February 2nd, 2004

Walter Kaufmann

was an interesting 20th century philosopher, who also wrote poetry, very seriously, though his poetry was not taken very seriously by whoever it is that decides what is serious. I took his poetry seriously, anyway. He is best remembered today for his work translating and interpreting Nietzsche. In my opinion he tries to make Nietzsche too coherent; he puts an Aristotelian gloss on the man. But I think he gets closer than wacky interpretations do. He wrote a lot about art, worthwhile and interesting stuff. A guy named Andrew Spear has set up a nice web page to keep some memory of Kaufmann alive:
http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~adspear/Kaufmann%20entrance.htm

So, in honor of the man, today's silly poem is by him:

What is hard
To follow
Often hides lard
Or is hollow.

Boy, those are words of truth. In both poetry and philosophy, being hard to follow is too easily taken as a sign of profundity.

I heard Tom Wolfe talk recently about the description of some poets as being "accessible" and others as "inaccessible." He thinks this sounds as if poets are remote hermits, some of who can be reached just by climbing a good sized hill, and some of whom are absolutely out of reach. What else, after all, is this metaphor of "accessibility"? He clearly longs for the day, not so long past, when poets communicated clearly.

Last year, when I gave a talk consisting mostly of reading poems in praise of freedom, I briefly talked about how irony, although a very powerful rhetorical device, is also a dangerous device when used excessively. When you express yourself with hyper-irony, after a while nobody knows where you stand or what you are really saying. There's a knack to doing this, a kind of talent, really, but is it such a high accomplishment? I think not. Oddly enough, one of the people who wrote evaluations for my talk, misheard me rather severely. This person thought I had come out against the use of irony. How ironic. :) I'm just opposed to the overuse of irony. Irony abuse, we may call it.

There is also such a thing, in literary circles, of irony hunting... of seeking irony, as if digging for gold... but often in places where it is not to be found. But irony can always be found, if you are only willing to deconstruct (twist, reimagine the meaning of, etc.) the text.