[Milton-L] Fetishizing Greatness, was Re: Is Paradise Lost

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Thu Apr 23 11:36:50 EDT 2009

The question of what is or is not poetry has a long and distinguished
history, of course, but doesn't it tend to follow two currents?

-Plato's distinction between poetry and philosophy, which emphasizes
content rather than form.

-An emphasis upon form rather than content.

The question seems to me to get particularly confused when we try to
blend these two types of responses.  Those who emphasize that poetic
form makes poetry can recognize occasional poetic qualities in
Wittgenstein's Tractatus but would never call it a poem -- which would
be a rather strange poem indeed because it includes calculus.  If math
is poetry then everything is poetry and the word itself ceases to
function at all.  Those in the first camp would exclude the Tractatus
from poetry simply because it is philosophy.  Both camps would also
exclude history from poetry unless it were written in verse form.

I would say those paying attention to the most widespread, current
uses of the word "poetry" would say that today the word "poetry"
emphasizes form over content.  Carrying the whole history of a word
forward into current use is bad practice as a general principle, just
as it is bad practice to uncritically apply the conventions of Greek
drama to Shakespeare's plays -- which regularly ignore the unity of
time and place, mix comic with tragic conventions in the same play
(Much Ado About Nothing), etc.

Now if we want to ask what Milton meant by the word poetry, that's
another matter entirely.  I would think the preface to PL might give
us some direction.  And so is the question of whether or not we should
limit ourselves today to his definition.

Jim R

On Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 11:01 AM, Carrol Cox <cbcox at ilstu.edu> wrote:
> I would use "poem" that way. (I think in ordinary usage "poetry" and
> "poem" differ somewhat.) A poem or a fiction is a "made thing," a verbal
> artifact. (I wouldn't use it for movies.)  I would also use it for many
> texts that the Renaissance would have called "history." Tillyard in his
> book on the "English Epic" included Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Gould's
> _The Structure of Evolutionary Theory_ is a beautiful artifact as well
> as a science text, and I don't see why "poem" could not, in some
> contexts, include that. "Work of literature" is awkward, and the best
> single word for it is "poem." There's a tragic rhythm in Wittgenstein's
> Tractatus, and an epic sweep to Rusell's _Human Knowledge_.

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