While the poet's goal is to put imaginative notions into another person's head, ironists instead seek to change themselves.

An Ironist Must Learn to Listen Poetically

I recently read a beautiful essay from Erraticus by Rick Joines entitled “On the Something There Is.” It is an evocative meditation on pragmatism, irony, and poetry, focused on a discussion of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” I found myself in so much agreement with every line that I felt I had nothing to say about it, no perspective to add. For better or worse, this bothered me. How could something so resonant not evoke any kind of epiphany?

So I kept re-reading in hopes of either understanding why it didn’t spark anything but complete agreement, or finding some point of disagreement, which might spark some kind of insight. After several re-readings, the inspiration finally came. 

Ironically, but centrally, it was triggered by these lines from his essay: “It calls us to read this poem again and again. Extravagant claims have been made about the power of poets, but a poem, like a wall, is a thing made by human hands.” (Italics added.)

I was reading this essay again and again, even though it’s technically not a poem. And the two neighbors read the wall again and again—looking for breaks in its uniform structure—even though it seems far from being a poem. But what I realized is that the call to deeply or repeatedly read, listen to, or look at doesn’t just come from the something in question, it also comes from us, as particular kinds of readers, listeners, and observers.

What came to me was: The poetic is in the listening as much as it is the speaking; it is made by the human ear as much as by the human voice. While poets are those who write or speak poetically; ironists are those who read or listen poetically.

Listen to “Literature Must Be an Unsettling Force for Democracy

The Power of Poetic Readers

With this insight, I searched for new meanings in both the essay and the poem. I scoured them for all mentions of readers. The first appears here:

A poem fully poems when its readers crawl into it as if it were their own skin.

Then, the reader “plays” a poem like music, or moves with it as in dance, as the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey says in Art as Experience (1934). The reader and poet inhabit a shared experience. Otherness dissipates. Sensibilities and subjectivities entangle. Metaphors derange and rearrange. Walls fall. [Italics added.]

The suggestion that the reader plays or moves with a poem reveals the power of readers, or better, the power of poetic readers. 

Poets, the English Romantic poet Wordsworth writes in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1800), delight in contemplating “the goings-on of the Universe.” Abandoning the “foolish hope of reasoning,” they describe “incidents and situations from common life.” Adding “a certain colouring of imagination,” they present these “to the mind in an unusual aspect” to “confound and identify” the poet’s and the reader’s feelings. [Italic added.]

It is “adding a certain colouring of imagination” that confounds the reader’s feelings. But what is too often neglected, is that a poetic reader is just as able to add such coloring as the poetic writer. And though the poet’s and reader’s sensibilities and subjectivities entangle, their respective colorings may generate divergent experiences as well as shared ones. For instance, such a poetic reader could interpret a shop manual by adding a certain coloring of imagination to fill it with deep metaphorical meaning.

Read “It’s All a Bit Absurd

Poets Are Ironists, But Are All Ironists Poets?

I then looked for all the mentions of ironists in Joines’ essay because I’ve always imagined Richard Rorty’s ironists being at least as much poetic readers as poetic writers. As the pragmatist philosopher states in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), “[An ironist] has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies.” In other words, the ironist does not believe her “final vocabulary”—the particular collection of words she uses to justify her actions, beliefs, and notions about how the world works—is necessarily any closer to describing reality than the final vocabularies other people use.

Though, as Joines points out, Rorty considers poets ironists, it’s not clear if all ironists are poets. One thing Rorty does make clear is: The opposite of irony is common sense. All ironists break the crust of common sense by using their imaginations. 

Perhaps what divides the mere ironist and the poet is simply that the latter gives voice to their poetic imaginations, while the former does not. Joines says, “The goal of a poet is to ‘put a notion’ in another’s head.” But according to Rorty, the mere ironist’s goal is only to change themself, i.e., put a notion in their own head:

We redescribe ourselves, our situation, our past, in those terms and compare the results with alternative redescriptions which use the vocabularies of alternative figures. We ironists hope, by this continual redescription, to make the best selves for ourselves that we can. —Contingency, Irony, and Solidary

Rorty also highlights that such redescription on the part of ironists is typically personal and private:

“Q: And what would you say to criticisms that your ironism means a kind of sneering-at earnest liberals who don’t want to acknowledge the contingency of their own values?

Rorty: That was certainly the way it came across. But what I wanted to say was: take yourself with some lightness. Be aware of yourself as at the mercy of the contingencies of your upbringing and your culture and your environment. I thought of it myself as offering advice rather than insults. My liberal ironist doesn’t go around being ironic to everybody she meets. She saves the irony for herself. The liberal part is public and the irony part is private.” —Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty, Richard Rorty, Derek Nystrom, and Kent Puckett

Perhaps one way of thinking about the relationship between poetic readers and writers is that both are poetic ironists. But what distinguishes a poet from a poetic reader is that the former wants to put a notion in another’s head, while the latter merely wants to put transformative notions in their own.

