Joshua Seigal: Poetry and Philosophy

I often tell people that one of the things that attracts me to poetry is that poems tend to be short. In 2011, I completed a 30,000 word thesis as part of my Philosophy postgraduate degree. The thesis was edited down from about 50,000 words. That is not short. Aside from the obvious matter of length, there is the corollary issue of time. One should not underestimate the time it can take to complete a poem, but it is much shorter than it takes to write a philosophical tract. This suits me because I tend to work in short, intense bursts. In part, my deciding to dedicate myself to poetry can be seen as something of a reaction against my previous life in academia.

Another thing I am often asked about is the extent to which my background in philosophy influences my poetry. One can take this at least two ways: do I write about the same sorts of things? And how similar is the writing process? Let’s take each of these in turn. Philosophy purports to concern itself with the deepest questions: Why are we here? What is reality? How can we come to know reality? When I first started to write poetry for children my main aim was to provide a bit of a giggle. This, again, was probably a reaction against having to tackle the ‘big questions’ in my day job. However, as the pandemic has progressed my poetry has certainly taken on a philosophical edge. In fact, I have probably started to think about the big issues with more gusto than I ever did as an academic.

How, though, have I been tackling these issues? This brings us onto the second question, regarding the extent to which writing poetry and writing philosophy are similar. For me, there are huge differences, and it is these differences that attract me to the former rather than the latter. When Philosophers write, they tend to lay out an argument meticulously, examine it from all angles, consider counterarguments, and advance slowly and cautiously toward a conclusion. And the conclusion in any one essay is almost always nothing more than a tiny grain of sand added to the great mound of what has gone before. Indeed, most of the work I studied was concerned with minute details of the big issues, rather than the issues themselves as a whole. I think this was one of the things that frustrated me: Anglophone Philosophers, in what is known as the ‘Analytic’ tradition, often tend to be details people, rather than big-picture people.

As a poet, I don’t look for conclusions, and I don’t progress by way of ‘argument’. I try to open up a snapshot, or a window, through which the big issues can be viewed, however dimly. I proceed by way of allusion and metaphor, or else I simply tell it as I see it; in neither case is the goal to convince someone to adopt my point of view, and in neither case am I trying to add anything to a collective body of knowledge. I am simply adopting and describing a point of view. The point of view might pertain to issues like love, goodness, knowledge and truth. Or I may simply be describing how my cat was sick on the rug. I am pleased I did my time as an academic, and I am even more pleased now to not be doing it. And given that I am not doing it, I am going to leave this ‘essay’ without an elegant conclusion.

(please vote for me in the People’s Book Prize. It takes twenty seconds: https://peoplesbookprize.com/summer-2021/yapping-away/)

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award. Please visit http://www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

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