The acid of proof, the fire of criticism

The opening two paragraphs of Octavio Paz’s “Knowledge, Drugs, Inspiration,” in Alternating Currents, translated by Helen Lane:

There is more than one similarity between modern poetry and science. Both are experiments, in the sense of “testing in a laboratory”: an attempt is made to produce a certain phenomenon through the separation or combination of certain elements which the experimenter has either subjected to the pressure of some outward force or left to develop according to the laws of their own nature. This operation takes place in a closed space, in the most complete isolation possible. The poet deals with words as the scientist deals with cells, atoms, and other material particles: he extracts them from their natural medium, everyday language, isolates them in a sort of vacuum chamber, combines them or separates them; he observes and uses the properties of language as the scientific researcher observes and uses the properties of matter. The analogy might be carried further, but it is pointless to do so because the similarity lies not so much in the outward resemblances between verbal manipulations and laboratory testing as in the attitude toward the object.

As he writes, as he tests his ideas and his words, the poet does not know precisely what is going to happen. His attitude toward the poem is empirical. Unlike the religion believer, he is not attempting to confirm a revealed truth; unlike the mystic, he is not endeavoring to become one with a transcendent reality; unlike the ideologue, he is not trying to demonstrate a theory. The poet does not postulate or affirm anything a priori; he knows that what counts is not ideas but results, not intentions but works. Isn’t this the same attitude as that of the scientist? Poetry and science do not imply a total rejection of prior conceptions and intuitions. But theories (“working hypotheses”) are not what justify experiments; rather, the converse is true. Sometimes the “testing” produces results that are different from or entirely contrary to our expectations. The poet and the scientist do not find this difficult to accept; both are resigned to the fact that reality often acts quite independently of our philosophy. Poets and scientists are not doctrinaires; they do not offer us a priori systems but proven facts, results rather than hypotheses, works rather than ideas. The truths they seek are different but they employ similar methods to ascertain them. The rigorous procedures they follow are accompanied by the strictest objectivity, that is to say, a respect for the autonomy of the phenomenon being investigated. A poem and a scientific truth are something more than a theory or a belief: they have withstood the acid of proof and the fire of criticism. Poems and scientific truths are something quite different from the ideas of poets and scientists. Artistic style and the philosophy of science are transient things; works of art and the real truths of science are not.

There’s a whole university curriculum embedded in these two paragraphs. One course it contains is a study of modern poetry. The accent falls indeed on modern: these are not axioms poets of earlier periods (or later, for that matter) would endorse—the anti-expressionism, the emphasis on “objectivity,” the talk of the “object,” the repudiation of religious and mystical fervor (cf. Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” T. E. Hulme’s rejection of romanticism as “spilt religion“), and of course the willingness to draw an analogy to science in the first place.

That comparison is a whole genre unto itself. Sometimes it takes the form of a concrete image; I think first of Eliot’s chemical imagery in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921):

It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.


The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

In the “Defence of Poetry” (1840) Shelley mixes a proto-modernist discourse of impersonality with an older tradition of ecstatic inspiration—the poet as the vehicle of the muse, or of his own inner, inscrutable genius, in either case the body of a force he does not control—in the image of the fading coal:

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship—what were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit; what were our consolations on this side of the grave—and what were our aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

In a different direction, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry (1949) can be read as one long meditation on the relation between poetry and science.

Then there is the talk of “ideas.” Even among (American) modern poets there are detractors. On one side Paz might find an ally in the William Carlos William line, those poets who demand “No ideas but in things.” And Eliot had written in memory of Henry James in 1918 in the The Little Review:

He was a critic who preyed not upon ideas, but upon living beings. […] It is in the chemistry of these subtle substances, these curious precipitates and explosive gases which are suddenly formed by the contact of mind with mind, that James is unequalled. […] James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.

On the other side there is the Wallace Stevens line, those for whom “It must be abstract.” (Though at times Stevens is quite fond of things, as in “Man Carrying Thing,” where the poem “must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” Elsewhere he puts the whole planet on a table.)

Another generative strain of thinking in the passage from Paz is the question of testing one’s words. Testing them against what, Paz doesn’t say—but this is a productive ambiguity. Eliot, again, gives one meaning, in an essay on George Herbert in the Spectator (1932), though it departs from Paz, and indeed from much of modernity, in its talk of feeling and sincerity, and its look back to a prior tradition of religious verse:

All poetry is difficult, almost impossible to write: and one the great permanent causes of error in writing poetry is the difficulty of distinguishing between what one really feels and what one would like to feel, and between the moments of genuine feeling and the moments of falsity. This is a danger in all poetry: but it is a particularly grave danger in the writing of devotional verse. Above that level of attainment of the spiritual life, below which there is no desire to write religious verse, it becomes extremely difficult not to confuse accomplishment with intention, a condition at which one merely aims with the condition in which one actually lives, what one would be with what one is: and verse which represents only good intentions is worthless—on that plane, indeed, a betrayal. The greater the elevation, the finer becomes the difference between sincerity and insincerity, between reality and the unattained aspiration.