Read “Rortian Liberalism and the Problem of Truth

Becoming a Poetic Listener

This notion of poetic reading, listening, and looking also opened up “Mending Wall” for me. The narrating ironist neighbor (who is arguably Frost himself) looks upon the process of mending the wall and waxes poetic even though he hardly utters a word to his common-sense neighbor. The only words the ironist neighbor appears to say aloud are:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

This brief utterance has the form of a poem within a poem. But it appears to fall on deaf ears, for the common-sense neighbor only says, “Good fences make good neighbors”—his father’s saying—a paradigm of traditional wisdom, i.e., common sense.

Upon hearing this reply, the ironist neighbor is tempted to step fully into the role of a poet: I wonder If I could put a notion in his head. One poem he considers uttering is “Elves”—a one-word metaphor for “something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.” Such a poem might derange and rearrange his common-sense neighbor’s thinking. It might cause the wall of common sense to fall.

But the ironist neighbor decides against playing the poet in this context. He’s unsure of the aptness of his poetic creation, and more importantly, he seems to realize in this case that his neighbor must come to such a realization himself: “But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather/He said it for himself.”

I imagine one interpretation of his decision not to voice a poem to his common-sense neighbor is that the ironist neighbor understands that their mending the wall together is the only poem they are capable of creating together. The wall is a poem that each neighbor interprets differently. The ironist neighbor looks on their mutual wall mending—an art(isnal) work—and is filled with poetic insights.

On the other hand, the wall-as-poem seems to barely put a notion in his neighbor’s head; it seems to provide his common-sense neighbor with only a glimmer of poetic inspiration, i.e., the once live but now practically dead aphorism, “good fences make good neighbors.” Perhaps the ironist neighbor realizes this mutual poem with divergent interpretations is enough to sustain their distant friendship, and to push for more might break it.

Not only do I imagine the wall as a poem, I also imagine each poem is a wall because, like every use of language, it opens up and closes down; walls in and walls out. In fact, everything made by human hands opens up and closes down, walls in and walls out. This is the reality of tragic pluralism, which is at the heart of pragmatism.

So before building anything—a poem, a wall, an essay, a gate, a bridge—one should ask:

What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

Perhaps the ironist neighbor’s poetic thoughts, which valorize the spontaneous destruction of walls, if voiced, might offend his common-sense neighbor, and damage whatever degree of friendship they currently share. What is the point of casting poems before so-called “old-stone savages”?

So, perhaps the ironist neighbor decided to finish mending the wall in friendly silence, and then return home to pen his poem about the wall. The act of closing off in mending the wall opened up a glorious poem. But such glory does not come without tragedy, however seemingly small or remote.

For instance, there is the tragedy of walling in his neighbor as the stereotype of a negative portrayal of common sense. “Mending Wall” ends with a poetic redescription of the common-sense neighbor, one that (re)describes him as a primitive man (“like an old-stone savage armed” who “moves in darkness”) completely lacking the poetic ability to break free of inherited common sense (only able to repeat “his father’s saying”). Such a description is a closing-off that is very likely to give offense to like-minded people.

Redescription is a mighty power, and a double-edged one, as Rorty warns us:

Ironism, as I have defined it, results from awareness of the power of redescription. But most people do not want to be redescribed. They want to be taken on their own terms——taken seriously just as they are and just as they talk. The ironist tells them that the language they speak is up for grabs by her and her kind. There is something potentially very cruel about that claim. For the best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete, and powerless. —Contingency, Irony, and Solidary

Perhaps the supposedly common-sense neighbor, though seemingly only mindlessly repeating “his father’s saying” was engaging in his own imaginative coloring of their mutual wall-mending. Perhaps their joint effort evoked poetic visions of working with his father in prior rounds of fence-mending, labor that brought them closer together as father and son. Perhaps if the ironist neighbor had only listened to his neighbor’s utterance again and again, despite its initial appearance of triteness, he would have been able to imaginatively color it more vividly and offer a more opened-up description of his neighbor.

As a tragic pluralist and poetic reader, I am mindful that my contribution here walls in some insights and walls out others. It closes off some interpretations (perhaps some of Joines’) and opens up others. And while I hope it confounds some readers in a positive way, I accept that it may offend others (though, I also hope such offense is minor and felt by only a few).

Nick Gall

Nick received his BA in Philosophy at Yale University in the heyday of deconstruction and his MS in Computer Science at WPI in the heyday of AI expert systems. He didn't recover until encountering the work of Richard Rorty at NYU Law School, where he received his JD. His careers have spanned software engineering, intellectual property litigation, IT research and analysis, and design thinking. Nick is currently developing a post-pragmatist philosophy he calls Fruitionism. You can find him on Twitter and read more of his writing on Medium.

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