Dialectical Poetry: A Primer


Christopher Hobday writes the first of a series of essays on the role of dialectical thinking in poetry.

Tiresome delineation, ogre of the necessary. Human consciousness is functional only after boundaries have been set. Womb, world, universe. Following an evolutionary step, it might be possible to grasp the limitless, appreciate infi nity. Until then, thoughts must be gathered into convenient pockets with affixed labels demarking theory sets.

Well, the artist is in for a tough time of it. Craft can be explained as an affirmation of self, which is mainly achieved by defining the self against society. We know what we are by identifying what we are not. What remains, by process of elimination, must be our tribe. Another irritating human limitation. To circumvent this, the artist admits to being a thinker first and foremost, understanding that there is no true aestheticism, that every poem exposes the poet like a peephole into the bedroom. This has been termed Dialecticism, or Dialectic Poetry, by this writer and his fellow poet, David Nettleingham.

Peering closer, and observing etymology, the word is dull with fingerprints of previous users. Socrates has handled it, and from him comes the problematic concept of reaching a conclusion through conversation. Here, a skilled orator or a charlatan of nimble mind can browbeat a slower but more fastidious intellect. Hardly a perfect system. Hegel wielded it too: the thinker uncovers truth by bringing yin against yang. For instance, by considering two opposing arguments, the truth can be more accurately discerned. This does not mean compromise. Both arguments are assailed by criticism, dismantled, elements proven or discarded until only one stands, either as glorious entirety or mutilated remnant. We can leave Hegel behind now, and progress to a concise definition of Dialectic Poetry. Let this be done in a dance of veils, with a limited number of steps. Clarity can be indulged, like a vice.

1. The poem is a text with a subject and an underlying hypothesis (which we should call the philosophy, usually inchoate, of the poet).

2. The poet applies a dialectic process to the poem, either in draft or post-draft: this means interrogating every principle of the poem’s salient statements, using logical arguments and counter-arguments to eliminate any falsehoods or absurdities.

3. By this principle, for instance, it is impossible to produce a Dialectic Poem propounding a belief in any supernatural deity, since any argument in the existence of such a being is easily demolished by logical argument. This can be perceived, I suppose, as a limitation; in fact, it is the most sublime emancipation from thought-imprisonment.

In tribal terms our dialectic poet is, therefore, the perennial outsider. Th e weaknesses of Left and Right are necessarily admitted. No tribe is without sin, yet any ahierarchal judgement of systems is also impossible, as certain qualities (gender equality for instance, or defence of the arts) are reasonably superior by virtue of their benefit to society, therefore indicating superiority of certain systems over others.

The perfect Dialectic expedition would involve a thousand poets tackling the same issue, each in opposition, each asserted as an individual, none accepting another’s hypothesis entire. As for the perfect dialectic poem, it would involve a social sacrifice: what the audience wants to hear is irrelevant, and comfortable lies are abandoned in favour of uncomfortable truths. Dialectic poetry is the poetry of reason and logic; that is, whatever the poem’s subject matter, form or conceit, it cannot flaunt a lack of thoughtful rigour (i.e., an atheist poet does not use words like ‘soul’; the humanist poet understands that morality is to some extent contextual and what is compassionate in the short term may produce suffering in the long-term).

Dialectic poetry is self-interrogation and an admission that, instead of mirroring the audience, and pleasing them by giving beatific voice to the audience’s extant feelings, literature is for seeking and expounding truth. This is the universal dialogue, and has involved Copernicus, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley and Juan Goytisolo: luminous specks amid innumerable nobilities.

No Dialectic Poem or text can be the work of more than one writer, as Dialectic Poetry forbids any individual from accepting the rule of another. Due to the nature of experience and consciousness, no two individuals will ever be in utter agreement on all aspects of a theory. This is fortunate, as it promotes freedom (since the unique nature of every person is pointedly acknowledged), yet unfortunate as it also promotes anarchy (slowest and most fragile and unfair of all social systems, always on the brink of fortissimus quisque tantum superest). Human culture is determined by the desires and ideas of individuals, not collectives. Th ere are only creators (individuals) and consumers (collectives). Th rough what we call ‘media’, the former convince the latter to adhere to their principles through overwhelming social saturation and gradual normalisation, and of course, these powerful individuals are themselves members of a collective, subordinate to higher systems (the weight of history, for instance, or their own inadequacies).

In the case of the literary canon, that paradigm of examples, this process is collegial: certain individuals become guardians of the canon, upholding the importance of a standard of excellence that is vital to the health and progress of culture-at-large and, ultimately, species. Spot the ghost of the Cult of Diana, explored by Frazer in his Golden Bough: the high priest directs the cult and upholds its rites and principles, but is always at the mercy of acolytes, who can only become high priests by murdering the high priest. In the canon, each high priest is doomed to be executed by underlings in turn at the mercy of the same unavoidable knife. The canon is perhaps the only artificial system that is truly self-regulating, its defenders growing more ardent with each inarticulate thrust of the vast moronising engine of the mass media. All literature is affected by the canon’s gravity well. Think of every poem as a rock in the rings of Saturn: gathered, codified, and aligned with other rocks, always moving.

In sum: I am a Dialectic Poet not because I choose to be, but as a consequence of my instinctive and preferred approach to thought and craft. As such, I acknowledge the virtuous act of open disagreement, a vital part of the process en route not to mere verisimilitude, but objective truth.