One of the questions I get asked a lot, for the fairly obvious reason that I am a professional philosopher who publishes poetry, is "What's it like being a poet and a philosopher?" (Or some variant thereof, including my favorite, the deeply concerned "How, exactly, did this happen to you?") I think there are some very interesting things to say, by the way, about the relation between poetry and philosophy, but I'm not going to plunge into those deep waters in my first blog. I'll start, instead, with a few observations, not as much about poetry and philosophy, as about poets and philosophers.
Obviously poets and philosophers have a lot in common, if we think about their place in society. There is the sense that both were once at the center of culture and have now been relegated to the sidelines: that both poetry and philosophy have become highly specialized pursuits engaged in by, to be blunt, nostalgic or maladjusted weirdos. The anxiety or "poetry gloom" that Brian Phillips speaks about in his recent article in Poetry magazine has its philosophical correlate: there's hardly a meeting of the American Philosophical Association that doesn't feature a session with a title like "Does Philosophy Have a Future?" or "Where, If Anywhere, Is Our Beloved Discipline Going?"
Typically, answering the question "What do you do?" with either "I'm a philosopher" or "I'm a poet" will get you a pretty similar look. A look which, if it could be rendered in English, would go something like this: "How peculiar ? I mean interesting ? I just remembered something quite important I have to do somewhere rather far away from here ? please don't ask me who my favorite philosopher/poet is or anything like that ? nice meeting you, I'm going to back away slowly now, smiling awkwardly the whole time."
Then of course there are those who think that "philosophy" is a synonym for "psychology" and respond to "I'm a philosopher" by asking for relationship advice. This, at least, doesn't happen with "I'm a poet." People don't tend to ask poets for advice on anything at all except, occasionally, advice on what to do about their children who have shown an interest in poetry. And "what to do about" here translates as, roughly, "How do I make sure this starry-eyed idiot stays on course to get his MBA and doesn't wreck his life by switching his major to Creative Writing?"
Which brings up another, related similarity between philosophy and poetry, which is that you're not likely to make much money at either one. You can make a living, of course, by teaching, though the salary is pretty modest (there are, fortunately, compensating factors); but it's almost certain you won't be substantially supplementing your income by hawking your wares in the literary marketplace. Of course, there are exceptions to every statement. Poets like Billy Collins or Mary Oliver sell books in numbers that would make Walmart executives happy. And among philosophers there is Harry Frankfurt, who somehow managed to take a fairly short philosophical paper written a couple decades ago (On Bullshit) and turn it into a wildly successful bestseller. (Harry happens to have been my Ph.D. advisor, and I've been a fan of that paper for some years, but if someone had told me back then that he and it would one day give Nicholas Sparks a run for his money, I would have, well, cried, well, bullshit.)
But these, of course, are the exceptions. Nobody goes into either poetry or philosophy to get rich. And this has helped, at least to a degree, to keep the ranks of would-be philosophers and poets filled mostly with people who are there because they actually care about the work. It's not all that hard to find would-be screenwriters, or even novelists, who don't really care a white for screenplays or novels but who have been led to the table by what they take to be the enticing smell of a potential financial payoff. (The expectation may be highly unrealistic, particularly in the case of the novel; but it is there.) But few poets, and even fewer philosophers, have this motivation.
This is not to say that all the motivations are pure. For while it's true, as I said above, that poets are perceived by many as weirdos, it's also true that at least some people see that weirdness as, well, kind of cool. This has diminished over time (in his day, Byron was more or less a rock star). But to some degree the romantic image of the wild-haired poet, muttering verses, striding across the heath, persists. Or the mad self-destructive heroic existentialist poet, drinking anything that meets his lips and sleeping with anyone who will meet his eyes. Actual poets, of course, only rarely live up to these images, and this is surely a good thing. But the images remain, exerting a certain magnetic pull on susceptible people. You know the type: they are the ones who enroll in poetry workshops but can't be bothered to read their fellow students' work, let alone the work of the published poets that have preceded them. The ones who think that poetry exists only as a vehicle for their self-expression. The ones who think they care about poetry, when what really moves them is not poetry, but rather the thought of â€˜being a poet.' (I suppose the idea of â€˜being a philosopher' might exercise a comparable influence on a few impressionable souls ? maybe those who have wanted to emulate Patrick Swayze's pugilistic cogitator in Road House ? but it seems far less common.)
Still, most people who practice either poetry or philosophy do so because, at least to some extent, they genuinely care about poetry or philosophy. Which brings up a further question: why don't more people care about poetry AND philosophy? In particular, why don't more poets read philosophy, and why don't more philosophers read poetry? But the answer to that question is surely a very long story; if I'm going to try to answer it at all ? and I'm not making any promises! ? it will have to wait for later in the week.