Phenomenology of Poetry

Poetry is more than mere description, it is an expression of feelings and ideas. Poetry stitches together the self and the world. For example, in Charles Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises, he seems to suggest that poetry is a “confusion” between reality and subjectivity. Arthur Rimbaud also returns to his assertion that to be a poet, one must become a “seer.” True poetry, then, both invents and clarifies ways of looking at the world. There must be, for Rimbaud, a “derangement of the senses” if a poet is to produce anything of worth. Given these views on poetry, is poetry in fact a confusion, distortion, and/or derangement of the senses? Furthermore, what is the relationship between poetry and reality?

Arthur Rimbaud’s Letter of the Seer contains humbling insights into the relationship between poetry and reality which complement Baudelaire’s own perspicacity on the matter. Rimbaud first boldly declares “subjective poetry” to be “horribly insipid” (1). On the face, this might appear to be a categorical condemnation of poetry’s lifelessness. But Rimbaud follows up his criticism by offering us an alternative: “objective poetry” which sees things “sincerely” (1). We now have a clear distinction of subjective and objective poetry. Rimbaud has identified the division: Subjective poetry is insincere and bland, while objective poetry is sincere and lively. Rimbaud gives us a clue as to what this objective poetry would look like when he writes, “It is a questioning of reaching the unknown by a derangement of all the senses.” (1). Objective poetry, then, interrupts the coloring of one’s intuitions, impressions, and interpretations; it gets to the heart of things without the self’s intervention. A true poet, for Rimbaud, has “knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it.” (3). Though it might seem self-evident, Rimbaud is advocating an unorthodox breed of poetry that is more scientific in nature.

So, the ideal poet for Rimbaud is an objective and sincere one. He argues that any true poet is a “seer” which necessitates a “long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses.” (3). Again, the word “rational” ascribes a scientific quality to this derangement. This poet embraces “All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences.” (3). In other words, Rimbaud is describing a poet who does not flinch at the fluctuating fullness of reality. He writes that the ideal poet is “truly the thief of fire,” which suggests a willingness to travel to Hell in order to birth a new poetic creation. The ideal poet is exemplary precisely because “he reaches the unknown!”, he is “responsible for humanity” (3). The “unknown” is something to be invented or discovered. Poetry, then, has to produce something new, something humanity hasn’t already encountered. The paragon of poetry, for Rimbaud, is a “march toward Progress!” (3). Yet again, this is severely scientific. This poetic science is searching for, what Rimbaud calls, a “universal language” or a language “of the soul for the soul, containing everything” (3). This universal language is an invention, then, which calls out to the innermost recesses of the human heart. In this light, Rimbaud pays deference to Baudelaire, who he calls the “king of poets, a real god!” (4). Baudelaire has massively contributed to the poetic project of the human spirit, according to Rimbaud. It is prudent, then, to pry into Baudelaire’s writings on poetry to get clear on his understanding of the poetic relationship between reality and subjectivity.

In his Poem of Hashish, Baudelaire proposes how, under the influence, “you forget your existence, until you confuse the objects of your senses with the objects of the real world. You stare at a tree that harmoniously rocks in the breeze; in a few seconds what would for a poet be a natural comparison becomes a reality to you.” (51). There is an imbricated understanding here–an explicit overlap–between one’s subjectivity and reality. Through intoxication, one’s “conscious nature has disappeared” and “objectivity…follows a course of abnormal development.” (51). Intoxication, then, fulfills Rimbaud’s charge to “derange” the senses. Yet, Baudelaire clarifies how one will “forget” one’s existence, until one will “confuse” the senses with “the real world.” (51). This confusion compares objects external to oneself with one’s own objects of consciousness. Baudelaire’s description indicates how this, almost hallucinatory, effect is contingent upon his intoxicated, poetic musing. He writes that “what would for a poet be a natural comparison becomes a reality” for one experiencing this distortion between one’s symbolic understanding of reality, and reality itself (51). This indicates some kind of cognitive projection onto the surrounding landscape, a passionate and desirous longing to feel unity with the external world.

We can find support for this longing for unity in Baudelaire’s description of a nearby tree, where he writes how one under the influence of hashish will “endow” this tree with one’s “passions and desires” such that its “capriciously swaying limbs” become one’s own (51). This unity found in the tree metaphorically suggests that our own “passions and desires” are also capricious. We take up images and blur them to fit our own cares and concerns. When the boundaries between reality and subjectivity are blurred, true poetic creation is birthed; without incertitude, nothing new is tempting to be discovered. Returning to Rimbaud, discovery on the frontier is the paragon of poetics.

It’s easy to write off Baudelaire’s examination of the tree as a product of his intoxication at the time. But there’s more going on here, namely, how natural all this would seem to the poet. It took hashish for Baudelaire to realize the connections between himself and the tree, but for the poet it would be second nature. Perhaps this is how poetry can, itself, act as an incarnation of intoxication. Understanding how intoxication distorts the world, we can see that if poetry is an intoxicant, then it, too, distorts the world. It misrepresents and misshapes one’s understanding of the world independent of oneself. This is not a negative evaluation of poetry, however. In fact, if we described things as they are, we’d never have novelty or take interest in the fundamentals of our world.


Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. Artificial Paradises. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publ. Group, 1996. Print.

Rimbaud, Arthur. Letter of the Seer. Lunberry printing press, English Dpt. 2015. Print. 🙂


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