Poems Think Outside the Box

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THIS WAS FIRST POSTED ON READINGTHEBETWEEN.COM

This is page 1 of Jan Zwicky, Wisdom and Metaphor. The Necker Cube figure reappears throughout the text, but only on page 1 do we get the quote from Wittgenstein’s Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology.

“Astonishment is thinking.” This riffs on Aristotle, of course. But thinking about the Necker Cube often loses its astonishment, at least as Zwicky uses it. She’s interested in the “internal” relations between the two aspects of seeing (Gestalt) : the box headed down to the right or up to the left. The Necker Cube helps her prove a point in philosophy.

But I think Wittgenstein’s point — “astonishment is essential to a change of aspect” —  directs us to the “outside” of the figure — to the fact that it can be taken both ways. Not at once, of course; but “transcendently” — apart from the time of the instant; it’s as if the only name we can give to the <em>potential</em> change of aspect is <em>astonishment</em>.

This kind of thinking illustrates  what I call “the habit of poetry.” In reading a poem, analyzing it, rereading it, over and over, we find it inexhaustible. As language, it points beyond itself to the hyperbolic dimension. People who read and write poetry have learned how to “see” poems as both finite structures and as participating in what Rowan Williams calls “the hinterland” of language. It’s almost as if the “tight’ construction of a poem — like the Necker Cube — tries to contain what is beyond it. Only the Necker Cube is NOT open to more than two aspects; Zwicky is right about that. But a poem?

Poems think outside the box. The wonder of a great poem only grows.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Portland OR and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. His blogs include poemswithoutborders.com He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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