“So too must we after the manner of lovers give her up”: Plato, Poetry, and the City

If her defence fails, then, my dear friend, like other persons who are enamoured of something, but put a restraint upon themselves when they think their desires opposed to their interests, so too must we after the manner of lovers give her up, though not without a struggle[. . . .] and he who listens to her, fearing for the safety of the city which is within him, should be on his guard against her seductions and make our words his law.
—Plato’s Republic, book 10

Poets have been following Plato’s advice for as long as they’ve been writing, singing, muttering on the back streets of Moscow or Voronezh, Manhattan at lunch time, Wisconsin on river time, and so on. The city is within and poetry is kicked out. Louis Zukofsky kicked Lorine Niedecker out for getting pregnant, and writing “Progression,” and bringing her ironing. In “Progression” she answers (though she wrote it before she went to New York and before, as she says “Mr. Zukofsky referred me to the surrealists for correlation”; like Plato, Zukofsky was keen on correspondences):

[. . .] The contemporary scene is,
said the green frog by the charcoal wood, false
in every particular but no less admirable for that,
and isn’t it humorous to designate at all?

Speaking (even thinking) of the surrealists, André Breton kicked everyone out, it seemed, and often in the manner of a lover. Wordsworth kicked poetry out of the city of poetry so he could sneak up on it in “The Prelude,” never quite getting there, and so able to continue, as remembering the sudden stop when “still the solitary cliffs / Wheeled by me, even as if the earth had rolled / With visible motion her diurnal round,” the truth seen in the illusion, the motion in the stopping. Shelley screwed it into a paper boat (along with bank notes) and set it loose in the Serpentine. Some time later he thankfully collected it. Elizabeth Bishop wondered why she couldn’t look it away, or look away, and answered her own question in “Over Two Thousand Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”:

[. . .]Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
—the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets,
—and looked and looked our infant sight away.

Is that what Plato wanted for us in the city, to be “lulled within, a family with pets,” as Bishop imagines seeing the Nativity, no more the flickering light of the cave, but “an undisturbed, unbreathing flame”? A situation that Emily Dickinson considered when she kicked reality out, and then reclaimed it in upbraiding, a harsh kind of gift, or styling—a transformation, given, as Stevens says of the imagination: “Imagination gives, but gives in relation.” Dickinson’s poem in its entirety:

Perception of an object costs
Precise the Object’s loss—
Perception in itself a Gain
Replying to its Price—

The Object Absolute—is nought—
Perception sets it fair
And then upbraids a Perfectness
That situates so far—

Poetry doesn’t dwell, in cities or in towns, and as an absolute object “is nought,” as nought as any other. “Not what we see but how we see it matters; all’s / alike, the same, and we greet him who announces / The change as we would greet the change itself.” So John Ashbery says in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” agreeing with Plato on poetry’s manner (pleasant, delightful, and exciting, as Plato says), but then insisting it’s what matters, or at least keeps us interested while “the big, / Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants—what maps, what / Model cities, how much waste space.”

To be outside the city is to be outside the law—outside a well-governed, orderly state. Outside the city, the passions may be “fed and watered” without posing a danger to the pursuit of truth.

But the city is both literal and figurative. There is the city inhabited by many and there is the city within each person. Both cities are potentially vulnerable to the honey’d muse and her seductions.

It’s as if Plato anticipates the argument that poetry should seek, in fact, to be outside the state/against the Law; he neatly builds in a response to the poet or the poetry-lover who would say, “You can keep your Republic; the muse lives in the [figurative] wilderness and thrives there.” Even in the wilderness, Plato realizes, the internal city may be disrupted by poetry.

Yet poetry may return to the Republic when she can adequately defend herself with proof of her usefulness. It’s possible to read every Western poem written since Plato as an attempt at such a defense or as a refutation of that imperative. For example, Wallace Stevens begins “The Man With the Blue Guitar”:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things are they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

And in sections X through XI, Plato himself appears, the poet’s adversary and collaborator:

[. . .]—behold
The approach of him whom none believes,

Whom all believe that all believe,
A pagan in a vanished car.

Roll a drum upon the blue guitar.
Lean from the steeple. Cry aloud,

“Here I am, my adversary, that
Confront you, hoo-ing the slick trombones,

Yet with a petty misery
At heart, a petty misery,

Ever the prelude to your end,
The touch that topples men and rock.”


Slowly the ivy on the stones
Becomes the stones. Women become

The cities, children become the fields
And men in waves become the sea.

It is the chord that falsifies.
[. . . .]

Plato appears in Stevens’s poem (the pagan in the vanished car) much like the city itself to poetry, as both adversary and collaborator. The guitar is in dialogue with things as they are and changes them; the chord falsifies, women become the cities, and, as section XI continues, “The discord merely magnifies.” In the manner of a lover, Stevens remembers what’s given up. The interior and the exterior of the city (whether the city is internal or external) and of so much else are wonderfully enmeshed, “a wrangling of two dreams,” as section XXXIII has it. Freud says forgetting is erotic, but “The Man with the Blue Guitar” ends with erotic remembering—a playing, and a choice: “We shall forget by day, except // the moments when we choose to play / The imagined pine, the imagined jay.”

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