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Friday Poetry: The Crossroad Between Philosophy and Poetry

Submitted by Editor2 on 15 September 2023

By Saheed Sunday

The raging war between philosophy and poetry dates way back to many centuries when criticism and analogical deduction were at their peak. The basic idea behind this dilemma can be pinpointed to the bleak reality [as presented by the poets] then and the undying quest to unravel the tangible truth behind that bleak reality by philosophers. One should note that philosophy, supposedly, is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, truth and existence, but poetry rules out all of these only at the surface level. While philosophers aim to present reality and truth as they are, poets present them as they perceive them. This leads to the question: philosophy’s stale reality or poetry’s garnished reality?

It is pertinent to note that there have been different philosophies on poetry. While some have argued that poetry is inimical to society and therefore should be banished, some have argued that poetry is universal and therefore is philosophical in itself. Socrates — an early philosopher in his conversation with Glaucon — considers poetry to be a mere imitation of reality. To him, poets are mere imitators. And, he is right. His argument is that in the essence of reality [using a table as a basis for it], there are basically three artists: God, the carpenter, and the painter. God is the original maker of reality; the carpenter recreates the reality that God has originally made in nature, but the painter? The painter can be likened to someone ‘turning a mirror round and round—you would soon enough make the sun and the heavens, and the earth…and all the other things of which we were just now speaking in the mirror’. This is to say that the painter only imitates the idea on an abstract level, but never adequately. To Socrates, a poet is the painter who presents reality in abstraction, never satisfactorily.

However, Socrates might have been right about his conclusion of poetry as an imitation [and a poet as an imitator], but his ideological view about banishing the existence of poetry solely based on its inadequacy to properly portray reality should be questioned. It is right to say that reality might — sometimes — turn out to be what human beings have made of it, not necessarily what it actually is. Thus, we can bring in the idea of Aristotle about the instinct of how imitation has been implanted in every man from childhood. He, in fact, even stressed the fact that this motif of imitation is what differentiates a man from other animals. We are natural imitators, imitating a language, past knowledge, a means of survival that we no longer know what is real or not. Now, poetry doesn’t threaten that reality which can’t even be totally explained, but it is creative about it.

One of the best ways to talk about reality might be to draw the idea of a beautiful object as discussed by Aristotle in his poetics into another analogy that helps my thesis. When talking about reality or, say, the truth, one can imagine an insect that is of very small magnitude. It is safe to conclude that one can never be able to properly assess this object by mere eyes. One can describe this object, but it will never be enough. That is, there will always be some parts of this insect that will be left out because there is only so little for the human eyes to see. Similarly, one can imagine another insect that is of very large magnitude. It is safe to conclude that one can describe this object, but again, it will never be enough. This is because as the magnitude has increased, there is so much that mere eyes cannot take in all at once. If one cannot even be sure if the reality one has been shown is overstated or understated, how can one say that poetry’s imitation of this same reality is a threat?


Saheed Sunday, NGP V, is a Nigerian poet, a Star Prize awardee, a Best of the Net nominee, and a HCAF member.  He is the author of a poetry collection: Rewrite The Stars. He won the ZODML Poetry Prize; he was shortlisted for the Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award, Wingless Dreamer Poetry Prize and The Breakbread Literacy Project.