Richard Rorty (1931-2007), one of the more prominent and often controversial philosophers of our time, died this summer. His last months were spent battling painful and inoperable pancreatic cancer. Poetry Magazine occasionally has a feature ("The View From Here") where they present people from diverse backgrounds who tell how poetry has impacted their lives on a deeply personal level. The contributors are often celebrated authors, philosophers, artists, scientists and the like, but usually individuals with no real formal training or experience in writing poetry. In a recent issue, only months before he passed away, Rorty provided an installment which I found as shocking as it was revealing of the true nature and power of poetry on many different levels.
In his essay for Poetry’s feature (Nov., 2007), entitled “The Fire of Life,” Rorty begins by explaining what he was trying to convey in his paper, “Pragmatism and Romanticism,” where reason is described as being subservient to words. Without words, you can’t reason, Rorty submitted. While the poet tries to give us a richer language, a philosopher tries to convey real things using non-linguistic tools. In his article for Poetry, Rorty was reflecting on the rigorous nature of his arguments, and continued by stressing that at that time he was not particularly interested in the differences between prose and verse.
Writing, however, on his literal death-bed, Rorty goes on to make some startling realizations as he began to consider the value of poetry in his life-experience. Interestingly, though he had an extensive and renown writing career, and his father (James Rorty) was an accomplished poet and writer, Rorty the son, wrote little if any poetry. He did, however, read poetry.
While having coffee with his elder son and a cousin, he relates, Rorty responded to a question his cousin asked concerning what his thoughts have lately turned to, now that he was facing the end of his life. Rorty replied:
"Neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation…. Neither ataraxia (freedom from disturbance) nor Sein zum Tode (being toward death) seemed in point."
His son prodded him. “Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” Rorty’s response was swift: “Poetry!” He quoted two passages in the Poetry essay, one from Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine,” and the other from Walter Savage Landor’s “On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday.” The latter I found provocative:
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
The power of verse, for Rorty, was not readily identifiable, although he was quick to maintain that he doubted the same effect could have ever been afforded by prose, and added:
"I found comfort in those slow meanders and those stuttering embers…In lines such as these [rhyme, rhythm and imagery] conspire to produce a degree of compression, and thus of impact, that only verse can achieve."
These are telling words from a very learned man who spent his life in the hallowed (and sometimes stuffy) University halls, offices and auditoriums, and a renowned philosopher who wrote seminal treatises on moral philosophy and the rigors of philosophical inquiry. Here, at the very end of his life, he is melted before the power of three bare lines of poetry. In a poignant conclusion, Rorty makes a revealing confession, of sorts, which to me conveys the power and sway that poetry can have on the human mind and heart. He says:
"I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. Rather, it is because I would lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts, just as I would have if I had made more close friends. "