I’ve never delved much into poetry. I have a few favorite poems, such as T.S.Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” that somehow speak to me, but I’ve never studied poetry or poems enough to understand the language. I accept that this is a shortcoming in my grasp of the deeper aspects of life, in much the same way as my lack of musical ability. I tend to rely on my left brain for what I consider knowledge. “Tis a pity,” as they say.
So I would probably not pick up a book of poetry to browse. But I do find myself reading other people’s reviews of books having to do with poetry. Last week, for example, I was reading Tamsin Shaw’s “Nietzsche: ‘The Lightning Fire’,” a review of a book by Krzysztof Michalski, The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought, when I came across this paragraph:
Michalski follows Heidegger in holding that concepts, which we ordinarily employ to make sense of our world, in fact provide us with a very limited form of understanding, one that not only fails to capture the inexhaustible richness of experience and meaning but also shuts down our potential receptiveness to it.
It stopped me, for some reason. I’ve never read Heidegger, nor more than scattered bits of Nietzsche. Something (in my right brain?) told me to think more about this. I know that concepts and words often get in the way of understanding. To really know the world, one has to absorb knowledge in ways that words often cannot directly indicate. We constantly depend upon metaphor in trying to communicate with each other. It’s often said that language is nothing but metaphor. Everything stands for something else.
The concept “tree” for example, extracts similarities from numerous examples. It’s an abstraction. The word represents a concept, and according to Tamsin Shaw a concept necessarily has limits to which it can apply. We might modify the concept by adding more words, such as in “green tree,” and bring our audience a little closer to knowing what we are talking about. We’d never reach the end, with mere words, where they would know exactly what we know.
Farther down, Shaw gets me closer to what he is thinking:
Michalski aims to enlist Nietzsche in altering our sensibilities not through philosophical arguments but through something more like poetry, directing our attention to "the unknowable," employing metaphors bearing cultural and emotional meanings that cannot be reduced to analyzable abstractions.
And in the rest of the review, Shaw expands on this leaning toward what I understand as right-brain thinking. Some things in life are simply beyond concepts. Poetry can side-step conceptual limitations by suggesting rather than declaring.
If you hear someone telling you about a profound experience and can truthfully reply, “Yes, I know what you mean!” then you are taking from your own experiences some feelings and understandings and comparing them with hers—understandings far beyond the simple words passed from her to you.
In his book, Michalski takes 231 pages of words in an attempt to make us understand something about Nietzsche. I was frequently lost in trying to understand the words of Shaw, trying to make me understand what Michalski was getting at. But in that one paragraph, I saw a glimmer of something I could hold onto long enough to write some more words to myself.
I’ve downloaded an e-book of Thus Spake Zarathustra, one of Nietzsche’s more poetic works, and I’ll try to understand it using both my left and right brain, with the hope that I can begin to “capture the inexhaustible richness of experience and meaning” without shutting down my potential receptiveness to it.
Re: Tamsin Shaw, “Nietzsche: ‘The Lightning Fire’”, The New York Review, October 24, 2013