture of her isn’t very accurate—students of her letters know this supposed recluse had strong, lively personal relationships, albeit a handful. Rumi’s friendship with Shams of Tabriz transforms, in the poetry, into something almost conceptual. Rumi signs his own ghazals, in the final couplet, with Shams’s name; this is a profound way of proclaiming their mystical unity. Wallace Stevens’s poetry is mostly silent about the insurance business just as Eliot’s is on banking. The life of the mind goes on independently of the daily grind. Philosophical poets like Eliot and Ryan have distinct personalities—to call them ‘impersonal’ is inaccurate—but they are never memoiristic in the manner of the late 20th century academic poet.
Ryan stands out from her contemporaries largely due to this independence from autobiography. With Ryan, the biographical blurb, which isn’t very long to begin with, doesn’t contextualize the poems for us. There is no poem in which you think, ‘Aha, there she just wove in her experiences as a remedial English teacher in California.’ Likewise with Eliot: Even his ‘How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot’ doesn’t refer to his day job, his being an American in England, or his batty wife. We have to force Eliot-related gossip onto the work. Eliot’s poetry doesn’t welcome the reader armed solely with an Eliot biography: There are other books you need to carry with you, ideally in your head, but a biography isn’t one of them.
Each poet’s work has elements that oppose the tendencies of their day. Eliot rose as classical education in the English-speaking world was in decline; he fought this tendency by defiant allusiveness. This ‘Modernist’ was intently backward-looking. Christianity, too, was in decline in Europe; he turned to the Church. Ryan lived through—and has outlived—the heyday of Confessional poetry and Dad-was-a-drunk free verse. Today, in an era full of the cult of personality, she is genuinely self-effacing, at least in her poetry. This contrarian streak is also present in her use of rhyme.
Yet Eliot and Ryan both express their cultural moment as well. The newness of the now was a fashionable notion in Eliot’s time, as it is in ours. It may well be the feeling of every age about itself. But it is safe to say that the early 20th century experienced its relationship to the past as a rupture, and not as a supercession—that is, the Victorians believed they were part of the continuous progress of history, while the Modernists believed they were on the other side of a rupture in history. Eliot captured the feeling of rupture by treasuring up pieces of the past. As he himself expressed it: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’
Kay Ryan is ‘our’ philosophical poet. Doing without (and doing quite well without) the Biblical and classical heritage, she is very American, very 21st century. Her philosophical poetry has come decades after the West’s cultural memory was corrupted. This has its advantage: A vertiginous immediacy of perception is present in Ryan that is not present in Eliot. With Eliot, perhaps, the books get in the way. As for the disadvantage, we are incapable, as an audience, of perceiving it—so in a sense, there is no disadvantage. Ryan’s relative poverty of ‘high cultural,’ literary, and religious references strikes us as a virtue. When it comes to epigraphs, we prefer Ripley’s Believe or Not to the high-falutin’ Upanishads. That is just the kind of people we have become.
It may seem early to compare and contrast these two philosophical poets. Certainly the position of dominance Eliot attained in Anglo-American letters is not likely to be matched by Ryan, even after her decade of accolades. Much of Eliot’s contemporary status, let us not forget, had to do with his authority as a critic. But the only too-early-to-call elements are poetic influence, which is transient anyway, and the lastingness of the poems—predicting which is a gamble in any case, but a safe one in this. Ranking one poet relative to the other serves no purpose; that must be left to the tastes and temperament of the future. For now, the juxtaposition offers us insight, not just into the works of either poet, but into the nature of philosophical poetry itself. We may not have a definition of philosophical poetry, but in Eliot and now in Ryan, we have powerful examples.