According to the Blind Man: On Writing Poems as a Student of Philosophy

November 10, 2008

by Marie La Vina (3 AB Philosophy)

I’ve been writing poems for almost ten years, and took my first philosophy course about a year and a half ago. Inevitably this introduction has changed the direction of my writing in a way I have yet to put my finger on or fully articulate. My poems have always begun with imagery instead of idea, while philosophy is about ideas and uses a language quite different from literature. Still there are immediate similarities between the two disciplines. Both rely on language to process experience. Both love paradox. But for the most part, I’ve yet to reconcile the two, even as one discipline affects my understanding of the other. It seems philosophy tends toward explanation, lucidity, while poetry thrives on ambiguity. They also approach insight in different ways, poetry less directly than philosophy. When I begin to write a poem, it is rarely with insight in mind. For me the poem has always communicated feeling before concept. Its language conveys imagery and sound before meaning.

            In the suite entitled “The Gospel According to the Blind Man”, I’ve approached writing in essentially the same way, with imagery as starting point. I wanted to explore the religious figures and images I encountered in theology class and, later, draw from the imagery and idiom of Stoicism and Taoism, which were introduced in the philosophy and literature courses I took in sophomore and junior year. Thematically, the poems I wrote during this period may have drawn from an incipient philosophical vocabulary: for example, the interaction of light and shadow to suggest un/concealedness in one’s perception of reality.
            I’d like to think that each of the poems in this suite expresses a way of seeing, which involves understanding and misunderstanding what is shown. Thus they explore the tension between the visible and invisible whose gaps are filled in by belief. But these poems are neither about belief nor skepticism. I hesitate to explain with any certainty what I intended these poems to be about, because in themselves they come closer to communicating what I’ve tried to say than anything I can write as a commentary to them. Suffice it to say that I intended these poems to speak about the experience of seeing, of seeking both the visible and invisible, of mis/understanding. The idea of blindness or being in the dark has been a preoccupation in a number of my poems. Perhaps this is also why I am attracted to philosophy: I’d like to learn about what is yet unknown to me. I’d like to learn about the invisible and the limits of knowing.
            In my experience of both poetry and philosophy, I’ve struggled with reading and writing and, at times, have been unable to enter certain texts and to articulate my understanding of them. At other times, I have understood texts only partially. Mostly I suspect I’ve misunderstood what others have written. But this misunderstanding has had its own rewards in terms of creativity, at least. A number of  poems were born of it. As a conclusion to this brief commentary, I would like to share two of them with you.
The Gospel According to the Blind Man                                                       
“I see people looking like trees and walking,” said the blind man,      
after Jesus touched him the first time.
What he said baffled even the human god.                                                                
“They are walking around with arms outstretched,” he said.
“Their palms brush the sky. The stars slip through their long fingers.
The moonlight spills into a river and darts away like a school of silver fish
while the leaves moan in the trees in a hundred human voices.
Branches argue with wind. Locusts buzz in the night’s tangled hair.”
He asked in wonder, “Is this the world?” 
Then the god lifted his holy palms, wet with spit,
and held them over the man’s eyes.
Twice touched by him, the man muttered, “Wait.”
But already he was healed.
The Gospel According to the Blind Man
I pitched a tent for myself in the darkness, then the mystic arrived in his dusty white robes, declaring his love for the wide-eyed and the wakeful. He sang paeans to sunlight and shadow in a deep and beautiful voice and so I let him touch me. His palms felt damp on my eyelids, moist with sweat and spit, this dripping pity. And I saw that I’d been mistaken all those years. A bird was not a singing leaf, but a floating feather; a grove not a chorus of wind but a tangle of wood; the fragrant bulb of the rose, a fist of petals that withers; the sky, more than myth, a maze of stars, a cloud mirage. And only the air, warm and invisible, seemed familiar.
This is to see, I thought to myself. For God it meant that the circle in the mind and the circle in the world were one and the same form, as in a mirror, face to face. But I’m still getting used to the sight of mirrors and the idea of a circle whose perfection lies in its absent angles, a seamless enclosure; still bewildered by distance, the three dimensions, the sheer austerity of the square, though by now I’ve become an admirer of windows, watch them dim and brighten throughout the day.
Still at night I dream of the circle as an expanding sound and wake to a whistling in the dark, and in the measureless dark imagine the notes of a canticle drifting through air, flowing outward as a frequency of echoes or a fragrance diffused in a room without walls, in that dark and boundless room where the mystic in me still wanders.